Sermon for the fourth Sunday in Easter
We’ve now arrived at the fourth Sunday of this fifty-day season of Easter; a day often called “Good Shepherd Sunday,” as the lectionary readings always have us reading shepherd-themed texts. The image of Christ as the good shepherd is one that has been rather heavily sentimentalized—think of all of those paintings and illustrations of a very peaceful, often doey-eyed Jesus with an equally peaceful, doey-eyed lamb slung across his shoulders—which is a bit odd when you stop and think about it. “I am the good shepherd,” Jesus says in the 10th chapter of the Gospel according to John, “and the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” As if to make sure that his audience not miss that essential point, the same phrase is repeated again just a few verses later: “And I lay down my life for the sheep.” At the heart of the job description of this good shepherd is a willingness to die for the sake of those under his care; for the sake of his sheep. The hired hand, Jesus says, “sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away, [for] the hired hand does not care for the sheep”; doesn’t have anything like the same deep investment in the flock as does the shepherd. But I do, Jesus says, because I am the Good Shepherd.
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I suspect that a culture that had more familiarity with sheep and shepherds might have seen this imagery rather more realistically. As the American humorist Garrison Keillor remarked in his retelling of the nativity story, “Shepherds were not classy people, because sheep are not classy animals. From a distance they look just fine, but once you get up close to a sheep, all of the classy people get out of the business. If you could do anything other than be a shepherd, you probably would… sort of like parking lot attendants.” The life of the shepherd landed you on the fringe of that society, living rough out in the hills tending animals that required a lot of protection. There’s nothing much to sentimentalize in that.
For all that, in the ancient world the image of the shepherd was one that was associated with kingship; the king being the one who was to protect and provide for those under his rule. That’s not exclusive to Israel, either. Hammurabi of Babylon identified himself as a shepherd, and in Homer the Greek chieftains are presented as the shepherds to their people. David, of course, was himself a shepherd boy before he became the beloved king, and then as a king he is described as “shepherd of Israel.” (2 Sam 5:2) In the writings of the prophet Ezekiel there is held out the promise of another David who will likewise be a shepherd king, but that comes as part of an extended meditation about God as the shepherd of Israel; God as the one who seeks out and protects.
I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice. (Ezekiel 34:16)
That’s a pretty robust picture of God’s shepherding work, particularly when you include not only the seeking of the lost and the binding of the injured, but also the feeding of the fat and strong with justice; a feeding that will evidently knock them from their places of privilege. There’s nothing particularly sentimental about that.
For all that it too has been sentimentalized, I’d actually want to say the same about the 23rd Psalm. It is often the psalm of choice read at hospital bedsides, in palliative care wards, and at funerals, which is not a bad thing; not at all. Even in a society that is increasingly biblically illiterate, people still often recognize those lines: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” and “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me.” There’s times when the familiarity of such words does its own gentle work, and that is good.
Yet if you push more deeply into the psalm, what you discover is that here too there is a robust shepherd at work. Yes, at the psalm’s opening there are those green pastures and clear waters, but they are soon followed by the “valley of the shadow of death”—sometimes translated simply as “the darkest valleys”—and then by “the presence of my enemies.” Psalm 23 is not a picture of sheep lolling about endlessly in some idyllic pastureland, but is instead a text about movement; from a place of safe orientation right through the disorientation of the darkest of valleys. And all the while “goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life.” The Hebrew word translated “follow” is radaph, which is more accurately translated as “pursue.” “Surely goodness and mercy will pursue me all the days of my life.” As Brueggmann and Bellinger note in their commentary, “[T]his remarkable verb suggests that the subject thought he was being pursued by dangers and threats, but in fact it was the providential goodness of God that was what had been following him and chasing after him.” This is a shepherd who pursues, in other words, much like the shepherd in Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep. This shepherd pursues with staff in hand; “your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” Comfort is such an interesting word to have chosen, for how does a shepherd use a staff? To fend off predators, for sure, but also to catch the lambs by their necks and to give the more stubborn sheep good solid wallops on their flanks.
In his comments on the psalm, James Howell quotes the dying words of John Wesley—“The best of all is, God is with us”—and then he adds, “God doesn’t shelter us from trouble. God doesn’t magically manipulate everything to suit us. But the glorious with is unassailable, unchangeable, the only fact that matters.” The glorious “you are with me” makes the darkest valleys somehow navigable, evil irrelevant and powerless, the presence of enemies ultimately inconsequential. A table is prepared in the very presence of my enemies, and on at that table is set an overflowing cup—symbolizing abundance—and my head is anointed with oil—which symbolizes healing and restoration. This shepherd does not, in other words, save us from all adversity, but rather pursues and sustains and feeds us right in the midst of adversity.
This psalm ends in “the house of the Lord”—in the temple of Jerusalem—which might seem an odd destination for a flock of sheep, but given that we’ve already been given the picture of that table with its overflowing cup, it should be rather evident that this psalmist is not afraid of mixing imagery and metaphors. For we who read this psalm with Christian eyes, we understand the Jerusalem temple to have been fulfilled in the person of Jesus—“he was speaking of the temple of his body,” as it says in John 2:21—and so we can hear in this a promise of dwelling in the presence of Christ all the days of our lives; through thick and thin, whether or not we can always see it, we are in the presence of the pursuing Good Shepherd.
Garrison Keillor was quite right to say that sheep are not particularly classy animals, and that on account of that shepherding was not especially desirable work. By analogy, we need to confess that we who are claimed in Psalm 95 as “the people of God’s pasture and the sheep of God’s hand” have the propensity to be as un-classy as any flock of sheep. We stumble, we get lost, we wander off, we forget whose we are, we get hard-headed, we imagine we know better paths… we sentimentalize green pastures and cool waters, convince ourselves that we are entitled to them, and get resentful when paths take us into dark valleys. Thank God, then, that Jesus the good shepherd was—and is—singularly disinterested in any work other than shepherding. Thank God for the calloused working hands of Jesus, with dirt under his fingernails and scars on his palms, who enacts for us the glorious “you are with me”, in all of our lostness.