Easter 4 + B +2015 The Reverend Robert RM Bagwell
A church marquee read: "If you can't sleep, don't count sheep. Talk to the Shepherd." I once began a sermon on this Sunday by saying: Sheep are dumb! Congratulations! or should I say: "bahhhhhha!" This does not build us up. It doesn't bolster our self esteem. It is an assault on our American individualism. After all, aren't we "self made people"? No, we are not. That is a delusion. We are interdependent without God and even more so, when we become the "sheep of His pasture."
We need a Shepherd. We need a shepherd. What do I mean by that? Jesus said: “ I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10) This is the mission of the “good shepherd.” When Jesus spoke these words at the Feast of the Dedication or Hannukuk, at the Temple in Jerusalem, he was sharing with his people His heart–His mission and the heart of God. Most of us used to know the 23rd Psalm from the old King James translation, it has brought great comfort to millions in the most distressing of circumstances. It is a good one to learn if you don’t know it, because a bit of what we will hear this morning about sheep and shepherds, about “sheeply” behavior and shepherding will tell us about our relationship to God and who we are as the “sheep of His pasture.”
We read today: “The Lord is my shepherd.” Does that statement mean anything to us? Think for a moment, seriously. It is so familiar but its implications are staggering. If you are like me, my attention is first drawn to the word, “shepherd”. I suspect that word has little frame of reference in our own experience. I mean, are any of you shepherds? Do any of you know any shepherds? The closest most of us have ever come to shepherds is when we or our kids were in a Xmass play or on a Xmass card!
Add to this lack of firsthand knowledge the sentimentalized, Jesus, the good shepherd of stained glass, looking rather delicate and holding (presumably) a pet lamb??? I think you get the picture.
Today is often called “Good Shepherd Sunday”. John Chapter ten is almost entirely focused on the Shepherd and the sheep and interestingly enough, the Lord Jesus calls Himself the Good Shepherd. Good in this text is the Greek word “Kalos” a word that Archbishop William Temple translated in his rendering of Psalm 23: “I am the Shepherd, the beautiful winsome, attractive One.” It is the same word used in the story of the Marriage feast of Cana when the guests told the Bridegroom that he had saved the good wine (the best wine) for last! It is the shepherd whose goodness makes others want to go and do likewise.
Shepherding had a long history in the Jewish tradition. Old Testament shepherds included Abel, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and even Moses. Many of their descendants and perhaps most famous of these, King David Again we see shepherds as the first witnesses to the announcement of the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem. If you were brought up in our day and heard the word "shepherd, you might have an image of "little bo peep". If one of our children came home and said: "hey mom & dad, I'm going to be a shepherd!" We would probably not jump for joy!
There is an interesting quality about sheep in this reading: Shepherds have a personal relationship with the sheep. A flock mingled with another flock will separate themselves when each sheep is called by name. Shepherding is relational.
Sheep are led, not driven like cattle. Shepherds always lead their sheep to safety. Sheep are naive, vulnerable and easily scared. Shepherds would lead their sheep to both food and water. Psalm 23, gives us the image of sheep that have eaten their fill, because sheep will not lie down in the grass until they have eaten their fill. We must learn to be led.
Today’s image of shepherd is taken from Ezekiel 34—The image here is almost of a warrior shepherd, an ideal warrior. Doing justice, punishing the wicked leading God’s people in warfare and peace. Perhaps not our first image of a shepherd, but a more accurate one in the context of the day. Shepherding is hard work Shepherding required long lonely hours of work and it wouldn’t be a Coppertone tan you were getting, but eventually more like a leather hide! There is an interesting quality about sheep in this reading: Sheep are led, not driven like cattle. Shepherds always lead their sheep to safety. Sheep are naive, vulnerable and easily scared. Shepherds would lead their sheep to both food and water. Isaiah 53:6. says:"We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all."
Psalm 23, gives us the image of sheep that have eaten their fill, because sheep will not lie down in the grass until they have eaten their fill. That is why Jesus as our Good Shepherd makes it so that we as His sheep can "lie down in green pastures". He provides for us.
Sheep are vulnerable. They are easily frightened. Sheep do not like swift moving water. In fact, they will not drink from swift moving water because it scares them so badly. That is why Jesus as our Good Shepherd leads us beside the "still waters". Our shepherd--the Good Shepherd even leads us through emergencies and crises of life and faith. He guides us in right paths for His name’s sake (Psalm 23:3). He leads us through the "valley of the shadow of death" where death and all the fear associated with it would otherwise threaten, intimidate and overwhelm us. Leadership in the Church is called “shepherding”. The Bishop’s Office recalls this in the very name Bishop or Episcopou (is a word that means Bishop)—and Bishop means “shepherd”. We are the church named for shepherds! We are the Church of the Shepherds. The Bishop’s crozier or staff is usually in the form of a shepherd’s staff. To some degree, our leadership in the church can be measured by these standards. Are we the Shepherds who bring the best shepherd, Jesus, into the midst of our Churches? Do we know them? Feed them? Are we hired hands or do we see the personal stake of the salvation of the sheep in our care? Jesus said that He has other sheep which were not of the fold that he must bring also.
Part of our responsibility is to join with Jesus to “bring them also”, as He said that “there shall be one flock, one shepherd”. One author said that our tendencies are to see life in two categories: God is with us when things are going great and we are in green pastures. When under shepherds fail us, however, we are prone to ask “where was God when all of this was going on?” We are prone to ask: “what was the Bishop thinking???”We may never know but we must never doubt that God, Jesus, the Good Shepherd is there leading us if we will but be led. Jesus is called the Lamb of God! God in Christ identifies Himself with us—Helpless, needy creatures. He became a sheep! As we look at sheep today, where do we see ourselves? Are we like some of the obvious sheep in our daily newspapers: our celebrities, athletes and others who get more press because their flaws are exposed for all of us sheep to see, we who presumably could never get into any situation like that! Are we trying to push our ways through a fence because we refuse to be led as sheep will do? When we have lost our footing, are we trusting the shepherd to care for us, or are we still struggling with our feet in the air? As the collect says, “grant that when we hear His voice, we may know Him who calls us each by name and follow where He leads. Will we? That’s the hard part. After all, we’re sheep! I'll walk off this cliff if I want to! And nobody’s gonna stop me! Sheep are stubborn. But we do have a shepherd: the most wonderful, the best, the good shepherd.
Jesus, the Good Shepherd said: "I gave my life for you.” In our Gospel today, we see the words of Jesus reminding us that His life was not taken from Him because He gave it voluntarily. But, there is more to the picture than that. Jesus describes Himself as a shepherd. Jesus was not just talking about a shepherd’s duties. He was describing Himself as Shepherd and us as His sheep.
Yes we need a shepherd, a Good Shepherd. We have a Shepherd. The Best Shepherd. The only Shepherd. His name is Jesus.