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The Good Shepherd

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Apr 17

Texts: Ezekiel 34: 11-16 and John 10:22-30

As some of you may know, or may have guessed from the appointed reading we just shared, today is Good Shepherd Sunday. It’s a relatively minor liturgical Sunday, reserved for the season of Easter, and is a chance to read portions of John’s gospel which makes ample use of the metaphor, and also Psalm 23, which we will sing later. Hearing about shepherds at church may, on the one hand, be so familiar as to be unnoticeable. I’m not talking about the shepherds of the nativity. Just consider the words: “the Lord is my shepherd.” How many times have we heard these words? For many of you, I’m sure, it’s far more than you can count. On the other hand, these shepherding images are decidedly unfamiliar to our modern ears. Yet the agricultural elements of sheep, or even fish or vineyards for that matter, were as daily part of the 1st century reality as computers are for us today.

The fact is the shepherd is a key symbol in scripture, and actually points to a whole complex of symbolism: sheep, tents, wandering, flocks needing care and guidance, nourishing pastures, refreshing waters. Sheep, too, who appear over 500 times in the bible, were important in both symbolic and economic terms in ancient Palestine. Sheep provided food to eat— just ask any observant Jew celebrating Passover this weekend, wool for clothing, covering for tents. The character of sheep shows up as well – their gregariousness, (the word comes from the latin grex meaning flock), their docility, their tendency to wander on the one hand and be easily led on the other. Whereas the bull stands for idolatry – just think about that giant bronze bull that stands in Manhattan’s Bowling Green Park just steps from Wall Street -- and the horse stands for warfare, sheep are more often symbols of humility, simplicity and solidarity. What’s more, the biblical relationship between shepherd and sheep offers a host of lessons in leadership.

Given all this background, I wonder what comes to mind when you hear the words “The Lord is my shepherd?” Maybe it's the very next line: “I shall not want.” Maybe it’s a memory of a funeral, or of a favorite relative who taught you Psalm 23. Maybe it’s seeing some embroidered version on a wall or a pillow. The Lord is my shepherd.

I wonder even more what comes to your heart when you hear this expression? Knowing what follows in Psalm 23 – with its soft, assuring and pastoral setting -- these words, when I give them a minute to sink in, come to my heart with gentle, even disarming power. The Lord is my shepherd. What comes to heart for me is a sense that I’m not alone, nor will I be left alone when I’m feeling lost, or unsure of myself, or unsure of what the right thing to do or say is, which is often the case. The Lord is my shepherd. When I let that sink in, I feel some relief, and a sense that my well-being, the well-being of my family and my community and world is not only on me! There is help, there is a deeper sense of wholeness, indeed, there is restoration and a healing that comes when I let these words sink in. The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. You, God, make me lie down, in green pastures. You lead me beside still waters. You restore my soul. Your rod and staff comfort me! You anoint my head with oil.

In the New Testament, John picks up on the metaphor. He knew his listeners would have been familiar with its use throughout the Hebrew Bible -- whether from Psalm 23 or from Ezekiel. Let’s let those words sink in too. God says, in Ezekiel: 5I myself will be the shepherd… I will make them lie down, says GOD. 16I will seek the lost…I will bring back the strayed… I will bind up the injured. I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.” Whoa. So maybe there’s tough love here, too, especially for those who are stubborn and who think we don’t need the help! Consider too: Abraham, Moses, David, Rachel or Zipporah and others. Did you realize that all of them tended sheep? But, back to our gospel text, John suggests that Jesus is the Good Shepherd.

His followers are wondering, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are here to help us and save us, please tell us plainly.” Jesus responds with this image: He says: You’ve heard this before. The Lord is your shepherd. And I am your shepherd! I’ve called you by name! I don't know what else I can do. If you can’t hear me, maybe you belong to some other flock, to some other shepherd?

Ouch! We can focus there, on the exclusiveness of the flock, or the many choices we have, especially in our pluralistic world, but on this healing Sunday, I invite us to listen first, with mind and heart, to that gentle and disarming power of these texts.

For years, the church chose symbols of great power – the Shepherd King, emphasis on King. It cast aside the shepherd’s crook, the crozier, as a symbol of papal authority and took up a triple cross instead. Maybe the church and God and Christ has left us too in a state of suspense about whether it will deliver on the promises of salvation! How long, God? And yet the message comes through not like a bull, not on a horse, not on a campaign bus, not with the armor of false promises of military security, but this simple and humble and resounding image -- the Lord is my shepherd.

Even if the metaphor sounds a little out of reach, out of touch, with our 21st century, urban, cosmopolitan ways, can’t we nonetheless hear the message it carries? The offer of a quiet comfort, the invitation to an intimate knowing where God is in search of us, rather than the other way around. It’s the opportunity to acknowledge where we stand amidst the vast meadows of life. There is permission here to wander from the fold at times, and with it a prompt to flock together. There’s an invitation to hear someone calling, and drawing you near, someone who cares about your thirst, someone who knows your name, someone who knows you could use a good sized serving of justice to bring our wandering spirits back, or maybe some still waters or just a chance to lie down.

How does it come to our minds and hearts? Even better, where are your mind or heart right now? Are they wandering a bit? Its ok! Its not my voice you should be listening to, in any case! Listen to the good shepherd! Hear that voice calling to you, even now. Is it calling you to come forward during our healing ritual? It is calling to you take some quiet time this afternoon, to lie down or maybe to take a walk along the river? How recently have you invited that deeply pastoral, care-taking and gently shepherding spirit of God into your heart? It comes to us even now. Amen!

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