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Jesus the Loving Shepherd
a sermon based on Psalm 23 and John 10:11-18
by Rev. Thomas Hall

William Archibald Spooner was a lot like us-his mind would rush faster than his tongue. Spooner, a 19th century Anglican priest at Oxford, would make slips of the tongue in his sermons like "a blushing crow" for a "crushing blow," or "I have a half-warmed fish in my mind" for "I have a half-formed wish in my mind." Here are some other spoonerisms from Archibald Spooner:

"Tea and flick spray" (flea and tick spray)
"foon and spork" (spoon and fork)
"You didn’t hear a thingle sing I said" (single thing)
"When your tumb gets nongue" (tongues gets numb)

But an appropriate spoonerism for our passage this morning came when Spooner was preaching and instead of saying "The Lord is a loving shepherd," it came out, "The Lord is a shoving leopard."

Well, maybe you have experienced the Lord as more a leopard shoving you into action than a loving shepherd, but the image of shepherd is the best-loved, most explored and studied, most analyzed image in Christian faith. That image--of a loving shepherd--was etched in my mind very early in life. On my bedroom wall, in my Sunday School class, in gramma’s living room, at Lake Geneva Bible Camp, I would see that picture of Jesus strolling in Minnesota pasture land with a staff in one hand and a three-week old lamb in the other. He wore an egg-shell colored tunic with a purple stole around his shoulder. And bunched up all around him were the sheep, contented and serene with life all following their shepherd. That comes right out of our lessons this morning. What a picture of Jesus and the church--the loving shepherd ever responsible for his sheep.

Maybe you can recall quite a different shepherd picture: the scene is on a sheer mountain side. The picture has been painted in dark hues, giving the picture a threatening, somber cast. Doesn’t take long before you notice a lamb quivering on a slab of granite with no way out. How in the world a little lamb could get into that predicament is beyond me, but almost out of nowhere is that loving shepherd again. He reaches out toward the frightened lamb, giving us hope that the little fluffy guy will be rescued. What a picture of Jesus and the church-the loving shepherd ever searching for us.

Can you recall a time when you were that little lamb, frightened, stuck up there on the side of a lonely mountain? When it seemed like there was no way out? Maybe it was the first time that you heard your parents arguing outside your bedroom late one night. You felt alone, frightened. Maybe you felt frightened and helpless when your best friend and you got into some disagreement and then grew away from each other. We’ve all faced times when we felt we just could not go on, problems that overwhelmed us, the car broke down again, gramma was in the hospital, the teacher called us again. In those times of loneliness and fear, you may have turned to God in prayer; if you did, you undoubtedly discovered what hundreds and thousands of others have found that this loving shepherd still searches for lost, frightened lambs.

So powerful is the image of Jesus as the Shepherd that it came to be the ideal image for pastors. Shepherd was translated into "leadership" qualities of ministers. Pastors were shepherds and the congregation was the flock and the job of the pastor was to shepherd or lead people into deeper faith, spirituality, and mission. So it didn’t become long before the pastor as shepherd became the trend.

So, in the church, pastors were seen as shepherds who were supposed to don their shepherd tunics and walk back into those shepherd pictures to seek out straying lambs, and to lead the flock to greener pastures. More and more folks began to look to the pastor as their personal shepherd-the one who was to model for the congregation Christian faith and piety. Pastors were shepherds, easily distinguished from the flock as the experts at biblical interpretation, at preaching, the prime ones who could rescue the perishing and care for the dying. Pastor-shepherd types were the ones who chaired the meetings, led in Bible studies, and above all, were the ones to offer prayer at all after- church potlucks and wedding receptions.

Sidebar here. Do you know what it’s like to have the DJ shove a microphone into your face to pray at a reception just before everyone gets down into serious partying? This golden-throated guy waltzes over to you and announces that everyone should bow in prayer because the Most Reverend Thomas Hall will offer the blessing over the reception. Then this great shepherd raises his squeaky voice which breaks beyond the feedback while everything has hushed to dead silence. That’s a hard thing to do. No one else can offer prayer except the most reverend great shepherd and grand wizard of Swarthmore UMC. One of these times, I’m going to turn to the DJ and ask if he is a sheep. If he says yes, then I’m going to say, "Good. Now Mr. DJ my voice needs a rest, why don’t you offer prayer for us.

Do you see what’s happened to this text? And what’s changed in those pictures of the Good Shepherd? They’ve been tampered with! Look again at the 23rd Psalm and John 10 and count the number of shepherds. Recall the pictures of the Good Shepherd and count how many shepherds are there. Something’s fishy -- or shepherdy here. The picture of the Good Shepherd has been altered. Someone has come along with their permanent marker and sketched in lots of shepherds roving around the flock--little replicas of the Good Shepherd.

This is not a passage about lots of other shepherds! We have on our hands a Jesus who says, "I am the Good Shepherd." I think he’s saying that there are only two types of people in the church. On one hand we have the sheep-Sunday School teacher-sheep, Missions committee sheep, new comers to the flock, old-timer sheep, ushering sheep, greeting sheep, organist sheep, pastor sheep, strings and wind sheep, and whoever else bleats in the congregation. And then, on the other hand, we have the other type of people in the Church-the Good Shepherd.

In our lesson, Jesus is not a model for pastoral ministry. He does not stroll down the runway like Naomi Campbell showing us the latest in trends from Armani; Jesus does not model the latest in shepherdware for pastors to buy into. "Okay you pastors out there, you are now shepherds in my place, so do exactly what I’m doing. You too, can be a shepherd for the sheep."

The qualifications for being the shepherd at SUMC are quite clear in our lesson--you must carry our sins, be crucified, die and rise again in three days. That is what it takes to be the shepherd of God’s flock. And since we have only one candidate who fits that description, we pastors have got to stop acting like we’re shepherds of the flock. We aren’t-we’re sheep-types. We bleat and bleed and sin and get caught in the thickets. We, too need the loving Shepherd to help us.

Sometimes I stand up here and I am that frightened little lamb on the side of the mountain. I feel even greater weight when I look out at the congregation and see your eyes and know that you have given me the honor of lifting God’s word up for you. But sometimes I am feeble, maybe I’ve lost my temper or become discouraged, or lost my energy, and nurtured hurtful thoughts and stumbled my way through the week. Sheep can do these things-they’re sheep. But not shepherds. So when I came to this passage, I decided that I don’t want to play shepherd anymore. I want to be a sheep just like the rest of the flock. I want to look to the loving Shepherd for nourishment and healing just like you do.

I have discovered that when I think that I am the shepherd at SUMC I turn out to be more like a shoving leopard than loving shepherd. I end up praying at potlucks and weddings because no one else feels qualified; I end up leading the Bible studies because no one else feels that they have nothing important to share, I visit the shut-ins because few sheep believe that it’s their job-that’s what they pay a shepherd for. But it’s the job of the sheep to visit and to share and to pray and to encourage and to minister. That’s the idea behind All Team’s Night next Sunday evening. It’s an opportunity for the sheep to gather and listen and look for ways to carry out the mission of the loving Shepherd, instead of the latest pastor at SUMC to do things his or her way.

At best I come to you not as a shepherd, but as a sheep dog--one who seeks the loving Shepherd’s will and senses the shepherd’s commands. The sheep dog’s primary goal is to keep the sheep always moving toward the shepherd, eventually moving them into the safety of the shepherd’s fold. Sometimes we may need even to nip at the heels of a slow-moving heart or stubbornly wrong-headed idea in order to redirect attention toward the one who must really be in charge-Jesus Christ.

Hear the Good News! There is only one Good Shepherd who has laid down his life so that we can enjoy life. He alone is a shoving leopard, and the rest of us, well at best, we are shoving leap dogs. Amen.