Our Good Shepherds

Today, our readings evoke the beautiful imagery of the Good Shepherd, both through our Call to Worship which echoes the language of Psalm 23 and from our reading in the passage from 1 John.  We know that this idea of a Good Shepherd was one that would have truly resonated with the many who would have been familiar with the Psalm and gathered to listen to Jesus in his travels.  Even those who did not tend sheep in that time would have taken comfort in the idea that God cares for us as a good shepherd cares for his sheep, seeking out the lost one, making sure all in the flock are fed and watered, looking out for the most vulnerable and making sure that they are not left behind.  I am guessing few of us have a first-hand experience of a shepherd so it may not evoke the same response from us, so how might we find more contemporary ways to speak about the One who cares for us and tends to our needs?  Let us pray, O Holy One, be with us this day as seek to come to deeper understandings of our spiritual lives and to be renewed and replenished in our faith and in our daily lives.  Amen.

          A few weeks ago as I was driving, I heard a show on Maine Public Radio on poetry hosted by Maine’s poet laureate, Stuart Kestenbaum.  Maybe some of you had the chance to hear it too?  He was speaking with 4 young people from The Telling Room in Portland as he invited them to read poems they had written that were all recently published in a book he edited, called A New Land: 30 poems by Youth Poets.  The poems were very personal and reflected themes in each of their personal lives. Then he had the opportunity to ask these young poets questions about the process of writing and what had inspired them.

          One poem that really stood out to me that day was called, How To Build a Closet.  As the speaker began, I imagined the literal meaning of actually constructing a physical closet in a home, but of course, she used that image as a frame to speak of her life growing up as a girl coming to an awareness that she was attracted to other girls.  And so she proceeded by speaking about the messages that she received along the way that told her that who she was would not be acceptable and thus, she began to build her own closet to shut in her identity and to protect herself from the pain that might come if others discovered her truth.  It was beautifully framed and spoke to me deeply as I thought about my own sister and so many dear friends and colleagues growing up in a time when they heard many of those same messages again and again and again.  Even today, too many young people face impossible challenges in coming to embrace the fullness of who they are.   

          The author of the poem, Jordan Rich, speaks in the voice of the girl about a special English teacher, who in reading her work, communicates to her that who she is is absolutely acceptable and worthy.  It’s a touching moment, an adult in her circle mirrors back to her that she is valuable and helps her to begin to emerge from that closet that she has so carefully framed for herself.  You may find this poem and the others on a Podcast called, Voices of the Future.  Each of the poems is very powerful and will certainly leave you feeling hopeful about our future with such young people moving into adulthood.

          A good shepherd can be a powerful presence in our lives…and we know a mentor or guide or teacher or loving friend can serve in that role for us.  I invite you to consider who it was in your life that looked out for you or told you that you had value or mirrored back to you that you were acceptable exactly as you are?  Who was that person who in the grace of a moment was able to help you feel protected and cared for?  Who has looked after us when we felt forgotten or left behind?  There are many good shepherds in our lives; there are those who channel the sacredness of a Loving Creator to us in both quiet and more explicit ways.  We too may serve in that important role for others.

          I read the book, The Drama of the Gifted Child, by Alice Miller, a psychologist, many years ago in grad school.  It’s one of those books that is packed with revelations and I have always remembered it.  In it, Miller speaks of the ways in which children become gifted in meeting their parent’s needs, and in so doing, often shut down the parts of themselves which they feel may be unwelcome or unlovable.  But Miller says that we all need at least one caring adult who will let us be authentically who we are so that we may truly flourish.  I invite you to consider, who may have stepped in or stepped up to let you be yourself when you were a child?  Who helped to guide you, to mirror to you how special you are?

In our reading today, Jesus seems to be highlighting his devotion to the people. He can be trusted. He is not like a hired hand, who might feel no commitment and flee when danger approaches. Jesus is committed. Jesus loves the sheep and will sacrifice for them. In this season of Easter, we are reminded of just how much Jesus is willing to sacrifice. He spoke on behalf of the most marginalized in his society at the time and thus he became a threat to the powers that be and was put to death.  Who has sacrificed for you in your life? Perhaps a parent sacrificed their time or adjusted their work to be present and care for you. Perhaps you know someone who has come racing to your aid in a moment of need, regardless of the cost to them. This generous agape, this sacrificial, selfless love, is modelled by our good shepherd. We have one shepherd, yet we multiply the generous love of our God as we do likewise.

The Psalms are the prayer book of our ancestors in faith. They are meant to be sung, recited, pondered, and read. They are meant to speak honestly about the experience of people. They are meant to convey intimacy with God. Some are prayerful pleadings for God to act. Some are simply prayerful reflections on how grief was transformed into trust, fear was transformed into faith, joy shared, contentment cultivated, and praise unrelentingly released. All of them are prayers meant to speak to experience and to give people words to pray when we need the voice of experience and wisdom, or somewhere outside ourselves to turn.  Psalm 23 about the Good Shepherd has been a favorite for many people over the years, serving as a prayer of consolation and comfort, a reminder that our God is faithful and loving always.

We are still in the Season of Easter as we celebrate the joy of the resurrection, the promise of new life in whatever ways most make sense to you.  Usually in the first three weeks after Easter, the Gospel readings in the Lectionary are the stories of the resurrection appearances.  And then the next four weeks explore Jesus’ teachings about living in intimacy with God.  And so today, this story of the Good Shepherd, of Jesus speaking of himself as a Shepherd, a caretaker of the people, is an important reminder of how we may envision such closeness with the one who has created us.  We may begin to imagine this lovely intimacy by recalling those in our own lives who have been a Shepherd to us.  Let us remember with gratitude this day the way in which we are cared for by the Divine Presence and let us remember all who have touched our lives with that Holy presence, reminding us that who we are is enough and that we are indeed valuable and worthy as we are.  Amen.