Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
To Hear Your Name- John 10: 1-10 and Psalm 23
Today's scriptures, or the primary metaphors of these scriptures, are familiar to many people. "The Lord is my Shepherd. I shall not want..." How many times have you heard these words? Even people who are actively involved in Jewish or Christian communities have heard these words and know that they are deeply rooted in how our traditions understand God. Even people who don't know anything about sheep or shepherding can hear the sweetness in this relationship: the shepherd makes the sheep lie down in green pastures and leads them by still waters. The good shepherd will lead them down righteous or right paths. In valleys where death is around every corner, the sheep can eat and sleep and drink peacefully, knowing that their shepherd will protect them. Food and drink, safe journeys and physical protection. What more could a sheep want?
While probably the most well known sheep and shepherd passage, this isn't the only scripture where God is a shepherd. In Psalm 78, God leads the people like a shepherd leads sheep and guides them through the dangerous wilderness. In Psalm 95, the author says that Israel is the people of God's pasture and the sheep of God's hand, and calls on Israel to listen to the voice of their shepherd. In the book of Genesis, when Jacob blesses his youngest son Joseph, a man who had been sold into slavery by his brothers as he watched Jacob's flocks, he reminds Joseph that God, too, is a shepherd and the Great Divine shepherd sustained him through all of his trials. Jacob asked that this great Shepherd continue to watch over this most blessed son.
When the prophet Isaiah needs to comfort Israel, it is with a reminder that God is a good shepherd who will feed the flock of Israel... who will carry their lambs like a babe in arms... who will gently lead the new mother sheep. And, when the prophet Ezekiel needs to call out the abusive kings of Israel, he says that God called them terrible, murderous shepherds who take advantage of them of the sheep. God will take God's sheep back from these feckless shepherds, and God will do what is expected of a true shepherd: strengthening the weak, healing the sick, binding up the injured, bringing back the strayed, or seeking the lost.
Just like in Psalm 23, food and drink, safe journeys and physical protection, are what come to mind when we hear in these scriptures that God is a shepherd. I bet these same things came to mind when Jesus' first followers heard stories about God being a shepherd. Like us, they probably remember green pastures and clean waters, healing and protection. It might not have surprised them to hear Jesus talk about God as a Shepherd because this language was part of thir religious tradition and daily lives. What the might not expected was Jesus describing his own ministry as that of a shepherd... well, first a gate and then a shepherd. They saw shepherds all the time? Why would Jesus need to compare himself to a shepherd at this moment in his story? What was going on at this point in the story that they needed to be reminded of what scholar Karoline Lewis called God's provision, protection, and presence in the Good Shepherd?
Lewis thinks we can best understand why Jesus began to use the good shepherd metaphor at this point in chapter 10 of John is to read the healing story in chapter 9. I find her interpretation compelling. You see, Jesus and the disciples had just had a powerful encounter with a man in chapter 9. Jesus needed to figure out how to explain to his disciples what happened in their encounter. He chose the Good Shepherd. I think it's worth it to take a few minutes to hear about the encounter that inspired Jesus.
Jesus and his friends were walking and saw a man who was blind. They knew that he had been blind from birth. This man had no way to get the basic necessities of life except for begging for money and mercy in the streets. Now, the disciples appear to think his blindness was a punishment from God for some sin, either his own or his parents. They were among the many people who think health and wealth are signs of God's love while illness and poverty were signs of God's punishment. They thought that if you lived right, you wouldn't have any pre-existing conditions. That is not how Jesus understands God. Jesus quickly tells them that his blindness is not a punishment from God. In fact, this man's life will come to be one of the clearest examples of God's love during Jesus' ministry.
In the story, Jesus spits... yes, spits on the ground (obviously he's never talked to Miss Manners) and takes the mud he created and wipes it on the man's eyes. Then, he tells the man to go to a particular pool in the city and wash his face. The mand made his way across the city, covered in spit and mud, and washed his face. Suddenly, he was able to see for the first time in his whole life. The people who had known him for years were shocked. They asked him what happened. He told them Jesus happened.
The people brought the Pharisees to see the man. They asked him what happened and he explained how Jesus had healed him. Some Pharisees, more concerned with the letter of the law that forbade acts of healing on the Sabbath than the spirit of the law that allowed for mercy at all times, immediately came to the conclusion that Jesus couldn't have been from God or he wouldn't have flaunted God's sabbath laws. Other Pharisees stood up for this man and for Jesus and said,"well, how could such a miracle be a sin?" They all then asked the man who was healed, "What do you say about Jesus? It was your eyes he opened." The man called Jesus a prophet.
The man is repeatedly interrogated, as is his mother, to see if he is telling the truth. He does not change his story. In fact, he only become more clear in his testimony. He said, "I don't know if Jesus is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see." He said, "if this man (Jesus) were not from God, I don't think he could have healed me." Jesus' critics then doubled down on their understanding of illness as sin, and said this man had obviously been born in sin or he would not been blind. How dare he tell them who's a sinner and who's not. And, then they drive the healed man out of the synagogue.
That's where we begin today's story. Jesus needs to explain to the man, to his disciples, and to the Pharisees what was really happening in this miracle. I think he remembered their shared tradition of God the shepherd and realized that this was a metaphor they'd understand. So he talked about shepherds and pasture gates because he needed to explain to them what Sin was, what righteousness was, and what God wants for all people. Sin is turning away from God's ways. Righteousness is aligning your ways with God's ways. God's ways are the ways of the generous shepherd. Now, remember, what does a good shepherd do? Provide, protect, and be present with the sheep.
Like the shepherd in the Psalms and Isaiah, Jesus, in healing this man, was offering him access to good pastures, safe paths, and cool water, that is, food and drink, safe journeys and physical protection that he did not have ready access to when he was blind. Like the shepherd in Ezekiel, Jesus had sought out this lost and wounded sheep, and restored him to health while the bad shepherds blamed him (or his family) for his illness and cast him from their presence. Like the shepherd in Isaiah, Jesus brought him comfort and healing. Jesus made sure he had truly abundant life, that is, all the basic necessities that he needed to live so that he could begin to thrive. Jesus explains that his own ministry is righteous, aligned with God, because he looks for the lost, feeds the hungry, and tends to those who have been forgotten. He opens the gate to the good pasture and calls to the one's he loves.
We like the man who has been healed, have the opportunity to listen and respond to the shepherd's call. We can recognize righteousness as righteousness, align our ways with God's ways, and work with Christ to shepherd this world. Maybe, if Jesus can be a shepherd and a gate, we can be the sheep and the sheepdogs, tending to flock with our Good Shepherd while we are also part of the flock, making sure all have food and drink, safe journeys and physical protection. After all, Jesus said that he came that all might have life and have it abundantly. As Christ's body, we're part of that provision, too. Where are you hearing Christ calling your name? What do you need to be able to respond?
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon:
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4873
Jaime Clark- Soles: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=67
Elisabeth Johnson: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3244
Karoline Lewis, John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014).
If you are interested in reading some of the other scriptures that use the shepherd metaphor, please refer to this list as compiled in the New Oxford Annotated Bible:
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.