Sermon: The Shepherd’s Fold

A number of years ago, late one Saturday morning, I received a phone from one of the parishioners of the church I was serving in Cleveland, Ohio. It was Karen, a young mother of four small children, and she was just beside herself. She told me that her youngest child, four-year-old Rebecca, had been missing for about three or four hours. Karen had looked all through the house, had asked several nearby neighbors if they had seen her, had walked up and down the neighborhood calling out her name. Becky was nowhere to be found.

Karen told me she didn’t know what else to do and had just called the police. Could I please, please come over?

As I drove over to their house, my imagination was running wild about all of the potential dangers facing children in today’s world.  When I got there, out in front were two police cars and a fire department rescue vehicle; and Karen was standing in the driveway talking to two officers. They were all smiling, as if they had just shared a good joke.

Karen came over to greet me, as I got out of the car, “We found her,” she said, shaking her head and looking a bit chagrin.  And she told me the story.

Apparently Becky and her older sisters, the twins, had been playing hide-and-seek around the house, earlier that morning (which, for some reason they did not feel was a relevant fact to tell their mother during her frantic search). And Becky apparently hid behind the sofa in the den. She hid so well, in fact, that the twins finally gave up looking for her, and went on to some other activity. Meanwhile, Becky had curled up and fallen asleep in her hiding place, and remained blissfully oblivious to the ensuing hullabaloo.

When I looked in on Becky, she was happily watching TV, as if she didn’t have a care in the world.

“Who among you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, doesn’t leave the ninety-nine on their own and go after the lost sheep until he – or she –  finds it?”

Today is known as Good Shepherd Sunday in the church. On this Fourth Sunday of Easter, the common lectionary traditionally refers to both Old and New Testament passages that use the analogy of shepherd to describe God’s relationship with God’s precious children.

The psalmist affirms, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

“I am the Good Shepherd,” Jesus tells his disciples. “The Good Shepherd willingly gives up his life to save the sheep. My sheep know my voice.”

The notion of shepherding was more than just serene poetic imagery to the disciples. Its roots run deep, not only in the agrarian culture of the ancient Palestinian people, but also in long history of their faith.

Adam’s son, Abel, was tending sheep when his brother Cain killed him in a jealous rage. Abraham was a simple shepherd, when God made the promise to make him a great nation. Jacob was on his way to make amends with his brother Esau, by giving him a large part of his flocks and herds, when God gave him the name `Israel’, for wrestling all night with the angel of God. Moses was leading his father-in-law (Jethro’s) flock up on Mt. Horeb when God called him out of the burning bush. David, the `runt of the litter’, was tending the family flock when Samuel anointed him future king of Israel.

So, when Jesus was talking to the disciples about shepherds and sheep, he didn’t have to do much explaining of that analogy. They knew well the old stories. And I’m guessing they probably understood the implications of Jesus’ reference. Just as you know the sinking feeling which comes in the wake of a missing child. And the indescribable joy and relief of finding that lost child once more.

And if you were a shepherd in ancient Palestine, you also knew that the sheep which belonged to you meant everything; even life itself. Tending them, grooming them, feeding them, leading them, keeping them in line, calming them when they get skittish, finding them when they wander off—are all the `raison d’etre, as the French say: your reason for being.

Of course, all that’s a bit of a stretch for those of us who exist today, some two thousand years later – and some seven thousand miles and a cultural quantum leap away.

How, in the world, then, can we relate to words – say like those of the prophet Isaiah – for example: “We all, like sheep, have gone astray ”? Much less his subsequent prophetic reassurance that, “He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart”?

Diane and I were driving from a presbytery meeting at our denomination’s conference center, Ghost Ranch, in north central New Mexico, back to our home at the time in Grants, New Mexico. It’s typically about a four and a half hour drive; and we decided to take the scenic route, which was taking a lot longer than we expected. We were traveling a two-lane patchwork blacktop through rural high desert countryside. It was a beautiful drive, but it was getting late in the day, we were both tired after a long 2 day business meeting with other Presbyterian types, and a bit frazzled from the inevitable debates of such gatherings.

And, as I recall, we were getting a bit fussy toward each other. Diane had grown quiet, and I was leaning into the windshield just trying to us get home.

At one point, however, we came over the crest of a long sloping hill to come suddenly – and I do mean suddenly – upon a large flock of sheep crossing the road. I quickly put on the binders and we went from the 55 mph speed limit to a complete standstill in a matter of seconds.

Actually, the sheep, as it happens, were not exactly directly crossing the road; they were more like sort of casually meandering diagonally down the road from one side to the other. It was a pastoral scene replete with shepherd leading the way and Border collie bringing up the stragglers at the rear.

After regaining our wits from the abrupt stop and taking stock of the situation, Diane looked over at me and said, “I guess we’ve just shifted over into `New Mexico time.’”

We sat and watched for a good twenty or thirty minutes – while cars lined up one by one behind us – as this idyllic little pastoral scene unfolded: a weary and well-fed flock being led home after a day of being nourished by green pastures and still waters; ambling by as if they didn’t have a care in the world; completely oblivious of the modern, harried world observing them in bemused wonder and, perhaps, just a little bit of envy.

And, as we sat there, the significance of it all occurred to me.

It’s easy to get confused when we feel like we’re thousands of years and miles away from our faith origins. It’s easy to get lost in our preoccupation with the rapidly changing landscape of the modern world, perennially anxious about potential threats and unfamiliar territory. We get more and more skittish and fearful and willful and lost. After a while, we completely forget about the One who dearly loves and shepherds us; forget that he is probably, even now, searching for us; forget about the times he pulled us off the rocky ledge, or out of the briar thicket, or saved us from the midst of the wolf pack.

In the midst of that lostness, we sheep tend to forget that our salvation has little if anything to do with our own meanderings; or even our own efforts to relate to the Shepherd. It is first and above all something that the Shepherd has done to relate to us.

And if we will only stop our panicky flight and our anxious bleating and stay still in one place for a while, the Good Shepherd will surely come to seek us out and carry us back to the fold – no matter how alone we might feel, or, perhaps, how well we have hidden.

Which is why, I believe, one of the most important things we do as the church is what we’re doing right now: to remind ourselves of the steadfast love and faithfulness of the Good Shepherd; the One who gives his life for the sheep.

We come to this place on Sunday morning to worship God, to praise God, to love God, devote ourselves to God. We come to affirm our faith and trust in God. But we do all that in response to what God has already done for us in and through Jesus Christ. Yes, we’ve come here to offer something back to God: our prayers, our praise, and our lives. But, perhaps, most importantly, what we do in this place is open our hearts – and minds and souls – that we might receive what God desires to give us: God’s good gifts, God’s peace and comfort, God’s loving care, God’s guidance, challenge and prodding.

“For we are his people,” asserts Psalm 95, “the flock that he – continually, constantly – shepherds.” We come here to be enfolded in the loving embrace of that Good Shepherd.

In his wonderful book Testimony, Thomas Long tells about a remarkable woman by the name of Mary Ann Bird, who has written a personal memoir entitled, “The Whisper Test.”

Mary Ann Bird was born with multiple birth defects: a cleft palate, disfigured face, crooked nose, lopsided feet, and deafness in one ear. As a child, she suffered not only from her physical impairments, but also from the emotional damage inflicted by other children.

“Oh Mary Ann, what’s wrong with your lip?” they would taunt her.

“I cut it on a piece of glass,” she would lie to them in response.

But worst of all was the annual hearing test, when the teacher would call each child forward. The child covered one ear, then the other, and the teacher whispered a simple phrase: “The sky is blue,” or “You have new shoes.” And then the child would repeat it.

Mary Ann could not hear in one ear and she did everything possible, including cheating, to minimize attention to her disability. She absolutely hated the whisper test.

One year, her teacher was Miss Leonard, whom every child just loved. The day came for the dreaded hearing test. Mary Ann went forward and cupped her ear.

Miss Leonard leaned forward to whisper.

Mary Ann remembers: “I waited for those words, which God must have put into her mouth—those seven words that changed my life.”

For Miss Leonard did not say “The sky is blue” or “You have new shoes.”

Miss Leonard leaned in as closely as she could and whispered in Mary Ann’s ear, “I wish you were my little girl.”

“Who among you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, doesn’t leave the ninety-nine on their own and go after the lost sheep until he – or she –  finds it?”

The Good Shepherd is the One who has come to find his lost sheep; to claim us, tend to us, and then carry us home in his loving embrace.

Can we now do any less for others in his name?