April 29, 2012
Robert L. Grabill, Director of Education
I was thinking about sheep well before I was given the opportunity to preach this morning. In two weeks, I will be spending the weekend with the Confirmation Class at Overlook Farm in Massachusetts, the New England headquarters of Heifer International. Most of you need no introduction to Heifer, which has dedicated itself to the pressing problem of helping the world feed itself because those who control the money and resources which could be a part of the solution worldwide have chosen to ignore their God-given responsibility to do so. Living and working at Heifer for a weekend is valuable learning experience. Their updated and upgraded programs give students a concrete sense of what it means to be hungry, and to spend all of your time thinking about your next meal. This is a working farm, though, and not just a classroom. There are chores to be done, and this presents a first-hand opportunity to get up close and personal with sheep. I will bring back pictures for you of Avery, Spencer, Eric, Jacob and Caroline holding baby sheep, leading a very vocal flock of sheep to new, spring pastures, and feeding them clumps of sweet, green grass. If we are lucky, we may see the miracle of birth close-up, although lambing season may be past. The students will return knowing a lot more about sheep, and it is possible that this may inform their understanding of the many, many metaphors in the Bible that refer to sheep and shepherds.
There is an obvious reason that scripture is full of this imagery. Sheep were commonplace in all of the Middle East during biblical times, and were crucial to daily life. There were also, by default, many shepherds. Everyone knew what it meant to be one, and everyone who heard scripture recited would have no difficulty conjuring up images of what it meant to be a good shepherd. Think for a moment of all of the shepherds in the Hebrew Bible: Joseph was a shepherd, working with his many older brothers to care for the family flock. He was caring for sheep when he began to have his dreams and and visions. Moses was a shepherd when he first encountered God, speaking to him from a burning bush. King David was first a young shepherd, watching his flock, when he was recruited by King Saul to face down the giant Goliath of Gath, height six cubits and a span, the champion of the Philistines. Being a shepherd in your youth was clearly a good thing to have on your resume in Hebrew Bible times.
Well before Jesus said “ego eimi ho poimen ho kalos” (“I am the good shepherd”), to a gathering of Pharisees in Jerusalem, there where important shepherd images in the Gospels. Luke the evangelist framed the birth narrative of Jesus by making shepherds in the fields the first to hear and understand the news of the birth of the Messiah. For Luke, this was the first of many instances when he sought to demonstrate that the good news was available to all, even the uneducated, lowly shepherds in the fields. This morning’s Gospel reading, from John, is taken from a long discourse by Jesus that uses imagery about sheep and shepherds more than anywhere else in all of the New Testament.
Just before today’s reading, John 10: 11-18, he says in John 10:1-6, “anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name, and leads them out.” Jesus continues what is as close to a parable as there is in all of the books of John, which unlike the other Gospels did not employ this literary device. But the Pharisees don’t get it. They don’t see that they are being compared to bad shepherds, thieves and robbers. So Jesus dumbs it down, and in John 10:7 he comes right out with it: “I am the gate for the sheep”. And two verses later: “I am the gate”. And then, at the start of today’s reading, comes another of what we exegetes call an “I am” statement: “I am the good shepherd”. Plain enough for you, Pharisees?
I will return in just a moment to further consideration of this text, but first I want to frame it in the context of today’s other lectionary readings. Many of you are aware that the Bible readings each week are suggested by the common lectionary, used by many Christian churches. Here in Year B, from Easter to Pentecost, we get one chunk of text each from Acts, from Psalms, from the Gospel (all but one from Luke), and from the Epistles, this time around from 1 John. Some weeks, these verses fit together as uncomfortably as squabbling siblings in the back seat, making preachers want to turn around and say to them, “don’t make me stop this sermon!” Sometimes we’re glad that in the UCC we have no obligation to use any of the lectionary readings. But after wrestling with these texts for a week or so, I have been captivated by the powerful ways in which they relate to each other. Here’s what I mean:
Our opening words this morning were the Shepherd Psalm, and there are many, many reasons to say nothing further about this beloved poetry. This amazing work needs no further explanation. For many of us, these verses resonate so deeply with us. Even better, the way in which we read this responsively underscores the personal nature of these verses. The writer and reader of this Psalm are the sheep. God, loving and attentive, is the Good Shepherd. And because of this existential fact, we shall want for nothing. See how many times we said “me” or “I” in our recitation. In the first four verses, we describe what God the shepherd does for us. Imagine how strongly that resonated with the devout in the centuries before Christ who first recited this, and marvel about the staying power that has remained even into our non-agrarian society. And then, in verse 5, when our need for protection and comfort becomes the greatest, when we walk through the darkest valley, it becomes an intimate “I- thou” dialogue. And because we face the shadow of death, and not death itself, the journey continues to a safe haven with a metaphorical feast that surpasses the best that we can imagine. God, the strong, gentle, personal shepherd, will see us safely home.
Here is how I would like you to consider the 23rd Psalm today: It is one of our most beloved Bible verses, but it was also greatly loved by Jesus. We know that Jesus was familiar with scripture. From an early age, perhaps the same as those confirmands who will be wrestling baby sheep in two weeks, Jesus was in the Temple in Jerusalem, reading the Torah and interpreting it to the amazed elders. When Jesus returned from the wilderness, he went to the synagogue in Nazareth and read and interpreted Isaiah. In his agony on the cross, Jesus recited the first line of Psalm 22, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachtani?” (My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?). Jesus knew the Psalms, and it’s hard not to imagine that many times in his life he recited, “The Lord is my shepherd”. Before Jesus proclaimed himself as our good shepherd, he knew that the God of Israel was his shepherd, his leader and guide, his role model. Jesus surely prayed these words in Gethsemene, in the valley of the shadow of his death, knowing that God was with him, comforting him, guiding him. Knowing that this Psalm was Jesus’ Psalm only increases its value to us.
This is why Jesus is shown as repeatedly using the metaphor of the Good Shepherd in the Gospel of John. Who was hearing this? Who was John’s audience? We are fairly sure that we can identify one of the early first century churches, and there were many of them, as the Johannine Community. It was a smallish collection of Jews who had come to believe fervently in Jesus as the Messiah, based on the recollections of one of the twelve disciples whom John the evangelist identified as the Beloved Disciple. We know with some surety that the Fourth Gospel, the Gospel According to John, was not composed, as tradition says, by the disciple John, the brother of James, the son of Zebedee.
But this amazing, poetic, theological reflection on Jesus’ life and ministry and meaning was composed by an evangelist (and it makes sense for scholars to continue to call him “John”), who had access to first-hand information about Jesus, the Johannnine Community’s Christ. Their strong belief in Jesus’ divinity, known as “high Christology” was what caused these Jews to be expelled from their synagogues. And having been expelled, and denied a claim to a Jewish identity which meant a great deal to them, it was all the more important for them to be hearing a Gospel that depicted Jesus, their Messiah, as comparing himself favorably to the Pharisees, who had expelled the. In this passage, the Pharisees are contrasted to the Good Shepherd as being the hired hands who run away at the first sign of trouble because they do not care for the sheep. Having dismissed the validity of the of the Jewish Religious leaders, Jesus then completes the arc of shepherd imagery from the 23rd Psalm to first century Judea, and reaffirms that he is the Good Shepherd, and why. “I know my own, and my own know me”. Then, the connection with the Psalm: “Just as the Father knows me, and I know the Father”. And although the audience which first heard this needed to do so through the lens of self-identification, we can hear this with as much hunger for connection and safety as we do the 23rd Psalm. When we feel lonely, and isolated, and hopeless, the knowledge that we are in the flock of the Good Shepherd appeals to our fondest yearning for community, and provides an antidote for fearfulness, separation and lack of security.
There is an important postscript to this wonderful text, and it’s the epistle I read from 1 John. Composed a generation after John’s Gospel, and aimed at the Johannine Community that cherished it, it was written by an elder of that community, and as with the Gospel, not by John the former disciple. It was written to a community that was no longer fighting with the Jews that expelled them, but fighting among themselves in a tumultuous era of early Christianity. Competing interpretations of who Jesus was and what he meant were creating dissension and schism. But the elder who composed this document spoke with the voice and authority of John the evangelist, and his reflection on the Gospel is pure poetry, succinctly summarizing why we are gathered here, why we have joined this church, why we continually try to answer the questions about what our existence here. Listen again to these words: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” The writer mirrors Jesus’ emphatic declaration of what makes a good shepherd: “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep”, says the Gospel, and the epistle writer says “we ought to lay down our lives for one another”. We take comfort in being the sheep, but we need to reflect the love that God gives us and become shepherds ourselves. For any Christian, self-sacrifice should be ordinary. The language and context of this text suggests that laying down our lives does not mean giving them up. That was Jesus’ unique sacrifice. Our charge is to set aside our claim on our own lives. We lay down our lives when we live for the good of others. We lay down our lives when we make time for each other. To love others is to lay down our lives for them. When we lay down the understandable human desire to put ourselves first, and when instead we allow the love of God to lead us in the right paths, and care for others, we are laying down our lives. “Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action”.
Even better, the Epistle writer addresses the fear and self-doubt which can paralyze us and keep us from living into the love which abides in us. There is such assurance in hearing that when our hearts condemn us, God is greater than our hearts. Because we know that we are God’s, because we love what is right, and because we love God’s people despite our failures, we belong to the Good Shepherd. Even when we are discouraged, we are filled with the gracious encouragement of the Lord, our Shepherd. Amen.