Sunday, May 12, 2019

Better Sheep: Sermon for the 4th Sunday of Easter C (Shepherd Sunday)

We all know today’s psalm. We’ve heard it in movies and on TV shows and at funerals. We've heard it in funerals in movies and on TV. We’ve prayed it in times of stress, or maybe, as I often do, to go to sleep at night. Although most of us go automatically to the KJV of it, with its magisterial language, translators are continually rewording it, trying to get the nuances of the psalm right.

For instance, listen to these different interpretations of the first verse alone:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. (NKJV)
Yahweh is my shepherd; I lack nothing, (New Jerusalem)
O God, You are my shepherd; I shall not be in want. (St. Helena Psalter)
O my Beloved, You are my shepherd, I shall not want; (Nan C. Merrill, Psalms for Praying)
The Lord takes care of me as his sheep; I will not be without any good thing. (Bible in Basic English) 
God is my Shepherd! I don’t need a thing! (The Message)

Just this year, Robert Alter completed his sweeping translation and commentary of the entire Hebrew Scriptures, and his version goes like this:

The Lord is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
In grass meadows He makes me lie down,
by quiet waters guides me.
My life He brings back.
He leads me on pathways of justice
for His name’s sake.
Though I walk in the vale of death’s shadow,
I fear no harm,
For You are with me.
Your rod and Your staff—
It is they that console me.
You set out a table before me
in the face of my foes.
You moisten my head with oil,
my cup overflows.
Let but goodness and kindness pursue me
all the days of my life.
And I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
for many long days.(1)

The image of the shepherd who is devoted to his or her flock is an image for leadership and governance throughout scriptures. When it is applied to God, it becomes yet another startling metaphor for its listeners, who knew that shepherds were humble folk, and most of the time when we think of God, “humble” doesn’t immediately come to mind. But maybe it should.

Too often, we think of God and emphasize might, power, vengeance. Smiting. I love that scene in Bruce Almighty when an infuriated Bruce yells up at heaven, “Smite me, O mighty SMITERRR!” Of course, he then gets smacked by a semi, but only so that he and God can have a talk—so he will stop bleating long enough to listen TO the Shepherd’s voice.

God’s insistence on being associated with the concerned, caring shepherd who knows us intimately and loves us deeply is one that we need to hear and treasure no matter how many times we have heard those words in the 23rd Psalm or every year during the Great 50 Days of Easter. Notice, though, that God goes from being talked about in the third person to be addressed personally in the second parson a third of the way in. This is a personal relationship. But you’ll notice that the relationship isn’t just one way—it’s up to the sheep to follow the shepherd, not wander too far off, listen when he or she calls.

I have written daily prayers for nearly every day for almost seven years now, and several times I have written prayers based on the 23rd Psalm. One of the ones that I have written that has gotten shared the most is this one, because I wrote it with that mutual nature of the relationship in mind:

O Lord, You are our shepherd;
help us to be better sheep.

When You give us green pastures,
help us to be grateful and not refuse to eat.

When You lead us beside still waters,
help us quiet our souls and be refreshed.

When our cups run over,
help us not to obsess about the mess
but shout for joy at the abundance
you give us always. 

When You lead us to right pathways,
help us not to be hardheaded and go astray.

When we are in the darkest valley,
help us to remember that You are ALWAYS with us.

When you spread a table before us
in the presence of our enemies,
help us invite them to join us,
that their hearts may be turned by love.

Help us to stop bleating long enough
to hear Your voice calling us to You.

May we remember that your goodness and mercy
follow all of us all the days of our lives.

In our gospel reading, we again hear Jesus describe his followers as sheep—last week, Jesus told Peter three times to care for or feed Jesus’s sheep as a sign of Peter’s love for Jesus. Sheep that know their shepherd’s voice and recognize it as the voice of one who will do anything to save them. We NEED to remember that—especially when we feel lost, or not good enough. The voice of the one who loves us is always calling for us, but especially at times like those.

I love that image of the shepherd—because it’s another metaphor for God that isn’t necessarily male. In fact, it definitely has a certain mothering quality to it, one I hope we have all experienced and we have all emulated for someone else in our lives, whether we are actual mothers or not, whether our mothers are with us or not, whether our mothers were always there for us or not. Hearing the voice of love, with tender love and care, calling us back from where we have gotten lost.

So I have a story to share. I had just transferred from the middle school to the high school, and was asked to come up early in the summer to meet with some of my colleagues to discuss some curricular matters. But I had no one to watch my kids, so I brought them with me. Of course, one of them wandered off while I was in another room for a couple of minutes. And I didn’t know the building. Practically no staff was there. It was a brutally hot day. So after making sure that there was no pool in which my child could drown, I began going all over the building looking high and low for my child, while my one colleague watched my other two kids.

It seemed to go on forever. I went around the building on the outside (106 degrees!) and on the inside, calling my child’s name. I was finally at the point where I was going to call the police. There was one hallway that I had already been in, and it was hot because the air conditioning was shut off in it. Surely she wouldn’t have gone in there—it was miserable. I called my child’s name… and heard a tiny, reedy noise. But I knew that voice. My child knew my voice—and I knew hers. She had gotten locked in at the end of the hallway and could not get out of the stairwell, and thankfully wasn’t strong enough to open the door to the outside, where there was construction and traffic and a quarry beyond the back fence. I was so grateful-- and furious-- but mostly grateful.

When I finally got to my child, I asked her why she hadn’t answered me, and she said she hadn’t heard me because she was so busy calling my name. My much louder voice had cancelled hers out, but she kept calling me, because she knew I would not give up. And, oh, the relief once I had found her. She was my child.

The next morning as I was praying the Daily Office, I was struck by this image in verse 7 of Psalm 95:
For he is our God,
and we are the people of his pasture,
and the sheep of his hand.
O that today you would listen to his voice!

It is through the Shepherd’s voice that we are saved—together, as one flock, supporting each other. Salvation means being protected in the hand of Jesus, to be in his grip, never to be snatched away or pried loose. And we can support each other in trusting in that promise, in having faith enough to share when others are faltering.

This being what is known as “Shepherd Sunday,” we are reminded that Jesus’s sheep know him and his voice, the same way my daughter knew my voice even behind two locked doors. But this recognition works both ways. Jesus knows his sheep—and the sheep know Jesus. The joy that Jesus feels when some of his lost sheep are returned to him, as he describes in Luke 15:4-7, always makes me think of that tear-filled little voice echoing down a hot hallway after being lost for what felt like an eternity.

Maybe some of us don’t have these feeling of being lost—but I know many of us do, at one time or another. We may let our sense of loss and sometimes shame keep us from being able to listen to that loving voice of our shepherd calling to us, loving us no matter what. That’s one of the roles that communities of faith play—they aren’t a place where we are expected to be perfect. They are meant to be a place where we feel safe enough to come as we are, confess where we have gone astray, and then help each other hear that loving voice calling us back home.

As I continue to grieve the loss of Rachel Held Evans, I have been rereading her works, and this is what she says about that tendency we have to let the bleating voice drown out the voice of welcome, of love, and forgiveness that our shepherd uses to call to us. She talked about the blessing that communities of faith play in being supportive and safe, in accepting each other but also encouraging each other at the same time. In Searching for Sunday, she wrote:

We Christians don’t get to send our lives through the rinse cycle before showing up to church. We come as we are—no hiding, no acting, no fear. We come with our materialism, our pride, our petty grievances against our neighbors, our hypocritical disdain for those judgmental people in the church next door. We come with our fear of death, our desperation to be loved, our troubled marriages, our persistent doubts…. We come with our addictions—to substances, to work, to affirmation, to control, to food. We come with our differences, be they political, theological, racial, or socioeconomic. We come in search of sanctuary, a safe place to shed the masks and exhale.(2)

Many of us have experienced times when we have felt that God is far from us. Or we may feel that way due to the scars and wounds the world has inflicted upon us. We may feel unloved and unlovable, and treat ourselves as disposable- or allow others to treat us that way. It’s important to remember though, that it is not God who has wandered off.

A shepherd waterspout in Paris
But if we still ourselves, if we can stop our tremulous crying out just for a moment, we can hear the voice of the One Who Loves Us calling to us, welcoming us home, assuring us that we can never be snatched out of his hand, not even by our own wandering away, not even by the hurts that the world may inflict upon us. None of that matters. Listen-- the voice of Love calls to us, and holds us fast within his hand.

O Lord, You are our shepherd;
help us to be better sheep
And to listen for your voice.


Preached at the 505 on May 11, and the 8:00 and the 10:15 on May 12, 2019, at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Ellisville.

Psalm 23
John 10:22-30

(1) Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary, vol 3, The Writings, pp. 70-71.
(2) Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church, p. 77.

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