Sermon delivered by Heather Entrekin, pastor of Prairie Baptist Church in Prairie Village, K.S., on May 3 2009.
Pslam 23, John 10: 11-18.
How is it that a Psalm maybe 2,500 years old about sheep and shepherds can comfort a person today in Kansas City who has never personally met a sheep and doesn’t know a single shepherd?
We are so far removed from sheep and shepherds, most of us, that we take pictures when we see one up close. I know I am not the only person to go to Scotland, where they have more sheep than people, and try to take a picture of every one. If somebody said, “Hey! There’s a shepherd bringing a flock of sheep down Roe,” we’d all dash out to look.
Sheep and shepherds are not a part of our daily life as they were for our ancestors in the faith – Moses and David, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who were, themselves, shepherds.
And yet, these words have endured. In one week, I have said them at two funerals, each time watching members of the congregation mouth them silently as I spoke them. And I have said them at a hospital bedside and watched them bring tears. We reach for these words and speak them in our own distress because they have the power to touch us in a deep place, deeper than our own knowledge and experience. How can that be?
The answer lies in whom the shepherd is. Originally, the shepherd metaphor was used for both an earthly ruler and God – one who could be counted upon to feed, guide, rescue, doctor, protect, and make your well being a priority. For us, the shepherd of Psalm 23 becomes real in the person of Jesus who says in the Gospel of John, “I am the good shepherd.” If the “I am” words sound familiar it is because these are the words God speaks to Moses trembling in front of a burning bush. “Who is it?” “I am,” is all you need to know.
Now, Jesus speaks the words in his final teaching to the disciples. “I am the good shepherd,” and in those two tiny huge words we are promised and assured that this is the holy one of God. This one is one with God’s purposes and work in creation. Not some self-serving person who calls himself a shepherd but runs off at the first sign of a wolf. The good shepherd would rather die than leave you.
The word “good” is not just some pleasant little adjective. It comes from the Greek kalos which is more fully translated as “model” or “true.” There is no shepherd better than this. You can trust your life to this one because he gives his for you. Generation upon generation of God’s people have found it to be true. We would not be here otherwise, and so these words continue to heal and help.
But how? A true shepherd leads, and here is where we need a little remedial course on sheep and shepherds. A shepherd knows that sheep need leading. Sheep are not cattle. Cattle can be driven. The cowboys get behind cattle and they crack whips and yell, “Get along little dogies,” at least they do in the movies, and cattle basically go forward. Cattle can be driven.
But if you stand behind sheep and crack a whip and start to chase them, they do not go forward, they scatter and get confused and eventually circle and cluster behind the shepherd. This is because sheep want to be led. They want someone up ahead showing them that it’s OK, it’s safe to go somewhere they have never gone before and they won’t have to go there alone. That’s not so dumb. No one gets through life without being lonely, lost, overwhelmed, afraid to go ahead alone
Once in the Rockies, I had the experience of following someone up a scary, steep mountain trail, with a wall of rock on one side and sheer drop on the other. My heart pounded. I was close to being paralyzed with panic except that this leader literally showed me where to put each foot by placing his own there, rock by rock, ahead of me.
The good shepherd knows the way. Last night at our beautiful Taize service we prayed for dear ones among us who are walking a dark valley right now where it is hard to see the way.
Now I got to this place in the sermon last night and I got stuck. Usually a sermon is done long before, well, at least, a little before, Saturday night. But this has been a hard week as we have been walking alongside a beloved one who is suffering, facing medical decisions and surgeries each one more difficult and frightening than the last.
I intended a nice, neat story on how resurrection happens, but there are times when you walk into the presence of suffering and death and resurrection doesn’t happen. Resurrection, with its origin in the Greek “anastasis,” means, standing up again, but it doesn’t happen. You only feel helpless and lost and alone.
But you are not alone. You have the power and love of the one who says, “I am the good shepherd who lays down his life and takes it up again.” He said it and he did it thousands of years ago, and he says it and does it still. Resurrection continues, resurrection happens whenever we trust and follow him – with every act of courage, of love, of compassion, of prayer, gratitude, of hope, of shared suffering, of presence no matter how small…resurrection happens.
It does not wait for Easter nor does it stop with Easter. It happens in you whenever you follow the Good Shepherd.