Shepherd of the Sheeple

by Michael Usey

Today is Good Shepherd Sunday.  All the scripture lessons for this morning are about shepherds. We have chosen the music in this service with the same theme. It’s an indication of how central this image of the Good Shepherd is for our faith.

Authors Judith and Neil Morgan tell a story about Ted Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss), in their biography of Geisel. When Geisel was a college student, he and his roommate wanted to open up a private detective firm. They were going to call it, “Surely, Goodness and Mercy,” and their slogan would be, “We shall follow you all the days of your life.”  Maybe too stalkereque, and “Every breath you take” ominous, with some Lorax looking dude following you around.

You run into the image of the Good Shepherd everywhere. You heard it in three passages today. First used by a prophet, Ezekiel, then by a psalmist, and finally by gospel writer, John. There is a certain similarity between the way they use the shepherd image, but there are also key differences. I want us to compare and contrast these to see what this image means for us in our daily lives. Let’s look first to the prophet, Ezekiel.

In Ezekiel the leaders of Israel are called “shepherds,” but they are neglecting their calling. The passage reveals that God is tired of the shepherds not leading the people, but instead fleecing the people. Ezekiel says God cries out against the corruption in leadership. It is a cry that God makes against corruption in leadership in any age, in any nation, especially in national leadership. They are bad shepherds.

I wish our leaders in Washington and Raleigh could have heard this passage from Ezekiel this morning where God says, “one of these days I am going to get rid of the leaders who use their position for private gain and personal reward, and lead the people myself. I, myself,” God says in Ezekiel, “will come and be the shepherd of my people.”

In ancient Israel the kings were called the shepherds, probably because King David was a shepherd boy, and he was called the “Shepherd King.” So all the kings after King David, the greatest king of Israel, were called shepherds. Being a shepherd was more than a title. It was a job description. Shepherds are supposed to care for their charges, here the people. Shepherds are supposed to be concerned about the needs of the people, especially the needs of the poor and those who have to have some help in order to get through this life. Instead of spending all of their time raising money to keep themselves in office, shepherds are supposed to make it possible for other people to earn enough money to live with dignity in this life. Instead of dividing themselves along party lines, spending their time and our money trying to undermine one another, a good shepherd leader sees that there are divisions, deep divisions, in the nation and then seeks to unite the people as one people. Instead of listening only to the powerful, the good shepherd leader has a responsibility to be the voice for the weak and the powerless. 

That is what this message about shepherds in Ezekiel is all about. To be placed in leadership means you are supposed to forget yourself and to think of those who have been placed in your care, over whom you have a shepherding responsibility. To be given power means that you are supposed to use your power to do some good in this life. To be given status and influence means that you use those things to lift up those who don’t have them.

The passage that we read for this service begins at Ezekiel 34.11. We didn’t have time to read the whole chapter, but listen to how Ezekiel 34 begins. The word of the Lord came to me: “Human one, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel. Thus says the Lord: You shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?… The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the crippled you have not bound up … the lost you have not brought back.”  It’s like the 3000- year-old prophet  read the Washington Post this morning.

In the movie Pulp Fiction, the hitman played by Samuel L. Jackson quotes Ezek 25.17 before he shoots someone.  Actually it’s a made-up verse about vengeance and the shepherd.  But because he is spared and not killed when he should have been, he rethinks the meaning of the verse at the very end of the movie.  He reinterprets the verse from his previous understanding, that he was the arm of vengeance, to a new understanding that he is the shepherd of the weak, in this case, an inept criminal botching a robbery.  So, even in pop culture, there is some understanding of the shepherding nature of God.

So that is how Hebrew prophet Ezekiel used the image of the shepherd. Shepherds are supposed to be good leaders, and leaders are supposed to care for the flock. Because they do not do it, God says, one of these days I, myself, will come and be the leader, the shepherd of my people.

Now turn to John’s gospel. Actually the Ezekiel passage is where Jesus got this idea about being the Good Shepherd. When Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd,” what he is saying is, “I am the one that Ezekiel prophesied would someday come and lead the people. God says in Ezekiel, one of these days I will come and I will be the shepherd of the people. I will join with them. I will be one of them. I will live with them. I will lead them, the way a shepherd is supposed to lead. Jesus says, “I am that Good Shepherd.”

With the precognition that is so typical of Jesus in John’s gospel, he says, “The shepherd will lay down his life for the sheep.” That’s a prediction of his death. What it means is that when God came to this world to be the shepherd, we rejected God’s messenger. “I am the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.” God so loved the world that God came to be with us. God so loved us that, like a shepherd, God came to find the lost. God came to save us, but we rejected God’s messenger. Rather than run, as the hirelings do when they see the wolves, the Good Shepherd instead stays with the sheep and is willing to die for the sheep.

John wants to make this clear. God chose to come to us out of love. I lay down my life of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again; this charge I have received from my Father.

Ezekiel’s revelation about God was revolutionary. Ezekiel said God is going to leave heaven and come to be with people. Jesus’ revelation is even more radical. He showed us that God loves us so much that the shepherd also became the lamb willing to give up life itself.

The third image of the shepherd is in the 23rd Psalm. It is the most famous of all the shepherd images. Many of us raised in the Church memorized it in Sunday School. Most of us know it.

The first two shepherd images contained radical revelations about God. The 23rd Psalm is the model of how we are to live if we really believe God is our shepherd. It says that life is a journey, and that along the way there will be dangers and risks, but at the end there will be a wonderful treasure waiting for us. It is the same message that is present in the tales of all cultures all around the world, where an ordinary person is called upon to undertake some formidable task: to climb a mountain, to go through the desert in an exodus, in the case of the Jewish nation, to fight dragons, to face demons, to live through hardship. At the end there is a great treasure, or a kingdom, or wisdom, something you will never possess unless you take the journey. The people in all these tales who take the journey, including the 23rd Psalm, have confidence that in spite of all they will face, they will be alright. It will be good. They don’t know how, but somehow it is going to be good.

The 23rd Psalm has led us in the paths of comfort all the days of our lives. But sometimes we have trouble hearing the things that are closest to us. Psalm 23 was a cherished hymn for the Hebrews. So when we read and sing the psalms as Christians, we are also in Jewish territory. It is wise to remember the nature of the Jews’ history with God.

They were a people who were called Israel, which means, “those who have struggled with God.” They struggled for a home that they were always trying to get into, hold onto or get back to. They struggled for peace, for food and for a future. Most important, they struggled for their faith in God.  The Hebrews longed to live with God as sheep live with a shepherd, but their life was hard. And they were too afraid to keep believing that this Shepherd was leading them to green pastures, or that goodness and mercy would always follow them. So they frequently rushed down more promising paths toward more manageable gods, which always led them into unmanageable trouble and laments for the salvation of God. Then they would return to worship, where this story was told and retold.

So it is not surprising that so many of the psalms describe the churning, disruptive experience of being lost and found, judged and forgiven, sent away and brought back. It is all a part of the pathos of people who got scared and lost their way, and of the high drama of a God who searches continually to find lost sheep.

This means that the last thing we ought to be doing is rushing to the 23rd Psalm to be reminded that everything is OK. We’re drawn to the images of green pastures, still waters, and an overflowing cup because we strive for equilibrium, security, and abundance. We don’t particularly care for the highs and lows of Israel’s history, the people’s insatiable thirst on long desert journeys, or their maddening love affair with God. It all sounds a bit reckless. Besides, most of us can make it to the green pastures on our own. Of course, they are never quite green enough, but that only makes us work harder to be our own saviors. And more terrified that we will never pull it off.

When this pandemic started, we were not paying enough attention, and the rules were confusing. You should not go to the hospital, unless you have to. Gloves will not help, but they could help. Masks are useless, but they are mandatory. Everyone needs to stay home, but it is important to go out. There is no shortage of groceries in the supermarket, except for the things that are not there. You will have many symptoms when you are sick, but you can also get sick without symptoms, have symptoms without being sick, or be contagious without having symptoms. You can get restaurant food delivered, which may have been prepared by people who did not wear masks or gloves. The virus remains active on different surfaces for two hours, or four, or six, or days. 

The contradictory advice was almost amusing, but now that over 65,000 have died in the US alone, we are staying home, wearing masks, washing our hands like Lady MacBeth, and disinfecting everything. Most of us are following every rule we can remember. We do not learn well ahead of time. 

I have been afraid this week; maybe you have too.  Maybe it took this disease to scare you, or maybe it was a notice that your job had been eliminated, or a phone call from the police late at night, or a letter on a kitchen counter that said, “I’m not coming back.” We speak sometimes of being scared stiff or paralyzed with fear, but as a pastor I’ve seen that most people react to fear by running like a bat out of Wuhan. It doesn’t matter where they run or what they try next. They just have to keep moving. The late psychologist Rollo May has written, “Humans are the strangest of all of God’s creatures, because they run fastest when they have lost their way.” Sounds very sheepish.

This is how we get into real trouble—by running when we are lost. It is then that we make the worst mistakes with relationships, family and work. The same could be said of churches, schools, and governments. Not convinced that the Lord is leading us to green pastures, we veer off course, try a short cut, or run pell mell like terrified sheep.

I don’t mind calling the Lord my Shepherd, but I’ve never been too flattered by being called one of his sheep. I had hoped to be the Lord’s badass grizzly (I mean, I kind of look like one, right?), or maybe the cunning tiger king. Sheep aren’t particularly smart. They scare easily, and have a knack for getting lost. Most of us don’t look lost. Maybe we haven’t yet fallen through society’s cracks. But the Psalmist would say, “Oh no. It is you who have lost your way in a relationship that’s offered more hurt than love, in a job that leaves you depleted and spent, or in the guilt of not being good enough, pretty enough or smart enough for someone whose judgment cuts deep.”

Some of us have gotten lost in our battles against declining health. Others are lost in grief. And how many of us are just simply lost in our shame for things done and left undone? Trying so hard to find ourselves, we’ve even lost sight of who we are, who we were created to be. The reason both the psalmist and Jesus spent so much time describing us as lost was not to judge us, but to help us find our way to God. Confessing that we are frightened and lost is the first step.

The key to discovering this way back is seeing that “You are with me.” That is how David survived his own valley of the shadow of death when he was on the run from Saul, and it is our hope that rises out of the hellscape in New York City. Believing God is with us is how doctors, nurses, and emergency workers make it through another day of caring for the deathly ill across our nation, and how huddled Christians (and Jews and Muslims) continue to worship even when we cannot be together. It is even how we scared sheepish Americans survive these terribly uncertain days. We can embrace the suck because we are not truly alone. What an amazing affirmation about life. It says there is no experience that you can enter where God is not there with you. There is no condition in your life, no emotional crisis, no psychological despair, no desert of sorrow or regret that you must pass through where you will be alone.

The psalmist is marking the extremities of life where the demons and evil powers that would ruin our lives dwell. In those days to go to those places was a frightful thing.  We, too, know those boundary situations where no one goes willingly.  But sometimes all of us will be cast to that place where we will fear for our life, or our sanity–as we spend our time doom-surfing the internet, feeding our deepest fears.  Even there, God is our shepherd, so people of faith can enter those times with courage and with grace, knowing that the Lord is our shepherd.

There it is again—the churning, disruptive experiences of a people who keep discovering that their only hope is in the Shepherd who is always the closest thing to them. The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. I am the good shepherd; I know my own, and my own know me. Amen.

[Parts of this sermon are adapted from articles by Mark Trotter, “Are You Feeling Sheepish?” and Craig Barnes, “Sheep on the Run.”]