Look for the Shephard

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Sermon March 19, 2023

“The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want… You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil…” — excerpt from Psalm 23

Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. — excerpt from John 9:1-38


Synopsis: We too often look for security (love) in powerful figures — sure that they can “fix” things for us. It was no different for the people of the First and Second Testaments. They were looking for Kings, Saviors, Liberators who would offer peace and security in uncertain times. And they often looked “in all the wrong places.” The Pharisees just can’t believe that this trouble-maker, rule-breaker named Jesus is the One, the Son of God and Savior. Time and again Jesus uses the metaphor of a Shepherd to teach us how we ought to love and care for each other. No wonder, the Shepherd does what is needed,  when it is needed, regardless of the “rules.”

Our reading from Psalm 23 is so familiar to many of us that I imagine some may be able to recite it by heart.  When we hear a reading again and again, it may lose its power or meaning.  For the people who first heard that Psalm and certainly in Jesus’ time, the image of our Lord as a Shepherd would be very familiar.  They would immediately understand what he was trying to communicate with this imagery. And in the Gospel, we hear about Jesus healing a blind man, as the Pharisees nearby, choose to focus on whether Jesus should be doing such things on the Sabbath, whether he should be speaking on behalf of God, and on what they see as the sinfulness of the healed man, rather than the miracle of healing itself.  They are themselves  blinded by the very laws that were originally intended to help them draw closer to God.  What blinds us these days?  Can we imagine God servings as our Shepherd when we feel lost or forsaken?  Let us pray, 

I wonder if some of you are fans of All Creatures Great and Small on PBS?  We have so enjoyed watching it over the past two years and only regret that they have so few episodes each season. One of the things that is so touching is to see the beautiful, caring relationships between many of the humble, hard-working farmers and their animals…whether horses, sheep or cows.  Often, they have names for them and in some cases, they stay up all night trying to care for them when they are very sick.  It’s such a poignant portrayal of the bonds that unfold between these farmers and God’s creatures. 

 The story of Jesus healing a blind man and the Pharisee’s finding fault–even feeling threatened by it–may remind us of all of the ways that we may put people into categories too quickly when we meet them.  We often assume so much about a person because of their looks, their job, their social status and we can often be wrong.  So it was with the Pharisees who stood in judgement of Jesus and questioned his ability to commit miracles.  He didn’t look or act like them.  He was an itinerant preacher, traveling from place to place with no real home in their community. Who did he think he was speaking in the name of God?  They clearly feel threatened by him and are quick to step in and question his motives, his power, his very identity as One speaking in the name of the Creator. 

We may find ourselves listening, shaking our heads thinking, they are more caught up in the letter of the law than in the spirit.  What a wondrous thing that he has the power to heal! Or we may look with derision upon them as the judgmental players in this story and pride ourselves on believing that we would never have responded like that.  But, we might be wrong.  Who of us has not judged another unfairly? Who of us has perhaps found ourselves judged or categorized, or condescended to because of how we looked or the job we were doing or where we lived or because of our very identity? 

When we hear the Pharisee’s skepticism of Jesus’ healing, and the way they dismiss the recipient of that healing, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs” is a question that reminds me a lot of comments I’m sure we all  have heard when people show their bias, their bigotry, their ignorance.  The Pharisees objectify both Jesus AND the one healed of their blindness before dismissing them both outright. First Jesus: “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the Sabbath.” And then the blind person: “You were born entirely in sin, and you are trying to teach us?!”

Too often, we have a very powerful, internal, and culturally entrenched urge as human beings to categorize people so that we can more easily identify who can be trusted vs. who is dangerous. We create long conditioned and unconscious images of  people despite the fact that reality is a lot more complicated.

We can learn from this story because it wasn’t the priest, or a person of perceived religious authority who healed the blind man of his ailment, it was a homeless rabbi! We may ourselves look for spiritual authority in the wrong places, and commit the same mistakes of these Pharisees in John 9 by discounting the proven miracle that happened right in front of them due to our inability to believe that “certain people” are capable of powerful acts of goodness.

Psalm 23 gives us an image of God that would have been far more striking to those who lived thousands of years ago than it does us today. Shepherds were far from being considered respectable or trustworthy in their communities. They were given a job no one else would have wanted. And yet in Psalm 23 it is the LORD who is our shepherd! Who leads us to the sweet grasses and whose rod comforts us! The LORD is a Shepherd who dares anoint our heads with oil–an act reserved for prophet.

Psalm 23 offers a vivid picture of how God comes to be with us as The Good Shepherd who seeks and finds the one who is alone and brings them home.  The Good Shepherd may help us imagine what being at home in the family of God is like. For starters, this household is a safe place for you to be yourself—with all your fragility and dependence and imperfection. There is a caring person (shepherd) who is in charge of protecting you and the others in this house – but don’t worry, you won’t go unnoticed. This shepherd knows every sheep who lives there in exquisite detail. You only must hear your name and follow the call to come home. The doors are always open (John 10:25-27; Matthew 7:7-8). Once inside, you will lack for nothing (Psalm 23:1). There will be food to eat and water to drink. And you will rest easy, knowing the shepherd will guide you along safe paths. But even when you face suffering and evil, you will not walk alone (John 14:16). The shepherd will accompany you into the darkest moments of life, and will celebrate with you during the joyful ones. You are welcomed into the fold of God— for nothing can separate you (Romans 8:38-39). Not your pain or your mental anguish, not your disease or what burdens you, not your doubt or fear, not what you’ve done or left undone. You, just as you are, are welcome into this household. Come and feast at the table of God, together. You, dear one, are covered with love, mercy, and goodness by a Good Shepherd, at home in the family of God. You belong here.

In the Gospel of John, we hear Jesus  call himself the Good Shepherd in the very next chapter which follows our passage this morning. This analogy is powerful. The homeless rabbi is the lowly wandering shepherd whose life is lived so that the sheep are safe, are fed, are loved. And later in John (21), Jesus asks the question of Simon Peter, “Do you love me?” and when the answer is “of course,” Jesus’ command is to feed his lambs, shepherd his sheep. Go and do likewise, disciples, he says to us. Go as a shepherd who looks for a lost one in danger, no matter the day or the hour.

Scripture is full of surprising depictions of authority, and power–unsettling our human tendency to limit such characteristics to the people we can only imagine have such traits.

John 10: 11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own, and my own know me,

Jim, Pine Street Inn

-Kate Bowler, Lenten Resources