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Shepherded

(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?

There again…

…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

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Posted by on April 22, 2018 in Family Stories, Jesus, Psalms, Sermon

 

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Shepherds… Good and Otherwise

bodegapastures(a sermon for April 26, 2015, the 4th Sunday of Easter, based on John 10:11-18 and Psalm 23)

It’s a song that dates back to the early 1980’s; originally recorded by Jimmy Buffett, and written by Mac McAnally.  I don’t know if it ever ranked as one of his big hits, but it’s always been one of my favorites of his:

“In the middle of late last night I was sittin’ on a curb
I didn’t know what about but I was feeling quite disturbed
A street sweeper came whistlin’ by
He was bouncin’ every step
It seemed strange how good he felt
So I asked him while he swept

He said “It’s my job to be cleaning up this mess
And that’s enough reason to go for me
It’s my job to be better than the rest
And that makes the day for me”  (“It’s My Job” by Mac McAnally)

It’s a great song that speaks of the satisfaction that comes in doing your job, whatever it happens to be, and doing it well; the palpable joy in doing what it is that you do.  And isn’t it true that there’s a huge difference between those who merely “go to work” and the ones who are out there each and every day “doing their jobs?”  It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about a country singer, a movie star or a ditch digger; or if you’re a paid employee or volunteering at church: you can see the difference in the level of their enthusiasm, in the quality of their finished work, in the way that they carry a personal investment in what they do.   In other words, there are the ones who care – deeply – about what they’re called to do; and that not only makes the day for them, but it also ends up having a huge effect on everyone around them as well.

Years ago, my wife Lisa’s family owned and operated a Dairy Bar; for over 15 years every summer, they served up soft-serve ice cream, hamburgers and the world’s best homemade French fries for the populace of Mapleton, Maine!  Now what was interesting about “The Shanty,” as it was called, is that it started out as a way to create summer jobs for each of the McHatten kids as they went through high school and college; but over time it became much more than that.  As Lisa tells it, there were a whole lot of capable kids (and adults!) from all over that town who at one time or another worked at the Dairy Bar; many of them who were very good, others not so much.  But here’s the thing; no matter who else might have been working for them, there was almost always one of the McHatten’s to be found working behind the counter; assuring that everything was always served up “just right.”  After all, Lisa said, it was a family business, and family was going to care the most about it; in one sense, it might have been just a job, but at the end of the day they knew they were the ones who were ever and always going to take the weight for its success or its failure, and that mattered.

In our gospel reading this morning, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd,” and perhaps the obvious question that arises out of that is, “what’s so good about a shepherd?”  Even in biblical times, this was not a profession that was particularly well-respected; shepherds were more often than not considered to be a fairly disreputable lot, and the people you’d hire for a job like that were pretty much the lowest of the low!

But a “good” shepherd, that was something else; and the thing is, the people who heard Jesus say this already knew the difference; even as Jesus lays it out for them:  “The good shepherd,” he says, “lays down his life for the sheep.”   A good shepherd would always have such a personal investment in that flock that he would willingly lay down his life for the sake of its survival.  Certainly not like a hired hand, who is there merely for the minimum wage and who’d run at the slightest hint of danger; nor like a common thief, or the wolf who’s there pretty much to attack, destroy and then scavenge the flock.  No, the “good” shepherd actually goes about his job as though it’s of vital importance to him; because it is!  He truly loves each one of the sheep of his flock and, and moreover, he knows each one of them by name; and conversely, the sheep all know him as well: they recognize the sound of his voice, and his is the one voice to which they’ll respond; one sheep-herd flocking to one shepherd.

Of course, when Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd,” he’s talking about something much more than the subtleties of life amongst the flock; he’s speaking of the love and care of God himself!  To put this into a proper perspective, we need to understand that this whole section of John’s gospel – the 10th chapter that talks so much about shepherds, and sheep, and the gates of the sheepfold – is in fact Jesus’ response to the scribes and Pharisees making such a problem over his having healed a man born blind (on a Sabbath day, no less, which in and of itself raised the ire of the powers that be!).  Finally, after a whole lot of theological back and forth about the legitimacy of all this, Jesus simply comes back to an old and familiar teaching, something that every single one of these righteous uprights would have understood: that God is like the good and loving shepherd; leading his flock beside still waters, restoring the souls of those who would follow.

But here’s the thing: what Jesus says to this is rather remarkable and downright bold; instead of merely repeating the words of the Psalmist: “The Lord is my shepherd,” Jesus announces that he is the good shepherd, that he is the one who will lay down his life, and that he is the one who knows his flock just as they know him, “just as,” he says, “the Father knows me and I know the Father.”

Make no mistake, that’s one radical assertion, and if the scribes and Pharisees were pretty upset before with what Jesus is saying; now they’re absolutely livid!  But it’s truth; one that is central to what we believe as Christians, and one that actually speaks to just about everything know about Jesus as the Christ. Even in the way this passage comes to us in the original Greek, we find that there’s huge weight ascribed to Jesus saying “I AM the good shepherd;” because the fact is that Jesus says “I am” many times in the gospels in describing himself and his ministry; but only in John, and primarily right here, does Jesus say “I am” so emphatically!  In fact, one biblical commentator suggests that the only we can get to to the sheer depth of this in English is to put those words, “I am,” in italics and bold! It’s as though Jesus wants to drive this point home so there can be absolutely no doubt at all: that this is what he came here for; that this is his job, and this is who he is beyond any kind of doubt at all: he is the good shepherd, who “lays down his life for the sheep.”

Of course, the thing we have to keep in mind about all of this is that what Jesus is saying here comes long before he’s gone to the cross; so neither the scribes and Pharisees, nor even his disciples yet have any real sense of the depth of what Jesus is proclaiming.  But we do; and that’s why I think it’s very good that in these continuing days of Eastertide we’re getting the chance to go back and hear these words with the perspective that comes in knowing who’s been crucified but who is now risen.

How good it is that Jesus is the good shepherd and that he knows his sheep; how good it is that Jesus, our good shepherd, knows us in the same way that he and God know each other: with a personal, mutual, intimate kinship like that of a parent and a child; one that is nurturing and caring, and ever focused not on our failures or weaknesses, but rather on the best that we are and can be.  Ours is the shepherd who truly does lead us on good pathways “beside the still waters;” giving us the kind of relationship with him that truly does make all of us together that one sheep-herd with one very good shepherd who is Jesus Christ.

That is very important for us to know, because the truth is also that Jesus is not the only shepherd who would seek to make a claim on our lives.  There are indeed the myriad varieties of hired hands, thieves and other assorted predators who would seek to lead us in some way or another; only to deceive, rob or abandon us in the process.  You know, back in the early days of the internet, I was a part of an online clergy community called ECUNET; in which clergy types from quite literally all over the world would gather to talk about our joys, struggles and what we happened to be preaching about that coming Sunday!  It was a valuable resource, and I remember very specifically “talking” about this particular passage with a group that included a pastor from the hill country of New Zealand, which is, as you can imagine, prime country for the raising of sheep; and believe me, this man offered the rest of us a whole new perspective on the whole “good shepherd/bad shepherd” thing!  He spoke of an animal that they referred to in those parts as a “Judas Sheep;” one sheep in the flock, usually a male, that was trained to meet and to gather together the other sheep so to lead them to the slaughterhouse!  That’s true – in other places, there are “Judas Goats” and even “Judas Cows” (!) that serve much the same purpose – the theory being that following this false leader kept rest of the flock calm as they went to slaughter, thus making the meat more tender.

It all sounds very cruel and inhuman; and yet when we think about it, there are plenty of “Judas sheep” and more to the point, “Judas shepherds” in this world who would call us to follow them in much the same fashion; bringing us down the bad pathways of life and living and making it so very easy for us to be lost or even destroyed in the following.  It might take the form of the latest fad of pop psychology or so-called “self-help” endeavor; sometimes it comes in the empty promises set forth by whatever the prevailing winds of pop culture happen to be at any given moment; and in all honesty, oftentimes it all boils down to the current state of “political correctness.”  But the point is that there will always be for us people, institutions and even ideas that will carry the mantle of a “shepherd” seeking to lead and direct us; each one purporting to offer us safety, comfort and perhaps even salvation in the following!

There are other voices out there who are calling out to us to follow, but it is only the good shepherd, only Jesus, whose voice is true; for he is the one who has the power to lay down his life for us, and the “power to take it up again.” It’s borne in the relationship he has with God, and it’s extended to you and me here today; so that rather than walking the way of life that leads to “slaughter,” so to speak, we are given new life and an open future filled with purpose and unending possibility.

And it’s everything that we’d expect from a “good” shepherd!  He leads us where we should go, and he knows as no one else does just what we need to restore our very souls.  As Frederick Beuchner has written, “Our souls get hungry and thirsty; in fact it is often that sense of inner emptiness that makes us know we have souls in the first place… [and] there is nothing that the world has to give us… nothing that we have to give to each other… that ever quite fills them.  But… like a shepherd, [God] feeds us.  He feeds that part of us which is hungriest and most in need of feeding.”

To put it another way, “The Lord is our shepherd; and [we] shall not want.” And at the end of the day, at the end of the journey…  that’s everything.

What more is there to say, except… thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2015  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on April 26, 2015 in Easter, Family Stories, Jesus, Maine, Psalms, Sermon

 

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