Sermon from May 7, 2017
I’m learning a lot about sheep here in Hastings! At Springfest at Prairie Loft last weekend, I met sheep – not for the first time, I imagine, but perhaps the first time outside of a petting zoo – and saw one get sheared.
I learned that sheep are skittish, and scare easily. I learned that they are somewhat dumb animals, that – if put on their back – will assume it’s all over and wait to be eaten. And, apparently, they know your voice. There was a very tall man working with sheep at Prairie Loft during Springfest a few weekends ago, and they demonstrated shearing. True to form, once caught and put on it’s back, the sheep laid there docile, without protest while the shearer went up and down it’s belly with a buzzing razor, all the way until it was over.
Shepherd imagery is a common refrain in the bible. Many in Jesus’ audience would be familiar with shepherding. And in fact, shepherding in the Middle East, since the time of Nomads, has been done differently there than here. Here, a flock of sheep might be led from behind, herded by dogs perhaps. In the Middle East, the shepherd walks in front of the sheep, as Jesus suggests, and shepherds continually call to sheep to keep them returning to the flock. The role of the shepherd is to lead the sheep, providing protection, freedom from fear, and sustenance. It is a much more intimate connection than our 21st century ears might hear. And for good reason - sheep were a valuable commodity in the ancient world; a source of food, milk, and barter. So protection of the flock was critically important.
In our gospel reading, Jesus is shifty. At first, he begins with the traditional shepherding imagery, activating his listeners’ understanding of a shepherd that tenderly and personally cares for each sheep. But by the end of the speech, he presents himself as the gate. For me, that’s hard to hear, because when I think of gates, I think of guards, fences, locked entries, gated communities, and ‘no trespassing’ signs. Gates generally signal a division between the protected privileged, and those we want to keep out. It’s a strong contrast from the Jesus who, just a few verses ago, lovingly called each sheep by name and whose voice is known.
It can be tempting to hear this verse as a declaration of who’s in and who’s out. But we should refrain from focusing too closely on the gate. The gate is not to keep out other sheep - clearly Jesus says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold that I will bring in also, so there will be one flock, and one shepherd.” The purpose of the gate is to keep everyone together in the sheepfold during the night, and to guard against all that threatens their well-being. During the day the gate is opened and the sheep can go out, following their shepherd, to find pasture. The gate and the shepherd work together so that the flock thrives. When we emphasize the interlocking nature of these functions, Jesus is both the gate and the shepherd at the same time; he guards and protects his sheep from danger, and he provides for their nourishment, for their life in abundance.
But rather than focus on the gate, we should focus on the abundant life promised by Christ.
Psalm 23 is probably one of the most well-known and oft-recited verses in the bible. Many of us can begin to hear the King James Version and recite it from muscle memory, because the first verse says it all; The lord is my shepherd, and I shall not want.
But when we go into recital mode, we miss much more of the richness in this text.
The Psalmist who wrote this text is describing a journey. Because of God’s companionship, the journeyer comes upon pastures of fresh and vibrant natural beauty. You know, like Nebraska.
Actually, between stretches of fertile farmland and the twists and turns of the Platte, Psalm 23 may feel too ordinary. The climate of the Middle East is more arid than here, and the person who wrote this beautiful Psalm most certainly was not so blessed with Nebraska’s fertility. It would be more accurate to imagine these words as if you were walking through the Badlands in South Dakota, or perhaps near the Rio Grande in Texas. On that journey, you might walk for several miles in rocky soil under a hot sun before getting a glimpse of green. Imagine how beautifully inviting a green pasture would be after miles of dirt roads. Image how refreshing it might be to take few minutes of rest, after quenching your thirst, on spongy grassland, not worrying about what type of predator might come along, because your guardian is with you. To feel fully restored, in your whole being; rested, strong and at peace to face the next long stretch of walking, a valley filled with foreboding, danger, and dry bones. And at every step along the way, the knowledge that God is with you gives you undeserved confidence about your fate. You charge forward, unconcerned about the ‘ifs’ and the ‘ands’ and the ‘what-ifs’ and all the things that can go wrong. God provides perfect contentment. I think this Psalm is popular because it describes perfect faith.
And then – there’s a verse that I hardly noticed before. Thou preparest a table for me in the presence of mine enemies.
It’s important to recognize that this Psalm, and indeed most of the Old Testament, were written and existed before money or monetary exchange. In their world, the primary demonstration of abundance was to feast. This is the origin of our feasts on holy days, birthdays, graduations – it’s why we feast on days of celebration: because it shows God’s abundance in our lives. It echoes the slaughtering of the fatted calf in gratitude for the safe return of family from war. It reminds us to be thankful to God from whom our blessings come. It is a celebration of all the places where goodness and mercy thrive in our lives.
This feast comes in the presence of enemies. What kind of enemies? Are we thinking of bears, wolves, and other metaphorical predators? A sheep almost always eats in the presence of its enemies but kept safe through the safe space created by the shepherd’s protection. In the Psalm, this is not a gate keeping the danger out, but feeling content enough to feast in front of your enemies. This feast shows an act of defiant abundance and trust.
What kind of enemies are in your imagination? Do your enemies have a human face? Are you imagining the enemy is the devil, or some cosmic force of evil? Do they look like the all too modern harassment of checkbook registers, cholesterol reports, the fast movement of the calendar or the early call of the alarm clock? And what kind of bravery does it require to celebrate in spite of them? How do we reclaim our goodness and mercy in front of them?
What would it mean to make a strong display of celebration right in front of that force, or person, or thing that has the power to hurt you? To refuse to lie down and wait to be taken by your predator? To take it upon yourself a show of abundant love and joy in the midst of terror? To refuse to acquiesce to the steady march of your enemy echoing in your ears? To dance in the face of danger? To walk into a city where there is a warrant for your arrest and brazenly enjoy a holiday meal, as Jesus did on Passover?
Indeed, this is part of our story. Did you ever wonder how the cross became the primary symbol for our faith? Why this representation of an instrument of torture, an instrument of Roman intimidation, became the thing we put on walls and wear around our necks? I mean, aren’t there better symbols for Jesus and God? A cornucopia, perhaps? Bread and Wine. Sheep and shepherd. A mustard seed. We could all walk around wearing a shepherd’s staff around our necks. And, for certain, these symbols for Jesus exist. But the cross became prominent as a symbol of resistance. Where the Roman authority – and others – said, “Obey or face the cross!” the early Christians said, ‘your cross doesn’t scare me. God is my shepherd. Jesus is Resurrected. I am protected.’ They embraced the symbol and began wearing it around their necks to demonstrate their faith and lack of fear.
Every act of joy in face of overwhelming danger is an act of Resurrection, an act of resistance to the power of those enemies. The act of extravagant contentment is an act of faith in a Shepherd that will be with you in all your days. It’s knowing that even though the journey may be beset with danger, with predators, with intimidation, with a valley of dry bones, God is setting you a place of honor at the table in the feast of thanksgiving. It’s a resolve to show our enemies, You do not have the power to take my happiness from me. Resurrection is not only a hope, it is a resolve. It is our resolve to embrace each other and our celebrations in spite of what we may fear. It is resting even though we have too much to do. It is demonstrating welcome when the world tells us to show caution. It is giving generously when society tells us to get what’s ours, and keep it locked up. It is a Resurrection mindset; that God will provide. It is by living into that mindset that we manifest God’s kingdom in our lives and the lives of others. It is in those actions that we resurrect Christ everyday. We resolve to participate in God’s abundant life regardless of what tomorrow brings, or what lurks outside our door. We know that we spread God’s abundant love through our extravagant contentment.
For surely, God’s goodness and mercy will follow you all of your days. Follow is the word we all know, but a better translation is pursue – God’s Goodness and mercy will pursue you - will be chasing you down – all of your days, if you let it. We’d all like to believe we will dwell in with God for the rest of our days, we know realistically our journeys go in and out of God’s presence. We can’t guarantee that we will always dwell with God. But the Psalmist wrote that we can dwell and we can return to God’s presence. Return, always returning, to this space of peace, and tranquility, and trust, in the green pasture with God.
For every kid who’s been picked on, for every worker who’s been shamed or escorted to the door, for every person that’s every been abandoned by a spouse or a child or a parent, God is extending an extravagant welcome for your return, preparing you a place of honor at his table that will replenish your soul with trust, and affirmation, and joy. God’s goodness and mercy are on your scent, even if you can’t feel it. God’s goodness and mercy are hungry for you to trust that there is abundance in store for you. You can journey with resolve, knowing that God will follow you the rest of your days, because you are cared for by a Shepherd who knows your name. Amen.