good shepherd redux – a sermon for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost

preachinga sermon, based on Jeremiah 23.1-6, Psalm 23, and Mark 6:30-34, 53-56, preached with the people of St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church, Spartanburg, SC, on Sunday, July 19, 2015

Each year, on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, we read a passage from the tenth chapter of John. Our focus. Jesus, the Good Shepherd; the One who leads us into the good pasture of eternal life. An appropriate theme in our deepening Eastertide exploration of the meaning of the resurrection.

shepherd and sheep

Today’s scripture texts are laden with sheep and shepherd references, thus the sermon title, Good Shepherd Redux. Looking anew at this theme serves to remind us that we need shepherds; those who guide and guard us, the sheep.

I don’t mean to infer that we are quadrupedal, cud-chewing mammals (although regarding the former, we all did crawl before we could stand on two feet and walk!). I do mean to suggest that our human behavior, in many ways, demonstrably resembles that of sheep. We, as they, are created with an innate desire, an inborn need to congregate, to be in relationship with others. We, like sheep, tend to become stressed when separated from our flock, our people, whether those given to us by birth or claimed by us by choice (as the relational proverb goes, our dearest friends are the family we would have chosen had we been able to choose). We, like sheep, especially in a world writ large with uncertainty and insecurity, tend to dwell and remain in accustomed surroundings, our familiar pastures, and to gravitate toward stable structures. It’s all about seeking clarity, for we, like sheep, at the threat of danger or change, often take flight, whether physically or emotionally or both. Finally, we, like sheep, are sentient creatures. Knowing little, nothing of sheep husbandry, I used to think that sheep were unintelligent. Cute and cuddly, yes, but, in their frequently panicky behavior, unreasoned, dumb! However, in my reading, I’ve discovered that sheep recognize and remember animal and human faces and respond to voices and given names; rendering renewed meaning to Jesus’ testimony: “The sheep hear (the shepherd’s) voice, (who) calls his own sheep by name and leads them out…and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.”[1]

Hmmm, given all this, we not only are like sheep, we are sheep, which presents a problem. This existential reality contradicts our Western-world, made-in-America cultural tutelage that affirms our individualism, teaching us to be self-aware, self-actualized, self-authenticated in our consciousness of our unique personal oneness in relation to everyone else around us. This Western and American creed of the sanctity of our selfhood flies in the face of the ontology of our sheep-hood, which, irrespective of our human individualism and our treasured sense of independence, means, again, that we need shepherds, which presents a larger problem. Shepherds, our leaders, those who guide and guard us, can fail us.

In one of the most turbulent eras of the ancient world, with rapid shifts in power, decline and ascendency nation to nation, Judah, caught in between, had to choose with whom to align in a war of international upheaval. The kings of Judah chose poorly, leading to the Babylonian invasion and subjugation of Jerusalem. So Jeremiah proclaimed, “‘Woe to the shepherds (the kings) who (forsaking their sacred charge to guide and guard) destroy and scatter the sheep (the people) of my pasture!’ says the Lord.”

Is it any wonder that the psalmist, aware of the failings of the kings, God’s anointed representatives, declared, “The Lord – the creator and sustainer of life, who guides to green pastures, still waters, right paths, and guards the soul in the darkest valleys of this world and in the shadow of death – is my shepherd!” This message resounds loudly in Jeremiah’s prophecy of the coming messiah whose name shall be “The Lord is our righteousness,” God alone, as wisdom and justice, guides and guards the people. This message echoes softly, yet no less clearly in our gospel passage as Jesus, though weary, in quest of rest, beholding a great crowd in need, like sheep without a shepherd, had compassion and cared for them, guiding, guarding them by “teaching them many things.”

Today, we do well, individually and communally, to sing with the psalmist, “The Lord is our shepherd. We do better than well to discern what that means for us today. For as it was before and since Jeremiah’s time, leaders fail us. Those of us who lived through the modern era and all of us in these postmodern times can recall and have witnessed all too painfully the faults and failings of our institutions – educational, financial, judicial, political, and ecclesiastical – in which we placed our trust. And not all, but surely some of the precipitating causes of this institutional dysfunction and demise can be attributed to ethical and fiduciary lapses of leadership. Again, we do well to reclaim what it means to sing, “The Lord is our shepherd!”

Moreover, we are amidst a new political season that will culminate November 2016 with the election of our 45th President of the United States. Politicians and political scientists, pundits, prognosticators, and propagandists from every perspective already have begun to pontificate on what makes for a good leader; often whilst blaming the woes of our nation and world on the practices and policies, the leadership substance and styles of their opponents and commending their own experience and expertise. Again, we do well to reclaim what it means to sing, “The Lord is our shepherd!”

Today, one way to understand what that means is to acknowledge a truth equally painful as the failure of leadership. In a worldly sense, sometimes leaders fail because their followers have forsaken their responsibility of participation, involving, in part, holding leadership accountable. And, in a spiritual sense, the Lord cannot be our shepherd if we, as sheep, forsake our sacred responsibility to follow the Lord’s lead to be as he is, to do as he does. For the only self that matters to Jesus is self-sacrifice. The Lord cannot be our shepherd if we do not “love and serve him with gladness and singleness of heart.”[2]

So, today, to paraphrase the words of that spiritual, Can we hear our Savior calling, “Follow Me”? If so, then let us sing, “The Lord is our shepherd,” and: “Where He leads me I will follow, where He leads me I will follow, where He leads me I will follow. I’ll go with Him, with Him all the way.”[3]

[1] John 10.3b, 4b

[2] From the Post-Communion Prayer, The Book of Common Prayer, page 365

[3] From Where He Leads Me, words by Ernest W. Blandly (c. 1890)

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2 thoughts on “good shepherd redux – a sermon for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost

  1. Thank you Paul! It can be so hard to be a follower, when you’re used to leading. So this year, at the beginning of 2015, I pledged to do a better job of following the Lord because I truly needed to get better at that. The phrase “love and serve him with gladness and singleness of heart” has meant more to me this year than at any time in my recent life. In the past I think I’ve served because of “duty” or as you put it, my “responsibility of participation”. Now I serve for love… and it feels so much more authentic!! I hadn’t learned as much about sheep’s intelligence as you shared in this post, but I will say being a sheep and a follower is a pretty good deal, and fills me with a calmness that usually escapes me.

    So many leaders we’ve followed; bosses, politicians, relatives have let us down in the past, that you finally figure out that maybe you’ve been following the wrong person / people all along… so for me – it’s Finally all about following wherever the Lord leads me…. This coming week, I’m led to the road again to reach out and touch more folks who are looking for information and comfort as we all fight against the horror also known as dementia. I’ll read this sermon again on the plane! Much love and thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Loretta, foremost, travel well and safely and share the gospel, the good news of caring for our loved ones (and caring for ourselves in caring for our loved ones) who live in dementia’s shadows (truly, one of this earth’s darkened corridors preceding that final psalmic valley of the shadow of death).

    As for following, I, too, am finding a depth of discernment of what it means to serve the Lord. Perhaps odd that I would or can say that, but I believe the release from parochial duty allows me a liberty to explore my spirituality hitherto unfound and unknown

    Liked by 1 person

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