XCovid-19:Important Updates for Worship, Church Operations and Staying ConnectedRead more

Sermon Archives

The Lord is my Shepherd. I am the Good Shepherd.

Terry McKinney
Sun, Apr 29

The Fourth Sunday of Easter
John 10: 11-18

The Lord is my shepherd.

I am the Good Shepherd.

Today, the Fourth Sunday in Easter, is Good Shepherd Sunday, because the gospel reading is about Jesus as the Good Shepherd. It’s also when we’re lucky enough to say the 23rd psalm together. How wonderful was that?

It’s also known as Vocation Sunday, the word “pastor” being derived from “pastorem,” the Latin word for shepherd.

The Lord is my shepherd.

I am the Good Shepherd.

I remember being asked several times over my lifetime, “What is your image of God?” or some variation of it. “What images of God do you have? What is your favorite image of God?”

But I haven’t often been asked, “What is your image of Jesus?” even though there are several, such as Jesus as The Great Physician.

Having said that, I do have a favorite image of Jesus. Can you guess what it is from my enthusiasm over today’s psalm and gospel reading? Yes, it’s Jesus as The Good Shepherd.

Near where I grew up there was an Episcopal church called The Church of the Good Shepherd. Episcopalians often have such good names for their churches, don’t they? The church was high, light and airy, and at the front there was an enormous window. In it, Jesus had a crook in his hand, was looking lightly over his shoulder, and behind and beside him were several sheep. Have you seen a similar image? I’m guessing you have. You sometimes see the same image with a lamb being carried by Jesus over his shoulder.

The images of a winnowing fork, a yoke and the like scared the tar out of me that young, but this image of a good shepherd was something I could cotton to. Without knowing the scriptures all that well, I saw a gentle caretaker who wouldn’t let a single sheep go astray. And we were those soft, wooly, docile creatures who would follow him without a thought or a care in the world, trusting completely in our own safety. Doesn’t that sound lovely?

This was an image of Jesus that carried me through many periods of my childhood that needed a shepherd who would not leave my side, no matter what happened.

And just as it was for me, Psalm 23 is a favorite for many of us here: a message of hope, care, and comfort that sustains us, even through the dark valley.

But today, I read this psalm a bit differently. In hospitals when someone has just passed away or is about to, or at funerals and memorial services, saying the 23rd Psalm with a grieving family doesn’t so much evoke images of a shepherd with a crook, or its sheep. Instead, in those moments, it has everything to do with proclaiming and remembering that there is nowhere we can go that God is not with us, even the valley of the shadow of death. At such difficult times, that good news is a great comfort.

The 23rd Psalm is so well-known, that many think it comes from the Christian Scriptures rather than the Hebrew Scriptures. The psalm is so familiar, in fact, that people often say it with me in those settings, either the parts they remember, or the entire psalm.

The LORD is my shepherd. I shall not want.
I am the Good Shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.
In the psalm, to say, “The LORD is my shepherd,” isn’t only to state or describe the qualities of God, or to give us a metaphor. It’s to claim God alone as the one who gives life, sustains life, and restores life. The LORD is MY shepherd. It’s to testify and make claim on a shepherd-king who provides for his followers, and who gives a Messianic hope. “Your rod and your staff” convey scepter and crook, king and shepherd.

Why would these verses from the Hebrew Scriptures be so powerful for Christians?

In the Gospel of John, we have Jesus identifying himself as that shepherd, telling us who a good shepherd is, and what a good shepherd does. It’s one of the seven “I am” statements in the Gospel of John, such as, “I am the bread of life,” “I am the gate,” and “I am the vine.”

In the passage, Jesus uses shepherd imagery to describe his relationship with the sheep, his relationship with his Father, and the inseparability of the two. The primary image and connection Jesus uses for both of these is laying down his life.

Why is the image of Jesus as our Good Shepherd so powerful for us?

In terms of scriptural lineage, the 23rd Psalm is actually a bit of a patchwork, drawn from different parts of the Hebrew Scriptures, particularly from the words of the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel, who use shepherd imagery both to describe God and Israel’s relationship with God.

For those familiar with the scriptures, it might also have been heard as a reference to the deliverance of Israel. Yet being spoken in the voice of one person giving testimony, the relationship with God is a very intimate one. While the House of the Lord refers literally to the Temple, in this poetic setting, it implies endless life with God. Like much of what the prophets describe for God’s people, the psalm is about passing through death to life.

Of our gospel passage’s lineage, the writer draws from a passage from Ezekiel. He uses, “Woe unto you,” comparing the good shepherd to the bad shepherd, the best of the leaders of Israel to the worst, who serves himself first, and abandons his sheep to be slaughtered for meat when threatened.

When Jesus names himself as that good shepherd, as opposed to the hired hand, his words would have been easily recognized as drawn from Ezekiel’s same comparison. Only, the gospel writer goes further. Jesus describes his ultimate act of love and sacrifice as the Good Shepherd by laying down his life and taking it up again. Passing through death to life.

That movement from death to life takes place within the context of his relationships to his sheep and his Father. He connects them together by laying down his life.

In other words, Jesus’ love of both, being known by both, and willingly laying down his life for both, is what connects us to God. This is an unambiguous and inescapably firm assertion about Jesus’ central role in our faith. Jesus is describing two relationships of love that are stronger than death.

How does this fit in our congregation this morning? For many in the United Church of Christ, this passage can be the center of faith, the rock on which it is built. For others, however, this passage can pose an uncomfortable problem. We here in the UCC are proud to proclaim ourselves welcoming to all, regardless of exactly what one might believe about Jesus. If I took a poll today, I’d guess that we have a very broad spectrum, anywhere from Jesus as Son of God, Jesus as prophet, Jesus as wise man, Jesus as one to emulate.

“Wherever you are on the journey of life or the journey of faith, you are welcome here.”

Yet here we are, facing a text that is unambiguously about Jesus as the Christ, the son of God, that doesn’t look like it leaves a whole lot of wiggle room for doubt. How do we square that with our spectrum of beliefs here today?

The passage brings up the question of our very identity as a denomination. Does it have something to do with the central question about our starting point as a church? We in the UCC are good at welcoming people’s doubts and questions about Jesus’ identity, so this strong passage about Jesus’ connecting us to God through his death and resurrection challenges us. How does it challenge you? As you hear the passage today, what thoughts or feelings, doubts or beliefs rise up in you?

And yet, with their shepherd imagery of ultimate love, promise, and hope, one of the peculiarly beautiful aspects of these two passages is that, even as we struggle with them and with the question of who Jesus is, they have come to mean a lot to many of us, wherever we are on the spectrum of Christianity.

The LORD is my shepherd. I shall not want.
I am the Good Shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.

In the 23rd Psalm, we have a singer or poet who proclaims God’s extravagant providence and deliverance, reminding us of God’s presence, and God’s promise, even through the darkest valley of death. This is a God of constant love.

And in our gospel passage, Jesus shows his ultimate act of love by laying down his life for his sheep. And God loves him because Jesus chooses to do so as following the Father’s command. This too reveals a God of constant love.

And these passages of supreme love are perhaps where we can begin to see how we can hear this highly Christological gospel passage and all still be in different spots on the Christian map. We remember that of the four gospels, the Gospel of John’s emphasis on love and what it looks like is strongest. It is also the gospel most concerned with global salvation, and God’s love of the whole world rather than Israel alone. Remember earlier in the gospel, we’ve heard, “God so loved the world.” (3:16). The whole world.

So while Jesus’ statement, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice,” refers to God’s promise of salvation not only for Israel but for gentiles as well, in the context of the Gospel of John’s emphasis on love, it can also be heard as an expression of Jesus as God’s constant desire for us, God’s unquenchable love for all of us, wherever we are on the spectrum. Among other ways, it can be heard as an invitation, rather than making an exclusive claim on salvation.

We mustn’t lose sight of the literal meaning of Jesus’ power to lay down and take up his life for us as following God’s commandment. Death and resurrection. We are a Christian church based on the Scriptures, and we must not turn all our challenging passages into metaphors.

And yet: we can at the same time rest in the comfort and holy hope in a God of unceasing love and unceasing desire, who passes through the valley with us, is willing to lay down his life for us his sheep, and out of whose ultimate love wants to shepherd all of us.

In other words, God’s love for you is enormous, God’s longing for you is endless.

This beautiful thought takes us back to the question of our starting point as church – that regardless of where you are on the belief spectrum as you sit here today, we can go back to a starting point of what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called the summation of the Hebrew Scriptures: “God in search of Man.”

Passing through the valley of the shadow of death to the house of the Lord forever; Jesus laying down his life and taking it back up. Both are about the Easter themes of resurrection and newness of life. Perhaps most importantly, as with those hearing the 23rd Psalm in times of grief, they are both indeed reminders that there is nowhere we can go, even through the valley of the shadow of death, where God is not present with us.

The LORD is my shepherd. I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside the still waters.

I am the Good Shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.

This morning, where do you yourself thirst and hunger for newness of life? What part of your soul feels wounded or broken and needs God to restore it? Through what dark valley in this period of your life or this morning might you be passing through? How can God’s presence in that dark valley enable you to fear no evil? How does the thought of Jesus’ love for us, his sheep, and his willingness to lay down his life move you?

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.

Amen. Thanks be to God.

Looking for ways to support our community during this unprecedented time of need? The Missions and Social Justice Committee has compiled and vetted a short list of organizations looking for assistance to aid in their work in the COVID-19 response...

In response to the Coronavirus outbreak, the Shelter has expanded into Sage Hall to allow for greater social distancing, and is now open to guests around the clock, thanks to additional funding from the Commonwealth. They would very much welcome...