Trustworthy Shepherd

Trustworthy Shepherd

Trustworthy Shepherd              4th Easter

Psalm 23   John 10:1-10

Have you ever been a shepherd? How about a pretend shepherd in a nativity play, all dressed up in an old bathrobe with a piece of cloth on your head and a tall staff in your hand? In our church family, not many of us have ever actually tended sheep, but the lexicon of our faith is rich with shepherds!

In the Old Testament, we have some big characters who tended sheep. Moses was tending sheep for his father-in-law, Jethro, when he encountered the Burning Bush. The Prophet, Amos, was tending sheep when God called him to carry God’s word to the people. The most notable shepherd was a boy, youngest son of Jesse, who was anointed by Samuel to be the future king of Israel. And David turned out to be the most celebrated king they ever had! He was not only the king, but was also a musician who wrote a number of the Psalms we have in our Bible, the most familiar of which we heard today: The 23rd Psalm. In it, he describes God as a loving shepherd who guides the sheep and protects them.

In the New Testament, we have shepherds being visited by angels and then going to visit the newborn Baby Jesus—the Jesus who grew up and used the “Shepherd Analogy” to describe himself (as in our Gospel reading today). In its 2000-year history, the church has adopted the use of the word “shepherd” to describe pastors and (I’m sorry to say) the word “sheep” to describe all of you. Not very complimentary, if you know anything about sheep.

Now, just to be fair, I also need to tell you that there are some BAD shepherds in the Bible. They are the ones who run away when danger approaches. They don’t really care for the sheep—but only truly care about themselves. I’m afraid the church has experienced some bad shepherds as well. But our passages for today show us one shining image: WE CAN TRUST THE GOOD SHEPHERD TO TAKE CARE OF US!

The Shepherd “Herds” Us

When we look at the 23rd Psalm, we see the shepherd “herding” us, making us lie down in green pastures, leading us to safe water and over right paths, protecting us with rod and staff, making sure we are well-cared-for. As I understand it, a shepherd’s job is to push the sheep to the place where they need to graze for the day. On the way there, they want to stop and nibble on everything that looks tasty, so they have to be driven to keep moving to where they are supposed to be.

I can see that this is precisely what God often has to do with me! I see what I want, and do my best to go to it, and God has to push me along to something that is better. Sometimes, our Shepherd has to get us through barren wastes in order to reach that which is good for us—the green pastures, the still waters. These are the times when we must trust the Shepherd, and the words “He restores my soul.” Times like right now.

There’s a passage from 1 Peter 2 that is part of our lectionary for today. He’s addressing folks who are suffering through no fault of their own. He says, “It is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly.” He reminds us that Christ himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness. By his wounds we have been healed. “For you were going astray like sheep, but NOW you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.”

Jesus Is the Gate

Now let’s take a look at our Gospel reading from John. Jesus is making use of the whole shepherd/sheep analogy to help his disciples understand who he is and to assure them of the Shepherd’s care. He starts out by talking about a “sheepfold.” As a kid, I remember hearing terms like this, but I had no idea what they meant. We even sang a song, “God be with you ‘til we meet again; by his counsels guide, uphold you; with his sheep securely fold you. God be with you ‘til we meet again.” I didn’t know what a “fold” was—fold was something we did to sheets. So, I sang the song, “With his sheets securely fold you.” So we need to know what a “sheepfold” is. Think of it as a sort of corral, perhaps with some kind of primitive cover. The opening to the corral is where the shepherd sleeps, which keeps the sheep in and keeps predators and thieves out. The shepherd is the gate! And in the fold, there is protection and security. A few verses after our reading for today, Jesus tells them, “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me…I lay down my life for the sheep.

“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.   So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” (Friends, he is talking about you and me—sheep from a different flock!)

Seeks the Lost Sheep

Jesus is the Good Shepherd. He knows the sheep, and the sheep know the shepherd. The shepherd knows when one of the sheep is missing. Remember with me the parable Jesus told: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”

Now, just imagine this scene: the shepherd is searching for the lost sheep. All darkness and danger are disregarded because the focus is the lost sheep. The sheep cries out, and the shepherd locates it and carries it home on his shoulders. All the sheep needs to do is cry out!

This reminds me of a woman named Lisa who was lying alone in her hospital room. She had been sliced up by a man she once loved and trusted, a man who told her, “No one will miss you when you’re dead!” Lying in her bed, crying from loneliness and despair, overwhelmed by a sense of worthlessness, Lisa cried out, “Jesus. Help me.” Immediately, she could sense the Presence of God, warming her, comforting her. She received God’s promise to always be with her, and that God would see her through her trouble. The little lost sheep had cried out, and the Good Shepherd found her and brought her to safety.

Friends, I’ll finish with this thought. Many of us are sailing through this pandemic like it’s a piece of cake. We have a steady stream of income. Those who work are able to work, some from home, some in the outdoors, some in other settings. We have an income and a place to live and supplies aplenty. We gather with friends and family online, and have opportunity for creative expression. We are doing alright.

But others are struggling. Some of them have all the necessities, but they are suffering from “quarantine fatigue”—the wearing-down of our resilience and hope. Many others are struggling to provide for their families, to keep the kids engaged in learning, to address their health needs when they can’t access medical care. Things look and feel hopeless.

And into the chaos, The Good Shepherd speaks a word: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.”

Prayer: Jesus, help us. Calm our fears. Replace them with the Spirit of power, and of love, and of self-control. Help us find creative ways to stay engaged with others, to offer assistance, to spread hope in your name. Thank you for being our Good Shepherd. Amen.