The Sermon: May 8th, 2022
The image of shepherd and sheep is a difficult one for us today in the West. We don’t really understand what it means to be a shepherd these days.
Only once have I encountered a shepherd and sheep. Many years ago, the first time I hiked up to the Jumbo cabin, we encountered a shepherd and a flock of sheep. While we were driving up the forestry road to access the trail, a long way up from the homes and little farms that are near the bottom of the road, we encountered a man in his 60’s and a small flock of sheep. He had a small satchel and was wearing sandals and what seemed to be thin clothing for that altitude; they were slowly walking up the road. We greeted him as we went slowly by. We saw him on the way down and he was hanging out in a level area where there was some grass. He’d obviously spent a few days away from the home farm.
It was an odd experience and encounter because it seemed out of sync with our reality in this modern day and age of farming. My friend had raised sheep a few years before and they never did any shepherding.
Theologically, in the Hebrew Scriptures, God was compared to a shepherd in several instances, the most famous being Psalm 23. The prophets spoke of God as shepherd. In fact, overall in the Ancient Near East, Babylonian, Egyptian, and Persian gods and kings were described as shepherds. In ancient Israel, God was a shepherd, and the Messiah was expected to embody the Good Shepherd (capitalized letters).
By the time of Jesus, however, this theological description of God as good shepherd didn’t square with the reality of actual shepherds. A shepherd was seen as a dishonourable person and was one of a few despised professions along with butchers, tanners, and camel and donkey drivers. They were often fugitives escaping justice; and because they slept outside among the animals and had nowhere else to go or were alienated from their families, they were not respected. That’s why the Christmas story according to Luke is so powerful—the message of the birth of the Messiah came first to lowly shepherds, a despised group of people.
So this dispute in Jerusalem in winter recorded by John, during Hannukah, is a positive story about God, the Good Shepherd. Jesus spoke about his sheep, those that listen to his voice, as if they were listening to God’s voice. He didn’t directly answer the question about being the Messiah, but he implied this referring to his actions. This implication provoked a great outcry and a desire to stone him.
Going back to last week’s reading from John’s Gospel, at the very end of the encounter on the Sea of Galilee, during which Jesus cooked the disciples’ breakfast, Jesus told Peter to feed my sheep, feed my lambs, feed my flock! I said that this was John’s way of initiating the whole purpose of the Church.
In Covenanting with Nicole this morning, the sheep-shepherd image has merit for us today. Walter Brueggemann, the retired Hebrew Scripture Scholar and very relevant current writer, once said on Sojourners online that the sheep-shepherd image can be understood from 2 extremes: “We may take the “shepherd-sheep” metaphor as a way to discern our life. On the one hand there are false shepherds, false religious leaders, greedy economists, phony politicians, even mistaken parents who offer an illusionary world for their children. On the other hand, there is life with no shepherd, being on one’s own, vulnerable and without resources, stumbling from one failed prospect to another.” Today’s story from John and Brueggemann’s call to find the middle way is our invitation as the Church to speak from a place of hope and love that leads to abundant life and an overflowing cup, as it says in Psalm 23, especially with all that is currently happening our world today.
We are called to be a community that tends to the most vulnerable among us, that sees our hopes realized and loves expressed in community, that can stand together in the face of fear and selfishness, and that can proclaim an Affirming, inclusive love that embodies God’s presence as the Good Shepherd, actions sorely needed!
And metaphorically, using the images of Psalm 23, we are called to use the tools of the shepherd, rod and staff, to provide comfort and hope, strength and protection from wild and dangerous beliefs. As the prayer that Jesus taught, the Church is called to provide sustenance, to help with providing daily bread, so that there is not want.
As a Church, we are called to lead others to living water and fresh streams, streams that flow with justice and peace. Even when we walk in paths of shadow and uncertainty, the Church is called to lead us through with light and hope, even against death. We light a candle to stand fast together against all that would destroy and deny life. And the Church is invited to work with others to gather with those who disagree around a table, an abundant table of good things. And then there is anointing and overflowing cups. The church is called to anoint the sick and bless those who are struggling, and to provide an overflowing gift of love and hope.
In today’s world dominated by cynicism and despair, and suspect political and economic actions, the Church is called to speak words of hope and love, to pursue and proclaim kindness and faithful love, to pursue those aims together in a community of embodied hope and compassion.
That’s our collective covenant today, a reminder of our responsibility as leaders in today’s world.
We are the Church, and we act together with hope. Amen.
 Walter Brueggemann, quoted in https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/living-awed-life.