Sermon: “You Do Not Have to Be Your Own Shepherd” (April 26, 2015)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“You Do Not Have to Be Your Own Shepherd” (John 10:11)
April 26, 2015
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Today is one of my favorite Sundays of the year, the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Good Shepherd Sunday.

In the Old Testament God is often referred to as our shepherd—“The Lord is my shepherd” we read in the famous twenty-third Psalm (23:1). Seven centuries before Christ the Old Testament prophet Isaiah prophesied that the coming Messiah would be a shepherd—“He will feed his flock like a shepherd,” he wrote, “he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom” (40:11).

In the New Testament Jesus is not only identified as the Son of God, but also as “the great shepherd of the sheep” (Hebrews 13:20), “the shepherd and guardian of your souls” (I Peter 2:25), and “the chief shepherd” (I Peter 5:3).

And in today’s gospel lesson from the tenth chapter of John, Jesus proclaims, “I am the good shepherd” (10:11).

“I am the good shepherd”—like each of the “I am” sayings of Jesus in John’s account of the gospel—“I am the bread of life” (6:35), “I am the light of the world” (8:12), “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25), etc.—John uses the Greek phrase—ego eimi—literally translated “I, I am.” When John uses this phrase, he is not being redundant, but rather hearkening back to Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush in the wilderness. When Moses asked who it was with whom he was speaking, the Lord responded, “I Am that I Am” (Exodus 3:13-14). When Jesus states, “I am the good shepherd,” he is identifying himself as the Lord.

And scripture tells us Jesus the Good Shepherd views you and me as sheep: “When (Jesus) saw the crowds,” Matthew writes, “he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). The Good Shepherd sees you and all the ways you are “helpless and harassed” in your life, and is moved with…compassion.

The problem is while you and I may readily identify Jesus as the Good Shepherd, when it comes to our actual day to day life, we often live as if we were our own shepherd. Some of us may do this for years on end. On her brilliant 2012 album Ashes and Roses folk and country singer Mary Chapin Carpenter paints a retrospective picture of what this can look like:

There’s a big white house on a leafy street
On a summer’s day in 1963
Station wagon’s parked in the drive
Dents in the fender and wood on the side
There’s kids and dogs and instamatic cubes
Squinting hard in the sun
Not just yet, but one day too
They’ll be chasing what’s already gone

You grow up tall and you grow up tough
Trying to never admit not feeling good enough
Until you find your passion and you find your way
Just trying to make it unscathed through every day
And it seems to happen nearly overnight
Life shows you who you’ve become
And there’s no more mystery in the fading light
You’re just chasing what’s already gone

Like the line that spells the far horizon
Moving with you as fast as you can run
Half your life you pay it no attention
The rest you can’t stop wondering
What you should have done
Instead of chasing what’s already gone
(from her song “Chasing What’s Already Gone”).

Even though we are often “harassed and helpless” sheep who very rarely “make it unscathed through every day,” we still try to be our own shepherd.

Let me ask you a question—what is it in your life that renders you “harassed and helpless”?

In his book A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, Philip Keller describes what sheep do in response to the flies that often hover around them, harassing them, flies against which they are often helpless:

“For relief from this agonizing annoyance sheep will deliberately beat their heads against the trees, rocks, posts, or brush. They will rub them in the soil and thrash around against woody growth. In the extreme cases of infestation a sheep may even kill itself in a frenzied endeavor to gain respite from the aggravation. Often advanced stages of infection from these flies will lead to blindness. Because of this, when the nose flies hover around the neck, some of the sheep become frantic with fear and panic in their attempt to escape their tormentors. They will stamp their feet erratically and race from place to place” (115).

And we do the same thing—we “race from place to place” in an attempt to be rid of the flies in our lives. While this may provide temporary relief from the external flies we leave in the old places, different external flies tend to find us in the new places—and of course, the internal flies in our hearts and minds simply come along for the ride.

In the fourth verse of Psalm 23 we read one of the ways the Good Shepherd demonstrates his compassion—“your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”

“Your rod and your staff, they comfort me”—as you may know shepherds would use a rod to stave off predators like wolves, to fight on behalf of their sheep. But again, in our attempt to be our own shepherd we often try to fight on our own behalf, to stave off the predators that attack us by our own strength.

Have you ever done that? How has that worked for you? Did you win?

“Your rod and your staff, they comfort me”—as you may also know, shepherds would use a staff to rescue sheep that had fallen into a tight place, or to gently lift a lamb that had wandered off from its mother and place it back next to her.

The truth is we all need to be rescued, because we all wander off, just like Isaiah put it, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way” (Isaiah 53:6). We all need help from the staff of the Good Shepherd.

One of the smartest people I know is Tim Laniak, the current dean of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina, and a mentor and friend. Several years ago he took a year-long sabbatical to live and work with Bedouin shepherds in the Middle East, and then he wrote a book about that entitled While Shepherds Watch Their Flocks. Listen to how he articulates how all of us need to be rescued by the staff of the Good Shepherd:

“We also need the shepherd’s rescuing staff…We all can get trapped and need to be rescued. A dreamy-eyed runaway is now a cynical hideaway. A middle-aged professional ditches his job and wife for a romantic mirage. An earnest pastor finds himself in his fourth pastorate wondering why he is being asked, once again, to turn in his resignation. A mother is home-bound with the care of a disabled child or elderly parent, paralyzed in a world turned gray with depression and despair. These and many others need a staff stretched out to them. People are stuck in debt, caught in compulsive behaviors, trapped in prostitution. They are wedged in a crevice almost out of sight, with desperate feelings of insecurity, confused ideas of their own sexuality, or a completely broken moral compass. When we get hung up, our only hope is for someone with sincere interest and gentle persistence to reach over the gap with a staff, to reach out and rescue us” (While Shepherds Watch Their Flocks, 98).

Where are you “hung up”? Have you tried being your own shepherd and rescuing yourself? Again, how has that worked for you?

The Good Shepherd is moved with compassion for you, for all the ways you are harassed and helpless, for all ways you need to be rescued, and his compassion is indeed marked by “sincere interest and gentle persistence.”

One more illustration…the late biblical scholar Merrill Tenney describes what Middle Eastern shepherds did for their sheep at the end of each day:

“When the sheep returned to the fold at night after a day of grazing, the shepherd stood in the doorway of the pen and inspected each one as it entered. If a sheep were scratched or wounded by thorns, the shepherd anointed it with oil to facilitate healing; if the sheep were thirsty, he gave them water…After all the sheep had been counted and brought into the pen, the shepherd lay down across the doorway so that no intruder—man or beast—could enter” (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 9, 108).

That is what Jesus the Good Shepherd does with you. He does not inspect you looking for all your flaws, all the ways you fall short—he is already fully aware of those things—as are you. Instead, Jesus looks for the places where you have been “scratched or wounded” by the thorns in your life, the places where you are thirsty on the inside—and in those place Jesus the Good Shepherd applies the oil of grace and the water of unconditional love.

“I am the good shepherd,” Jesus proclaimed, and then said why he is the good shepherd, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (10:11). At his passion Jesus allowed himself to be “harassed and helpless,” to be scratched by thorns, to become thirstier than you could ever imagine—and yes, to have flies swarming about his sacred head.

Jesus did not make it unscathed through Good Friday—he willingly gave himself over to the wolves, and did not fight back. Why? Because at his passion Jesus the Good Shepherd laid down his rod and staff and became a sheep himself, more specifically a lamb—“the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

In fact, the rod and staff of the Good Shepherd point to the cross, where Jesus allowed himself to be “hung up” in order to rescue you away, to gently bring you back to himself. The Good Shepherd laid down his life for you.

The good news of the gospel is that you do not have to be your own shepherd—that as St. Augustine wrote, “When you say, ‘The Lord is my shepherd,’ no proper grounds are left for you to trust in yourself” (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Vol. VII: Psalms 1-50,178).

Perhaps today the Holy Spirit will lead you to turn over the things that leave you harassed and helpless to your compassionate Good Shepherd, and to ask him to be your Defender and Rescuer. Perhaps today the rod and staff of the Good Shepherd, which together form the cross, will comfort you.

Amen.