Weekly Preaching: April 22, 2018

April 17th, 2018

1 John 3:16-24 is a promising passage. It has the fertile thought that “God is greater than our hearts” (important to explicate, as most people reduce God to what they feel in their hearts, or to the One who should give us what our hearts want; I also think of Bonhoeffer’s admonition that we not only pray what is in our heart, but we pray what is in God’s Word, which might lead us to pray what is contrary even to our own heart!). This text also carries that glaring question, “If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need yet closes his heart, how does God’s love abide in him?”

But I will focus on Psalm 23 or John 10:11-18 — or both. Psalm 23 can be risky preaching, as so much sugary sentimentality has attached itself to this overly familiar text. No need to ding people or jolt them out of their warm fuzzy mood on hearing it — hey, I get warm fuzzy feelings from hearing it, especially when we read it aloud, together as a Body, at funeral services. It’s just a matter of the preacher taking them further into what they were sure they already comprehended well.

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A few points of interest. To speak of the Lord as shepherd isn’t flattering to us... although much like sheep, we are foolish creatures, driven entirely by appetite, easily lost and in peril. I heard a preacher years ago say “Sheep nibble themselves lost.”

And then, the shepherd. We romanticize them as rural simpletons. But rulers throughout the Ancient Near East were called shepherds. As a business, flocks could number in the tens of thousands, so shepherding required considerable administrative savvy. Travellers to the Holy Land have observed that shepherds are a bit rough in appearance, and are quite rough with their sheep. The first shepherd I ever saw was wearing an Elvis t-shirt, big green golashes, swatting sheep on the rear end with his stick, and hollering expletives. The Lord is my shepherd.

Yet the shepherd’s care can be tender and personal. It was common for shepherds to give sheep names. I was never sure, as a child, of that TV program in which Shari Lewis spoke to her little sheep puppet she called “Lamb Chop” — a name that sounds more like a meal than a pet. If you want to ponder the shepherd’s personal care for the sheep, flit over to Jesus’ great story about the shepherd who had hung onto 99 out of 100 — a super high percentage — but was restless until he found that one. Jealous, protective, resilient, doggedly loyal: shepherds. No wonder the angels chose them for their audience when Jesus was born.

Most pastors are cognizant that “I shall not want” might be better rendered as “I will lack no good thing.” This opens up some reflection on our wanting, on what is genuinely good, etc. The “paths of righteousness” are good roads to take, but what kind of righteous, holy, Torah-filled, disciple living is required of those who can truly claim to walk there?

Someone counted all the Hebrew words in Psalm 23, and it turns out that the word smack dab in the middle is “with.” The center of the Psalm, the center of the life of faith, is “thou art with me.” This bears homiletical reflection. Sam Wells gifted us with his marvelous A Nazareth Manifesto, in which he explains that God isn’t primarily a fixer or protector or guarantor of this or that which we think we must have. God’s identity and purpose? Simply to be with us. Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us, not God fixing us or God doing favors for us. This then redefines our mission. We don’t do for others or fix others; we are called to be with them — as explicated now in Sam’s companion volume on the nature and mission of the church, Incarnational Ministry.

“You prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies” bears some thought. It’s not a taunt (as a scholar I’ll leave unnamed has insisted). From a Christian theological perspective, the Lord’s table is the place where reconciliation begins and ends. When you have a dinner party, do not invite those who can invite you in return (Luke 14). We are to make peace at the table, not with our pals but with those where relationships are broken or nonexistent.

I had a strange compulsion a while back when preaching on Psalm 23. The Lord is my shepherd — but what is the antecedent of “my”? Sheep, surely? I tried my hand at putting these words into the mouth of another creature in the pastoral scene: the sheepdog (catch it on YouTube). It’s his shepherd, too. I latched onto this because of a lovely quotation from Evelyn Underhill I’ve long treasured:

“You want to be one among the sheepdogs employed by the Good Shepherd. Now have you ever watched a good sheepdog at his work? He is not at all an emotional animal. He just goes on with his job quite steadily, takes no notice of bad weather, rough ground, or his own comfort. He seldom or never comes back to be stroked. Yet his faithfulness, his intimate understanding with his master, is one of the loveliest things in the world. Now and then he just looks at the shepherd. When the time comes for rest they can generally be found together.” 

I love Evelyn Underhill. Always spot on, always wise, always full of clarity and insight.

* * *

The Lord is the shepherd of us, the Body of Christ. This is more evident in John 10:11-18 where the emphasis is on the courage, the stick-to-it-iveness of the shepherd. Wolves go on the prowl, but this shepherd doesn’t duck behind a rock. He “gives his life for the sheep.”

I am increasingly drawn toward preaching to the Body as the Body, not to each individual sitting there individually. If we are Christ now, if we are his body, then we have shepherding to do.

Raymond Brown even translates kalos in “I am the good Shepherd” as “I am the model Shepherd.” Not good as in 'good to the sheep,' but good as in 'good at it.' He shows us how to shepherd — it’s laying our lives down for the sheep.

Jean Vanier explores this shepherding, pointing out how false shepherds “are more concerned about their salary, their reputation, structures, administration and the success of the group. They use people… They are closed up in their own needs.”

By contrast, “To become a good shepherd is to come out of the shell of selfishness to be attentive to those for whom we are responsible, to reveal to them their fundamental beauty and value and help them grow and become fully alive. It is not easy really to listen. It is not easy to touch our own fears. It is a challenge to help others gradually accept responsibility, to trust themselves. When people are weak or lost, they need a shepherd close to them. Little by little, however, as they discover who they are, the shepherd becomes more of a friend and companion.”

Of course, John gives us that mysterious “I have other sheep not of this fold.” Does he mean other religions? Or as one friend of mine believes, Jesus has people on other planets in other galaxies! Jesus is thinking Gentiles of course, but here we see his abiding, deep desire for unity among God’s people, which is the reality in God’s heart, even if our hearts are divided from one another.

"April 22/Easter 4" first appeared on James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission. 

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