Both Enduring & Lost

Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? —Ezekiel 34:2

Introduction: A Shepherd at a Cocktail Party

When was the last time you spent any time with a shepherd? I mean quality time—not just chatting with a shepherd at a cocktail party. I would ask for a show of hands, but I’ve been told that that sort of display leads to speaking in tongues. The fact is the matter is that I doubt any of you have even so much as liked a shepherd’s post on Facebook.

That’s because there just aren’t a whole lot of shepherds around these days… at least not in this part of the world. The same thing could be said of cobblers and fullers and blacksmiths. In the case of this latter list, we don’t talk about them much, either; and I don’t see many depictions of them in stained glass or bulletin covers or inspirational paintings. The image of the shepherd, on the other hand, is a major part of Christian spirituality. We have never forgotten that King David was just a shepherd boy when the Prophet Samuel found him and anointed him king over Israël. Most of us know by heart the psalm attributed to David which begins, The Lord is my shepherd. And we cling to the words of Jesus, I Am the Good Shepherd. [1]

It’s amazing if you actually stop to think about it how an occupation that in practice is so obscure has nevertheless endured in our minds as such an important occupation. It’s really unique in that way. You might say that it is important precisely because it is biblical. And you would be right.

I. Help Wanted, Biblically Speaking

The Bible uses the image of the shepherd, and therefore it’s important. But the Bible also speaks of refiners and fullers, and we remain indifferent. [2]

The Bible speaks of farmers and vine growers, and these are both occupations that are important in 21st century California. [3] While we might occasionally find biblical references to them edifying, we sing very few songs about them—in fact, I would imagine that you can’t think of a single one right off the top of your head.

And then there are other occupations that were mentioned in connection with New Testament figures—occupations that we often remember and that continue to be important… or at least known. Paul, for example, was a tentmaker. [4] People can still buy tents and campers use them all the time. And yet I’ve never actually met a tentmaker. Since Paul’s other job was as a missionary, in professional circles we often speak of a less-than-full-time pastor as a tentmaker—somebody who has to hold down two jobs in order to make ends meet.

Jesus & Joseph
Matthew was a tax collector. [5] We still have those. But about the only connection we make between an IRS employee and the divine is every year right around April 15, everybody around us seems to be saying, “O gawd I have to do my taxes.” But that’s okay, because the Bible doesn’t want us to associate tax collectors with God—tax collectors in Jesus’ day were thought of as collaborators and extortionists.

Now Joseph was a carpenter, as was Jesus himself, or so we believe. [6] We even have a stained glass window of this. We also still have carpenters. And we also still need carpenters. And yet, despite the stained glass and the familiarity with the job itself, we almost never use carpentry as a spiritual image. There are, of course, exceptions. One excellent example is this prayer from Scotland’s Iona community, which we often use at the end of Maundy Thursday worship:

O Christ, the master carpenter, who through wood and nails purchased our whole salvation: wield well your tools in the workshop of your world, so that we, who come rough hewn to your bench, may here be fashioned to a truer beauty of your hand… [7]

The Call of the Fishermen
And then there are the fishermen. Among biblical professions, this one comes closest to the shepherd image, as far as our spirituality goes. And fishermen are familiar to us. We may not live in a fishing village, but all know a fisherman or two. There’s probably at least one person here today who enjoys going fishing. Nobody I know goes out on their day off and herds sheep. But I know several people who like to spend their free time fishing. And so when we hear the words Jesus spoke to Andrew and Peter, Come, follow me, and I will show you how to fish for people [8], and these two brothers left their nets and followed Jesus, we understand both what they left behind and what they’re being called to do. This is also one of our stained glass windows. And this one is also a popular image in hymns, including one of the most beautiful songs in the world, which is number 721 in our hymnal: Lord, You Have Come to the Lakeshore, written by a Spanish priest [9]. The dual image of leaving your nets and your boat and your parents and following Jesus, and of casting your net among humanity and drawing others to Christ, is deeply engrained in Christianity across the world.

II. Where Titles Meet

And yet, as beautiful and popular as the image of the fishermen is, it cannot approach the image of the shepherd, despite the fact that none of us herd sheep either for a living or as a pastime. And so the shepherd is a very enduring image. It has come down to us through the millennia, and has survived even in places where the profession itself has fallen by the wayside.

I think the best summation of the meaning of this image was preached in the early 19th century by Bishop Henry Manning. Here are the opening words of his sermon on Jesus statement, I Am the Good Shepherd:

This is one of those divine sayings in which there is so much of truth and love, that we seem able to do little more than to record it and ponder on it, to express it by symbols, and to draw from it a multitude of peaceful and heavenly thoughts. It was the symbol under which, in times of persecution, his presence was shadowed forth. It was sculptured on the walls of sepulchers and catacombs…it was traced upon their sacred books; it was graven on the vessels of the altar. The image of the Good Shepherd has expressed, as in a parable, all their deepest affections, fondest musings, most docile obedience, most devoted trust. It is a title in which all other titles meet, in the light of which they blend and lose themselves. Priest, Prophet, King, Savior, and Guide, are all summed up in this more than royal, paternal, saving Name. It recalls in one word all the mercies and loving-kindness of God to his people of old, when ‘the Shepherd of Israel’ made his own people ‘to go forth like sheep, and guided them in the wilderness like a flock. It recites, as it were, all the prophecies and types of the Divine care which were then yet to be revealed to his elect. [10]

Thus, the Lord is our shepherd. The image has endured, and we love it.

But as enduring as the image is, it has also been lost. For one of the main reasons that the Lord was shepherd in the Bible was because God’s guidance and care of God’s people was like unto of a good ruler. And a good and just ruler in the ancient Middle East was very often compared to a shepherd. Just as shepherds guarded their sheep and guided them to sustenance, and just as shepherds placed themselves in the breach between the flock and whatever danger was threatening them, so a good ruler both cared for the people and were willing to make sacrifices for their wellbeing.

The fact that we have lost the image of the ruler as shepherd is as noteworthy as the fact that it has endured as an image for the divine. Never has this been clearer than in contemporary America, where so many of us seem to think that government’s sole purpose is to enable the wealthy to gain more wealth, and to grease the wheels for that acquisition by refusing to care for the least among us. Nothing, and I mean nothing, could be less biblical and less Christian than the notion that our government should not concern itself with the needy. Such a belief is in direct opposition to both the Old Testament and the New. And the truly sad fact here is that we actually have the right to choose our own leaders… and we often intentionally choose those who serve the fat sheep at the expense of the starving ones, as well as those who instigate discord among the sheep. And we do this while daring to call ourselves a Christian nation, or at least a nation dependent upon the Judeo-Christian heritage as a model for who we should be.

I had hoped that this entire sermon would be a diatribe against injustice. But I guess I’m all diatribed out for now. I’ve said enough about government. So let me turn to the place where the two images—the enduring one of the divine shepherd and the lost one of the ruler as shepherd—seem to come together, and that is in the church.

III. Shepherding, Right in the Kisser

Ministers are often spoken of as shepherds—in fact, pastor is a word that actually means shepherd, a fact that is still evident in English when we think of the word pasture. A pasture is a place where sheep eat, and a pastor is the one who feeds the sheep. A pastor cares for her or his flock—the weak as well as the strong—and a good pastor tries to keep the flock from tearing itself apart from the inside. But the most obvious reason for a contemporary minister to be called a pastor is the fact that the Word of God is thought of as the Bread of Life, and thus the pastor feeds the flock by sharing the Word of God.

Just as we have retained that notion, our tradition has lost another—namely, that the pastor must protect the flock from that which might hurt them or lead them astray. One of the extreme example of this I found was in a 1905 novel about a Canadian Presbyterian minister. The wife of a wayward member of his church visits him late one night to tell him her husband hasn’t been home for two days, and to ask him if he would go looking for him. It should be noted here that this couple had recently lost a child. And so the minister checked every bar in town until he finally found him. He had spent everything he had on drink, and now that he had no money left, the proprietor was abusing him and throwing him out of the bar. Here’s a little excerpt, beginning with the bar owner’s words to Geordie, the wayward sheep:

‘Get out of here, you beast,’ he muttered savagely, ‘and let decent folk enjoy themselves. You'll not get no music nor no whisky either, hangin' round an honest man's house without a penny in your pocket—get out, you brute.’ And he struck him full in the face again.

It were wrong to say that I forgot I was a minister; I think I recalled that very thing, and it gave more power to my arm, for I knew the poverty amid which Geordie's poor wife strove to keep their home together; and the pitiful bareness of wee Jessie's death-chamber flashed before me. This well-nourished vampire had sucked the life-blood from them all, and remembering this, I rushed into the unequal conflict and smote the vampire between his greedy eyes with such fervor that he fell where he stood. In a moment he was on his feet again, but my ministry with him was not complete, and I seized him where he had gripped his own victim, by the throat.

‘Let me be. Remember you're a minister,’ he gasped.

‘God forbid I should forget,’ I thundered back, for my blood was hot. I remembered just then that wee Jessie had been dependent on charity for the little delicacies that go with death; ‘and if God helps me you won't forget it either,’ with which addition I hurled him down the stairs, his final arrival signaled back by the sulphurous aroma of bruised and battered maledictions. [11]

Though I can’t endorse this kind of violence, I won’t completely condemn it either. It wasn’t typical of the minister in this novel, but it did reflect the kind of righteous anger Jesus must’ve felt when he cleansed the temple. [12]

And it’s precisely the kind of behavior that a modern minister must never display. In fact, we’re not really allowed to do much at all to protect our flocks. Our denomination is too open-minded to allow us to care what doctrines get espoused in our churches. We’re too desperate for members and their money to allow us to refuse entry to outsiders with obviously evil intentions. We’re too afraid of our tax-exempt status to meddle too much in hurtful policies. And we’re too afraid of legal action to get physical, or even too specific in the words we use.

Just so you know, I was being a bit tongue-in-cheek with that set of examples… but I really have recently encountered a problem in which a person was repeatedly caught being dishonest with and verbally abusive toward church members, and rather than apologize they simply demanded that I forgive them, because that was my job as a pastor.

Conclusion: Surviving the Slightest Breeze

And so we all remember very well that Jesus is the Good Shepherd and that pastors are his under-shepherds. And we have all forgotten that in ancient times kings were also shepherds, and that the shepherd imagery should still be applied to government in our day. But let’s at least remember that we are part of a flock. That every moment of every day, we are being guided—as part of the community in which we live, and as part of the community in which we worship. Sometimes those two things are one in the same. More often than not they’re two different communities, the latter being a subset of the former.

And it is our worshiping community, the body of Christ, that ought to remember first and foremost that we are by grace gathered together under the care of a loving and strong Ruler. Faith in this grace saves us both from fear of the unknown and to be the people of God in the world.

Calling ourselves “people of God” can sound a bit arrogant in a world where a great deal of harm has been done by others who have claimed to be the only people of God. And it sounds overly naïve to people don’t believe in God at all. Indeed, for those of us who have to navigate between those two extremes, this vale of tears can be a frustrating place, fraught with danger and inhabited by greed. Its pathways are too often poorly marked, with the way we should go obscured because of lack of use, the sidetracks all too alluring, and the dangerous detours often unavoidable.

But God’s people have for thousands of years been comforted with the knowledge that though the wrong seem oft so strong, God is the ruler yet. [13] Until we have reached the haven of that knowledge, the slightest breeze will make us tremble, but so long as the Lord is our Shepherd, we shall walk without fear in the valley of the shadow of death. [14]

And so, when we recite the 23rd Psalm in a few minutes, let us not say The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, as though we do not want the Lord to be our shepherd. But let those words instead be an affirmation that the Lord as our shepherd is the very thing we want and the the only thing we really need.
—©2016 Sam L. Greening, Jr. 
  1. John 10:11, 14.
  2. Malachi 3:2 covers both bases. 
  3. See, for example, Joel 1:11, James 5:7, and Mark 12:1.
  4. Acts 18:3
  5. Mark 2:14
  6. Matthew 13:55; Mark 6:3.
  7. George MacLeod wrote this prayer and it is prayed daily by members of the Iona Community. I gleaned it from Ron Ferguson’s George MacLeod, Founder of the Iona Community (Glasgow: Wild Goose, 1990), p. 418 (as well as in many Iona Community liturgical works). 
  8. Matthew 4:19 
  9. Cesáreo Gabaráin wrote Tú Has Venido a la Orilla in 1979. The Glory to God English translation is by Gertrude Supper, George Lockwood, and Raquel Guttierez-Achón. 
  10. Henry Edward Manning, The Good Shepherd (Sermon I), Sermons, Vol. III (London: James Burnes, 1847), pp. 1-20. The biblical quotation is from Psalm 78:52.
  11. Robert E. Knowles, St. Cuthbert’s (New York: Revell, 1905), pp. 147-148. 
  12. Luke 19:45
  13. Maltbie Babcock, This Is My Father’s World, 1901.
  14. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.13.5.