TEXT: Psalm 23; John 10

It is always a good week when I get to prepare a sermon about sheep. I have always loved sheep and for a few years got a chance to play shepherd with a few sheep of my own. Actually, I had the sheep jointly with a good friend. She provided the major items of veterinary care and shearing and I provided the pasture, hay, and day to day care and supervision. We had a huge flock of three sheep...Chester (the black ram), Bananabell (a white ewe), and their progeny, Laaaambert.

I learned a lot from those sheep. I learned, first of all, that it is absolutely true that sheep are not the brightest lights in the harbor. There is a reason that there are not a lot of trained sheep shows traveling around. I learned that while sheep are not by nature aggressive animals, they are more aggressive than vegetables, which is what their original pasture fencing was meant to contain. Until we upgraded the fence, I was often dashing out the door chasing after a large, white blur or picking up the phone to hear my neighbor say, "There's a big black sheep in the back of my garage eating things."

I read somewhere that sheep require more care and attention than any other livestock. I believe that is true. Left to their own devices, sheep will ruin their pasture, offer their throat to even the smallest dog, or roll over on their backs and get stuck there. That last trick is called casting, and a cast sheep in the Florida sun can die in a matter of hours. A sheep on its back can't get up, which is why those who shear them put them in that position. But when they get that way on their own, either by rolling over in a soft spot or because they are too heavy from either overgrazing or not being sheared in time, the gasses build up in their stomach which cuts off circulation and they die.

When I divorced and had to move out of our house, the sheep had to move also. They were moved to a farm that also kept horses. Chester died within the first week. There was someone providing food and water, but there was no real shepherd to keep watch. When Chester became cast, it didn't take long. Sheep need a shepherd not just a caretaker, and the quality and length of a sheep's life is directly related to the quality of care provided by the shepherd.

The people of ancient Israel were first nomads, and flocks of sheep go back in Biblical accounts to the very beginning. If you remember, Adam and Eve's second son, Abel, was a shepherd. Abraham had tons of sheep. Moses spent years in the desert wilderness tending sheep before God felt he was ready to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt.

But perhaps the most famous human shepherd in Scripture is King David who wrote Psalm 23. David lived around 1000 BC, and by this time, the people of Israel were no longer nomads. They were a settled people in cities and towns and finally had a king to rule them. For the rest of Scripture, the Hebrew Kings would be known as shepherds over the sheep of Israel. We will return to that royal picture in a moment, but first we need to understand what the life of a real shepherd was like in Biblical times.

In the early nomadic days, everybody in the tribe...from sheikh to slave...was a shepherd. The African saying "It takes a village to raise a child," applies even more to sheep that must wander with a wandering people. Everybody had to watch the sheep. But as Israel came into the promised land of Canaan and began to settle down, the role of shepherd became more specialized. It also became undesirable and even despised.

We tend to conjure up romantic scenes of pastures and shepherds playing the pan flute. But think about this. Shepherds had to live with the sheep. Sheep are not like horses or cows, as the owner of the farm that took Chester discovered. You have to watch a sheep every minute. When the angels sang to shepherds on the night of Jesus' birth, there was a reason that there were shepherds–plural. When there were a lot of sheep, you needed a lot of shepherds. They lived with the sheep, they smelled like the sheep, they risked their lives for the sheep. On a couple of occasions I could be found running outside in the middle of the night with a big stick to chase off coyotes, but that was nothing compared to real shepherding. When young David is trying to convince King Saul that he is brave enough to fight Goliath, he tells about being a shepherd and remarks in passing that he has killed both lions and bears in the course of his work with only his slingshot as a weapon. Makes you think twice about the pan flute.

It was dangerous work and tiring work...thieves and wild animals were always a threat, you had to keep moving the sheep to new pastures so they didn't overgraze, and you had to always count them to be sure somebody hadn't just wandered off and turned himself upside down. You also had to provide water. On good pasture land, a sheep can survive a good long time just on the morning dew on the grass. But if grass is scarce, as it often is in deserts, they need sources of fresh water more frequently. Shepherds often had to dig a well, digging a new one every time they moved the flock. Mountain streams are nice, except sheep won't drink from them. You need still water for a sheep...rushing waters frighten them. "He leads me beside STILL waters." But still waters are often stagnant waters that contain parasites. The shepherd had to be careful.

And yet, despite all the hardship, shepherds were among the least respected. It is one thing to risk your life for king and country, or even for family or honor. But to risk your life for a dumb sheep? No one aspired to be a shepherd. By the time of Jesus the testimony of a shepherd was not even valid in a court of law. There were only two reasons to be a shepherd. Either you needed the money and were equipped for nothing else, or you loved the sheep. In the Gospel lesson we see how effective the hired hand is...the one who really doesn't care about the sheep. The flock is soon destroyed or scattered. I am the Good Shepherd, says Jesus. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

The Lord is my shepherd. Do you have a sense yet of what that might mean? First off, it means we are sheep, which is not entirely complimentary. But the Good Shepherd loves the sheep...as bizarre as that might be. I did love my sheep. And those dumb creatures with hay sticking every which way out of their mouths...those stubborn critters who would rebel at being moved from bad pasture to good...that obnoxious ram who would haul off and hit me with his bony head if I was not fast enough with the sweet feed...those sheep ministered to me. When the pain of life was overwhelming, I would go out, sit on a bale of hay, hang on a sheep and cry. It was healing.

Shepherd and sheep is not just an agricultural or economic relationship. It is a loving, personal relationship and it goes both ways. Our Good Shepherd is the one who tirelessly watches over us day and night, fighting off lions and bears and thieves. Our God is the one who finds green pastures and still waters in the midst of the desert and leads us there. "He makes me to lie down." A sheep will not lie down unless it is content. It must be free from fear, free from hunger, free from parasites, and at peace with other members of the flock before it will feel secure enough to lie down and rest. Under the care of the Good Shepherd, we find that we can lie down and have the peace that passes all understanding, even in the desert–even when lions and bears and robbers and thieves are circling–even when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

Now, before you relax and lie down in some of those green pastures, let me point out something further. I'm talking about sheep and shepherds this morning to do more than just give you a better appreciation of the care we receive from the Good Shepherd. Jesus describes his nature as that of a good shepherd. We've seen a little bit of what that meant. But Jesus' final command was to go and make disciples. A disciple is one who seeks to become like the teacher and in our case, the teacher is like a shepherd. We start out our lives in this world like sheep...not the smartest of creatures when it comes to what really matters in life, stubbornly sticking to lousy pasture when God is urging us to an abundant feast in the next yard over. But the calling of the church is not simply to take care of the sheep. The calling of the church is to make disciples...to help sheep become shepherds.

We experience every day the loving care of the Good Shepherd. Sometimes we are aware of what our shepherd is doing, sometimes not...but we are being cared for. That comforts us, but it is also meant to teach us...to teach us how we are to be shepherds for others, how we are to seek the lost sheep. The one who has turned over on its back and can't get up. The one who is being stalked by a lion or carried off by a thief.

Friday night I got a call from the hospital in the middle of the night asking me to come and be with a distraught family who had just lost a loved one quite suddenly. The family I met with broke my heart. They were completely at a loss in the face of death. All of us are torn apart by tragic losses...I don't mean normal grief. This was despair...there was no shepherd, no one to guide them and it was obvious as I listened to their conversations and stories that there never had been a shepherd for them. The family members were all estranged from one another, and they all looked easily 20 years older than they were from years of poor pasture and lack of personal care and attention. Every day, every week, every year of their lives was hard and raw and bleak and I felt that if the whole family were to walk into a room at once that surely all the lights would simply go out...they brought that much darkness with them.

Driving home about 2:30 that morning I kept thinking about one of the chapter titles for the Disciple lesson on the book of Luke..."God seeks the least, the last, and the lost." I thought of a description that I read in Phillip Keller's book A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 where he is describing the condition of the sheep on a neighboring farm. He writes: "The tenant sheepman on the farm next to my first ranch was the most indifferent manager I had ever met. He was not concerned about the condition of his sheep. His land was neglected. He gave little or no time to his flock , letting them pretty well forage for themselves as best they could, both summer and winter. They fell prey to dogs, cougars and rustlers.

"Every year these poor creatures were forced to gnaw away at bare brown fields and impoverished pastures. Every winter there was a shortage of nourishing hay and wholesome grain to feed the hungry ewes. Shelter to safeguard and protect the suffering sheep from storms and blizzards was scanty and inadequate.

"They had only polluted, muddy water to drink. There had been a lack of salt and other trace minerals needed to offset their sickly pastures. In their thin, weak and diseased condition these poor sheep were a pathetic sight. In my mind's eye I can still see them standing at the fence, huddled sadly in little knots, staring wistfully through the wires at the rich pastures on the other side.

"To all their distress, the heartless, selfish owner seemed utterly callous and indifferent. He simply did not care. What if his sheep did want green grass; fresh water; shade; safety or shelter from the storms? What if they did want relief from wounds, bruises, disease and parasites? He ignored their needs–he couldn't care less. Why should he–they were just sheep–fit only for the slaughterhouse."

Keller then goes on to say, "As I have moved among men and women from all strata of society as both a lay pastor and as a scientist, I have become increasingly aware of one thing. It is the boss–the manager–the Master in people's lives who makes the difference in their destiny."

I met some of the sheep from that other farm on Friday night, and they are not alone. The world is full of them...hurting, starving, easy prey for anything that comes along. We can and should be grateful to our wonderful, Good Shepherd for providing green pastures and still waters for us. But there also comes a time when we must get up and become shepherds ourselves...when we must leave the green pasture and go looking in the valley of the shadow for lost sheep, bringing them back to feast at a table in safety with cups that are full to overflowing...even though it is surrounded by enemies...bring them to the sheepfold of the Good Shepherd to dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Jesus came to seek and to save the lost. If we are to be His disciples, we must seek them, too.


(c) 2000, Anne Robertson

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