“Who Needs a Shepherd?” by Rev. Dr. Larry Bethune

Listen to the sermon from Sunday, April 17, 2016 titled “Who Needs a Shepherd?” by Rev. Dr. Larry Bethune.

The twenty-third psalm is one of the best known of all scripture.  Generations have memorized it in the King James translation.  I have been with dementia patients who could not tell you their name but would recite the twenty-third psalm with me word for word.  It’s a good one for deep wiring.

We imagine the shepherd boy David sitting by a blue stream in a luscious green field, his sheep bleating softly as they forage under his watchful eye.  And in this pastoral setting as David considers his role, it occurs to him: “The Lord is my shepherd; I lack nothing…”

Of course, David became the great warrior King of Israel.  He consolidated their religion by tearing down all the other shrines and temples and requiring that Israel’s God be worshipped in one place only: his capital city Jerusalem.  In Hebrew, one word means both “temple” and “palace” because the King’s court was part of the complex where the nation’s God was worshiped.  The King was God’s representative ruler.

David was the sponsor of the Temple liturgy.  Many psalms begin with the inscription לְדָוִד מִזְמוֹר (mizmor ldawid), usually translated “a psalm of David” but literally meaning “to” or “for” David.  In other words, it’s a dedication rather than an attribution.

The history was written by the priests of David’s royal court.  Think of the glowing biographies published by our presidential candidates to spin up their campaigns.  David’s biographers would have loved Michelangelo’s idealized statue of the boy who beat Goliath!  They popularized his rags-to-riches, shepherd-to-King story and emphasized his special status as the “son of God.”

Just as God was the Shepherd of Israel, the King was their “shepherd” representing God’s rule. Every King in Israel thereafter was called “son of God” and “Shepherd of Israel,” as well as מָשִׁ֫יחַ  (mashiach) “Messiah, anointed one.”

In the gospels Jesus uses the shepherd language of the Hebrew scripture to speak of his relationship with his followers:  “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:14-15).  This good shepherd imagery is picked up in the art found in early Christian tombs like the catacombs of Priscilla in Rome.

In that day the caretaking role of shepherds was still a familiar and popular image throughout the Roman world.  And it continued to be a popular image in Christian life through the centuries that followed even to our day where urban Christians who have never been anywhere near a sheep except maybe in a petting zoo find great comfort in the twenty-third psalm.

I don’t know any shepherds, do you?  For us the shepherd and sheep imagery of the Bible has been romanticized to the point of detachment from all underlying ancient agricultural realities.  Consequently, we’ve forgotten the radical social message of the original metaphor.  Rather than the idyllic pastoral setting we imagine, shepherds of both David’s and Jesus’ day were the lowest rung of the social ladder just above beggars and criminals, and their job was no walk in the park.

 “I took you from the pasture,” God tells David, “from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel” (2 Samuel 7:8).  In other words, shepherds didn’t lead so much as trail sheep and the rear ends of a flock of sheep was their view most of the day.  Moreover, the “green pastures” of Israel were far from the luscious meadows of England or Ireland or France.  Shepherds spent their day in a cloud of dust stirred by the herd.  In the spring they slept with the herd out in the field.  So shepherds were smelly, dirty laborers not generally welcomed in the company of the rich and powerful.

To call God a shepherd, to make a shepherd your King, was a radical countercultural action turning the social order on its head.  It means God identifies with the lowly!  It means salvation comes from the least of these!

And if the Lord is our shepherd, that makes us sheep!  Sheep are not very bright.  They are sheepish, easily scared and stampeded in no sensible direction.  They will wander aimlessly away into danger from the protective herd.  Who wants to be a sheep?

And who needs a shepherd?  Not surprisingly, the Christian Kings of the West took up David’s shepherd imagery to attach their earthly authority to the heavenly Good Shepherd.  But we fought a bloody revolution to get freed from Kings and we aren’t going there again, are we?  It’s just not American!

What’s more, in our post-modern moment, the only authority most people recognize is their own personal opinion.  We assume we are bright enough, strong enough, and informed enough to shepherd ourselves.  I rule me and you rule you and that is enough.  We don’t need anybody else, and we certainly don’t need a shepherd.

This cultural mindset does have a downside.  It tends to be narcissistic.  Our age of selfies reflects an overestimation of the self as being sufficient.  It’s not conducive to creating relationship, community, institutions, or faith communities that will last for generations to come.

I am oversimplifying, but these are the documented social tendencies of post-modernism.  And, as Walter Breuggemann notes, “the task of the preacher is to show us we live in the tension of competing narratives.” 

What is our dominant social narrative? In our righteous rejection of abusive authority women and men reject all authority as being abusive by definition. In the certainty of our own opinions, we ignore the accrued information of research, education, and experience. In our individual independence we reject the priority of relationship, family, and community.  Is it any wonder so many people have difficulty with the vulnerability and trust essential to healthy relationship? Is it surprising that we are the more susceptible to leaders who promise us the world and deliver nothing good?

And while we aren’t sheep, Lord knows we can be sheepish, easily scared and stampeded in no sensible direction.  We can wander aimlessly away into danger.  As the Bible puts it, “All we like sheep have gone astray, we have all turned to our own way” (Isa. 53:6).  And when we go our own way as so many are in this day, we wind up in trouble and wonder why, we wind up alone and don’t understand how that happened.  We look for healthy institutions to help us, and don’t understand why they are no longer there.

While we resist it as a culture, most people still long for those days when a trusted parent cared for us so our worries were few, and good leaders rose among us who led us to do great things together.

The Gospel offers us a better narrative:  we know it is possible to maintain our personal freedom and create community, keep our independence and build organizations that accomplish good things, hold leadership accountable and follow leaders we trust.  In our day simply being church with one another is prophetic and counter-cultural to a world of people discovering they are not enough and cannot thrive going it alone.

Here is the truth.  I need a shepherd and so do you.  No single human authority is enough.  As another psalmist says, “Do not put your trust in princes” (Psa 146:3).  But there are people who can be trusted with leadership.

We know we are not enough alone on our own. We need a shepherd.  And we have a shepherd who is always there for us, sovereign over creation, with us as Spirit and embodied in the community of faith.  “The Lord is our shepherd.”  And we are God’s sheep, always stronger together than we are on our own. “The Lord is our Shepherd.”  And that is enough.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.  May we pray?

Good Shepherd,

Lead us.  Give us the humility to trust in you, to listen to one another, and to be your flock.  Be embodied among us in the love we give one another.  In our freedom give us the wisdom to submit to your authority, to search for truth in each other, and to build a community where we can find help in our time of need.  Then goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our life, and we will dwell in your house forever.  Amen.

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