The Lord is MY Shepherd
Psalm 23, John 10:11-18, April 26, 2015
Other titles suggested for this sermon were "The Many Sides of Jesus," "A Shepherd Shall Lead," "MY Shepherd, and Everyone's," "Many Views of the Lord," "A Safe Place: Shepherd or Sheep?" "The Man on the El," "Our Comfort Zone," "What's in a Name?" "The Lord is MYYY Shepherd," and "Indeed, the Shepherd Rides the L"
Twenty-four years ago this month I was going through culture shock. I moved from Chicago to Mankato, MN, and started my first call on April 1. Mankato is a city about the same size as Oshkosh. The church building is downtown and the sanctuary is also designed on the Akron Plan, so this church is in many ways very similar to that one. But I found the church and the community jarringly different from what I was used to. I’ll share just two examples this morning.
When I went to buy groceries at Hy-Vee during my first week. I got to the check out and realized that I had never written a check there before and I wondered what I would have to do. At my grocery store in Chicago I had to fill out an application, attach a blank check, give two references and a thumb print—and only then after a week or so, did I get a card in the mail that I had to show every time I wanted to write a check. When I asked the clerk at Hy-Vee, “What do I have to do to write a check here?” She got this puzzled look on her face, then pointed out, “Here, you write today’s date, on this line you write ‘Hy-Vee’…” I was stunned! They didn’t need any additional information from me! I was totally not in Chicago anymore.
Another time I was walking in downtown Mankato and stopped at a crosswalk, waiting for the light to change. A car had stopped and it was just a little over the line into the crosswalk. I could not believe it when the driver, put the car in reverse, backed out of the crosswalk and smiled apologetically at me. “Who are these people?” I wondered. The only time someone would back up for a pedestrian in Chicago would be to get a better shot at nailing him!
I found I had moved to a place that was truly “Minnesota nice” and my hard, urban shell kept me from appreciating and trusting it. Once someone asked me what is the biggest difference between Mankato and Chicago. And I thought about the question carefully and wanted to give the most comprehensive answer possible..and I came up with, “Mankato doesn’t have the el.” And, like stepping on a rake, I realized that I missed riding the el in Chicago. I missed the panorama of humanity that I encountered daily for a $.90 token. Strangers would talk to me. I use that term in both way: people and didn’t know and people who are much stranger than I! I missed their insights and observations. I’ll never forget the lady who confided to me one morning, “People is mixed up.” Every single day I remember her words and wisdom.
I used to study Hebrew vocabulary words on the el. This led me to a lot of interesting conversations. One term I was taking an Old Testament class and decided I would start at Genesis 1 and read the Bible continuously on the el. Hunching over a Bible is a good way to be left alone by strangers on the el. One time I was reading my Bible, very conscious that I was ignoring a man who was standing in the aisle preaching. Then he said “Moses” at the very instant I read “Moses.” I looked up at him, startled by the coincidence and he looked me in the eye and said, “I’m sorry if I have annoyed you, but what I’m saying might save your soul.” He was so sincere, and so kind, that all I could do was say, “Thank you.”
But there was another preached whom I heard whose message I did not receive so warmly. He was a heavy set man, sitting across from me, sort of mumbling to himself, sort of mumbling to those around him. He kept repeating over and over and over, “The Lord is MY shepherd.” “The Lord is MY shepherd.” “The Lord is MY shepherd.” He kept emphasizing the “my.” Once in a while, for variety, he’d say, “The Lord is truly MY shepherd.” And if you listened long enough, and I did! He might include another part of the psalm, “The Lord is MY shepherd, he restores my soul.” It seemed that there was a magic in these words; he was greatly comforted by them and he rocked back and forth, repeating them.
Preachers on the el are a daily fact of life in Chicago. The good ones are blessings, the bad ones can be easily dismissed and ignored, but this man was different, as I said, I did not receive his message warmly. He made me angry; and the more I heard his one-note theological symphony, the angrier I got! The more I heard his incantation, the less it meant to me. The image of the Lord as a shepherd to me was simply too naïve and shallow. And what could that image mean to someone riding the el? I’ll bet it had been 100 years since there had been sheep grazing on the northside of Chicago! I wanted to find out what this image meant to him. What did it mean to him that the Lord is his shepherd. What does it mean to you, that the Lord is your shepherd? When Connor read Psalm 23 a few minutes ago, what pictures came into your mind? Think about this for a moment. Psalm 23 is easily the most recognized passage in the Bible. It’s so well known that I close our Confirmation classes by reading Psalm 100. I picked that one because there’s a good chance that the students will memorize Psalm 23 in other places.
Did you picture one of those romantic, pastoral paintings of shepherd lying down in their fields? Or maybe you pictured a nursery rhyme. Did you have any picture in your imagination? It’s possible that this passage is so familiar that it is just so much Biblical wallpaper. I’m a city kid. I’ve never met a shepherd. I doubt that my preacher on the el had ever met a shepherd either. Still, I remember how powerfully comforted this man was by those words: “The Lord is MY shepherd.” It was as though he was afraid to let go of those words. And his holding onto “The Lord is MY shepherd.” made me angry. I don’t understand why.
In John’s gospel, Jesus is forever trying to get people to understand who he is, and how he is related to God the Father. Each of his “I AM” statements gives a glimpse of who Jesus is.
I AM the bread of life.
I AM the light of the world.
I AM the way, the truth and the life.
I AM the vine and you are the branches.
And each of these statements does not give a complete picture of Jesus. And each of these I AM’s caused confusion in Jesus’ day. When Jesus said, “I am the Good Shepherd,” some dismissed him, saying, “He’s got a demon.” Others were not so sure, “These are not the words of one who has a demon.” It’s interesting to compare my reaction to the man on the el, to the reaction that Jesus got when he said, “I am the Good Shepherd.” I was not at all confused; I was angry at what I saw as a shallow faith.
When Jesus lived people had a clear idea of what a shepherd did, maybe they knew shepherds. Maybe they knew that hired shepherds cannot be trusted in the same way that shepherd can be. Even in this context, his words caused confusion. Even though Jesus gave a job description for what a Good Shepherd does, his words caused confusion. The Good Shepherd knows his sheep by name, and recognizes them—and they know his. (He’s crazy; he has a demon!) The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the flock. (These are not the words of one who has a demon!)
Words cannot describe God; words cannot describe the work of Jesus Christ, the best that words can do is begin to help us get a picture of what God does through Christ. While the image of a shepherd is powerful, even today, when we don’t see many shepherd and in big cities where the only sheep ones sees are in petting zoos, it is not the only image of God available to us. There are other images. Like the one that John the Baptizer used.
When John was baptizing people in the Jordan, some of them were not sure who he was, so they sent a delegate to ask him. John said he wasn’t Elijah, he said he wasn’t the Prophet. He said that he was the one who was preparing a straight path for the Lord. Then Jesus passed by and John said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who bears the sins of the world.” Jesus is The Lamb of God who bears the sins of the world. And the Good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. We have two very different images of Jesus here. We have images of Jesus on both sides of the pasture fence. How can we understand our Lord when he says that he is a shepherd, and a sheep? How can we possibly hold those images together? Both the shepherd and the lamb are examples of sacrificial love, love that lays down its life so that life may be taken up again. A love that lays down its life freely so that life may be more full.
I haven’t left my man on the el. I still think about him often. He may still be there, preaching the same sermon to anyone who is listening. And I still think about why he made me angry. I was frustrated because he seemed to only see God in one way, he seemed to imagine God only as a shepherd who takes care of him, protects and watches over him. And that makes me sad because I know that there is so much more to the Lord. But I also admit that much of my anger at this man was really envy. I envied his comfort and certainty and trust. Trust enables him to walk through life’s darkest valleys unafraid. He has a trust that all my thoughtful, varied and contradictory images of God rarely provide me.
Friend, I challenge you to examine your own images of God. Use your imagination, wrestle with the Good Shepherd, think about the Lamb of God. Where do you encounter self-sacrificing love? I ask because that’s where you will also encounter the risen Christ. Amen.