Fourth Sunday in Easter, Year A, 2008

Have you all seen the ATT commercial with Sven?  Sven is a giant blonde Swede. We first meet Sven as he is sitting squarely between a sleeping married couple.  As they wake up, Sven tells them that the wife’s stocks are up, and the husband’s stocks are down. He tells the husband about all his emails as the husband walks to the bathroom. Sven then wakes the daughter and reminds her she has kung fu at 2:00.  Then, as the family has breakfast, he takes out a flip chart and makes sure everyone knows the day’s schedule.  At the end of the commercial, he greets everyone at the front door with giant wool sweaters as he tells them to bundle up because of the cold outside.  The products ATT are selling are their smart phones, but I am left wanting not a phone, but a Sven!

How great would it be to have a chirpy, efficient, tall Swede guide me through my day? Sven would make sure I ate a nutritious breakfast, remembered to do the laundry, wore the appropriate clothes for every occasion.  When I got distracted on Facebook, he would gently but firmly remind me the importance of finishing my sermon in a timely manner.  He would make sure I worked on my quilt instead of watching another episode of Jeopardy.  If I had a Sven in my life I would be more productive, more efficient, more in shape.  (Sigh.)  I want a Sven!

But, I don’t have a Sven.  My phone is not even smart-the only thing it can do is. . .make phone calls. It’s amazing that I remember to show up for church, really.

Sometimes, when I think of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, I’d like him to be a little more like Sven.

I’d like the Good Shepherd to guide this little sheep around and make her more efficient, more effective, more focused.

But it turns out, the Good Shepherd is not a self-help guru.  The Good Shepherd is not Tony Robbins, Dr. Phil, or Stephen Covey.  If we follow the Good Shepherd, we won’t learn a new system for organizing our desks, or an exercise plan that will help us have rock hard abs, or a method to raise our children as productive members of society.

After all, sheep don’t have existential crises or schedules that need to be organized.

Sheep just are.  They eat, they sleep, they follow.

I don’t know about you, but that sounds heavenly to me!

I, like many of you, I’m sure, have a serious case of wanna-be-shepherd-itis.  Wanna-be-shepherd-itis is a terrible condition in which you forget you are a sheep and try to be a shepherd instead.  Instead of peacefully following the shepherd, the sheep tries to take over.

Let me describe to you how this goes terribly, terribly wrong:

My preparations for Chuck’s sabbatical have not been the most calm, centered and spiritual exercises.  Instead of quietly saying my prayers and waiting to see what God would have me to each day, I propelled myself into quite a tizzy.  I cleaned off my desk and filed a year’s worth of paperwork.  I made a giant list of all the tasks I need to accomplish, For some reason, I even insisted on frantically deep cleaning my refrigerator at home and organizing the spice rack, as if having expired tins of cloves and moldy leftovers hanging around might seriously affect the quality of my work this summer.

As I wound myself more and more tightly, the circumference of my anxiety widened and soon had nothing to do with the sabbatical!

Luckily, Matt pulled me from the brink and reminded me gently that I was worrying about things over which I had no control.  Matt reminded me that I am not the shepherd of my future.

What a relief!  In that moment I was able to take a deep breath and take my rightful place as a sheep.  When Jesus reminds us that we are sheep, he tells us that our job is to be responsible for the present.  We don’t need to worry about what has happened in the past, we don’t need to worry about what will happen in the future.  Our job as sheep is to learn our Shepherd’s voice and then be quiet enough to identify that voice among the throngs of voices we hear every day.

And we are inundated with voices, aren’t we?  One of the byproducts of our marvelous technology is that it multiplies exponentially the voices we hear.  Two hundred years ago, you heard the voices of your family, friends, colleagues, newspapers and books.  Then the radio was added, next television, then cable television, and finally the internet.  Now we can have access to almost any voice we want.  Even the soothing voice of Sven the Swedish home organizer.

Jesus refers to thieves and bandits presenting themselves as false shepherds.  At the time, he was probably speaking about the Pharisees or false messianic leaders who came before him.  I think, though, if we look hard enough we can find plenty of thieves and bandits in our own day.  Whether religious, political, or media leaders, there are plenty of people who would happily lead us by the nose, pumping us full of false information. Thankfully, none of these voices are our true Shepherd.  Thankfully, our Shepherd is a Good Shepherd who is full of truth, and honor, and love.

Distinguishing the Shepherd’s voice from the cacophony we hear every day is not easy, but it is worth the challenge.  Listening to that voice is not only the right thing to do, it is also in our best interest.  Remember-the Good Shepherd is not a self-help guru.  The Good Shepherd is not going to help us frantically do anything.  Instead, the Good Shepherd will help us to be-to be still-to know ourselves and to know him.

Our Shepherd longs to guide us to lush green fields, abundant with life’s blessings.  Our Shepherd is armed with a rod to protect us from harm and a staff to gather us when we go astray.    Our Shepherd wants only what is good for us, unlike so many of the voices we hear!

No matter what madness is happening around us, the Shepherd will lead us to a quiet place inside ourselves where we can feel safe and secure and loved.

No other voice, no one else, not even Sven, can lead us there.

Christmas Eve, Year A, 2007

Are you lost?

We all get lost sometimes.  I get lost around these parts fairly regularly.  I wept like a little girl more than once my first year as a priest in Greenwood, when I was lost in the country because someone had stolen a street sign or because I missed an obvious landmark.  We get lost in other ways, too, of course.  We forget who we are and start acting in a way that is false and hurtful.  We get lost in the deep seas of grief or depression.  We get lost in our relationships.  We get lost in our social circles, in school, or at work.

Getting lost is a human problem.  Even Mary and Joseph were lost for a little while.  They were travelers against their will, filling a civic obligation.  They were not wealthy and had not planned ahead.  They were going through an experience that must have been completely isolating and strange.  They were in an unfamiliar land and in a completely unfamiliar situation. 

Being lost is scary.  Being lost makes us feel vulnerable and unprotected.  We are not people who are designed to be lost.  We are designed to be safe at home, blanketed in love and security.  Yet, like sheep, we get lost.  All the time.  Over and over.

Wouldn’t it be nice if when we got lost, someone would come after us?  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were say.. .a shepherd who would guide us through our difficult and lost times?

It is no mistake that the first visitors Jesus had after his birth were shepherds.  After all, God could have sent the angels to any group of people.  Why not milkmaids, shopkeepers, or doctors?  Why were shepherds the lucky ones who got to hear the good news first?  The author of the Gospel of Luke is an extremely careful storyteller.  He is not loose with words and carefully considers every detail in his account of the Gospel.  The fact that shepherds were the first to visit Jesus should grab us by our collars and shake us to attention.

Where else in Scripture is the image of the Shepherd used?  Why would shepherds be the first to visit Jesus?

Shepherd imagery is used throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.  Imagery of Israel as lost sheep begins as early as Numbers:

Numbers 27:17 who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the LORD may not be like sheep without a shepherd.”

Verses almost identical to this can be found in 1 Kings and 2 Chronicles.

Later, King David describes feeling shepherded by God in the Psalms, when he says in the 23rd psalm:  The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.

But God does not speak of himself as a shepherd explicitly quite yet.  First, in Isaiah, the prophet records God telling him that a king will,

feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.

But of course king after king after king failed these ideals, so God begins to identify himself as the shepherd of these lost sheep.

Years later, in the 31st chapter of Jeremiah, the prophet says, “Hear the word of the LORD, O nations, and declare it in the coastlands far away; say, “He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd of a flock.”

And then the prophet Ezekiel fleshes out this imagery further, saying that God as shepherd will rescue his people:

Ezekiel 34:12 As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.

Ezekiel goes further and says God will act as Shepherd through King David:

 Ezekiel 34:23 I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd.

Remember that before David was King of all Israel, he was a shepherd boy.  The author of Luke is setting up Jesus as the great Shepherd who will gather God’s people together. Jesus comes from David’s line-so Jesus already has David’s credibility both as shepherd and as king.

When Jesus grows up he acknowledges his role as shepherd, too.  In the gospel of John, one of the primary images of Jesus is as the Good Shepherd.  In the tenth chapter of John, Jesus says, “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.”  Jesus fulfills years of prophecy and steps into the role of God as shepherd, as our caretaker.

The shepherds who come to honor the infant Jesus foreshadow the infant’s future role.  Just as these shepherds gather and watch over their flocks, Jesus will gather the people of his time together.  Jesus will watch over them, and Jesus now watches over us.  A shepherd’s job is to tend to sheep:  to make sure they stick together, to make sure they have enough nourishment, to find any sheep that might go astray.  Jesus does that for us.

Jesus gathers us stray sheep here, now, in community.  Jesus invites us in from wherever we might have been a few hours ago: whether we were having a wonderful celebration or fighting with our partner, rolling our eyes at our parents, celebrating Christmas without a cherished loved one-wherever we were-Jesus gathers us together.

We gather, here, now, to remember that we are not stray sheep. We are not wandering in the wilderness alone.  We are sheep who belong to a shepherd.  A shepherd who loves us with great passion-such passion that he was willing to be born as a human, in a stable, to parents who were just as lost as we are.  A shepherd who would grow up and love us so deeply he would offer his very self on our behalf. 

Today we honor this Shepherd’s humble birth, and we give deep thanks that he has found each of us, and gathers us to himself.  We give thanks that with the birth of Jesus, we are no longer lost.

And we gather every week, here, in this space together, not just to remember this Shepherd, but to encounter him.  When we worship together, when we gather at the altar, when we offer each other the Peace, we meet this Shepherd and occasionally we get a glimpse of the deep, patient, all-encompassing love this Shepherd feels for each of us. 

We may be sheep.  We may be lost sheep.  We may even be spectacularly lost sheep, baaing away in the wilderness, but we are beloved, sought after lost sheep.  And that makes all the difference in the world.  Amen.

Easter 4, Year B, 2006

While I am normally a mature–and let’s be honest, sophisticated person–every time I hear Handel’s Messiah, I giggle hysterically when the choristers belt out, “We like sheep. . .”  Sure I know Handel uses the word “like” in order to make a simile, but for a brief moment it feels as if Handel has taken a break from telling us the glorious story of the birth of Christ and is just expressing affection for. . .well. . .sheep.

Maybe my giggles are just a way of disguising my discomfort.  After all, Handel goes on to compare US to sheep who are easily led astray.  US!  We are independent, free thinking, over educated human beings, not sheep!  Sure, we have a tendency to go astray or follow the crowd occassionally.  Baaaa. Once in a while some of us go out and buy something because someone else made it look really cool.  Baaa.  And, sometimes we fudge ethically to make a little more money so we can keep up with the Joneses.   Baaa.  And every so often we go into the voting booth, having done no research on the positions of the candidate.  Baaaa.

Okay.  Fine.  Humans may have a few sheeplike qualities. But still, we can trust our families, our friends, our culture, our government to guide us wisely, right?    If we decided to structure our life around the principles that we found on television, we’d turn out okay. 

And if trusting the television felt shaky, we could certainly trust the government to help us make right choices. 

And if trusting the government did not work out for us, we could certainly trust the Church, right? 

Well, not necessarily.  In today’s reading from the Gospel of John, Jesus warns us about the dangers of shepherds who are only hired hands.   Jesus is speaking to a group of Pharisees.  A few days back, Jesus cured a blind man.  Instead of congratulating the blind man, maybe buying him a round at the local watering hole, the Pharisees immediately start accusing the no-longer-blind man of lying and then pump him for details about Jesus.  When he does not give the Pharisees the answers they are looking for, they kick the formerly blind man out of town! 

Jesus hears about this event comes back into town, finds the blind man and the Pharisees, and begins telling the Pharisees this long parable about the Good Shepherd.  We tend to think of the parable of the Good Shepherd as a sweet one.  Gentle Jesus carefully leading us. . . but Jesus uses this story to ream out the Pharisees for being such jerks and bad caretakers of their flocks. 

Jesus’ mention of shepherds would remind the Pharisees of Ezekiel 34-in which the Lord berates the Kings of Israel for taking advantage of their people, while benefiting themselves.  The Lord says through the prophet Ezekiel, “Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep.”  Jesus updates the image and portrays the Pharisees as false shepherds who do not protect the sheep.  You can imagine their outrage. 

They had been hard at work, crossing their doctrinal Ts and dotting their theologial “I”s.  Who is Jesus to tell them they have been careless?  They did not think they had done anything wrong at all.  In fact, they had been upholding traditions and truth, while Jesus burst in from nowhere to disrupt all their hard work. 

The Pharisees miss the point-Jesus is interested in the welfare of the sheep, not the details of how the sheep fold is constructed.

But Jesus, in the parable of the Good Shepherd, is doing much more than criticizing the Pharisees.  He lays himself out as the counterpoint to the image of the hired hand.  The hired hand, by the very nature of his job, is not terribly interested in the welfare of the sheep.  He will do a good job protecting the sheep as long as there are not difficult challenges, but the hired hand does not love the sheep like the Good Shepherd does.  The hired hand is ultimately most interested in the hired hand’s welfare. 

But the Good Shepherd’s eye is always on the sheep.  The Good Shepherd cultivates intimacy with the sheep.  He will guide the sheep, find the sheep when they are lost, and ultimately lay his life down for the sheep, rather than have them be attacked by the wolf. 

Who do we choose as our shepherds?  We appoint husbands, wives, lovers, parents, children, employers, best friends, movie stars, politicians, priests, writers, teachers, and philosophers as our shepherds, but even the best of these is only human, and subject to all of human weakness.  At their best a devoted spouse carries only the shadow of the love that the Good Shepherd has for you, the best philosopher carries only a shadow of the wisdom of the Good Shepherd, the best friend has only the shadow of the loyalty of the Good Shepherd. 

Of course we are called to be in relationship and to love and learn from the people in our lives, but we must be careful under whose leadership we place ourselves.  Recently I watched Enron:  The Smartest Guys in the Room.  This documentary traced the many steps that led to the Enron scandal.  What struck me most is the culture of ethical murkiness that Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skillings created.  Traders who came into the company with no illegal background, quickly assimilated into a culture that rewarded illegal transactions as long as they made the company money.   And, as we all know, the average person who worked for Enron walked away penniless, while the corporate leaders made hundreds of millions of dollars.  These shepherds did not care about their sheep.

Enron is a dramatic example, but every day we have choices to make about whom we follow.  Whether it is choosing an employer, a spouse, a friend, a social club, a political party or a church, we put ourselves in a position of trusting.  We trust that others will look out for our best interest, but that is not always the case. 

The good news is that The Good Shepherd does always look out for our best interest.  Following the Good Shepherd may not lead to instant gratification, wealth or conventional success.  Following the Good Shepherd may not even always feel good.  But we can trust that the Good Shepherd knows us, loves us, and will guide us with care.  We can trust that the Good Shepherd will be with us in pleasant pastures, beside still waters and through the dark and dangerous places in our journeys.  

You cannot get so lost that the Good Shepherd will not find you, put you over his shoulders and bring you back to the fold.  You cannot be so threatened that the Good Shepherd will not stand between you and the threat; and help you absorb the pain.  Most of all, you can trust the Good Shepherd to lead you into a life of integrity and meaning. 

The Good Shepherd is a shepherd who will not abuse you, not manipulate you, not take advantage of you.  He will use you, but he will use you for good, both good in the world and good for your own development as a Christian. 

To follow the Good Shepherd, we must know the Good Shepherd.  Earlier in this passage from John, Jesus explains that the sheep follow the Good Shepherd because they know his voice.  We must learn the Good Shepherd’s voice in order to be his followers.  If we don’t know his voice, we have no way to sort out what which is the Good Shepherd’s way and which is merely the way of hired hands. 

There is no magic trick to learning the Good Shepherd’s voice-the easiest way is to learn about the Good Shepherd by reading the Bible.  A lot of people in America have a lot to say about Jesus these days.  Instead of relying on them, or even on your priests, by reading the Gospels and Epistles you can start learning Jesus’ voice for yourself.  And if you create some silence in your life, and if you listen carefully, you might even hear the Good Shepherd call you by name.