Meadowbrook Congregational Church
Rev. Art Ritter
May 12, 2019
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.
At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.”
I saw a cartoon this week that featured a group of sheep at a dinner party. The hostess of the party said to another of the sheep, “Henry, our party is in total chaos. No one knows when to eat. No one knows where to stand. No one knows what we are supposed to do.” The front door then opens and a dog walks into the room. The hostess breathes a huge sigh of relief. She exclaims, “How wonderful! Here is the border collie! The party is saved!”
Each year on this fourth Sunday of Easter, the church lectionary assigns passages to us that describes Jesus as The Good Shepherd. The word “pastor” is from the Latin word for shepherd thus carrying the image of a minister being the shepherd for his or her congregants who are a flock of sheep. Pastor and author Nadia Bolz-Weber writes that her father used to always ask her, tongue in cheek, “Hey Pastor! How’s your flock?” She would reply, “Same as ever. Disobedient. And a little smelly.” That is perhaps why the title “Pastor” has always made me feel a little uncomfortable. I don’t like to think of any of those in my congregation as docile, stupid, easily manipulated or smelly, as sheep.
But while reading these words from the gospel of John, it helps me to think less about the sheep and more about the shepherd. Jesus teaches us that God’s love for us is that of a shepherd, one who does the best to care for the sheep, one who calls each of the sheep by name, one who leads them into places of nourishment and refreshment, and one who does what is needed to protect them from all danger. Shepherds provide what is best for the sheep.
In particular, we read this week the words of Jesus saying that he is The Good Shepherd. “My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me.”
As we celebrate Mother’s Day this morning, I have been naturally drawn to remembrances of my own mother who passed away in October of 2001. I’ve shared with you before a bit about my mother. Like a good shepherd she was very protective of her children. She wanted what was best for us. She wanted us to receive what we deserved. She pushed us to do our best and to stand out. And she stood by us through everything we did. Mom was always there at every single school function, scouting activity, piano recital, and baseball game.
I remember my experience on my high school baseball team. I was a pitcher, a crafty southpaw. When I pitched I was extremely focused. I didn’t want anyone talking to me before the games and I didn’t listen to much of the crowd noise around me during the games. But there was one exception. My mother. I could always hear her voice. While my dad was always there also, he saved his comments and advice for a private conversation between innings or on the way home. But my mother provided instruction, wisdom, and encouragement immediately, never caring who else might hear or if her comments were right or wrong.
It sometimes got a little embarrassing. My mother would inform the umpire that his vision was lacking or that he was perhaps being overly sympathetic to the other team. My mother, the pitching coach, would offer me suggestions as to what I was doing wrong, things she had heard my father say to me at home. “Take your time.” “Follow through.” “Step toward the hitter.” “Keep your arm up.” I would request of Mom that she lower her voice and not be so critical but it never seemed to work. It was part of her nature to speak out and protect and support her children.
The funny thing was that I would ask some of my teammates about my mother’s comments and none of them could even hear what she was saying. For them, she was just part of the cheering crowd. I eventually figured out that even in the midst of competition, my ears were attuned to the voice of my mother. I could hear her through all of the other noise and confusion around me. While I wish I could still actually hear her voice today, that voice continues to speak to my heart each and every day.
Jesus tells his followers that he speaks with the voice of a shepherd. It is a voice that we easily recognize. It is a voice that creates trust rather than fear. It is the voice of God that cares for our deepest needs. It is the voice of God that wants the best for us in each circumstance. It is the voice of God that speaks of a promise of love and care and protection. It is a voice that is an assurance of that presence in times of struggle and pain. It is a voice that brings mercy even when we do not feel worthy. It is a voice that demands we live to our better nature. It is a voice that we tend to hear even when the competing voices of the world do their very best to drown it out. It is a voice that calls us to a deeper relationship with our Creator.
Jesus speaks to us about the voice of the Shepherd, who despite our occasional failures, who despite our inclination to walk away, who despite our willingness to trust in the wolves of our world- never, ever gives up on us. He urges us to follow him, in tangible and concrete ways, promising that if we do we are more likely to hear his voice even more clearly, in the times and places we need guidance and strength.
On this day in which we celebrate and give thanks for human voices that support and direct and protect us- we also lift up the image of the voice of a Good Shepherd. As believers in Jesus we know the voice. It is always there. It is the voice of the one who lays down his life to give everything for us. Such is the love of God.