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.
‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.’
Today is called Good Shepherd Sunday. On this Sunday, two texts are often paired together: John 10:11-18 that Seth read earlier in the service and Psalm 23. You might remember the words of Psalm 23. It might have even been one of the first parts of the Bible you ever heard:
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff -
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.
I think it wise to pair these two readings together. Psalm 23 is among the most well-known portions of scripture among Christians. It is well known enough, that if I start reading it, you may say it along with me from memory. And, our text from John is fairly well known in itself. “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” These metaphors for God and for how Jesus functioned as Christ in the world are enduring. Dr. Gennifer Benjamin Brooks, in her commentary on the John text argues that followers of Jesus have been particularly drawn to the image of the shepherd as a way to assure Christ’s followers of his deep, transformative, sacrificial, unending love for them. When people are in the midst of the shadow of death, it is comforting to be reminded of goodness and mercy and safety.
The shadow of death has been long and frightening these days. Our neighbors in India are in the midst of a Covid outbreak and other countries, including our own, are making it difficult for them to access the medication and medical supplies they need. In two weeks, we have learned of several people across the country, including three children, who have been shot and killed by police. We have lost members of our own church unexpectedly, and haven’t been able to gather as we would like because Covid still makes things unsafe. We, ourselves probably need a reminder of goodness and mercy and safety. It’s probably just about the right time for Good Shepherd Sunday.
Several years ago, I came upon the work of Joel LeMon when working on a sermon about Psalm 23. I so appreciate his reading strategy that it seemed worth repeating today, particularly as we look towards scripture for guidance in the midst of several different complicated issues. LeMon encourages us to remember that Psalm 23 is a passage about a journey, not a passage leading us to one stop. The shepherd who watches over the sheep does so on the move. The comfort we are being offered is comfort for a journey.
As you may know, sheep tend to roam all over the place rather than in one orderly line. If you need to move sheep from one place to another, you need someone, and often some dogs, to guide them. The guide, or shepherd, will help them find good paths. LeMon notes that these paths in Psalm 23 don't seem to be hacked out of the wilderness at the moment of travel. The Hebrew indicates that these paths are well-worn tracks. They are full of ruts from carts that have traveled this path many times before you. To move with God is, in some ways, to find the groove that your forbears have made for you, and make the most of this groove to make your own journey easier. There is something communal about the tracks. Your community clears the path for you and you clear the path for those who will follow you. Paths are never cleared by only one person... or one sheep.
One of the things that is difficult about being a sheep is that a lot of other animals want to eat you. When Jesus talked about being a shepherd in our reading from John, he spoke of sheep being attacked by wolves. The Psalmist also spoke of the danger sheep face, noting that death often feels like a shadow over them. But, the shepherd offers protection and safety, finds clear paths, good food, and sacrificing the shepherd’s own safety to tend to the well-being of the sheep. Notice that in both of the readings, the shepherds protect the sheep. That is the mark of a good shepherd.
The end of the Psalm describes a scene of great comfort. The narrator is given a place at the table, even as the enemies, the ones who would devour her, watch in hunger. The narrator is blessed by God, and given abundant drink. In verse 6, a powerful statement of future hope in God, is often translated as "Goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life." LeMon argues that it may even have more powerful meaning. The word that is translated “follow” is more often translated as "pursue." In the world of this Psalm, you will no longer be chased by ones who will devour you. Instead, you will be pursued by goodness and mercy. You will not be devoured by evil. Instead, you will be enveloped by care.
LeMon also suggests another reading of that last verse of Psalm 23: I will live in God's house forever. He argues that a better translation of the Hebrew doesn't mean stopping in one place, God’s house, and being done with things. LeMon, returning to the Hebrew, argues that the word that gets translated as "dwell" maybe better translated as "return." With this possible translation in mind, he suggests we read the line as, "I will continually return to Yahweh's presence my whole life long." Like sheep who continually move between winter and summer pastures, our life is marked less by movement towards a single destination where we stop, and more by our journey with God in search of sustenance and a safe place to grow. God is present, guiding us in both the protected valleys of winter and up high on the windy, green slopes of summer. God, and the other sheep, help us find the paths that lead us to that which sustains us.
With this active, journeying interpretation of Psalm 23 in mind, I can more clearly understand why Jesus would find the image of the shepherd compelling enough to use it to describe his own ministry. As one with a special concern for the most vulnerable in his community and a willingness to call out the powerful when they became wolves, Jesus knew something about living a life pursued by danger. Jesus also knew that the bond between sheep and shepherd was worth the risks of the journey.
In John 10:11-18, Jesus adds some things to the description of a good shepherd that we would do well to remember. In one of her commentaries on this text, scholar Karoline Lewis compiles this list of things a good shepherd does in the book of John. A good shepherd knows his sheep well enough to know their name and calls them by name. Even before today’s reading, elsewhere in the book of John, Jesus did this when he called out the names of Lazarus, when he healed him, and Mary Magdalene, when he showed her that he had risen. As I said earlier, a good shepherd makes sure the sheep are safe, as Jesus did when he left his disciples safe in the garden and gave himself up to the authorities, rather than ask the disciples to hide him away.
Jesus also says that a good shepherd finds his sheep when they are lost, as Jesus found the blind man whom he healed in the scripture just before our reading today and as he found each one of his disciples as they began their ministry together. A good shepherd is willing to risk his life for the safety of his sheep, as Jesus risked the cross in order to bring about a reign of love and justice for God's people. And, Lewis states that a good shepherd will return to the sheep, to bring new ones in the fold, to connected sheep that don’t know one another, and to show them how to return to God's presence, just as Jesus did through his Resurrection and ministry. A good shepherd does so many things. Jesus as The Good Shepherd showed his followers the possibility of abundant, new life, and invited them on the journey to return the world to God's presence.
In the same commentary, Karoline Lewis asks "What is good about a shepherd?" Both Jesus and the Psalmist give us some rich answers to that question. I think most of these responses boil down to one simple idea: The shepherd never leaves the sheep alone. All through the journey, in dark valleys, with wolves bearing down, the shepherd never leaves. Dr. Brooks, who I mentioned earlier in the sermon, pointed out something else, too. A good shepherd brings sheep from different flocks together. The only requirement to be a part of this flock is to follow Jesus there. Difference among the sheep is not a bad thing. In fact, it is a mark of a good shepherd, who can draw and tend to so many sheep. In this time, when some sheep are being devoured and others neglected unto their death, we would do well to remember the shepherd who keeps the sheep safe, and do our part, as the Body of Christ, to make sure the rest of the flock is being cared for.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Joel LeMon: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2372
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3590
Gennifer Benjamin Brooks: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-easter-2/commentary-on-john-1011-18-5
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.