(a sermon for April 22, 2018, the 4th Sunday of Easter, based on Psalm 23 and John 10:11-18)
It is almost certainly the most familiar and oft-quoted opening lines in all of Holy Scripture: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Likewise, the first part of our gospel reading for this morning is just about as iconic: “I am the good shepherd.” These are two passages of scripture that just about everyone knows one level or another, and for good reason; indeed, it’s the very imagery by which countless people throughout the centuries and from every nation, every culture and every walk of life have found comfort and peace, and quite literally how they come to know and begin to understand the deep and graceful love of God Almighty!
However… I have to say here this morning that each of these wonderful verses also offer up something of a challenge not only to our interpretation and understanding of scripture, but also in our perception of ourselves and who we are; something of which I was reminded this week, courtesy of a quote I found from one Jason Micheli: “To profess that the Lord is your shepherd,” he writes, “is to confess that you are a sheep.” Now I don’t know about you, friends, but I have to be honest: I’m not at all sure how I feel about that!
Not that I have anything against sheep, mind you; it’s just that they don’t necessarily fit the image that I have of them! Let me give you an example: at the church where I served as pastor in Ohio, one of the traditions was that on several evenings each Christmas we put on a “live nativity” for the community. It was actually quite a production; we had this huge stable set up in the front yard of the church; the children and youth of the congregation dressed up as all the main characters and acted out the story; there was special lighting and beautiful music playing through the loudspeakers, and best of all, there were live animals from nearby farms that visitors could meet up close and personal: donkeys, llamas, even a camel on a couple of years that they could find one (!); and of course, as would befit any good manger scene, there were also plenty of sheep!
And it was wonderful; except for that one year when someone inadvertently left the latch on the sheep pen open; and when one sheep, who it must be said was not particularly pleased to be cooped up to begin with, bolted out of the sheep pen! Now as I understand it, one of the youth group kids playing shepherd immediately lunged to try and keep that sheep from escaping, but to no avail; because he was off and running, across the busy main street of the town and out into the December darkness! And so then, of course, right behind the sheep went several other of our youth group members chasing after him (including, I should point out here, Sarah and Zach)!
In remembering this yesterday, Sarah told me that it was really quite a thing that there were all these kids running through yards and alleyways – and all dressed in biblical garb, mind you (!) – trying in vain to catch up with this sheep who was, understandably, trying his best to stay away from them! Eventually, after several attempts the kids did manage to corner the animal on somebody’s back porch and eventually he was brought back to the manger safe and sound; but not before he’d covered several city blocks and inspired a few calls to the police (we even made the local paper’s police blotter that talked about several reports of an “errant and wayward sheep” running rampant through the neighborhood). It was all best summed up in the words of one of our church members, actually the farmer who had lent us that animal for the nativity, “He was just a bahhh..d sheep!”
And therein lies my problem with being characterized as a sheep, or even a lamb! To quote Jason Micheli once again, “Lambs are lame. Sheep are stubborn. Sheep wander. Sheep get lost. Sheep fall into valleys;” in a word, albeit one that’s unkind, by themselves at least, sheep tend to be… well, stupid. Whatever else you can say about them, you see – their wool, their meat, their intrinsic beauty (!) – the fact remains that sheep are totally dependent on their shepherd for their care; they ever and always need to be led and guided and protected by the shepherd, or else they will inevitably end up “lunch for wolves!”
So… given all that, it is indeed one thing for you and I to think of God as our shepherd; but it is quite another, is it not, to recognize ourselves as the sheep of his pasture; as those who would so easily and so foolishly wander away from the fold. I mean, we’re smarter than that, aren’t we? Maybe when we were young and still learning, we could find ourselves making unfortunate choices that went very badly, but now with time and experience, not to mention a touch of grey in the wool (!), we know better; and certainly we’ve learned to take care of ourselves! God created us to be free and fierce and independent, is that not true? We have had set before us “the ways of life and death,” and we’ve been taught of what it means to live in faith and with love! So why, then, is it so important that we have be “shepherded” through life like some mindless, feckless member of a nameless, faceless flock?
…isn’t it also true, as the Psalm today suggests, that so many of us have found ourselves at various parts of the journey “walking through the darkest valley,” encountering evil at its most fearful and personal level? How many of us can attest to times and situations when we’ve found ourselves “in the presence of [our] enemies,” and wondering where, if at all, “goodness and mercy” was to be found; and if we’d ever again find ourselves amidst green pastures and “beside still waters.” I know I can… because I’ve felt that way on more than one moment of my life; but I can also tell you that in those moments, I was glad, and so utterly relieved to be able to cry out in my own despair that “the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”
Oh, yes, friends; there are times for each of us when we know what it is to be pursued and even “snatche[d]” by the wolves of this world; a problem made even worse by the fact that so often there are, as Jesus describes them in our gospel reading today, “hired hands” in this life who purport to care for and protect us but who run at the first sign of trouble. Whether you read that as any manner of “false prophet,” see it as the disloyalty of so-called “fair weather friends,” or maybe even as some of the other worldly ways and means on which we place so much dependence – things like money, power, popularity and on and on – the fact is, just like all good sheep, we do have an awareness of what it is to feel lost in this life, to be scattered and to be utterly in danger. And as much as at times we want to deny it, we also know that what’s proclaimed elsewhere in the Psalms is very true indeed: that “the LORD is God. [That it is God] who made us, and we are his; [and that] we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture,” and that because of this, and so much more besides, we stand in the need of being shepherded.
So isn’t it wonderful, then, that you and I are being shepherded by the one who says, “I am the good shepherd,” the one who “lays down his life for the sheep.”
It’s been said, you know, that there’s not a single phrase or verse in John’s gospel that John did not have a very good reason to put in there. Our passage for this morning is actually one of several “I am” sayings that John includes in his gospel story (“I am the bread of life” (6:35), “I am the light of the world” (8:12), “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25) are amongst the others); each one designed to show forth not only the depth of our human need but also to proclaim the infinite capacity of God, in the person of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, to meet those needs for us. So it is in our reading for this morning; that despite our cries to the contrary, you and I do stand in the need of a leader, a protector, a caregiver and a singular, recognizable voice to lead us to life. We need a good shepherd, one with power, with loyalty and with unending love; and that’s what we have in Jesus.
Of course, when Jesus first said these words, the people heard them in the context of Israel’s image of a Messiah who was to come to rule the people, and who would embody the very attributes of God. This King, in the words of Alyce McKenzie, would be the one whose duty was “to act out of concern for justice for the poor, to be a shepherd who looked out for the rights and needs of the widow and the orphan,” and who would protect, even at the cost of his life, “the most vulnerable of the flock.” This would reflect the whole vision of what the Psalmist was talking about when he said, “The Lord is my shepherd!”
As the people would soon learn, both at the foot of the cross and at the entrance of an empty tomb, there was so more to what God was doing in Jesus Christ than just the coming of another King, another worldly ruler. Indeed, as another “I am” saying in John proclaims it, Jesus was, and is, “the way, the truth and the life,” (14:6) and the goodness of his shepherding of you and I, as well as all those whom he love is that Jesus has the power to care for and to protect us no matter what, even to the extent of laying down his life on our behalf. By the grace of the Father, he said, “I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.” Life – life abundant and life eternal – is ours in the name of Jesus Christ who is truly the “good” shepherd of the sheep, who are you… and me!
I’ll admit, there are still times when I wish I could be a little less of a sheep; that I could be wholly and completely non reliant on anyone else’s help or guidance. I would love to be able to daily live my live doing my own thing, out there happily grazing in the pasture without fear of anything or anyone (“Fat, dumb and happy,” is that the phrase? I don’t know…). But life isn’t like that; and that’s why I need a good shepherd; that’s why we all need the good shepherd in our lives. Maybe we don’t always understand why life unfolds the way it does; maybe it is hard to figure out what God is doing at any given moment, or how it is that we’re ever going to get through the times and situations of our lives. Sometimes we do feel lost, scattered and alone.
All I know is that on those occasions when like that “bahh..d sheep” of the living nativity, I want to bolt out into the darkness, no matter how determined and stubborn I may be about wandering off, there will also be a good shepherd just as determined to bring me home to safety and to the security of endless and eternal love.
In our lives and in these times, beloved, that’s about as good news as we ever need to hear. So let us rejoice in that kind of love,
… and let our thanks be to God!
Amen and AMEN!
c. 2018 Rev. Michael W. Lowry