Following the Shepherd

A sermon preached at St. Francis by the Lake, Canyon Lake, TX

Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Easter

For the previous three Sundays we’ve been reading the events of the day of the resurrection. Today we look at one of the many times Jesus tells them what is going to happen, what must happen within God’s purpose of redemption.

On this fourth Sunday of Eastertide, as we move toward The Ascension and then the day of Pentecost, we begin a review of sorts of Jesus’ ministry on earth.

And we hear about shepherds and sheep.

I doubt most of us, living in 21st century Hill Country Texas, spend much time talking about shepherds and sheep. I’d even venture to guess that most of us would find it a bit insulting if someone called us a sheep.

Shepherd talk is unusual for us today but it would have been Common language for Jesus’ original listeners in First Century Jerusalem.

I’ve been trying to think of an equivalent modern metaphor that would help us understand the way Jesus uses shepherd talk but haven’t been able to. In a conversation with Fr. David earlier this week he told me that he had seen a flock of sheep being herded by dogs and no people, and I tried to figure out how to use that but decided it wasn’t going to be a helpful illustration either.

So, instead of some cleaver tie-in to something more familiar, let’s just time-machine back and do our best with God’s help to hear Jesus’ words as the folks living in 1st century Jerusalem would hear them. Are you with me?

This description and metaphor would have been heard very differently by the people who heard them first.

These folks would have remembered images of Abraham and his wealth of flocks and the conversation he had with Lot about living in abundance rather than quarreling in an attitude of scarcity.

They would have heard the echoes of how Samuel, after rejecting all of Jesse’s other sons, had David, the least of the brothers, called from his shepherding duties to be anointed the King of Isreal. They would have thought of this same David defeating Goliath, not with a weapon of war, as Saul tried to outfit him, but the tool of a shepherd.

They would have heard the words of the prophet Ezekiel who spoke out against the leaders of God’s people who had been bad shepherds and let God’s people become scattered and lost because of their own need for power and personal gain. They would have heard God’s own words spoken through Ezekiel “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, I will seek them out and lay them down in rich pastures, tend their wounds, heal them, feed them.” (Ezekiel 34)

They would have heard in their minds the words of the hymn we call the 23rd Psalm, a hymn of praise about God’s compassionate care for the lives of God’s people in the here and now.

And perhaps Jesus’ words would even have called to mind the stories that had been circulating for the previous 30 years of a group of shepherds visited by angels proclaiming the birth of the long awaited messiah.

In this simple. ordinary metaphor of shepherd and sheep they would have heard their history of who God is and who they are as God’s people.

They would have had images of the life giving and life sustaining care of the God of Love.

Can you hear love in Jesus’ words spoken not just to a group of folks some two thousand plus years ago in a land and culture completely different from ours but as timeless words of love and compassion spoken to each of us?

It’s challenging, I know. Being called sheep for many in our culture is an insult. We think of vulnerable animals who can’t survive without the direct care of their shepherd, creatures who can’t think or care for themselves.

We think of these words in terms of ourselves and not as part of the description of our compassionate and loving Creator who wants to love us rather than condemn us.

Jesus speaks of sheep not because God sees us as incapable, mindless beings who are worthless but because God created us to be God’s people living on earth as it is in heaven, made priceless and worthy through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

This metaphor of shepherd and sheep is about the Good Shepherd: compassionate, loving, desiring the best for us, seeking us out when we are lost, enabling us to live life abundantly in the world of wolves and coyotes who see us only as a means to fulfill their own their needs.

Jesus says to us, “I am the Good Shepherd. I know you better than you know yourself. I know you and love you completely and I’m willing to give my life so that you can have the life God desires for you.”

A life of unconditional love. A life in which we walk with our shepherd through a pandemic and death and job loss and complete upheaval of all that we think we know, and we are not afraid because we know God is with us. A life abundant in the riches of God’s kingdom – comfort and hope and peace and love.

Unfortunately, we generally only use the 23rd Psalm at funerals and miss out on it’s intended meaning, not comfort in death but comfort in life. The Lord is my shepherd and I need nothing else.

Let’s read it out loud together, framed in our celebration of Jesus’ Resurrection and our new life in Christ.

The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures
and leads me beside still waters.
He revives my soul
and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake.
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I shall fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me;
you have anointed my head with oil,
and my cup is running over.
Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

This image of the Good Shepherd is to give us Kingdom vision, to see the world through Jesus’ eyes so that we can recognize when the wolf in sheep’s or shepherd’s clothing is deceiving us.

This image of the Good Shepherd gives us Kingdom hearing so that we can hear God’s voice over and above all the ruckus that is trying to convince us that we need to arm ourselves rather than learn the power of love from our shepherd.

This image of the Good Shepherd reminds us that we invited to follow Jesus, here and now, in the ordinary and extraordinary moments of this amazing life God has given us, walking the way of love on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

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