The good shepherd

 

Ezekiel 34:11-16

11 “‘For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. 12 As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness. 13 I will bring them out from the nations and gather them from the countries, and I will bring them into their own land. I will pasture them on the mountains of Israel, in the ravines and in all the settlements in the land. 14 I will tend them in a good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing land. There they will lie down in good grazing land, and there they will feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign Lord. 16 I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice.

 

Acts 4:5-12

The next day their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’ There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”

 

John 10:11-18

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

 

 

In one of those westerns on television many years ago, a man who was hiding from the law and trying to escape justice, disguised himself as a minister, put on a black clerical shirt with a collar and headed out of town on the train.

However, while on the train, an elderly man has a heart attack and it seems as if this is the end for the man. Someone remembers that there is a minister on the train and they call for the minister, who really is not a minister, but a person who is a fugitive from justice.

But in order not to have his disguise exposed he goes along when he is called. Coming upon the dying man, the saying man sees him and whispers ‘the 23rd psalm’. The fake cleric is confused, but someone pokes him and says: He wants you to say the 23rd psalm, you know, “the Lord is my shepherd.”

Slowly and haltingly he says “the lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…” and makes it through the whole psalm. To anyone watching it seems as if he is no minister, but to the dying man, the words brought comfort and hope as he dies and is eased into the arms of love.

 

I don’t know if the 23rd Psalm is the best-known piece of scripture or not, but if it isn’t it is way up there.

 

We sing the 23rd psalm to the tune Crimond. It is a popular hymn. We say it at funerals. In fact I use it at pretty much every funeral I conduct.

One time I got a call from a funeral director in Yorkton. He said that a man had died suddenly, who was in his fourties and the family didn’t want a religious funeral, “so I thought of you, Harry” the funeral director said.

I took it at what it was meant to be. He didn’t mean that I was not religious, but he understood that I understood it was more about being sensitive to the needs of the family, than trying to assert or impose my particular religious faith on them.

When I met with the family they explained that their son had never been really religious or attended church and  they didn’t want a service that made it out they were religious. But you know what were they comfortable wit during the funeral service? You guessed it – the 23rd psalm.

 

There is a rhythm and a cadence to the psalm. There is a beauty to it and for many, including myself, I feel ushered into the presence of God’s arms.

I feel welcomed at God’s table.

I feel the presence of God when I am walking in the dark valleys, or when the shadow of death is near.

The 23rd psalm is more than scripture… it is for many an experience of God.

 

But so familiar are we with it, the danger is… that it starts to become too familiar, too safe, too much like a Hallmark Card, all nicey-nicey and comforting…

 

that it messes up every other shepherd and sheep scripture for us, and we go back into that comforting 23rd psalm at funeral mode.

 

So today when we hear about the good shepherd from John’s gospel and hired hands and wolves and other sheep, the danger is that we just automatically think it is the 23rd psalm and it is all about the comfort of the good shepherd. It is all about “the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

 

I think the other danger is that although many of us have had experiences on the farm on in rural Canada, we might not know much about sheep, or maybe we have lost touch with the hard work and the stink of raising animals. Or maybe even we have lost touch with or are even ignorant of the precariousness, harshness, and isolated life of shepherds thousands of years ago in the middle east.

 

So let’s ask ourselves a very pointed questions as we approach the text.

 

What was the context of this sheep and shepherd imagery?

Why did Jesus call himself “the good shepherd” in that time and place?

 

Notice that this saying comes after the story of the man born blind. That man, whom Jesus healed, is hauled in before the religious authorities who are obviously not impressed with Jesus.

 

Jesus ends chapter 9 of John saying that he came so that those who see would become blind. And the Pharisees in one of the questions that really needs no answer ask: “Surely you don’t me us?”

Surely Jesus did mean them, among others…

Today we would answer the question: Surely you don’t mean us?

“If the shoe fits…”

 

So when Jesus says he is the “good” shepherd, by implication there are bad shepherds.

 

So Jesus wasn’t trying to be meek and mild and comforting with this speech. He was actually being provocative.

The Jews knew that King David was a shepherd before he was a king. They knew that Moses tended sheep. They knew that the Lord was likened to a shepherd in Psalm 23.

So Jesus is setting himself up as true leader instead of the false leaders, the hired hands…

Jesus is the true leader instead of those who are thieves and bandits who try to steal from others and take from others and use others.

Jesus is the true leader who comes to enhance the life of the sheep, instead of enhancing his own life.

Jesus is the true leader who protects the sheep and lays down his life for the sheep, instead of hired help who run away when there is trouble.

Jesus is the true leader, who speaks and the sheep hear and trust that this is the one who cares for them.

Right in front of the temple, just before the feast of dedication, which was the feast to celebrate the cleansing of temple from its desecration by false leaders, the Syrians under Antiochus Epiphanes almost 200 years earlier, Jesus sets himself up as a true leader who cares.

 

Jesus defies the authority of the temple leaders, and the Pharisees and says there is a new authority in town. It is he, Jesus.

And what marks this authority is the authority of love. He cares for the sheep and dies for the sheep.

 

And to make the point more clear those who chose the lectionary text give the story of Peter and John who are arrested for healing a man.

They are put on trial by the rulers, the elders, the scribes, the temple authorities, the Pharisees and the Sadducees.

All of the Jewish leaders are there, questioning Peter and John.

 

What is clear is that the leaders are not out for the people. Lost in the equation is the one who is healed. They don’t care about the healing or the person who is healed. They are interested in asserting their own control and in gauging if Peter and John represent any threat to their power.

So they ask, by what power or name did they do this?

 

And the answer is simple. It is by Jesus, whom you crucified.

 

It is by this good shepherd whose life was laid down for the sheep, that this sheep is healed…

In fact it is by love from this leader that there is love for all the sheep.

And Peter goes on to say that there is salvation in no one else. This is the power or the name to save us humans.

 

And Peter is voicing a truth that is huge. The ordinary leader is mostly concerned about their own status and power and uses violence and force to keep themselves in power. The ordinary leader points fingers at others and finds a scapegoat.

The ordinary leader will even kill what is good and loving to keep the status quo.

 

And yet Jesus stand in opposition to this and saves that the only thins that can save humans is love.

It is the only way to be in this world that can save the world. Jesus is the sign and symbol of this love. Jesus is the embodiment of this love.

Jesus is the one killed by humans and religious and political leaders and yet still loves.

 

That is a love that I can put my faith and trust and life in…

 

And that is what we Christians have to bring to the table when we talk about religious pluralism in this world.

 

WE have a cornerstone that you can build a world and culture on.

That cornerstone is love and forgiveness and non-violence.

The world seems to have rejected that cornerstone, but we Christians say, that’s what can change our world.

Jesus embodies love, forgiveness and non-violence.

 

That is what can save us.

 

And that is why this little sheep called Harry follows Jesus. That is why I hear his voice.

Because that voice says: “I love you. I care for you. I forgive you. I die for you.”

 

And that leader not only says it. He does it. He lives it. He dies for it. He rises for it.

To love you. To care for you. To forgive you.

 

And sometimes when I am a little cynical about the future of the church, I think that it is because we Christians have done it to ourselves and our leadership was more like the Jewish authorities who all got around Peter and John,.

 

That sometimes our religious leaders and our church institutions and our church membership are more about power and control that self-giving love.

 

And we question people.

Do you have the right doctrine?

Do you have the right morality?

Do you have the right worship?

Do you use the right words?

Do you have the right version of scripture?

 

…instead of celebrating those who are on the front lines loving one another, building bridges, healing the sick, forgiving the sinner, practicing non-violence.

 

I get tired of all the wars that Christians have with each other.

Fighting over doctrine.

Fighting over theology.

Fighting over the understanding of scripture.

Fighting over human sexuality.

Fighting over the right way to worship.

Fighting over politics

Fighting over just about any issue you can think of…

 

When Jesus sais that we are to be known by how we love one another.

 

 

Tertullian was an early church father born and raised in Northern Africa and was thought to be the son of a Roman Centurion.

He became a lawyer and later became a Christian around 198 CE. He became a prolific Christian author.

 

He was credited for writing about Christians “ look…how they love one another….and how they are ready to die for one another…”

 

That is the cornerstone that I think we Christians could build on even in this culture that is rejecting organized religion.

 

See how they love one another. See how they die for one another.

 

Isn’t that what the good shepherd did for us?

 

What do you get when you cross Jehovah’s Witness with a Presbyterian?

 

You get a Christian who knocks on doors but says nothing when the resident opens the door.

 

Fifty years ago it wasn’t uncommon for churches to send their members out to knock on a few doors and invite people out to church.

Thirty years ago or so, the way Presbyterian Churches were started in Southern Ontario as well as a few other places was that a summer student would go knocking on doors in a new community asking people if they were Presbyterian.

And when a new church would start, the faithful few would go around the community at regular intervals putting flyers in mailboxes telling people about the new Presbyterian church.

It was reasoned that if 4% of the population was Presbyterian then if there were 20, 000 people in a new subdivision, 800 might have Presbyterian connnections.

That was the group to target.

 

Times have changed. People don’t like door-knockers or flyers any more. Maybe that creates more bad press than good press.

 

But maybe it isn’t just the advertising we need.

 

Maybe what we need is a community of silly old sheep that have the audacity to love one another and die for one another.

To put one another first. To not worry about the differences of doctrine, human sexuality and biblical interpretation, as much as knowing Jesus, loving each other, and forgiving one another.

 

On 12th February 1993 Mary Johnson’s only son, 20-year-old Laramiun Byrd, was murdered.  The perpetrator was 16-year-old Oshea Israel who received a 25 year sentence for second degree murder. Many years later Mary visited Oshea in prison and since his release in 2010 they have lived as neighbours in the Northside community of Minneapolis. Mary now dedicates her time to From Death to Life, an organization she founded that uses healing and reconciliation to end violence between families of victims and those who have caused harm.

 

I quote Mary

 But then, one day, I read a poem which talked about two mothers – one mother whose child had been murdered and the other mother whose child was the murderer. It was such a healing poem all about the commonality of pain and it showed me my destiny.  Suddenly I had this vision of creating an organization to support not only the mothers of murdered children but also the mothers of children who had taken a life.   I knew then that I would never be able to deal with these mothers if I hadn’t really forgiven Oshea. So I put in a request to the Department of Corrections to meet him.

Never having been to a prison before, I was so scared when we got there and wanted to turn back.  But when Oshea came into the room I shook hands with him and said, “I don’t know you and you don’t know me.  You didn’t know my son and he didn’t know you, so we need to lay down a foundation and get to know one another.”  We talked for two hours during which he admitted what he’d done. I could see how sorry he was and at the end of the meeting, for the very first time, I was genuinely able to say that I forgave Oshea.  He couldn’t believe how I could do this and he asked if he could hug me.  When he left the room I bent over saying – “I’ve just hugged the man who’d murdered my son”.  Then, as I got up, I felt something rising from the soles of my feet and leaving me.  From that day on I haven’t felt any hatred, animosity or anger. It was over.

Mary Johnson and Oshea Israel (USA)

 

That’s the good shepherd at work.

Look how she loved her son’s murderer.

 

I am reminded that in this same passage of scripture about this amazing shepherd who cares for us, that Jesus says that he has sheep not of this fold.

 

Will we, like Jesus, leave this fold, a fold we sometimes protect with too much diligence, look for those who need care, need a safe pasture, need protection from wolves and those who would steal from them.

Will we find those who are lost?

 

Will we go out and feed the sheep, for as Jesus said to Peter, when Peter confessed his love for Jesus, “then feed my sheep.”

Feed my sheep. See how they love one another. Amen.