THE GOOD SHEPHERD
May 11, 2014 by Ken Dale
It probably goes without saying that the 23rd Psalm is one of, if not the most beloved of Scripture passages. Its images are comforting and assuring. Likewise the image of Jesus as Shepherd ? the Good Shepherd ? is one that we would also find to be most appealing. But there is another angle to it if we are willing to go there. One preaching journal I have long subscribed to contains the reflections of United Methodist Bishop William Willimon and while I was taken aback by it I also found it quite worth sharing ? as uncomfortable as it may be. I include it in this message just to see where it takes us. How does this strike you? Willimon begins by quoting the text from John 10: ?I?m the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.? But then he continues: Why didn?t Jesus say, ?I am the great teacher, you are my brilliant students. You kids can do anything you put your minds to. Study hard!? Or, ?I am the great do-gooder, and you are all my valuable assistant little do-gooders, go do good.? Or, ?I am the CEO in the front office, you are my second level managers out working the floor: look busy.?? No, what Jesus said was, ?I am the loving, searching, seeking, self-sacrifical shepherd?you are the wayward, inept, wandering, lost, totally-dependent-on-me, bovidae (hollow-horned), ovis aries (docile, dumb, and domesticated) sheep.? Willimon notes that this seemingly sweet and reassuring little passage from God?s word ? ?I?m the good shepherd; you?re my dumb lost sheep? ? is an assault on just about everything we believe about ourselves, a metaphorical affront to the way we enjoy thinking of ourselves.
It is also noted that the definition of good shepherd is raised to an incredible height when Jesus says, ?The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.? He would never say that if he just improved the sheep, equipped the sheep, enlightened the sheep ? just taught the sheep the key to saving themselves. The good shepherd not only loves the sheep but is willing to lay down his life for the sheep. I think I was a bit leery of sharing Willimon?s approach because we could focus on the dumb sheep. The last thing I would want is for us to leave worship thinking we?re just a bunch of dumb sheep. But what a difference if our focus is on the Good Shepherd ? the love of that Good Shepherd and the implications that love has for the dumb sheep. If we are really in touch with that love of the Good Shepherd it is a powerfully defining moment in our lives.
We know about those powerfully defining moments. On Sept. 11, 2001 President George W. Bush was reading a book to some children at school as he received the news of the attacks. Many of those now 14 year olds describe that day as sort of a defining moment in their life because the fact that the president came back and finished the story after learning of the attacks made them feel safe and secure. Such defining moments for us may be Pearl Harbor Day, the end of a war, the day the Berlin Wall came down, or perhaps something more personal like your graduation, your baptism or the baptism of your child. I know at least for one of those confirmed last Sunday it was a most significant day of life. Does our faith have the impact that it could in our day to day living ? even in our life as a whole?
God as Shepherd does come to us from the Hebrew Scriptures ? yes the 23rd Psalm but also the prophet Isaiah. It is a protective and assuring image for sure but there is something else worth noting I learned this past week. Perhaps like many of us ? I don?t have much experience with sheep. I have been told how dumb they really are ? especially from Lucy this past week. (We have such interesting conversations in my sermon preparation!) I did know in Biblical times at the end of the day many a shepherd would get together and all their flocks would be gathered into one sheepfold. But the sheep did know the voice of their shepherd and in the morning one shepherd would call out and only his sheep would leave the sheepfold. I thought that was pretty smart for dumb sheep. In verse 4 it says of the shepherd, ?When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.? The Greek word for ?brought out? is ekballo which is an active word that actually has power and force in it. Actually it is to lead one forth?with a force which cannot be resisted. It is the same word used when Jesus casts out a demon and chases the money changers out of the temple. But we need to remember that is a voice spoken out of love ? love great enough to lay down its own life for the sheep.
I can?t help but think of a moment when my youngest son Jeff was fascinated for the first time by a guy welding across the street at a gas station. There was a corner in front of the church next door to the parsonage in which we lived. Jeff kept walking across the church lawn fascinated by the glowing fire display of the welder. I kept calling at him ? but he just kept walking. Finally he was standing on the edge of the lawn and street ? still not hearing me. In great love and fearful concern I came up behind him and gave him one good pat on the butt and pulled him back. There was a lesson to be learned.
Would we hear it as the voice of God if it came to us that way? Perhaps a voice that forcefully calls us out of an otherwise comfortable and cozy sheepfold so that we can experience a life described as abundant ? a life that may bring us out of our comfy self-made nest to be stretched, changed, and given an opportunity to grow and be an instrument of God?s love in the life of another or to others? Would we be willing to follow such a Good Shepherd? But at the same time it is a Good Shepherd who is going to stick with us and love us forever ? or at least die trying.
Jesus was surely right on when he says down in verse 14, I am the good shepherd. I know my own, and my own know me? Who are we? Looking at the big picture ? of humanity ? of all the sheep ? pick up the front page of the newspaper or watch the evening news and see who we are. We are an incredible mix aren?t we? We are a mix of saint and sinner. We are capable of such incredibly good things and incredibly evil things ? we rescue and help one another, yet we also do some amazing harm ? think of what it must be like to be the mother, the parent of one of the hundreds of children ? teenage girls who were kidnapped in Nigeria or to be the family member of a passenger on the Malaysian airliner that just disappeared ? I don?t need to go on. But the Good Shepherd calls us ? brings us out ? and we are to follow over the difficult and challenging terrain of loving enemies, giving to those in need, going the extra mile, loving the unlovable, helping the helpless, simply being a presence in someone?s life when words just don?t work, and being disciplined in a prayer life that keeps us listening for that shepherd?s voice that both comforts and challenges us ? and the bottom line, maybe being a faithful sheep through which the love of that good shepherd lives.
This past Thursday Linda Blomquist and I went out with home communion. It was a beautiful day and on one road we followed a motorcycle. She asked if I ever rode? I said no but that my oldest son loves his motorcycles and riding on a day like this. The next day I came across this story with which I will close. But let us think about our individual lives as sheep of the good shepherd ? and think about our life together as this church ? a sheepfold if you will ? but maybe more than that?
There was an Episcopal priest who was shopping for a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. The salesman talked to him about speed, acceleration, risk and how women love to climb up on the back of such a powerful machine. Then, he discovered his customer was a priest.
Immediately, he changed his approach. He spoke soberly about good mileage, the advantages of 360-degree visibility and how practical motorcycles are. Writing about the experience later, the priest had this to say: “Have we told the world that being a Christian is more like riding a lawnmower than a motorcycle? Is the life of faith more safe and sound or dangerous and exciting? The common image of the church is pure lawnmower — slow, deliberate and plodding. Our task is to take the church out on the open road, give it the gas and see what this baby will do!”