Good Shepherd Sunday

As many of you no doubt know, last week this parish was very privileged to host a delegation from our Sister Parish in Guatemala, San Andres Itzapa.  Basilia, Lucia and their translator Ellen even honored the Wednesday evening Canterbury service with their presence and made us a wonderful and hearty Guatemalan dish for dinner.  During the sermon time of that worship service I invited Basilia and Lucia to share their thoughts and reflections on some of the texts we have heard this morning – texts about “The Good Shepherd.”

I will be the first to admit that I was motivated by a mixture of curiosity and, yes, cultural chauvinism when I asked them to share their understanding of a passage such as the one we heard from John this morning.  I guess I was expecting them to share a thoroughly “Guatemalan” tale of shepherds in the mountains caring for Guatemalan sheep or goats.  I expected to come away with a rich sermon illustration that shows how other cultures contextualize this theological metaphor.

Basilia, the senior and more extroverted of the two women, shared that when she hears this passage from John, she thinks of the clergy who serve in Guatemala.  Clergy!  I was caught with my cultural presuppositions showing – nothing about sheep or quaint shepherds, but rather clergy.  Of course, in my naïveté and faltering Spanish, I had forgotten that in Spanish, the words are one and the same – pastor means both shepherd and religious leader. 

Basilia shared how the people of Guatemala have been both protected by and lead astray or betrayed by their clergy, their shepherds.  Quickly our discussion turned to the courage and dedication of their clergy – those who would stand up against oppression and unjust governments and those who would comply out of fear or corruption.  Some shepherds, she said, were willing to lay down their lives for the sheep, especially Roman Catholic priests during their civil war in the 80s.  She spoke of some shepherds as martyrs.  Soon other names like Oscar Romero and Martin Luther King, Jr. were being shared.

Pastors as shepherds – truly the concept is universal, just as the experience of good leadership and bad leadership among these people whom God has called to lead the flock.

Today, the fourth Sunday of Easter is traditionally known as “Good Shepherd Sunday” as anyone, even those unfamiliar with our tradition, could tell from the readings and hymns.  As I typically do as I prepare my sermons, I will look back through the archives to see if I have preached on these particular texts before, and if so, was it a good sermon?  To my surprise I discovered that this is the fourth time I have preached on Good Shepherd Sunday at Christ Church.

Three years ago, I preached in the wake of a visit to campus by Eli Wiesel, and I preached against political indifference, the very kind of indifference that Wiesel had experienced from his neighbors in Romania as he and thousands of other Jews were taken away by the Nazis.  This deportation was met with only silence.

Two years ago, my title was “Wanted: A Good Shepherd,” preached in the wake of Clare’s announcement that she was leaving.  I offered a potential job description of sorts, what we would be looking for in our next shepherd – the interim period, the summit and the search still months away.

And, of course, there was my sermon one year ago on this Sunday.  Easter was later last year, and so Good Shepherd Sunday fell on April 29th, a time when we were all still reeling from the unthinkable tragedy that had shaken us so profoundly, that cruel morning in April that changed so many lives forever.

So here we are this morning.  We have a new shepherd on the job, guiding us and learning the quirks and joys of herding this particular flock.  We stand on the brink of electing a new shepherd to lead us as a nation.  And we in this community are about to pause to remember, as much as some would like to forget.  We cannot forget what happened.  We dare not.  On this Sunday last year, emotions were running high and our personal reactions were all over the map, ranging from shock and denial, to rage and remorse.

I have been reflecting on my job, my role as your “junior shepherd.”  Surely I have not been perfect, but I must say I could never have imagined when I first stood in this pulpit over five years ago now, what challenges and trials lay ahead of this congregation, how much we all would change and be changed simply because we have chosen to come together in community and walk our life’s journeys together.

My heart tarried on the 23rd Psalm as I prepared this sermon.  This Psalm is among the most familiar in all of western Christianity, second only perhaps to the Lord’s Prayer.  It is this psalm that so many people want said at their funerals or read to them as they lie in pain and fear.

“The Lord is my shepherd.  I shall not be in want.”  The words are so familiar to us, but I wonder if we have lost the ability to hear how distinct this image is from so many others in the psalms.  God is so often called “my king,” “my judge,” “my defender.”  But here God is portrayed as a shepherd, in this text so readily identified with David, who himself had been a shepherd in his boyhood.

And that’s just it – the great and powerful men of their culture weren’t shepherds – they were warriors, kings.  Shepherding sheep was left to boys and often adult men of lower competency or status in society.  The job didn’t require great intellect, but it did require dedication and just the right amount of courage.  It was hardly a vocation, and yet, it is clear that there were “good shepherds” and “bad shepherds.”  It all seems to have come down to the level of dedication the shepherd had, whether he be a boy or a man.

The good shepherd, protected and guided the sheep, laying down his life if need be.  The bad shepherd was more likely to run away in the face of danger, abandoning the sheep to predators such as wolves, allowing some sheep to wander off and die of injury or starvation.  The good shepherd carried a rod and a staff – the rod being a club of sorts to drive off predators and the staff, which we still see today in the bishop’s crosier, allowed the shepherd to take a stray or disobedient sheep by its neck and bring it back into the fold.

While preparing this sermon I came across a lecture by Kenneth Bailey, a Presbyterian theologian who lived for forty years in Palestine and Israel.  He shares cultural insights which can often turn passages on their heads as he helps us understand how a person in a cultural context much closer to the original audience’s context would hear this passage.

When the good shepherd leads the sheep to green pastures and beside still waters, Bailey points out that this would be like heaven for both the sheep and the shepherd – pastures are only green in that arid landscape about two months out of the year and the waters, when there is water, is often turbulent and dangerous.  We have grown up with images of these green pastures and idyllic brooks because we see them in paintings and illustrations.  We cannot understand what a rare and otherworldly image it would have been for those who grew up like David.

But the image that has stuck with me from Kenneth Bailey’s lecture is that of God, the good shepherd, feeding sheep in the presence of predators.  We have talked before about the importance of hospitality in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern culture.  Here it is again.  As God prepares a meal for us, taking on the traditional role of a woman, Bailey points out, God shows this hospitality as a host in the presence of those who would do us harm.  God serves this dual role – host and protector and it is a powerful image.

The sheep need not fear because of the character and the dedication of the shepherd.  This shepherd is not simply punching a time-clock or biding time while he comes into full manhood.  This shepherd is dedicated and courageous, and the sheep are the better for it.

This morning we are facing a difficult week ahead for many of us.  Memories and emotions have already flooded back.  Some of us live with both the burden and the responsibility of shepherding the students of Virginia Tech.  Some members of this vast flock are feeling indifferent this morning.  Big deal…  Others are experiencing renewed feelings of fear and anxiety.  Still others are hiding, choosing to stay far away from the well-traveled paths.  Faculty and staff and administration are facing a challenging week as well, full of mixed emotions and personal struggles with role – how to be a mourner and a leader at the same time.

Yes, like it or not, we as a community are beginning our descent into the Valley of the Shadow of Death.  We wear the vestments of Easter and proclaim Alleluia, and yet we are chastened by memories of loss and unthinkable sorrow.

Scott and I are here, your shepherds for hire.  I pray that you have found us to be good shepherds.  We may not always be as courageous as we could or as skilled with the instruments of our profession, but here we are – your shepherds.  Some of you may find you are stronger than others this coming week – that is an opportunity for you to as scripture admonishes us – bear one another’s burdens.

Be patient.  Have hope.  Seek those peaceful places, those green pastures.

May God give us grace to walk alongside those who are in greater pain with compassion and a gentle step.   But may God also prove once again how the community of God’s people can provide a place of refuge, a home in which we can feast on God’s grace with no fear of predators.

The good shepherd knows the path ahead of us.  May God fill our hearts with peace and make our footing sure.  Amen.

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