WHAT WILL YOU CHOOSE?
We just sang “The King of Love My Shepherd Is”, an adaptation of Psalm 23.
I am grateful for those who created the liturgical calendar and who included this Psalm as part of our readings for today. This Psalm and the Gospel lesson talk about selfless shepherds; both acknowledge darkness, and both speak of abundance.
Psalm 23, which is sometimes called the “Song of Trust”, is one of the most well known. And yes, we often hear it at funerals. This Psalm challenges us to see, to acknowledge the darkness but also hope.
“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.”
Today, many of us might relate to a sense of darkness, a place without light. It seems we have been in the valley for some time. We are immersed in a time of challenge, of death and of profound change. We may even find ourselves asking, Do I make a difference? Even as we celebrate Easter, we may not see the light around us.
But this Psalm is more about God centered living then about death. It says we lack nothing; it talks about our lives and the abundance that we have been given.
God is present with us. It is one of the places in the Bible which describes God in the 1st person with such tenderness. It reflects a very intimate relationship with God.
The Lord is my shepherd.
He revives my soul.
This Psalm projects a simple image; God and a single sheep, not a flock; God the host and me, a single guest.
It talks about abundance.
I shall not be in want.
my cup is running over.
The gospel lesson today is also one which many of us will have recognized. It is sometimes called the Good Shepherd discourse. Today’s reading begins with verse 11, but I want to step back one verse. Verse 10 concludes Jesus’s description of himself as the gate through which the sheep, who know his voice, are called to enter. Jesus says,
“I have come that they may have life and have it more abundantly.”
This line also underlies today’s reading. Abundance is not about cars and homes and boats. It’s about the quality of life. It lets us touch the deepest part of ourselves. It connects us with the divine, with the holy, and with what is good, true, and beautiful in this world. It is not so much about getting something we do not have as to living more fully into what is already present.
Abundance is love that leads to love. It is joy that leads to joy. It is peace that leads to peace. It is kindness that leads to kindness. It is stepping more deeply and more fully into our own life and into the lives of others.
Abundance is Jesus’s way of being in the world. It is the presence of God lived through our lives. This is the tone for the telling of today’s story - about the good shepherd, the sheep, the hired hand, and the wolf.
When you hear about the Good Shepherd, who do you think of?
And the sheep
– why that’s us.
And the hired hand – those that would leave the sheep unprotected from the wolf. Yes – those are typical answers, and they are correct but---.
Today, I would like to share another way of looking at this reading; of looking at the images of the shepherd, the sheep, the hired hand and the wolf in a different way.
Could the Good Shepherd be other than Jesus?
Could you be the shepherd?
Think about our readings today. What does the shepherd do? The shepherd leads and guides. The shepherd revives. The shepherd protects. The shepherd secures access to food and water. The Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
A faithful pastor displays similar characteristics as the Good Shepherd. He sacrifices for the sheep, she knows the sheep, and the sheep will know her. The word "pastor" is derived the word for shepherd from the verb “pascere” – meaning "to lead to pasture, set to grazing.”
Father Joseph has taken the next definition to heart and I say this in all love - the paster is one who “causes (the sheep) to eat".
When have you experienced a shepherd in your life? Someone who has welcomed you. Someone who has fed and nourished your soul? Someone who said to you just the right thing at the right time.
When have you been a shepherd to someone? Recall the times you offered help to someone with a project, offered time to listen, to be present?
Shepherding is about sharing abundance. It is about pointing out something that often already exists. Sometimes it is just to remind us of what really matters most. Sometimes just to listen.
So, who are the sheep?
We typically understand the story to say, “we are the sheep”. But I want to share another way to look at “sheep”.
In Jesus’ time, everyone knew firsthand about sheep. Sheep were highly valued because they provided food, drink and warmth.
So, who or what are the sheep? I suggest that the “sheep” represent the gifts of abundance given to us by God. These are the things entrusted to us and others. They are the elements of life that really matter, those intangibles that have ultimate value.
Think about our families, friendships and the dreams of children as sheep. Consider the hopes of our neighbors and the health of the earth as sheep. Consider our dreams and the dreams of our friends and our communities as sheep. There are sheep everywhere.
To see these in this way reminds us that Jesus is calling us to be a shepherd of the sheep. By Jesus’s example, we are all called to care for them, to be there for each other. When we see our cups in this way, we recognize the gift of abundance. These gifts have been entrusted to us and require respect and honor and care.
Jesus contrasts the Good Shepherd with the hired hand. The hired hand does not own the sheep, so he is not committed to their care. The hired hand leaves when it gets too difficult, too scary, too risky.
Each of us could share a story about a hired hand in our life, someone who, when you needed them most, ran out, abandoned us. They let the wolf take hold. Could that be me? Could that be you?
I must admit, there are times when I have failed to follow Jesus’s example. I was like the hired hand and ran away. My guess is all of us, painful as it may be to admit, can find times when we too acted like the hired hand. It is easy for us to miss Jesus’s call. We considered the short-term wages were more important than sharing the abundance of the love given to us.
Who then, is the wolf?
Jesus says the “wolf will snatch and scatter the sheep”. Wolves come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes it is us.
the wolf of busyness – where we are “too busy” to lend a hand,
or the wolf of needing approval where we are more concerned about appearance or being in control.
Sometimes the wolf comes from outside. We allow darkness to overtake our dreams or the dreams of others and we do not respond.
Has a hired hand allowed a wolf to come near you? Has the wolf been allowed to attack your dreams or the dreams of another? Have they hidden the abundance given to us?
It is pretty easy to see the good shepherd and the sheep as images of abundance.
The hired hand and the wolf point to abundance in a different way. They point to what is not there, what is missing.
We are called to remember the abundance.
The table spread before us.
my cup running over.
And in the Gospel, we see the intimacy, the abundance of love in the opening line.
“Jesus said, ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
Jesus is using this story to remind us of the abundance that God has given us. Jesus is asking us to open our eyes, to see a new way of living. In a sense, Jesus is offering a road map for our lives.
Jesus is calling us to be shepherds too!
We are all called -
to share the abundance of life,
to remain faithful to our call,
to love one another
and to work to shield each other from the wolves.
Yes, we can and will be the shepherd, the sheep, the hired hand and even the wolf at different times of our lives.
The question is - Who will you be today?
With God’s help, you can be a shepherd too.
Todd Olberding, St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church
Various Clergy and members of St. Augustine contribute to authoring the blog on a variety of topics.