“The Lord is My Shepherd”
by Rev. James Rausch
The fourth Sunday of the Easter Season is referred to as Shepherd Sunday. Three of the four lectionary passages have something to do with the image of the shepherd tending a flock. In fact, sheep are the most frequently mentioned animals in the Bible, referred to over 400 times.
Some find the comparison of themselves to sheep to be distasteful because of the reputation of sheep for being quite unintelligent. At the service in which I was installed as pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Iola, KS, my preaching professor from seminary came to give the sermon.
I remember it to this day. It was titles, “Loving Dumb Things.” It was a good sermon, and very well received. Part of it pointed out some comical examples of sheep getting themselves into trouble in ways that made the point that they are widely considered to be lacking in smarts. Dr. May observed that they can become so fixated on nibbling green grass that they will munch away for hours, following wherever the green patches lead. It only occurs to them when it’s too late that they have nibbled their way into becoming lost, separated from the safety of the flock.
He compared sin-prone, broken humans like you and me to those sheep. We wander from the fold and need to be saved. God’s love in Jesus never fails to come for the lost, no matter how foolish we may have been in finding trouble.
Many people can appreciate the metaphor. We recognize the dumb mistakes we have made that led us away from God, and feel awestruck by the amazing grace love of our shepherd that saved such wretches as we are. But not everyone embraces being compared to sheep when it implies that they are dummies. Okay. Metaphors have their limitations, and thankfully there are many ways to convey the truth of the salvation we have been given by our Great Shepherd.
Best-selling author, teacher, and Episcopal priest, Barbara Brown Taylor, was one who found being compared to dumb animals to be off-putting. She writes, “Imagine my delight when I discovered that someone I know actually grew up on a sheep farm, and according to him sheep are not dumb at all!
It is cattle ranchers who are responsible for spreading that idea, and all because sheep do not behave like cattle. According to my friend, cattle are herded from the rear by hooting cowboys with cracking whips. But that will not work with sheep at all. Stand behind them making loud noises and all they will do is run around behind you, because sheep prefer to be led. You push cattle, my friend said, but you lead sheep, and they will not go anywhere that someone else does not go first – namely their shepherd – who goes ahead of them to show them that everything is alright.
Sheep tend to grow fond of their shepherds, he went on to say. He was always amazed that he could walk right through his sleeping flock without disturbing a single one of them, while a stranger could not step foot in the fold without causing pandemonium. Sheep seem to consider their shepherds part of the family. They develop a language of their own that outsiders are not privy to.
In Palestine today it is still possible to witness a scene that Jesus would have witnessed 2000 years ago. You can observe Bedouin shepherds bringing their flocks home from the various pastures they have grazed in during the day. Often several flocks will end up at the same watering hole around dusk, so that the sheep get all mixed up together. Their shepherds do not worry about the mix-up, however.
When it is time to go home, each one issues his or her own distinctive call – a special trill or whistle, or a particular tune on a reed pipe, and that shepherd’s sheep withdraw from the crowd to follow their shepherd home. They know the shepherd to whom they belong; they know their shepherd’s voice, and it is the only one they will follow.
The Jewish leaders in today’s passage were confused because some seemed to recognize Jesus as Messiah, but they could not see why. They heard others say he was Messiah, but they had not heard it directly from him. This is what they were asking for: For Jesus to lay it out plainly.
Jesus knew at least two things about the nature of their request. First, rather than believing him, they would use any claim he might make about being Messiah to charge him with blasphemy, and the time was not right for that – just yet. Secondly, he knew that no one comes to recognize him as Lord by argument. The Pharisees seemed to assume that a decision about the Messiah was merely a matter of processing information.
If Jesus will simply provide the data, they can arrive at a reasoned conclusion. But Jesus knows that his flock will come to him not by reason, but by recognition. That’s one of the things that makes confirmation and baptism such a momentous occasion. In the end it is not a matter simply of processing the information we can offer about what we know about God, Jesus, the Bible, the church and what it means to live as a Christian. It is all about the faith of a person who comes to believe that she or he belongs to Jesus. Jesus is their shepherd.
I can give some great reasons to accept Christ and live as a Christian. I can present some arguments that answer lots of questions and ease lots of doubts. But all those arguments and teachings put together cannot match the power of a moment of recognition in one’s heart that “I belong to Jesus. God really loves me. I belong to God. That’s just who I am.”
I find it helpful to consider that we are not like cattle to be herded from behind – pushed into something by fear or by force. We need no markings burned into our backsides to remind us to whom we belong. Because those who belong to the Shepherd know his voice, and the Shepherd knows them. No branding needed.
For us sheep, a little water will suffice to remind us of our cleansing from sin, and a savory taste of bread with a sip of the fruit of the vine will remind us that we are claimed and protected; that we can never be snatched away.
The Lord is not my cowboy. Sheep will not take to being pushed from behind. But they will be led. Jesus, our Shepherd, led the way by living a life of love and sacrifice to assure all his sheep that they may follow in trust. He even gave up his life to assure all his sheep that they may follow in trust. What a blessing is the image of shepherd to us. There is no place we are going that he hasn’t been to first.
And isn’t it remarkable that the Bible portrays Jesus as both the Shepherd and a lamb. Let’s be sure not to miss the imagery here that signifies to us that Jesus is both God and human.
The Lord is my Shepherd. My dad told me it was this image and this Psalm that helped lead him through the scary dark morning walks through the cemetery that were part of his daily milk delivery route when he was a young boy.
The Lord is not my cowboy, thankfully, and we are not compared to cattle. How might the psalm read if this were the case? The Lord is my cowboy, I shall not have a leader to follow. He makes me to move wherever he wants by hollering and cracking scary whips behind me. He causes me to submit by lassoing my horns. He knocks me down and ties my hooves together with a rope. He knows who I am because he burned a mark into my backside with a red-hot iron.
I thought of some other images that might tell the story if God were less loving and more forceful. The Lord is my drill sergeant, The Lord is my auditor. The Lord is my jailer. True, some people operate under images like these. But the only one that is Biblical is the one that says God leads by going on in front and allowing us to tag along behind. That the shepherd knows us and that we know His voice. That the shepherd will not allow his sheep to be snatched away. That the shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
What voice brought you here today? Whether you consciously recognized it or not, your Shepherd called you to gather with the flock, and you heard, and you are here.