Tender Shepherd

Apr 30, 2023

Sermon 4-30-23
Fourth Sunday of Easter
Psalm 23 and John 10:1-10
The Rev. Dr. Sandy Selby
            I’ve had a particular fondness for sheep for as long as I can remember. Walt Disney’s movie, “Peter Pan,” came out when I was one year old, and the Broadway show that was based on it opened a year later. Maybe you have already watched the livestream version, “Peter Pan and Wendy,” that premiered on Disney+ this week. In the Broadway show that opened in 1954, and perhaps in the movie that is now streaming on Disney+ is the song, “Tender Shepherd,” that sent me off to sleep on many a night in my childhood: “Tender shepherd, tender shepherd, let me help you count your sheep: one in the meadow, two in the garden, three in the nursery, fast asleep.” Maybe you grew up with that song, too (and will now be singing it to yourself, all day, thanks to me)! I have ever since had an image of sheep as being cute, cuddly, and reliant on a shepherd who was tender with his flock.          
            Much as we like to domesticate sheep in film and in song, they are animals that are inclined to wander off on their own into the danger of the great outdoors, needing shepherds to protect them and, in some settings, border collies to round them up. But they remain wild animals, in their own way. A friend told me a story that happened here in Akron in August 2017.
            Karen was attending an event hosted by the Summit County Historical Society at the Simon Perkins Mansion, which is located on what used to be called “Mutton Hill” on Copley Road, about five miles from here.  As happens each summer, a flock of sheep from the Spicy Lamb Farm in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park was grazing the lawn, scattered about in their favorite spots. The occasion for the event was the solar eclipse, and the gathered crowd was milling about outdoors, waiting for the eclipse to begin, though there was not yet any sign of it. Suddenly the sheep began bleating loudly, in unison, then all converged and ran in a feverish stampede to the perimeter of the property, where they lay down in one big clump, huddling together, silently, on high alert. The people witnessing the flock’s behavior stood there, stunned, by what they were seeing.Eventually, the humans began to notice the darkening sky of the eclipse, an event whose advent the sheep had sensed much earlier. Some time later, the sheep suddenly began to bleat loudly in unison, then got up from the ground and scattered to their previous places on the lawn, calmly grazing where they had been, prior to the eclipse. My friend said that as they watched this strange behavior of the sheep, they were as much in awe of the sheep as they were in awe of the eclipse that occasioned the sheep’s behavior. Sheep are not known as the most intelligent of animals, but like all animals, they know things.
            In today’s lesson from John’s gospel, Jesus depicts himself as the shepherd of the sheep, and as the gate through which the sheep enter the safety of the pasture. He contrasts himself with the thieves and bandits who threaten the sheep, wanting to steal and kill them. In the chapter just prior to this, John had told the story of a man who was born blind. Jesus had given sight to that blind man, who then recognized Jesus for who he was—the Messiah. The man who had been blind knew things about Jesus! But the temple authorities, who were blind to Jesus’ identity, cast the man out of the temple! What happened to the blind man was, indeed, what was happening to the early Christians to whom John’s gospel was written, at the end of the first century. Having proclaimed that Jesus was the Messiah, they were rejected and threatened by many in their community. In today’s gospel, John tells us that Jesus promised his followers that, in the face of the challenges they were facing, he would be the good shepherd who would provide them both protection and sustenance.
            As the story in John’s gospel depicts, the shepherd can protect and sustain the sheep because he is in a relationship with them, a relationship that is built on trust. What’s more, the relationship between the shepherd and the sheep is one of intimacy. These sheep know things. They know that the shepherd calls each of them by name. They know and recognize his voice. Because of that intimacy, that relationship with the shepherd, that knowledge that this shepherd cares deeply about them and will protect them, they follow him. They know this shepherd can be trusted. Jesus, the shepherd, concludes his teaching by stating why he cares for his flock of sheep and what that intimate relationship will bring about: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Those who follow Jesus, the good shepherd, then and now, can trust in his promise of guidance, protection, and abundance.
            The disciples would have related to Jesus’s metaphor of the shepherd because the Israelites were an agrarian people, and the Hebrew Scriptures had frequent references to God as the shepherd of the flock. They had been raised with these stories. Maybe, as children, they went to sleep hearing them! In the 40th chapter of Isaiah is a verse that Handel used as the basis for an aria in “The Messiah”: “He shall feed His flock like a shepherd; and He shall gather the lambs with His arm, and carry them in His bosom, and gently lead those that are with young” (Isaiah 40:11). And, of course, we have Psalm 23, which appears in the lectionary today as a companion piece to the lesson from John’s gospel.
            In his book The Message of the Psalms, the biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann says this about the 23rd Psalm:
This is a psalm of confidence. It recounts in detail by means of rich metaphors a life lived in trustful receptivity of God's gifts. It is God's companionship that transforms every situation…Psalm 23 knows that evil and deathly valleys are present in the world, but they are not feared. Confidence in God is the source of a life of peace and joy.[1]
            Psalm 23 is often associated with funerals. In my ministry as a chaplain at Cleveland Clinic Akron General and at Akron Children’s Hospital, at times I would ask a patient or family if they had a favorite psalm they would like me to read.  Often they would say, “Oh, I love Psalm 23, but it’s about death.  So why don’t you read me something else.” The association of this psalm with death is understandable, for surely the words, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” bring, for many of us, memories of funerals. But death is not the central message of the psalm. This is a psalm about life—the abundant life God provides for those who trust in God.
            Part of the beauty and depth of the psalms is that literary devices used by their writers are themselves meaningful. In the original Hebrew text of Psalm 23, the exact center of the psalm is found by counting twenty-six words from the beginning and twenty-six words from the end to get to the phrase that contains the psalm’s central message: “for thou art with me.” God is present with us, says the psalmist, not just at our death but throughout our lives, even in those difficult times when God may seem most absent. The New Revised Standard Version says it this way: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil: for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me.” This is a statement of profound trust and confidence in God’s faithfulness. God is present with us, no matter what. In times of trouble, perhaps there is no simpler expression of hope than to say, over and over, “for thou art with me.”
            Having said this, the psalmist acknowledges that life will have its difficulties, for in our human vulnerability and mortality we will inevitably encounter suffering in life’s ”darkest valleys.”  The valley is a wilderness space, a dry and arid space where the green pastures and still waters seem far away, even unreachable.  Our instincts tell us that wilderness is an unnatural landscape, an accidental detour, a scary place from which to run as fas as we can. The psychologist Rollo May wrote, “Humans are the strangest of all of God’s creatures, because they run fastest when they have lost their way.”
            And here we come to what a wise mentor[2] once called “the two most important words in the 23rd Psalm: ‘though,’ and ‘through.’” Though we are in the valley, though we are in the wilderness, though we are grieving, though the world around us seems to be imploding due to violence and hatred, God is with us. That is the meaning that we find at this psalm’s very center: “for thou art with me.” And because God is with us, we can find the strength to walk through the valley, to face our pain and hardship directly because we know that, with God’s help, we will not be overcome by it. God is present, and God provides.
            Like sheep, we know things. As people of faith, we know that God is with us, no matter what. “The Lord is our shepherd; we shall not want.”  In God, in Jesus, the good shepherd, we have life, and we have it abundantly.
            Thanks be to God! Amen.     
[1]The Rev. George Ross, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Akron, “The Shepherd in the Shadow,” a sermon preached on June 19, 1988.