Lost Sheep

“Lost Sheep”

Matt 9-36 sheep, shepherd people

Matthew 9:35-10:1 (9:36) – June 14, 2020

In college, I can remember times when I heard fiery sermons about missionaries, and about how God provided the world as a harvest field for the followers of Jesus. I can remember how the preacher would thunder “the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few! Pray that the Lord will send out many into God’s harvest fields!”

I attended a Christian college, and I did hear a number of sermons like that. Yes, that Bible reading is from Matthew 9:37. Perfectly appropriate for preachers to take this verse and highlight it in a sermon meant to urge people to go out to the mission field. The very next verse is where our Lord Jesus chooses the 12 disciples, and commissions them to go out into the villages and towns and heal, preach and do just what Jesus had been doing.

However, when I read these verses from Matthew to prepare a sermon for today, I was drawn to the previous verse, verse 36. When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”

I am NOT going to focus on the harvest being plentiful, and the workers being few – in that case, this would be a very mission-oriented sermon. I do preach mission-oriented sermons when I feel God leading me that way, but for this Scripture reading at this particular time, I see a different picture. Instead of God sending followers out into the world, I see Jesus full of compassion and caring. I see Jesus as a loving Shepherd, caring for His lost sheep who don’t even know they are without a shepherd.

Many, many people around the country have not been in physical contact with anyone else for a long, long time. In some cases, for months. People are still suffering from social isolation, from limited and limiting conversation from behind a mask, at a socially-acceptable distance of six feet—or more. Have you felt isolated and alone? Have any of your extended family, or loved ones, or friends been in that situation? Jesus would be able to give you a hug, for sure. As a Shepherd, Jesus would certainly lift up and carry little lambs in His arms.

Can you imagine how comforting that would feel, to be held in the arms of our Lord Jesus? What a wonderful feeling, to be protected and made secure by our Heavenly Shepherd.

For those who did not know, I am in the middle of a 4-part community video series involving the recent months, the pandemic and the shelter-in-place order in Illinois. This series is in collaboration with the Morton Grove Chamber of Commerce. I am the host and narrator for the project, and we are very grateful to the Village of Morton Grove and associated departments for all their help in making this series a reality.

As I think back a month, to the beginnings of this idea for a video series, it all started with a conversation. Or rather, two conversations, with Father Dennis and with Mark, the Director of the Chamber of Commerce. In both, we talked about how disconnected and discouraged many people felt. All three of us – Father Dennis, Mark, and I – had many people sharing with us how disheartened they were, for a number of reasons, all stemming from the pandemic, the shelter-in-place, and the social isolation that gripped so many across our nation.

Which leads me back again to this verse from Matthew 9:36, where the Rabbi Jesus spoke of compassion, and nurture, and how Jesus cares for each of us as His sheep. Jesus did not just preach from a pulpit, or up front on a raised platform, separated from all the other sheep—I mean, people. No, Jesus had compassion on these lost sheep.

Jesus felt such love and compassion towards these members of the house of Israel, He felt it deep down to his “splachna,” down to His guts, or bowels. According to the original Greek, in the first century, to be moved right down to one’s bowels was to be moved with compassion, or to have compassion inside. The bowels – or guts – were thought to be the seat of love and pity at that time. This expression denotes the very heart of Jesus’ understanding and personhood.

With Jesus, His compassion was not impersonal or disembodied. He did not simply see abstract problems that could be explained away. Instead, Jesus had compassion on real people. He saw each individual, the real self inside, and considered each one worthy of compassion and care. To know that someone has seen the real self, hidden underneath and still manages to love and accept us. What a profound difference that makes in our lives, in our hearts, in our self-image. Can we do less when we seek to engage the community around us?” [1]

What an earth-shattering thing, for Jesus to see us, to know us deeply, down to our hearts. We can praise God for this wonderful certainty, even as we are in the midst of such anxiety and fear. As a community, we can gather together to name our stresses and losses, and to grieve and mourn. Yet, Jesus shows us how to have compassion on ourselves and on others.

Morton Grove and the surrounding neighborhoods are finding resilience, togetherness, hope and even joy. Praise God for the example of our Lord Jesus. We can join (virtual) hands in community. Is there any better, more holy calling than to make friends with everyone we meet?

Remember, God loves everyone, no matter who. And, we might be surprised at who becomes our new friend in the Lord as we show compassion, too.

[1] https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship-planning/open-our-eyes/second-sunday-after-pentecost-year-a-lectionary-planning-notes/second-sunday-after-pentecost-year-a-preaching-notes

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Calling by Name

“Calling by Name”

John 10 parable-of-the-good-shepherd_lg

John 10:1-10 (10:3-4) – May 3, 2020

Have you ever felt lost? Lonely? Like everything was dark and stormy? I know I have, from time to time. Especially right now in this time of the coronavirus pandemic, that is the big difficulty with being separated from our friends and from one another: we run the risk of feeling lost and alone.

On a number of occasions, our Lord Jesus talked about being lost and alone—or rather, about being found, about living in community, in a group. Several times in the different Gospels, Jesus compares Himself to a Shepherd. Our Scripture reading today from John chapter 10 is one of those situations.

This is familiar territory, a common metaphor in the Bible. God is the Shepherd, and the nation of Israel is the flock of sheep. Though most of us today in suburban Chicago don’t know much about farm animals, this topic was an everyday subject to the people listening to Jesus. In villages and small towns, most families had a few sheep or goats. There were a few shepherds who would take all the animals from the different townspeople’s houses out of town to pasture.

As Jesus taught the people, He made sure to give a detailed account of the bad things that could threaten the sheep. Thieves and robbers sometimes waited to grab a lamb. They might even lie in wait to come over the wall of a sheepfold at night, and steal a couple of sheep away. That was one important reason for the shepherd to guard the sheep and sleep across the entrance to the sheep’s pen at night. In other words, to serve as the door for the sheep.

I know many today are fearful and anxious at such an uncertain time. Some people do not even want to hear another word about the topics of coronavirus and COVID-19. Radio, television and other social media have broadcast every variation of news about the pandemic for many weeks. Are coronavirus and COVID-19 robbers and thieves of our peace and security? Do these fearful and very real threats seek to heighten danger to all the people? All the sheep? These are things for all of us to think about and ponder in our hearts.

I attended a number of intensive summer seminars taught by the retired professor and Presbyterian pastor the Rev. Dr. Kenneth Bailey. Sadly, he died four years ago, but he greatly enriched the general understanding of Christianity and the Bible. He drew upon his many decades of familiarity with the culture and practices of the Middle East, and strongly encouraged his readers to view the Biblical texts through a Middle Eastern cultural lens.

In his book The Good Shepherd, John chapter 10 is one of the chapters in the Bible Ken Bailey tells us about. As he so often does, Dr. Bailey gives example after example of Middle Eastern accounts, described in the reading. A Syriac bishop from the 12th century discusses the thieves and robbers coming after his sheep—his parishioners—so realistically. [1] I almost was persuaded that he was describing evil and greedy fake ministers of today, out to “fleece” the unsuspecting sheep who were shepherded by the Syrian bishop Ibn-al-Salibi.

As this book describes the voice of the Shepherd, we come to see how the sheep quickly learn to recognize their own Shepherd’s voice. Even though there are other shepherds in the same area, the Good Shepherd’s sheep hear that distinctive voice and follow the one they know.

“But, wait!” you say. “Other voices might be just as loud,” or “Other noise can drown the Good Shepherd out.” Perhaps, even, the sheep get confused or anxious or downright lost, and wander away from their Shepherd. What then? What about a situation like right now, in a pandemic, where lots of fear, anxiety, emotional and economic uncertainty, worry, grieving and mourning distract us from the voice of our Good Shepherd? What about loss of jobs, loss of homes, loss of loved ones, loss of all kinds of things people hold dear?

Jesus, our Good Shepherd, knows about every situation. Nothing surprises Him. Jesus will stay by our sides and walk with us through each scary situation, each grief-filled event, and each dark valley we cross.

I know—from experience—the malicious, nagging murmur in my ear that says, “Why should the Shepherd want to call me? I’m not important. He probably does not even have a name for me, let alone know who I am.” The Syriac bishop has an answer for that. Reaching across the centuries to reach us today, Bishop Ibn-al-Salibi tells us “The shepherd expresses his true knowledge of [the sheep] by calling their names. For the one who calls another by name makes clear that he knows him.” [2]

Just think. Our Lord Jesus describes Himself as the Good Shepherd. Jesus knows the name of each of His sheep. It isn’t just a “Hey, you!” or “What’s your name?” No! Jesus calls each of us, His sheep, by personal name. Jesus knows each of us so well, He knows everything about us. And, what’s more, He still loves us!

Praise God, just as the risen Christ called Mary by name in the garden that Easter morning, so Jesus calls each of us by name. I rejoice in the knowledge that I am a much beloved sheep of our Good Shepherd. We all have a beloved relationship with Jesus! Each one of us is His dear sheep—we can trust Jesus’s word on it. Praise God! Alleluia, amen.

 

[1] Bailey, Kenneth E., The Good Shepherd (InterVarsity Academic: United States of America, 2014), 216-17.

[2] Bailey, Kenneth E., 218.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

For the Sheep

“For the Sheep”

John 10:11-18 (10:11) – April 22, 2018

Jesus Good Shepherd_BnF_Ethiopien_389_fol_1v

The Bible often talks about sheep. Sheep in a sheep fold. All we like sheep. The sheep and the shepherd. The nation Israel is like sheep. The followers of our Lord Jesus are like sheep. We can follow the repeated illustrations of sheep and a shepherd in many places in the Bible, in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. Just like in today’s scripture readings.

The words of Jesus can be a bit puzzling to both children and adults. We as adults can figure out what Jesus is saying here in chapter 10 of the Gospel of John. We have more developed brains and we can figure out what Jesus means by the metaphor “I am the Good Shepherd.“ Jesus is like a Good Shepherd, and we are like sheep.

But, what makes a shepherd “good?”

Jesus gives us further information in His description about what a Good Shepherd is not. A good shepherd is not a hired hand, since a hired hand doesn’t own the sheep. And so, he does not truly care about the sheep. If the hired hand is watching the sheep, a wolf might come and attack and scatter the flock. A hired hand will probably run away and leave the flock unprotected. So, the hired hand is most definitely not a Good Shepherd.

I go back to my initial question: what makes a shepherd “good?” For a more complete answer to that question, we need to take a close look at Psalm 23, our psalm reading for today. Remember, we are still trying to figure out what makes a shepherd “good.”

Our description from King David lets us know more about what makes a shepherd “good.” As sheep, we might be unsure about where we will find grass to eat, especially in a semi-arid region like most of the country of Israel. Yet, our Good Shepherd knows where there are places with grass to eat; we as sheep will feel safe enough to lie down in green pastures.

What else makes a shepherd “good?” When flocks of sheep are wandering around the fields and foothills of many dry places in Israel, sometimes it is difficult finding places to get water. A quickly rushing stream is not a place where sheep like to drink, since they can get hurt or swept away by the swiftly moving water. Yet, the Good Shepherd can lead His sheep to pools of still water, where they can safely drink.

Even today, we can ask similar questions. What makes a Shepherd “Good?” Dangers and problems can crop up today, at any time, among Jesus’s sheep, too. Will I have enough to eat or drink? What about a quiet place to live? Will the place where I live be safe? Or, will there be wolves and other nasty creatures wandering in my general area?

One of the earliest known depictions of Jesus in early church art is found in the Roman catacombs, under the ancient city. One of my favorite commentators, Carolyn Brown, tells us that “The catacombs are narrow, twisting underground tunnels.  The walls are filled floor to ceiling with graves that have been dug out of them.  They are dark and spooky.” [1]

Carolyn Brown suggests that we imagine we are walking quietly through the catacombs with a small oil lamp to find Christian friends who are gathering to worship by a designated grave. Can you hear the clank or crunch of Roman soldiers’ armor or boots? Christianity was an illegal religion. Christians were often hiding or on the run from the authorities. Since this was the case, it is easy to imagine why someone painted on the catacomb ceiling a picture of Jesus as a strong young shepherd who would take care of them.

What does a Good Shepherd look like, to you?

Jesus expands on this illustration of the Good Shepherd. The people of His time lived mostly in villages or small towns. Even if they worked doing other things, I suspect almost all of them were familiar with sheep, lambs and shepherds. I bet they had some ideas about what made a “good shepherd,” and what a “bad shepherd” looked like, too.

Even though today we might not be very familiar with the job of a shepherd, we still know how safe we feel when someone truly cares for us and looks out for our best interests. We still understand when someone protective stands guard and watches out for enemies so we can feel secure. We still appreciate when someone loving goes out of his or her way to search for a lost sheep when we wander away or get hurt or are in distress.

Jesus wanted to get across the idea of how much He cared for His sheep—that’s all of us. Jesus not only compares us to sheep (a biblical illustration repeated several times in the Hebrew Scriptures), but He tells us just what a hired hand does with the sheep. Or rather, Jesus tells us that the hired hand just runs away. The sheep would then be deserted and alone, liable to be attacked and perhaps eaten by wild animals.

Except, our Lord Jesus will not run away. Instead, He will care for the sheep, feed and water them, and lead them in good places. Jesus will not allow them to stray, but instead will lovingly protect and guard the flock.

As commentator Lucy Lind Hogan says, “To be [Jesus’s] followers was to enter into his sheepfold. He came to be the one who cared for and fed them.  It was a dangerous job; protecting the sheep from wolves and bandits. As the good shepherd Jesus had not only to be willing to, he did, lay down his life for the sheep that God had given him.” [2]

What does our Good Shepherd look like? How do we know when we have found Him?

And, is it possible that Jesus loves us so much that He gave His life for us? That He laid down His life for the sheep God had given Him? Jesus goes further in this reading from John 10, even further than King David in Psalm 23. Jesus not only cares for the sheep, and loves them, but He even dies for them. Gives up His life for the sheep.

Similarly, we lay down our lives every time we set aside what we want to take care of the needs of others.  We all need to hear Jesus’ insistence that if He lays down his life He can take it up again.  Giving up what you want once does not mean you will never get it or that you will always be called on to give up what you want.  Adults have learned that, but it takes a while for children to learn it, too. [3]

I said earlier that some people, young children especially, have a problem understanding metaphors. When Jesus said “I am the Good Shepherd,” that can be one of those hard sayings.

When Dr. Maria Montessori was working in a children’s hospital “she found that when she told sick children stories about the Good Shepherd using small wooden figures, they almost all grabbed the figure [of the Good Shepherd] and held onto it “for keeps.”  So the Good Shepherd made sense to them in some way.” [4] Jesus our Good Shepherd is able to come alongside of all of us, too. We are able to take hold of His hand, “for keeps.”

We know today Jesus loves us so much He gave His life for us. How much did Jesus love us? He loves us this much. [spreads arms wide]

Alleluia, amen.

[1] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2015/03/year-b-fourth-sunday-of-easter-april-26.html

Worshiping with Children, Easter 4, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2015.

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1239

Commentary, John 10:11-18, Lucy Lind Hogan, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2012.

[3] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2015/03/year-b-fourth-sunday-of-easter-april-26.html

Worshiping with Children, Easter 4, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2015.

[4] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

 

Compassion for People in Need

Matthew 9:35-38 (9:36) – July 9, 2017

Matt 9-36 compassion, words

“Compassion for People in Need”

Who do we know today who comes to help people in need? Our Lord Jesus talked about sheep and shepherds in our Gospel message today. If you were to think of a modern example of a shepherd—someone who guides, protects, and cares—what or who comes to mind, especially in our neighborhood?

Let’s hold that thought in our minds and hear what Jesus said again. Jesus traveled all around the wider area, teaching in all of the local places of worship, the synagogues. As He went from place to place proclaiming the Good News, Jesus had compassion for the crowds, who were milling around aimlessly like sheep without a shepherd.

Taking a closer look at these bible verses, I think I know what “compassion” is, but I wanted to see what a proper, in-depth word study on the word “compassion” had to say. According to one word study, “Com-passio literally means to “suffer with.”  In Latin, com means “with” and passio means “to suffer.”  “Passion” is suffering, which is why we talk about “the Passion of Christ” during Holy Week.” [1]

In other words, Jesus was suffering with His fellow Israelites while He was traveling around the country. Jesus saw them hurting, and His heart went out to them. “True love … involves suffering.  Suffering is an inevitable consequence of the deep joy that comes with binding oneself to the heart and soul of another.” [2]

Our Gospel lesson from Matthew said Jesus “had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” We are going to take a tour through the Bible, tracing these words and these terms. This description using the word “compassion” and the term “sheep without a shepherd” is awfully similar to a description from the Hebrew Scriptures in Ezekiel 34. Picture this: the prophet said the nation of Israel is seen as sheep scattered over the mountains without a shepherd, lost, in danger. Sound familiar?

I understand that sheep are dumb animals. This word image is used over and over in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. Herding and keeping the sheep together is a big concern with sheep. Without someone to guide them, they move about aimlessly. They get lost. They wander off and often pay little attention to what is going on around them, especially dangers and difficulty. “This is the spiritual state of the people in today’s passage, and we see that in Jesus’s actions to teach the people. “ [3]

I would like to return to the word “compassion.” We looked at the Latin roots of that word, but the Gospel of Matthew was written in Greek. If we take a closer look at what the Greek word “compassion” means, we see the word splagchna, which appears in the letter to the Philippians. The Apostle Paul’s words in the King James Version say: “I long after you all with the bowels of Jesus Christ.”  The word splagchna means “bowels” – literally, the innards in your belly.  It’s an earthy image that might offend some.

“The people of the ancient world believed that all of the most intense feelings originated in the belly.  For them, “guts” did not mean “courage,” but depth of feeling.  It’s easy for us to understand why they would believe that, because when we feel anxious or afraid, our stomachs churn.  Our lower innards give away how much we are affected by our circumstances.  Splagchna oiktirmou means something like “’the bowels of deep feeling.’” [4]

We are talking about Jesus feeling deep feelings right down to His guts. Literally.

We have some vivid images here. Lost, defenseless sheep. Jesus feeling deep feelings for those sheep, right down to the bowels of deep feeling. Right down to His guts.

But, Jesus does not leave those lost sheep defenseless, afraid and isolated. No! He has recruited helpers. Shepherds sometimes have assistants or guard dogs that help them with their job. If you were to think of a modern example of a shepherd—someone who guides, protects, and cares—what or who comes to mind, especially in our neighborhood?

Think of an accident or a fire. Or, someone getting lost, especially a child. Who shows up? Who are the first people on the spot in an emergency situation? I was thinking of police officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians, and other first responders. What about people like social workers, trauma workers, and the medical team from a hospital’s emergency department or intensive care unit? They protect, guide and care for people in trouble, today.

That is the depth, the enormity of what our Lord Jesus was thinking of, in this reading today. In observing his fellow people of Israel, He was moved with compassion down to His guts, His “innards.”

And, what was Jesus’s compassionate response? Jesus did what He could to meet their spiritual needs—with salvation!

If we were to see a child running ahead of their parents or caregiver down the sidewalk, and that child went toward a busy street, what would any sensible person do? They would run to save the child, and stop him or her from running out in traffic. That’s what Jesus wants to do here, in our Scripture passage.

Let’s think about us, today. We are described as sheep. I own that. I realize that I am sometimes stubborn as a sheep. I sometimes wander off, blithely going in my own direction, away from the way that I know God wants me to go. And, sometimes I get lonely and lost. I get turned around and don’t know the way back to my home, to that safe place where people love me, care for me, and are concerned for my welfare. Does anyone else relate to these deep, anxious, lonely feelings? Are there some other sheep out there, in this congregation?

Jesus offers us salvation. He offers us the opportunity to become a sheep in His flock, a lamb in His tender care. Jesus is doing this out of the compassion of His heart, just as He did for His fellow countrymen, the fellow Jews in the country of Israel. Remember, Jesus saw the people as lost, alone, without direction.

How has Jesus been a shepherd for you, in your life? Either today, recently, or at a time when you really needed it? Has Jesus cared for someone close to you, for a loved one or a dear friend? Jesus is doing this out of the compassion, the deep feeling of His “innards.”

What is more, Jesus offers us the opportunity to show compassion to each other. We can show our friends, our loved ones, even absolute strangers the same compassion. We all know that feeling when we feel anxious or afraid, when our stomachs churn.  Our lower innards give away how much we are affected by our circumstances.  That is how deeply we are to feel with compassion! We are urged to go out of our way and care for others.

Can you think of ways in which you can show compassion this week? Nothing would make our God happier than to have us walk in our Lord Jesus’s steps and show compassion to others, today, and every day.

Alleluia, amen.

 

[1] Compassion in the New Testament (Part 1) http://www.jmarklawson.com/traveling-in-place/2012/03/compassion-in-the-new-testament-part-1.html

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/sheep-without-shepherd/  Ligonier Ministries – The Teaching Fellowship of R.C. Sproul

[4] Compassion in the New Testament (Part 1) http://www.jmarklawson.com/traveling-in-place/2012/03/compassion-in-the-new-testament-part-1.html 

(A heartfelt thank you to An Illustrated Compassion: Learning to Love Like God. Many of these sermon ideas and thoughts came directly from this series.  I appreciate this intergenerational curriculum, which is the basis for my summer sermon series on compassion. This curriculum comes from Illustrated Children’s Ministry. Thanks so much for such great ideas!)

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Green Pastures, Quiet Waters

Psalm 23:2, John 10:4 – May 7, 2017

John 14 Good Shepherd, stained glass

“Green Pastures, Quiet Waters”

If I mention images of sheep and green pastures, what comes to your mind, on that video screen in your head? For some people, it might be something on the Nature channel on cable television, with verdant, green grass and gently rolling hills, dotted with fluffy white sheep. For others, it’s a painting at an art museum, with lush green meadows under brilliant blue skies. Again, dotted with sheep feeding on that green grass.

In Psalm 23, our psalm writer is King David. He is writing about his youth as a shepherd for his father’s sheep, long before he ever became king. That time as a shepherd must have been vivid in his mind, because David’s poetic description of sheep and shepherd remains one of the most striking, beloved, and relatable passages in the Bible, in either the Hebrew Scriptures or the New Testament.

Here is another way of saying the first verse of Psalm 23: Because the Lord is my Shepherd, I have everything that I need.

Wait, that makes me a sheep, and sheep are not particularly intelligent. Now, I am okay with that. As I have said in the past, this is a common analogy in the Bible. The nation of Israel is referred to as sheep several times in the Hebrew Scriptures. Different biblical writers refer to people who believe in God as sheep. Several times in the Gospels—as in our Gospel passage from John 10, today—Jesus talks about Himself as Shepherd, and His followers as sheep.

I figure God must know a few things about people, being the Creator of the Universe, and all. Since God uses this common analogy of sheep and shepherd so many times in the Bible, and since sheep have been known to be stubborn and timid and sometimes even foolish, I guess I might have a few things in common with sheep. Maybe you do, too.

Sheep need stuff. They need grass, water, nurture, and protection against enemies. They depend on their Shepherd to provide all of these things for them. But, what if there is no Shepherd? What if there is no one to provide all of this good stuff for us—I mean, for sheep?

Sometimes bible study leaders and bible teachers have their students do an exercise. They write a reverse psalm. That is, writing the reverse of what the verses say. One of the bible commentators I read used this process. She said, “I’ve been led in this process, and led my Bible Study in it. At first you might ask, ‘Why do it this way?’ But, especially when in a group, reading back all the hopeless examples of our life without God, we see the power of this psalm more clearly.” [1]

I’m going to read just the first few verses of Psalm 23, written in reverse. It was written by a then-15 year old named Anna Thompson.

“I have no shepherd, I need a shepherd./I am caught in the desert.
I am thirsty/and no one is telling me where to go.
I am lost and no one cares./I am scared of evil, because I am alone.”  [2]

This is truly a hopeless example of our life without God! What would happen to a few little sheep, huddling in the wilderness or the desert, with no one to guide them, take care of them, or to shepherd them? I don’t think they would last very long. Some predator might come along and have some lamb and mutton for dinner. That’s what probably would happen. This is a far cry from the green pastures and the quiet waters the psalm describes for us, and quite different from the Good Shepherd who supplies our wants and needs.

Jesus takes this image of sheep and a Shepherd from Psalm 23, and enlarges on it.

Notice what is not mentioned in either Psalm 23 or John 10. Is there any mention of the sheep needing all the stuff we see on television? I must have this new outfit or latest electronic gadget or trendy pair of shoes. I absolutely need to be healthy, beautiful, entertained, wealthy and successful. No, neither of these bible readings have anything of the kind.

Psalm 23 has a basic set of wants that “the shepherd provides for his sheep. That list includes food, drink, tranquility, rescue when lost, freedom from the fear of evil and death, a sense of being surrounded by the grace of the Lord, and a permanent dwelling place in the house of God. An ever-rising mountain of material possessions is not on the list.” [3]

.           Let’s think about the reverse psalm again. I have no shepherd. I am caught in the desert. I am thirsty. I am lost. I am all alone.

Doesn’t that hit you right in the gut? Hopeless, helpless, life without God. Where are You, God? I’m all alone out here, and I am lost and scared!

One of my favorite commentators is Carolyn Brown, a Christian educator who’s worked with children for decades. She writes about the Bible and our worship being filled with metaphors. We try to help children understand them “when we carefully explore the details of a few key ones, expecting them to become familiar with the concrete part of the metaphor and some of the spiritual realities it embodies, but not fully making the connection until later [when they are older].  The Good Shepherd is definitely one of those key metaphors. [Doctor and educator] Maria Montessori reports that while working in a children’s hospital she found that when she told sick children stories about the Good Shepherd using small wooden figures, they almost all grabbed the figure and held onto it ‘for keeps.’” [4]

It doesn’t matter if we are talking about the Shepherd of Psalm 23, or the Good Shepherd of John 10. The Shepherd helps the sheep to feel safe, to feel protected and full, able to rest and feel content. Not to feel hungry, thirsty, frightened, lost and alone.

In our Gospel reading this morning, Jesus adds something to the picture of the Good Shepherd that is not in the 23rd Psalm. Jesus talks about the sheep knowing the Shepherd’s voice. That means whether sheep are in green pastures or brown ones, in the desert or high in the hills, the sheep will recognize the shepherd’s voice and call. As Jesus said, “When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.”

In Palestine, in the mid 1930’s, a village near Haifa had some internal conflict. The occupying British soldiers confiscated all the villagers’ animals and put them in a central pen, mixing them all up. The animals’ owners were permitted to redeem their animals, if they could identify them. An orphan shepherd boy whose only possessions were six sheep and goats came to the officer in charge, and asked for his animals. The officer ridiculed the idea that the shepherd boy could possibly pick out his “little flock” from among the hundreds of animals in the pen. The shepherd boy had his pipe and gave his own “call”—his unique call for his animals. “His own” separated from all the others and trotted out around him. [5]

The sheep know the Shepherd. They follow the Good Shepherd’s voice, and willingly go with Him to green pastures, and by the quiet waters. Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and He will be with us in green pastures as well as desert places, by quiet waters as well as in thirsty times. And, Jesus will walk with us through those dark and scary valleys of the shadow, too.

Even when we walk though the valley of the shadow more than we like, praise God, our Good Shepherd will always be there beside us, to help, nourish, protect and nurture us.

Yes, I am a sheep. I freely admit that.

I know if the Good Shepherd is my Shepherd, surely His goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

[1] http://bethquick.blogspot.de/2011/05/lectionary-notes-for-fourth-sunday-of.html

[2] Psalm 23: “I Have No Shepherd” https://re-worship.blogspot.com/2011/05/psalm-23-i-have-no-shepherd.html

[3] Bailey, Kenneth E., The Good Shepherd (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2014), 39.

[4] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2014/03/year-fourth-sunday-of-easter-may-11-2014.html

Worshiping with Children, Easter 4A, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2014. 2011.

[5] Bishop, Eric F. F., Jesus of Palestine (London: Lutterworth, 1955), 297-98. Quoted by Kenneth E. Bailey in The Good Shepherd, 42.

 

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)