Featured Passage: John 10:11-18
Reflection/sermon for the day...
It’s amazing what difference a single word can make. Case in point: this week’s lectionary readings.
As usual, this week there were four lectionary readings available for us to choose from. One of the four was the familiar 23rd Psalm; another was this week’s reading from the Gospel of John.
And while the image of shepherd is foundational in both passages – there is a huge difference between the ways people respond to the two: all because of the one little word that occurs just before the word shepherd in each passage.
Some of you here this morning probably remember the word that occurs just before shepherd in the 23rd Psalm – the Lord is ___ shepherd. What’s the missing word? That’s right: ‘my’.
In this morning’s Gospel reading, however, a different word comes just before shepherd. We hear Jesus quoted as saying, “I am ___ good shepherd.” What’s the missing word? That’s right: ‘the’.
Now the difference between the word ‘my’ and the word ‘the’ might sound pretty small to you - but there is a huge difference between the effects of those two words.
When you read the 23rd Psalm, you can’t help but feel a sense of intimacy radiating out of the passage because the psalmist establishes a relationship between you and the shepherd. It’s not just any old shepherd, it’s MY shepherd. In the Gospel of John, on the other hand, the word ‘the’ moves the word shepherd from the personal to the abstract.
And that shift shows in the way scholars treat the passage. In working with text, the majority of folks I read left the passage in the abstract. They talked, for instance, about the social standing of the shepherd within society. Or they talked about the duties of a shepherd. Some even explored contemporary images that might be more helpful for us to get at the concepts to which Jesus was alluding. Few of the commentaries, however, were able to engage the material on a personal level. So as I put the commentaries aside, I thought that would be my challenge for my time with you: to move the Gospel passage from the abstract back to the personal.
In taking on that challenge, I stumbled across a little book by a modern-day shepherd by the name of Phillip Keller titled A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23.
In his book, Keller suggests that if you want to move from the realm of abstract to the personal when it comes to the talk of the shepherd/sheep stuff, you need to cozy up to the notion that we human beings are an awful lot like sheep. So I did a little digging to see if there might be any qualities that were similar between us and sheep.
Quality one: sheep have strong instinct to follow whatever sheep in front of them. Anyone think that applies? Quality two: sheep are gregarious – and become irritated if separated from a crowd. Quality three: they are social creatures who keep an eye on the Joneses – I mean each other. All of these came from www.sheep101.info/flocking.html . Keller adds we both tend toward being fearful; we are prone to stubbornness; and we both quickly develop bad habits that can put our well being into jeopardy.
You sold yet?
Once we’ve allowed ourselves to move from the abstract to the personal by acknowledging the similarities between ourselves and sheep, there’s just one piece of work left to do: recognize the work the good shepherd does on our behalf.
Now there are literally hundreds of things the good shepherd does for us. One of the most applicable on this Communion Sunday has to do with how the shepherd deals with impending chills associated with the seasons of hardships – what Keller called winter - for the sheep.
“In tending my sheep,” Keller wrote, “I carried a bottle in my pocket containing a mixture of brandy and water. Whenever a ewe or lamb was chilled from undue exposure to [the elements] I would pour a few spoonfuls down its throat. In a matter of minutes the chilled creature would be on its feet and full of renewed energy... The important thing was for me to be there on time, to find the frozen, chilled sheep before it was too late. I had to be in the storm with them, alert to every one that was in distress. Some of the most vivid memories of my [shepherding] days are wrapped around the awful storms my flock and I went through together” (124 Keller).
Friends, many of us here this morning have had our own recent experiences of those seasonal chills. We felt them as we’ve wrestled with the loss of a loved one, the concerns for a loved one’s health, the fear associated with the swine flu outbreak, the realities of the economic downturn. In other words, we know firsthand the temptation to do what those chilled sheep did: lie down, give in to the chill, and wait for what we think is the inevitable.
Thankfully, we have the presence of the good shepherd in our life: urging us back on our feet – as He provides those elements we need to go on.
As we come to the table this morning and reconnect with the presence of our good shepherd, I want to close with Keller’s words as he describes the power that good shepherd has in our life. “It is the [shepherd’s] presence that guarantees there will be no lack of any sort; that there will be abundant green pastures; that there will be still, clean water; that there will be new paths into fresh fields; that there will be safe summers on the high tablelands; that there will be freedom from fear; that there will be antidotes for flies and disease and parasites; that there will be quietness and contentment” (141 Keller).
May it be so for all of us sheep in God’s flock.