Be a Shepherd
St. Paul's Episcopal Church | Louisburg, NC | May 12, 2019: LESSONS OF LOSS
Happy Mother’s Day
Our mothers are always with us. They teach us many and assorted lessons. Here is one of mine:
When we hesitate in being direct, we slip a layer of protection on which keeps us from feeling the weight of those around us. My mamma taught me to take these gloves of protection off at an early age. You see, I needed to listen to the feelings of others, as well as my own.
LESSONS OF LOSS
My thoughts today center on the response of Jesus to the people in John’s Gospel and the lyrical reassurance of the 23rd Psalm. Let’s take another look at them both, first, a couple of lines from the Gospel reading:
“How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.
The masses cannot get over the hurdle of their suspense. “He has a demon in him and he is clearly out of this mind, they shout!” This collides with, “But how can a demon open the eyes of the blind like we just saw?”
“Who is he?”
“What is he?”
Their tension is overwhelming. This tug of war between the words of Jesus and our human response still sabotages our ability to hear the truth today. To this day, Faith cannot negotiate with angry words. An angry crowd does not have the ability to listen. An emotional mob wants to WIN, and winning and listening, well they don’t hang out a lot.
Leave the chaos of this urban crowd for a moment and wind your way far, very far away to a quiet place, a place of reflection. Calmly walk away from that chaotic arena, that place of ACHIEVEMENT and find that your path has led you to a location of ACCEPTANCE and read that 23rd Psalm again. You will find it devoid of any concept of winning, and only then, can we learn to embrace some vulnerability in our lives, and not just hear, but truly listen:
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures: he leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul: he leads 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; your rod and your staff they comfort me. Thou prepares a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: You anoint my head with oil; my cup runs 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.
Every time I read it, the same feeling overwhelms me. It is an acceptance of Mercy I have not earned, as I walk in a darkness which I do not deserve. It overcomes me, this feeling of listening to the LESSONS OF LOSS.
My perspective as a Listener shifts as I stand before you in this pulpit. We each have our unique point of view. Jane’s perspective is seen from the altar. Anne’s is from behind the organ. My perspective when I walk in this sanctuary is usually informed by a tinge of Loss. My view, except for Services like today is usually about halfway back on the left side, just because I sat down there in 1983, 36 years ago behind Ed and Nancy. And most of you do not know who Ed and Nancy were because time has taken them away. Oh I still hear them, along with Bill and Ed and Trudy and Jane and Teresa and Judy and Collin and Betty and Mabel and Tom and Betty and Cecil and Dewey and Dottie and Pete and Asher and Fred and Elizabeth and Adelaide and Joe and Sophie and Karen… I still hear all their voices.
But when I come up here and I have to put my thoughts to words and share them with you, my perspective changes and I have grown as a result. There is nothing passive about learning to listen. I have lost these Sunday friends, yet we are blessed to have others now walk our path.
As we learn to listen, we figure out that there are two major tasks for each human life. The first task is to build an identity; the second is to find our purpose. Once we know our WHAT, our WHY becomes stronger. We try so ardently to ACHIEVE, that some of us cannot muster up the ability to simply ACCEPT.
Our society is a “first-half-of-life” culture, a society in suspense. It is during this first-half thinking they we establish an identity, a home, relationships, friends, community, security, and building a proper platform for our only life.
But it takes much longer to discover what we are to do with our life. It is when we begin to pay attention, that we begin to move from the first to the second half of our own lives. Our ability to listen has to do with purifying our intentions and being honest about our motives. It is hard work. Most often we don’t pay attention to that inner task until we have had some kind of fall, or failure in our outer tasks. Simply put, we must learn to lose before we learn to listen.
I have thought more about sheep this Spring that I ever had in my life. It’s a commonly held belief that sheep are dumb animals. This belief has given rise to the phrase "to fleece," which is used in reference to stealing from a person who is unaware of what is taking place. With our common assumptions about sheep, could it be that Jesus is insulting us by calling us sheep? Is he calling us dumb? Are sheep really as dumb as we’ve been led to believe? Could it be that they’ve just gotten bad press?
This seems to be the case. Apparently sheep have had their reputations smeared by cattle ranchers. As you may know from watching westerns on TV, cattle-ranchers hate sheep and their herders with a passion. Ranchers, who are predisposed to cattle, decided that sheep are dumb because sheep don't act like cattle. For instance, when you herd cattle, you drive them from behind by whooping and hollering and cracking whips. If you try this with sheep, they’ll just circle around you, and love on ya. It seems you can't drive sheep; you have to lead them. Sheep won't go anywhere unless they know that there is someone out in front making sure that everything is okay. Don’t you like sheep more already?
Moses and David were both shepherds, and according to Luke, shepherds were the first people to receive the message of Jesus' birth. In today’s Gospel reading we find a series of statements from Jesus, in which he describes himself as the Good Shepherd. There is a good reason why these biblical characters were shepherds, and why sheep figure so prominently in biblical imagery: Sheep were, after all, the primary form of livestock in Palestine. It’s important to also note that the people of Israel didn't consider them to be stupid. They knew what sheep were capable of and so they didn’t take offense at being called sheep. They wore their wool, they drank their milk, and ate their cheese and the meat of their bodies.
Jesus honors a specific attribute of sheep which is they can recognize the voice of their shepherd. Not only that, but they will only follow the voice of that one shepherd. The reason sheep will only respond to the voice or call of their own shepherd is because they know that they can count on their shepherd to keep them safe. Sheep trust their shepherd with their lives.
Barbara Brown Taylor tells of a conversation with a friend who grew up around sheep. Her friend told her that "he could walk right through a sleeping flock without disturbing a single one of them, while a stranger could not step foot in the fold without causing pandemonium." If you meet up with a group of Bedouins today at an oasis in the Middle East you will see a scene very similar to what was common in first century Palestine. Although several flocks might gather at the same watering hole, the Bedouin shepherds don’t try to keep them apart, because when the shepherd is ready to leave, he or she gives off a distinctive call or whistle and the flock gathers to that shepherd. Taylor writes: “They know whom they belong to; they know their shepherd's voice, and it is the only one they will follow.”* It would seem that sheep aren't all that dumb after all; they know whom they can trust and whom not to trust, and they respond only to that one voice. If, then, we are part of Jesus’ flock, then we’ll recognize his voice and follow him.
There are so many voices and temptations calling out to us in our lives today. Whose voices can we trust? They appeal to our emotions, our financial needs, our desires, our pride, and our fears. We simply have to calm down, and still these waters to hear what Jesus saying to us: “My sheep hear my voice, I know them, and they follow me.”
We are reassured by the 23rd Psalm because it speaks of God's comforting presence in difficult times. We love the images of green pastures and still waters, because they speak of peacefulness and serenity. But, earlier readers of the Psalm likely would have heard something different. They would have heard a word about God's provision for his people. Green pastures suggest food and still waters a safe place to drink, things that both people and sheep living in a desert climate couldn't take for granted. They trusted the shepherd to scout out and find food and water for them. They also had confidence that when trouble came, the shepherd would protect them. Both people and sheep have confidence that when we walk through even the darkest valley, their shepherd, armed with rod and staff, will not let anything happen to them. They will make it through the difficult times that face them. If God is our shepherd, we need not fear, for God stands with us.
The religious leaders of the day couldn’t accept Jesus in this role, because he didn’t act as they expected a Messiah to act. In John’s account, Jesus responds by telling them that their opposition stems from the fact that they’re simply not his sheep. If they had been his sheep, they would have known his voice, and responded to his promise of protection and security.
Although we hear a word of comfort in the image of the Good Shepherd that doesn’t seem to be the point that John wants to make. He places this image in the midst of a discussion that Jesus has with these opponents that continue to question his authority to speak. So, when we hear Jesus talking about heeding the voice of the shepherd, he’s talking about allegiance, loyalty, and a willingness to follow.
Several months ago I heard my dear friend Shane Benjamin say that he thought that Listening was a primitive act of love. That has stuck with me. You must give away a part of yourself to genuinely listen. You must relinquish some of your ambition to listen. There are a cacophony of voices in the world that are calling out to us. The question is, which one will we hear and abide? There is a uniqueness to God’s call. We hear this voice in prayer and study and listening, often in those who hold no little power over us.
Sheep only get lost only when they stop listening for the shepherd’s voice, and this happens when the sheep lose contact with the shepherd. Dark valleys will always await us, wolves of doubt will always be nipping at our heels, but our Lord is with us, always willing to lead us onward to a safer place.