Rose Park Sunday School (Adults and Children) at 8:45 a.m. / Worship at 9:45 a.m.

Madison Sunday School (Adults and Children) 10:15 a.m. / Worship at 11:15 a.m.

Shepherd Leadership

Based on Psalm 23, Acts 9:36-43, Revelation 7:9-17, John 10:22-30

          We have before us today many scriptures which call to mind something with which most of us are unfamiliar.  That “thing” is caring for and leading sheep.  Now, Madison County does have a few sheep folds, but for the most part it is cattle husbandry which dominates the landscape.  I suspect that this is an economic decision – one would make a lot more money on cattle than sheep I am certain (given the price of beef nowadays).  The closest I came to sheep farming was when I visited Kristin Farry on her farm just outside of Wolftown a couple of times. 

          Shepherding sheep, especially in the developing world, is a job that falls to the young.  They are not big enough for other jobs around a farm, and someone needs to guide the sheep from pasture to watering hole and back home again every day.  The shepherd needs to tend to any sheep that get injured or that try to wander away from the rest of the flock.  They also need to protect the sheep from predators (think about young David and his sling shot or the rod referred to in Psalm 23).

          Yet, our scriptures today lead us to understand that we who do our best to follow Jesus are not following a shepherd child – we are following a grown man who leads with rod and staff.  A man who calls to the sheep, who know his voice and then they follow him.  A man who has laid down his life for his flock and who will defend them against any threat.  A singular man who is at once Lord and the Lamb who was slain.  A shepherd who calls us not only to follow Him but to do our best to shepherd others in the same way.

          Psalm 23, John 10 and the reading from Revelation, all present us with varying images of sheep and shepherd, of Lord and Lamb.  The reading from Acts has Peter leading after the manner of Jesus as he revives Tabitha and returns her to her adoring friends and community.  Truly there is much to unpack here so that we might be able to follow the lead of our Good Shepherd – let us pray…

          Psalm 23 is one of the most memorized scriptures in the Bible.  Most everyone knows it by heart, and it is read at almost every funeral service to remind the gathered that when their time comes to transition from this life, there is a promise of continued life in God. 

          Jesus is being pestered by the “Jews” as he walks in Jerusalem one winter day.  They want Him to answer whether or not he is the Messiah.  He reminds them of all that he has done and tells them that if they truly heard his voice then they would know the answer to their question AND would follow him like sheep follow their shepherd.  Jesus tells the Jews that his sheep will never perish and will never be taken from him.  What the Jews do not realize is the majesty of Jesus once he becomes the Christ – a view that John of Patmos receives in his revelation, as those who have been persecuted for their faith in the Lamb who was slain.  That Risen Lamb will serve them as shepherd and lead them so that they will not suffer anymore.

          Peter is called to Joppa to the bedside of a woman named Tabitha (or Dorcas in Greek).  She was a skilled seamstress at the time that she died, and she had shared many pieces of clothing with family and friends.  Peter arrived and knelt down beside the body and prayed before directing the woman to “get up”.  She opened her eyes and sat up.  Peter invited her friends in, and we are told that many came to believe because of this miraculous healing.

          Spiritual writer, Kenneth E. Bailey, in a book entitled, “The Good Shepherd: A Thousand Year Journey from Psalm 23 to the New Testament” has this to say about the shepherd leadership of the Risen Christ, “…The good shepherd “leads me”; he does not “drive me.” There is a marked difference. In Egypt where there is no open pasture, I have often seen shepherds driving their sheep from behind with sticks. But in the open wilderness of the Holy Land the shepherd walks slowly ahead of his sheep and either plays his own ten-second tune on a pipe or (more often) sings his own unique “call.”  The sheep appear to be attracted primarily by the voice of the shepherd, which they know and are eager to follow. It is common practice for a number of shepherds to gather at midday around a spring or well, where the sheep mingle, drink and rest. At any time one of the shepherds can decide to leave, and on giving his call all his sheep will immediately separate themselves from the mixed flocks and follow their shepherd wherever he leads them….”

          Kenneth Bailey gives us some important understanding of the acts of a shepherd in Jesus’ time – something that the original audience would have known instinctively.  The “Jews” who are questioning Jesus in today’s Gospel reading would also have known to what Jesus was referring.  They did not understand that he was already acting as the Messiah and had done great healings and deeds of power through God.  If they were open to the leading of his voice and not their own agendas, then they would not have asked him who he was.  Those who see Jesus for who he truly is are the ones who will follow his voice and be led to streams of living water and to green pastures – all the while restoring their souls.

          There is another important point about Jesus’ shepherd leadership and that is the protection that he offers to his flock.  Mr. Bailey explains about rod and staff, “…The Hebrew word here translated “rod” (shbt) has a long history. Its meanings include rod, scepter and weapon. It does not refer to a “walking stick.” Rather it is the shepherd’s primary offensive weapon for protecting the flock from enemies, be they wild animals or human thieves. The instrument itself is about two and a half feet long with a mace-like end into which heavy pieces of iron are often embedded. It becomes a formidable weapon…The shepherd’s staff is not for defending the flock from any external threat, but for caring for the sheep as he leads them daily in search of food, drink, tranquility and rest. These two instruments are a pair. The first (the rod) is used to protect the flock from external threats. The second (the staff) serves to gently assist the flock in its daily grazing. The sight of these two instruments comfort the sheep….”

          Thus, Jesus’ shepherd leadership includes a defense of his flock from things seeking to harm them.  He has laid down his life to defend and to open up the future for us.  He continues to defend us against that which will harm us – if we will only decide to follow his lead.  This does not mean that “bad” things won’t happen to us – they will, but the Good Shepherd will be with us through every dark valley – leading us back into the light.

          Marilyn McIntyre, in a reflection on Psalm 23 writes:  “…In periods of reflection I’ve thought about how a change of emphasis shifts its rich message. The Lord is my shepherd: no one else cares for me as he does. There may be others who think they can occupy that role, but I know the one who cares for me.  The Lord is my shepherd. This is not a historical statement; in this very moment, I am being shepherded and cared for.  The Lord is my shepherd. The one who shepherds me is immanently, intimately present; has created me, chosen me, and loved me with a love that will not let me go.  The Lord is my shepherd. There may be other metaphors that teach us about God, but this one offers its own valuable, irreplaceable teaching. Shepherds watch. They guard. They fight off predators. They laugh at sheep’s stupidities and love them anyway. God is a shepherd, and this is good news indeed….”

          Shepherd leadership in the form of Jesus is what we as disciples are supposed to emulate.  We are supposed to watch over each other and go in search of those who have wandered away.  We are to guard each other from harm and to give our lives away for each other.  We are to forgive each other for our faults, our misunderstandings, our ego-driven ideas, our lack of vision and courage to follow, and our lack of unconditional love.  By shepherding in this way, we will live into the promises of Jesus and into God’s plan for God’s kingdom.  Listen to the voice of Jesus and follow and discover life eternal and abundant here on earth.  Thanks be to God for the Good Shepherd!  Alleluia and amen!