By The Very Rev. Sherry Crompton
April 13, 2008
Read: Psalm 23 and John
It’s Good Shepherd Sunday just in case you hadn’t noticed all those references to sheep in today’s scripture readings. It tends to make me think of fluffy, cute little sheep and Jesus holding a lamb gently in his arms. It’s a good thought. Jesus is the Good Shepherd and he does indeed desire to hold each of us in his loving arms.
But is there more to the message in the scriptures today? Psalm 23 uses “I” and is often a deeply personal psalm. But what about the image of flocks of sheep in John’s gospel? There is both an individual and a community emphasis today. We are, as individuals, part of a greater, larger community—a family of faith.
Jesus used a sheepfold and sheep as an image. So, what do we know about sheep? You may have heard that sheep are really dumb. They don’t know how to take care of themselves or even to come in out of the rain. Left to their own devices, they would soon be in trouble..hurt…and likely destroyed.
“Sheep are best known, though, for their strong flocking (herding) and following instinct. They will run from what frightens them and band together in large groups for protection. This is the only protection they have from predators. There is safety in numbers. It is harder for a predator to pick a sheep out of a group than to go after a few strays. Even from birth, lambs are taught to follow the older members of the flock. Ewes encourage their lambs to follow…”
And Jesus also uses the image of the gate for the sheep. In that time, with large sheepfolds, there was one opening to the fold and the shepherd would literally lay down in the opening to protect the sheep, both from wandering out and to keep the predators from coming in.
It seems to me there is an intimate kind of relationship between a shepherd and his sheep. Barbara Brown Taylor tells the story of her husband Ed and his friend Tommy. Ed and Tommy went duck hunting on the Flint River. They had been out all day in Tommy’s boat, sharing equally in the care and pleasure of it, when it came time at last to pack up and go home. Motoring back to the launch pad, they heaved the prow of the boat up on the river bank and began to haul their guns and decoys back to the car.
On their second trip back to the river, though, the boat was gone. Looking downstream they saw it floating away, about ten feet from the bank. So they dropped everything and ran after it, crashing through the underbrush to draw even with it, but the closer they got, the further it moved out into the main current of the river—first ten feet, then twelve feet, then twenty feet away, gaining speed as it went.
Finally came the moment of truth. As cold and tired as they both were, it was clear that one of them would have to strip and swim after the boat. They looked at each other and they both knew who it would be. “It wasn’t my boat,” Ed said, but he helped out by cheering Tommy as he tore off his camouflage jumpsuit and dove into the river.
Jesus uses the image of a shepherd. For a shepherd, sheep are his livelihood. The flock belongs to the shepherd, the shepherd takes responsibility for the flock. The flock becomes like an extended family..they know his voice, his touch, his walk. If they are grazing with a thousand other sheep and he calls them, they will separate themselves from the crowd and follow him home. He knows them by name too. There is something intimate about the relationship. There is the individual intimacy in knowing each by name and the larger intimacy of belonging to a community in which all share a common shepherd, a common protector, a common savior.
We all deserve to have someone in our lives who lays down his life for us, who will tear off his clothes and dive into the water when what is disappearing down the river happens to be us.
The Lord is my Shepherd. Jesus is my guardian and protector. In the most dangerous place, “I shall fear no evil, for you are with me.” This is the Good Shepherd whose voice we will follow. Jesus is the reality who is the antidote to our consuming anxiety. The poet of the 23rd psalm discovered that things on the journey are not as they seem when God is present. We are safe, more cared for than we imagined. It is the presence of God that transforms dangerous places and tough circumstances.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd who opens the gate to lead us into green pastures and beside still waters. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who leads us along right pathways and is the one who is with us in the valleys. Jesus is the one who leads us back to the sheepfold when we go astray to join with others in the family of faith.
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want”. “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Amen.
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