Sermon for April 22, 2018: In the hands of the Good Shepherd (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
Updated: Aug 13, 2021
As someone who performs weddings, I am often asked to assist with choices ranging from what music should be played to whether the bride (or groom!) can wear white. Recently, I was asked about the appropriateness of using of a specific psalm at a wedding – the psalm we recited today. The “shepherd psalm,” as it is often called, is one of the most popular passages of scripture. The beautiful imagery of lush and quiet green lawns and gently lapping waters and the assurance that the Lord will take care of us no matter what has soothed generations of people. And yet, for some folks - including the mother of the bride in this wedding- it is associated with death – maybe because it is so often used at funerals. Certainly, if there is ever a time that people need reassurance that God is with us, it is when we are separated from those we love by death, but Psalm 23 is not about death. It’s about how God support us in life and death - and what it means to fully put ourselves in the hands of God.
The familiar image of the Good Shepherd - Jesus as a cherubic, glowing, white-robed figure surrounded by fluffy white sheep that match the cottony white clouds in the clear blue sky that inevitably surrounds them- is both common and popular. It’s also wildly inaccurate. In ancient Israel, “the life of a shepherd was anything but picturesque. It was dangerous, risky, and menial. Shepherds were rough around the edges, spending time in fields rather than in polite society. For Jesus to say, ‘I am the good shepherd,’ would have been an affront to the religious elite and educated… A modern-day equivalent might be for Jesus to say, ‘I am the good migrant worker.’” Thus, by using this particular analogy, Jesus was communicating his willingness – and the willingness of God – to share our human life – as humble and rough and tumble as it might be. More amazingly, Jesus was saying that God not only cares enough to live with us, but he actually loves us enough to chase us down. The best Hebrew translation of the phrase, “follow me” in the line “Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me,” is actually “shall pursue me.”
That’s not something the religious leaders in this morning’s reading from Acts who assembled to judge Peter and John after they were arrested for healing a disabled man were ready to hear. They were focused not on God’s faithfulness, but on his power. “By what power…did you do this [healing]”? they asked Peter. They wanted to know what other power had begun to attract so many people. They were worried that the disciples’ actions on behalf of a crucified Messiah would divide the already powerless Jewish people. From our perspective Peter’s response- that he had healed in the name of Jesus and that “there is salvation in no one else” - suggests that Jesus was being presented as a replacement for these leaders – but when you remember the context, that doesn’t make sense. Peter was not speaking to outsiders; he was talking to his own religious leaders. The first members of the “Jesus movement,” were Jews. There was no such thing as “Christianity.” Peter was not telling them that Jesus the Christ was sent to overthrow the Jewish leadership. He was telling them that Jesus was sent to save them. “The function of this text [therefore] is the opposite of division. The purpose of this passage, instead, is to announce that no human being or human authority can erect a religious tent…and say, ‘Unless you come into my tent, you cannot have God.’ God has acted on behalf of the whole of humanity in Jesus Christ, and there is ‘no other name,’ no human channel, that can make exclusive claim to religious power.”
This is still true. Jesus, like a shepherd, came to demonstrate to all people the way to salvation. “Palestinian shepherds during the Ottoman Empire were known to travel ahead and ‘arrange’ a field for safe grazing.” This is what Jesus does for us. He goes ahead to prepare the way of the Lord. All we need to do is to follow - and yet we are afraid. We are afraid of where following Jesus might lead or what might be asked of us if we follow him –will we have to walk through the valley of the shadow of death; love not only in word or speech, but in truth and action; lay down our lives for one another? It seems like too much.
Of course it’s too much – for us. But let’s remember who we are in this story. We are not the shepherd; we are the sheep. God knows that we cannot do any of this alone – and God does not expect us to. “The relationship between the sheep and the shepherd is based on what the shepherd does [not] what the sheep do. It’s all about who the Shepherd is rather than who we are.”
There has long been a theological debate over the nature of salvation. Are we are saved by our faith alone, or if it is necessary for us to do good works as well? The truth is that it is a package deal; genuine faith actually changes us so that we can do good works- so that we can, in fact, do anything that is asked of us in God’s name. “Believing in Christ means believing that Christ saves us by making us like himself…When God creates saving faith in our hearts, God creates active love. Faith in Jesus Christ is faith that transforms the believing heart, making it a self-sacrificing heart.”
It’s easy for us to find reasons that we cannot do or be what God asks of us. It is easy to worry, as the Sadducees did, about all that divides us – to fear, as the disciples did, those who are of the other folds- to shrink away from the shadows in the world and in our hearts. We live in a time in which fear, doubt, and suspicion are rampant – in which the things we thought we could trust have proven false – but those are human things. We are the people of God. We do not follow the path of those who are led by the false gods of power and wealth. We follow Jesus, who prepares the way for us. We are in the hands of the Good Shepherd - and we need fear no evil. Amen.
Nancy R. Blakely, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Maundy Thursday), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 450.
Thomas G. Long, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Maundy Thursday), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 434.
Kent M. French, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Maundy Thursday), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 441.
Nancy R. Blakely, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Maundy Thursday), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 452.
Ronald Cole-Turner, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Maundy Thursday), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 444.