When the Bible Calls Us Sheep.
One thing I love about this Sunday
is that I get to show you once again a favorite video.
Who ever said that shepherding is boring?
So a few months ago, I was on a plane returning from a meeting in Louisville.
Sometimes when you fly, you feel a lot like sheep.
It had been an uneventful flight
which was a relief, compared to the topics of the meeting
and I just vegged out a bit.
I read the news,
cued up a movie in my ipad
even closed my eyes for a bit. It was glorious.
After a few hours, I heard the sound and felt that gentle jolt
that marks the final moments of landing on a plane.
The landing gear drops.
The flaps fully extend.
And the plane seems to slow itself so much
that it is barely crawling through space
as it makes its way safely back to earth.
I don’t know how many airplane trips I’ve taken.
They number in the hundreds, most likely.
And I love to fly. As a kid, I marveled at the technology
that enabled tons of metal and glass to soar.
I didn’t want to be a policeman, or a firefighter. I wanted to be a pilot.
I’ve always enjoyed it.
So this wasn’t about a fear of flying or anything,
but I noticed something about myself, when I heard that sound and felt that jolt.
I noticed myself reciting the Lord’s Prayer:
Our father. Who art in heaven.
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done.
On earth, as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom.
And the Power.
And the glory. Forever and ever. Amen.
Truth is, I’ve been saying that prayer, under my breath with lips barely moving
every takeoff and landing, for decades.
Sometimes I don’t know that I’m doing it.
But most of the time I do: I stop what I’m listening to
and I give myself a moment to center myself.
To remind myself of who I am,
of whose I am I,
of the God who loves me.
Once, several years ago,
I was bedside at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.
This is a busy, urban, 670 bed trauma hospital,
and I was making rounds as a student chaplain
checking in on the patients in the wings
to which I had been assigned.
I was checking in on Eleanor, who had been a patient there for weeks
from well before I started my three month program.
She was in the “multiple acute conditions” area of the hospital
and that was pretty accurate
she was dealing with organ failure
liver, lung, pancreas
and, when I was visiting her, she was barely responsive.
She was awake, clearly.
Her eyes were open when she was not sleeping.
She could eat, even if with some labor.
She just was not communicating: no real eye contact, no words,
no sense that she heard or registered much of anything going on.
I spoke with her family, who were concerned, of course
and prayerful…glad that the spiritual care office
was there to be with them during this time.
They explained that Eleanor was Methodist
a member for more than 30 years at a church on the west side of Chicago.
This visit, Eleanor was alone,
except for the nurse who checked her vitals occasionally
or the orderly who came to straighten up the room.
And I was sitting next to her, talking with her a bit
to her, sure, but with her, I was hoping.
Even as she was looking into a blank space on the wall ahead.
I went through a few things: my latest conversation with her daughter
a word about the horrible snowstorm the city had the week before
that sort of thing
and then I took out a pocket bible
and flipped it open to offer a quick reading
before I would leave, write in her chart,
and move on to another patient.
And I started:
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley
of the shadow of death
I will fear no evil:
for thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff
they comfort me…
It was right about then that I noticed I wasn’t reading alone.
I looked up, and to my astonishment,
Eleanor was repeating the words of the Psalm with me…
Thou preparest a table before me
in the presence of mine enemies:
thou anointest my head with oil;
my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life:
and I will dwell
in the house of the LORD forever.
And she smiled. And a moment later, it was over.
After that reading, she returned to her prior, quiet state,
at least for a few weeks, before she left for another rehabilitation hospital.
No other words, or eye contact, or much of anything.
But there was something about this psalm, these words, that comfort
that she could access, when all other words were gone.
And in that moment,
she felt, I felt, grace beyond measure…
a sure sense of God’s reliable presence
That God was THERE, surrounding us with God’s love.
The fourth Sunday of Easter is, every year
Good Shepherd Sunday.[i]
The Lord is My Shepherd, I shall Not want…
I am the Good Shepherd, [the one who] lays down his life for the sheep.
And why not? We’ve permitted ourselves a few weeks of questioning,
–The huddled disciples locked in the room
that couldn’t keep the risen Christ out
–A missing Thomas and the relentless searching of Jesus to make sure he got it
as if he was a sheep who had run off, you know
and Jesus was willing to drop everything on his to-do list
to go look for the one lost sheep.
–The hungry Jesus, seeking a fish sandwich
when Luke’s version describes a similar confrontation
between the bewildered and disoriented disciples
disbelieving for Joy at the hungry, not Ghost Jesus
breaking bread and fish and wine with the risen Lord.
Two weeks of stress. Two weeks of worry. Two weeks of fragmentation.
This week is different. To some, it can be a bit jarring.
Almost as if we’ve come through the valley of shadows and have found repose
as if we should be expected
to have all of that angst we’ve just been through resolved
so we’re ready to move ahead,
shoes dusted off
looking ahead, ready to go.
For some people, that’s what they call “healing”
to go back to the way it was
to have it all “fixed,” whatever that means to them
to have all this trauma go away
and, if possible, forgotten.
Nothing to see here, thank you very much.
Life is never that simple.
Those who work in pastoral care and good spiritual counseling
remind us that healing isn’t about getting back to where we were before
about forgetting that we were hurt or ill in the first place.
Many things that cause us pain or hurt
will be with us, in one form or another, our whole lives.
And too often we just look at those big crisis moments:
long term treatment
the loss of a loved one
as those moments of hurt, of loss, of pain.
But the truth is, human life is FULL of moments of brokenness and loss.
I was speaking with a friend who, like me, has young daughters.
And he was telling me about his 9 year old daughter,
who struggles with learning how to communicate with peers
on the playground.
How do I help her learn what to do with the loss of
a pre-pre-teen innocence? He asks me…
When she says:
“What do you mean, daddy, that my friend is bullying me
and making me feel fat?”
I can deal with the techniques of clear communication with friends,
he said to me
with how to nurture a good self-esteem
with how and what to talk with teachers about
but the loss of that former sort of life… is a trauma of sorts
something that never really is “healed” but which is understood
repackaged, reframed into a more “mature” sort of living
that we later look back and call “the loss of innocence”
Or what about my friend Rachel’s struggle, at age 39, with success.
New job. New responsibilities. New possibilities and excitement for the future
but of course changed schedules which means adjustment in the amount of time
he has for her kids, or her friends, or herself.
or her anxiety about her self-worth, her call in the first place
about whether she really can do what it is God is asking her to go and do.
And my friends and I counsel her about all of this: assuring her of her gifts,
The way this job fit her really, really well,
her many possibilities.
She is so excited about this new opportunity
but there is loss here too: the old is no longer the real
the new is here, and it is scary, and it is unknown
and it will never ever be the same.
Maybe that’s when we most need a shepherd.
Not just any shepherd, a good shepherd.
Not the one who tries to trick or mislead.
Not the one who uses our vulnerability
for his own gain.
But the good shepherd, the one who is agape, who is love
and who gives of his own self so that we can walk through this liminal space
and come through the threshold….not free of loss
but transformed maybe by it into the next thing, the new thing
the very thing God might need from us right now.
Life can be so, so, so scary.
It is to a 9 year old, eyes newly opened for the first of many times.
It is to a 39 year old, called to something different.
It is to people throughout this journey of life:
marriage, for some,
divorce for so many,
abandonment from those who were supposed to love us,
a child serving in Iraq
another organizing in Baltimore
cancer, heart attack, depression
employment struggles, lord, so many things.
But here is the good news, the fourth week after Easter.
The risen Lord, after challenging our propensity doubt
whether God’s grace could POSSIBLY be true,
the risen Lord offers repose, offers peace,
offers HIMSELF as the way forward.
Frederick Beuchner, in a meditation on these texts for Sunday,
offers the following reminder about yet another Easter text,
another shepherd text
this one about Peter:[ii]
According to Paul,
the first person Jesus came back to see after Easter morning was Peter.
What he said and what Peter said nobody will ever know,
and maybe that’s just as well.
Their last conversation on this earth, however,
is reported in the Gospel of John.
It was on the beach, at daybreak.
Some of the other disciples were there,
and Jesus cooked them breakfast.
When it was over, he said to Peter
(only again he called him Simon, son of John,
because if ever he meant business, this was it),
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?” and Peter said he did.
Then Jesus asked the same question a second time and then once again,
and each time Peter said he loved him-three times in all,
to make up for the other three times.
Then Jesus said, “Feed my lambs. Feed my sheep;”
and you get the feeling that this time Peter didn’t miss the point
From fisher of fish to fisher of people to keeper of the keys to shepherd.
It was the Rock’s final promotion,
and from that day forward he never let the head office down again.
The Bible keeps calling us sheep,
And Jesus our shepherd. Our Good Shepherd.
I guess to an agrarian culture, this would have been comforting
But to me, someone who has been to farms, and lived in a farming town
But never really got close living with these creatures day after day
I confess this isn’t an obvious analogy for me.
But I think I get it.
I think I get the care and the compassion and the love of God
That shoot through these passages
That we can trust God, even in our hardest, most stressful moments
And that even if we don’t, its ok, because God is there too.
I know bravado is making a comeback these days
And its not fashionable to talk about relying on something other than yourself
Who wants to be a loser, you’ll hear some famous people say.
But the Bible makes it crystal clear:
After all is said and done: God is faithful, God is there for us
God will guide us and love us and
help us do what is right and what is good.
God gave God’s very self for all of us so-called losers of the world.
But what does it mean?
What are we called to DO,
as a church,
as a community of the faithful helping
all who come to us seeking the Good Shepherd?
This Sunday, I encourage us to ponder
how the Good Shepherd offers us a sort of repose
of rest, of assurance
that we so deeply need, all of us.
That God is reliable. Even in a deeply fragmented, fragile life.
That God is reliable.
That God’s got this.
That God’s there, guiding us with her Rod and her Staff
through the narrow gate.
The same God who would drop everything to search for us
if we lose the pack and wonder off
the same God who opens wide the closed door of our huddled spaces
and urges us to go feed Jesus’ lambs, feed Jesus’ sheep.
What are the words, the practices,
the relationships that you need to cultivate
to help get you through your darkest valley moments?
Are they favorite prayers or verses that remind you of the love you’ve felt?
Words that can be seared into your spirit?
Are they friends you turn to for support, for help?
Are they practices like weekly worship or bible study or book clubs
or service activities with harvesters
that keep you connected with this living water
this good shepherd?
As you ponder that, know this:
that the one who lays down his life for you,
will be there for you, no matter what.
And, if you let him, will lead you to green pastures too…
Thanks be to God.
[i] Sermon adapted from a devotional I prepared and offered for the OASIS planning group of Heartland Presbytery, April 23, 2015.
[ii] Email “Frederick Buechner Weekly Sermon Illustration: Feed My Sheep” April 20, 2015. Quote from Buechner’s “Peter,” first published in Peculiar Treasures and reprinted in Beyond Words.