John 10: 1-10
It hardly seems necessary to go into great detail about Jesus’ extraordinary care in these pandemic times. So many, in this extraordinary time, are already exhibiting extraordinary care. In spite of critical shortages of protective care, nurses, doctors, and chaplains are diving into the deep end of the virus pool every day. They do so skillfully, caringly, and often sacrificially. They often actually, “lay down their life” for their patients. There is perhaps no better time to help Jesus’ description of himself come to life than in these extraordinary days. In ordinary time, people may pour out their life to protect our country, to serve in a mission field, or as a teacher charged with keeping children safe in a pre-school or day care center. These people, by their choices, are called on to put others first. And they do. Now there are new armies of people who are on the front lines with those who are medically ill, those emotionally in need, and those financially struggling. So factories that made cars are ramping up to make masks; distilleries of fine spirits have started making hand sanitizer, and individuals are pulling out their “Hear I Am Lord, Send Me!” responses to help their neighbors in need. All of us, in so many ways, are becoming shepherds to sheep. Of course, that is a metaphor. My English classes taught me that a simile was a comparison between things using like or as, such as “She is like a shepherd.” But Jesus uses full metaphors, taking out the word “like.” In John’s gospel, he’s well knows for these sayings, known as the “I am” sayings. He declares, in metaphorical fashion, “I am the bread;” “I am the door;” and “I am the good shepherd,” just to name a few. If he were saying that to children, they might argue with him saying, “You don’t look like bread!” or “You don’t look like a door!” And unlike King David, who was clearly a shepherd before he was a king, we don’t have any record of Jesus ever being a shepherd! Yet he claims he is one! What’s going on here? This is the way people made comparisons in Jesus’ day, and when you think about it, we still do! We say things like “I’m cold as ice!” or I’m hungry as a wolf!” We are always making comparisons. It’s not hard to see that our childcare workers, our hospital staff members, and many family members are now like shepherds. Let’s dig deeper into that image.
One thing is for certain: Jesus would have grown up knowing the Twenty-third Psalm. David wrote it as a statement of his faith. So even those who have never been a shepherd have gotten an idea of what shepherds had to do to protect sheep! Philip Keller wrote a book that I own and that is in our church library called A Shepherd Looks at Psalm Twenty-three. I have read it many times. As a shepherd, what insights Keller brings to help us understand David’s words! Sheep are some of the most helpless creatures on earth. Other animals can make it on their own but not sheep! They can only thrive with a good shepherd. So David refers to himself as a sheep, and God into a shepherd, says: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want!” A shepherd can only make sheep lay down in green pastures 1) if he finds a spot of grass in arid Israel; and 2) if he can make them feel secure. When they need water, it can’t be stagnant water that might contain bacteria; but neither can it be running water because it gets up their nose! So, a shepherd has to dam up running water long enough for them to drink. The shepherd has to guide them in right paths, that is, not ones filled with predators, but ones that lead to more food. Sometimes he had to lead sheep through valleys where predators could hide. When he did that, he carried a rod to whack the bodies of predators that get to close, and he knew how to use a slingshot. Good shepherds also carried a staff with the curved end used to gently pull sheep back from any cliffs where they might wander. Shepherds do not actually prepare tables; they prepare table lands; if the shepherd does not first pull out the poisonous weeds, the sheep will simple eat them along with the grass, getting sick or dying. What a job a shepherd has! And as the sheep eat and are distracted, the shepherd watches for their enemies. To help protect them from biting flies, the shepherd anoints their head with a salve, or ointment, with spices that repel the insects. And the sheep feel great relief being in the flock of a good shepherd, described as “their cup overflowing.” So Jesus can easily claim to be a good shepherd; David taught him and countless other readers, what that meant. And now, there are countless good shepherds working sacrificially with those who are young and helpless, those who are old and helpless, or those who are ill and helpless. The prophet Isaiah also used the sheep metaphor for people when he declared “All we, like sheep, have gone astray, each to our own way.” [53:6]
These days, many human beings are even more helpless than usual. These days, many of around us are fatigued, weak as a kitten, or fraught with fear. We are in need of some good shepherds; not just Jesus, but others of us who have the ability to do something! Think about it: you may not be able to get out, but you can telephone others and lift them up or you can pray with them. You can catch up on notes or emails you have been intending to send. These are things I am doing too!
We can journal what it’s like to live through this time, so people in the future will know! On a Zoom chat with other Presbyterians this week, one person asked how people during the 1918 handled the Sacraments of Baptism, and of Holy Communion! We are researching church records to see if a Clerk wrote down what they did! There are many things we can do, as we are busy just being away from others. But one thing to never forget is that we are like sheep, in the flock of a good shepherd.
Let us pray: Dear Jesus, like sheep, we need you. Like a good shepherd, you are there for us. How comforting that is to know! Thank you. Amen.
Jeffrey A. Sumner May 3, 2020