“A Shepherding Love”

GentleStream180x135Preached by Dr. Michael Cheuk
Taken from John 10:11-18; Psalm 23 (NIV)

Many of you know that in a couple of days, several church members and I will be heading to Israel for ten days. As I was reading up on the trip, I was surprised to learn that even today, in Israel, flocks of sheep roam not just in rural pastures, but also in green spaces in urban settings, guided and directed by shepherds. Today, our assigned lectionary texts from Psalm 23 and the Gospel of John both deal with how God is our shepherd.

“I am the good shepherd,” Jesus said.  As you may know, shepherding was an honorable occupation in Old Testament days during in Abraham’s time. But gradually, shepherding lost its social acceptability. According to Joachim Jeremias, a world-renowned professor of Near Eastern Studies, during Jesus’ time, shepherds were despised in everyday life, seen as second class and untrustworthy. They had no civil rights and were not admitted in court as witnesses. Rabbis banned pasturing sheep and goats in Israel, except on desert plains, and Jeremias notes: “The rabbis ask with amazement how, in view of the despicable nature of shepherds, one can explain why God was called ‘my shepherd’ in Psalm 23:1.”[1]

Therefore, it must have been a shock for Jesus’ disciples to hear him say, “I am the good shepherd.” If Jesus were here today, he might choose to say, “I am the good undocumented  worker.” Throughout Jesus’ earthly ministry, he came and identified with those who were on the margins of society. He was born in a manger and his birth was announced not to kings and rulers, but to shepherds. During his ministry, Jesus associated with tax collectors and “sinners.” He healed lepers, demoniacs, and women who were considered unclean. He was executed on the cross between two thieves. When he was resurrected, he first appeared not to men, but to women, another group who also were not admitted in court as witnesses. Therefore, while it probably shocked his disciples, Jesus’ self-identification as a despised shepherd was really not that surprising, given God’s consistent and enduring love, care, and concern for those who were neglected and despised, those without power or wealth, those who were the target of discrimination and oppression. Jesus as the Good Shepherd laid down his life for precisely these people, people whom He lovingly called his sheep.

Since we no longer live in an agrarian society, most of us have do not know that much about sheep. Sheep get a bad rap as being stupid and dumb. But in her sermon “The Voice of the Shepherd,” Barbara Brown Taylor tells of an acquaintance who had actually grown up on a sheep ranch and could dispel the myth that sheep are dumb. It was actually the cattle ranchers who started that rumor, because sheep do not behave like cows. Cows are herded from the rear with shouts and prods from the cowboys. But that does not work with sheep. They actually prefer to be led. Cows can be pushed; sheep must be led. Sheep will not go anywhere that someone else—their trusted shepherd—does not go first, to show them that everything is all right. “Sheep seem to consider their shepherds part of the family, and the relationship that grows up between the two is quite exclusive. They develop a language of their own that outsiders are not privy to.”[2]

Back in biblical times, and I’m guessing still today, several different flocks of sheep may end up in the same space or watering hole and get all mixed together. But their shepherds never worry about the mix-up. When it is time to go home, each one uses a distinct call: a whistle, a trill, a particular tune on a reed pipe. The sheep recognizes the call. They hear their shepherd’s voice and it is the only one they will follow. “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me,” says Jesus.

What do we know about the shepherding love of Jesus? We know that God so loved the world that God sent Jesus to us, and anyone who believes and belongs to this Good Shepherd will have eternal life. We know that we’re all like sheep having gone astray, each one of us going our own way in sinful and destructive paths. But unlike the “hired hand” CEO’s who bail out of their sinking companies with golden parachutes, our Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. Here, Jesus was talking about the cross on which He willingly died for the sake of rescuing us from the consequences of our sin. No one took Jesus’ life from Him; He laid it down of His own accord. Out of a shepherding love, Jesus freely chose to pay the price of our drifting away so that death is not our final destiny.  And on Easter Sunday, Jesus took up His life again in a glorious resurrection so that we too, might live in a new, resurrected life.  We also know that the shepherding love of Jesus extended not just to Jews, but also to Gentiles, those “other sheep not of this sheep pen.” Thank God for such universal love, for without it, we Gentiles would not be here this morning!

That’s what we know about the shepherding love of Jesus. And while we live in a society where there are so many voices vying for our attention, distracting us, seducing us onto paths that lead not to abundant life but to destruction, the voice of our Good Shepherd is always calling us back. Despite our sheep-like tendencies to go astray, to drift away from the path and the way, the shepherding love of Jesus will always seek us out and to lead us on God’s way.

The good news this morning is this: we may be sheep, but it is not about us. It is all about the Good Shepherd. It is all about who the Shepherd is rather than who we are. We the sheep have a relationship with the Good Shepherd not because of what we’ve done, but because of what the Good Shepherd has already done and continues to do for us. All we’re called to do is to be still and to listen and hear the voice of our Good Shepherd and to follow.

Right now, I want to do something different. I want to lead you in a guided prayer exercise based on Psalm 23 so that you might experience what it is like to be still and listen for Jesus’ shepherding love.  I’d like for everyone in the sanctuary and those listening on the radio to be still and close your eyes.

In the midst of the silence, concentrate on your own breathing.

Breathe in.  Hold.  Breathe out.  Breathe in.  Hold.  Breathe out.
Imagine yourself in a green pasture, surrounded by budding flowers under a deep blue sky. Breathe in deeply the fresh air filled with the fragrances of lilac, honeysuckle, and roses.

Breathe in.  Hold.  Breathe out.
Feel the cool, gentle breeze caressing your body and hear the rustling of newly spouted leaves.
See a gentle stream nearby, the rolling hills in the distance, and the cotton-candy strands of clouds in the sky.

Now hear a gentle voice behind you, quietly calling out your name.
In your mind’s eye, turn around to find Jesus, who looks at you with a warm smile.

Jesus tells you that He knows that you are burdened with many things, distracted by many demands, anxious about many matters.

He asks you to hold out your hands, and to name and place any worries, any distractions, any hurts, anxieties and to-do lists onto your open palms.

Jesus then tells you to follow him, and he walks slowly to the nearby stream.

Jesus kneels beside the stream, and asks you to do the same and to place your handful of burdens into the clear, still waters of the stream.

Feel the refreshing coolness of the water as it covers and surrounds your hands.

Feel the weight of your burdens lifted from you as they are carried away by the water.

See your burdens sink and dissolve into the bottom of the stream.

Tell Jesus what you are thinking and feeling right now.

Hear the words of Jesus speaking straight into your heart: “My child, I love you.  I have laid down my life for you.  Spend time to be with me, to know me, to hear my voice.”

Respond to Jesus’ invitation.

It is time to come back now.  Say goodbye to Jesus for now.

Concentrate on your breathing.  Breathe in.  Hold.  Breathe out.  Slowly open your eyes.

This morning, after we leave this place, may we open wide our ears so that we may hear and recognize the voice and experience the shepherding love of our Good Shepherd.  And through that reassurance, may we be led by the voice of our Good Shepherd’s as we reach out to those around us who need the love and care of Christ.  Amen.

 

[1] http://www.epm.org/resources/2008/Mar/11/shepherds-status/.

[2] Feasting on the Word – Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide.