May 7, 2017 – Shepherd us, O Lord

Easter 4   May 7, 2017   Psalm 23, Psalm 100, Ezekiel 34:1-6,11-16, John 10:1-16

Shepherd us, O Lord

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Vermont, where I used to live, was more-or-less Sheep Capital of America, before the civil war… Till the sheep market soured…and most Vermont farmers switched over to milking cows…

More recently, over the past half-century, sheep have made a modest come-back…I’ve got three or four sets of Vermont friends who raise sheep….Which I mention because…

The bible was written mostly by people who lived close to the land. The bible’s full of stories that rely on agricultural images and examples… But times  keep changing, and.. I’ve been remembering visiting a monastery in rural Wisconsin once – and hearing a monk there from New York City, talking about being sent to the garden to pick carrots for supper… And not being able to find any. He went back, told the cook, “I can’t find any carrots. Are you sure we have some?” “They told me,” he confessed, “Carrots grow in the ground…(Not on trees.)”

And I’m guessing most people know sheep don’t grow on trees… But I’m also guessing the concepts of God as shepherd and God’s people as the sheep of his pasture are metaphors that have become more difficult for many Americans…

And I’ve been remembering once when our daughter Rohi was six years old and we were getting ready for bed. Reah was sitting close by Rohi’s bed, looking thoughtful. I asked Rohi, “What’s mommy thinking about?” She glanced over and said, “Mommy is thinking about life.”

Reah and I laughed, and I asked Rohi, “So – what are you thinking about?”  Without missing a beat she replied, “I am thinking about the Old Testament.”

We laughed some more… But our six-year-old got me thinking about how… Of course we should start thinking about any New Testament passage with thinking back to the First Testament… Where we find the first part of The Good Book chock-full of shepherds – Abel –  Abraham – Isaac, Jacob and sons – Moses – King David of Psalm 23 fame – all of them shepherds… And…

Many of us know and love Psalm 23. We said it every morning when I was  in grade school (back in the dark ages). We always print the words of the psalm in funeral bulletins, but anytime I look around I see many saying it without looking at the words… From The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want… All the way to Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever… Psalm 23 is beloved spiritual-comfort-food…

And of course we have Jesus, Good Shepherd of all the sheep. A wonderful Chicken-Soup-for-the-Soul-spiritual-comfort-food-image. (We’ve got a beautiful stained-glass window portrait of Jesus holding a little sheep (in the Bourne church/right over here). Dottie featured that window in a sermon here a year ago.)

And in John’s gospel – Jesus says he knows his sheep, his sheep know him, and he lays down his life for his sheep… building on the shepherd imagery of Psalms 23 and Psalm 100…

But I can’t help noticing – we’ve also got some bad shepherd imagery today. As Jesus, the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep, contrasts himself with thieves and bandits and wolves and hired shepherds who run when trouble comes. (I’m pretty sure Jesus isn’t knocking honest hired-hands here. But he is making a pointed analogy with those in ministry for the money. And those of us who are (quote-unquote) ‘professional’ pastors need to be extra careful about always checking our motives and behaviors…and… )

Any good bible commentary on John 10 will mention the very close connection with  Ezekiel 34, which we’ve read from today – where we see the same contrast as in John’s gospel between bad and good shepherds. The bad shepherds are political and religious leaders who’ve grown fat, while the sheep they’re supposed to be shepherding go lost and hungry. And God alone is named as the good shepherd… Who, like the Lord, my shepherd of Psalm 23, makes Israel lie down in green pastures, and seeks the lost, and binds up the injured, and strengthens the weak.

Now Jesus recycles Ezekiel with the same mix of prophetic edginess and pastoral nurture. In John we see Gentle Jesus, who enfolds us in his everlasting arms – and also Tougher-than-nails Jesus, calling out predators who prey on lost lambs… Gentle Jesus and Tougher-than-nails Jesus – two sides of our one Savior.

And all who know the scriptures are familiar with the metaphors of sheep, shepherd, and gate… Even if sorting-out all Jesus’ mixed metaphors can be a bit of a spiritual work-out. We don’t mind, because we are the sheep of his pasture. We want to be very sure we’re hearing his voice…so we can follow where he leads…. And not be led astray by thieves and bandits, or devoured by wolves. And…

We know Jesus is speaking in figures-of-speech. And we know the world we live in is still full of spiritual thieves, bandits, and wolves that prey on sheep…

And I’m remembering now again, back to when Rohi was six years old… How the next evening at bedtime, we were again getting ready for sleep, and Rohi again looked over at her mother, and said, thoughtfully, again –  “Mommy is thinking about life.” “And what are you thinking about?” I asked again. And this time she replied, “I am thinking about the New Testament…”

And again, she was right-on. We need the Old and New Testaments together.

We need the Old Testament to understand the New, and the New to understand the Old. We need the First Testament to understand the context for what Jesus says and does. We need the Old and New Testaments together, to understand how Jesus fulfills the law and prophets that come before… Sometimes sustaining, sometimes transforming… Often both at once…

Sometimes it’s “Like Father, like Son.” Indeed here’s Jesus today, speaking like God the Father speaks through the prophet Ezekiel – with the same mix of prophetic and pastoral words… If we look at Ezekiel 34 and John 10 side-by-side, we see both God the Father and Jesus the Son contrasting themselves with the political-and-religious leaders of the world. Father and Son doing justice –  Father and Son loving mercy – Father and Son telling the truth – Father and Son calling us to do likewise…

The word of God, speaking through Ezekiel, indicts the sins of Israel’s kings, priests, and false prophets. Likwise, Jesus indicts the religious and political leaders of his time… (Notice that our reading in John today comes immediately after the Pharisees, religious leaders of the day, have thrown a man out of his congregation for defending Jesus, who restored his sight on a Sabbath day. Everything Jesus says today follows comments on that incident…)

And Bible scholar Craig Keener (writing in Christianity Today) sees the thieves and bandits and hired hands Jesus speaks of here in John as early editions of today’s so-called “prosperity gospel” preachers – who claim faithful Christians will be blessed with material wealth. The more we give to the ministry of these prosperity preachers, the more God rewards us, they claim.

Which is of course, practically the opposite of what Jesus says… When he tells us to give and serve with no thought of reward…

But God knows, there’s always some who’d rather listen to the voice of a thief promising wealth and health… than hear Jesus telling us ‘take up our cross and follow…’

Yet all the bible from Genesis to Revelation is all about making our daily sacrifices of  time, talents, and treasure… Daily sacrifices of loving God and loving neighbors as ourselves… All of the bible is all about doing for others as we would like done for us…

And all the New Testament is especially about Jesus doing it all for us… And us doing now for others… what Jesus has done for us.

Last week we heard Jesus ask Peter, three times, “Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me?” We heard Peter reply three times, “Yes, I love you. Yes, you know I love you. Yes, Lord, you know everything, you know I love you… “ We heard Jesus say three times, “Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Take care of my flock.”

And we know these words are not just for Peter long ago…  As John’s First Letter tells us:  “We know love by this – that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”

Jesus tells us – and we do know his voice – he’s come that we may have life, and have it abundantly. And the way to life, Jesus tells us, is in laying down our lives for one another… And…

Taking up our lives again, together, with him –

Our cup-of-life running-over…

With the peace, the joy, the love of God in Jesus Christ,

Good shepherd of all the sheep…

The Lord, our shepherd….

We shall not want… for

We shall live with him…. in the house of the Lord, forever.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.