Several people have asked to read a text of my sermon from November 20th, 2022. So I am posting it here. If you want to watch/listen to the sermon, you can do so here.
Ezekiel 34 The word of the Lord came to me: 2 Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: To the shepherds—thus says the Lord God: Woe, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3 You eat the fat; you clothe yourselves with the wool; you slaughter the fatted calves, but you do not feed the sheep. 4 You have not strengthened the weak; you have not healed the sick; you have not bound up the injured; you have not brought back the strays; you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. 5 So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and scattered they became food for all the wild animals. 6 My sheep were scattered; they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them.
John 10:11-16 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own, and my own know me, 15 just as the Creator knows me, and I know the Creator. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.
So who was Jesus talking to, when he called himself the Good Shepherd?
It was wintertime in Jerusalem and people are celebrating Hanukkah. Jesus is walking in the temple when some of the people, Pharisees and other religious leaders there, corner him. They tell him to stop toying with them and just tell them if he is the Messiah.
Well, you know Jesus: Mr. Metaphor, King of the parable, fan of the simile, addicted to analogies. Not so big on straight answers.
So he contrasts himself (the Good Shepherd) with the Pharisees and religious leaders of the Jews, who were evil shepherds.
We know why he chose that metaphor: because in Biblical times, shepherds were a very big deal. Sheep provide meat, milk, wool, manure, and parchment from their skins. They were valuable.
God gets really ticked off at Bad Shepherds. As you heard in the reading from Ezekiel:
“Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals.” (Ezekiel 34:3–5)
So God has nothing but disdain for selfish shepherds. But God loves good shepherds. Who did God pick to be the patriarchs and first leaders of Israel? Shepherds. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, King David—all shepherds. Who first saw the newborn Christ? Shepherds.
Why do shepherds make such great leaders? Well, for one thing, as they watched over their animals, they had a lot of time to think—and a good leader is thoughtful. If you’re open to communicating with the Divine, well, shepherding is the perfection occupation because not only do you have time to think about God, even better—to listen for God’s voice.
The other reason shepherds can be great leaders: they have a lot of practice managing large groups of living creatures.
We know it’s a metaphor and as tempting as it is to focus on the sheep, I instead call your attention to the verse, “And I lay down my life for the sheep.” Which Jesus did. It wasn’t until after his death that the Christian community really grew into a dynamic, group of committed people.
It took his death, to bring the community to life. There can be something galvanizing about a death. A death can bring people together, a death can make people rethink their priorities. A shepherd who would die to protect his sheep, is a very good shepherd indeed.
So for the past couple of weeks, I thought a lot about shepherds and sheep and sheep dogs. In my mind, I could only think of border collies. So I called Margaret Stine to talk about dogs herding sheep. And she gently reminded me that in Biblical times, the dogs that were out there with the shepherds were not trained to herd the sheep, but rather to guard the sheep—from wolves, hyenas, jackals even, but mainly wolves. I’m telling you this so that you’ll understand why this idea of a wolf, somehow lodged itself in my brain.
So I was thinking a lot about sheep and wondering what Palestinian wolves look like, when I received an email from a woman in Israel. What are the chances?!!! She had seen a talk I had given about not taking on your trauma as your identity, but instead claiming it as an experience.
She told me a few things about herself and then wrote, “How do I let go of these traumas? I have been in therapy, I am a generally upbeat positive person, I am blessed with many good things in my life but I privately and constantly mourn certain things and find it most difficult to come to terms with them, i.e. letting go.”
I wrote back that I couldn’t give her a definitive answer because healing is different for everyone. Claiming your trauma as an experience does not mean you forget about it, or never again mourn what happened. I think it means you crank up the volume on what is good and true in your life and turn down the volume on any kind of past trauma. And because that wolf, lodged itself in my brain. I wrote, “This concept is brilliantly illustrated in the legend “Two Wolves.”
Here is the story*:
A grandparent is teaching their grandchild about life. “A fight is going on inside me.” They said to the child.
“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – they are anger, envy, greed, arrogance, self-pity, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.”
They continued, “The other is good – they are joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”
The grandchild thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandparent, “Which wolf will win?”
The grandparent simply replied, “The one you feed.”
I was so pleased that I remembered the legend about the wolf and I knew it was because I had this conversation with Margaret about Biblical sheepherding and wasn’t it wonderful how God put that wolf in my brain, so I could tell the woman in Israel the legend of Two Wolves and that was the end of that!? Except of course it’s not.
Now hold that thought as we run like the wind to a totally new one: attendance at Sunday worship. Now because of COVID, Zoom streaming and various other reasons, Sunday attendance has been much lower. Lots of empty pews.
But then, last month, Sally Pritchard, a beloved member of this community died. We agreed that at age 85 had an amazing, vibrant, well-lived life. Then a couple weeks ago, we had a Memorial service here in this sanctuary. It was filled with people—a lot them members of this church. Well, of course we would come to remember Sally! And to support her daughter Meighan and the rest of her family. And of course we were here to comfort one another and share stories. And of course there were cookies!
But in spite of our grief over losing Sally, there was a lot of joy in this place. This flock was so happy to be together. And I thought about Jesus laying down his life and how his death raised up the community that would be called Christian.
Our flock was together to remember Sally. And once again, it took a death, to bring the community to life.
Of course in the midst of our happiness at being together, there was some grousing and complaining and many cookies were consumed until a Wise Old Woman in our midst, said, “We need to say some good things too.”
I felt a nip in my brain as I realized: We are feeding the wrong wolf. We can listen to the evil wolves howl, but we don’t need to feed them. We need to feed the Wolf of hope and optimism and ideas, suggestions and solutions.
The Two Wolves show up in our personal lives, in our church lives, in our politics. When Jesus said, “there will be one flock, one shepherd,” I don’t think he meant we’ll all have the exact same beliefs. We can’t even find one pew in this church where everyone has the same exact beliefs. Being one flock is about connecting with one another as followers of Jesus. That what church is. Or as Becca McMullins so beautifully said a couple weeks ago, “Church is where we come to practice love.”
Let me add to that: Church is where we come to feed the Good Wolf. The Good Wolf acknowledges the power of the community. Make no mistake: The Good Wolf doesn’t just sit around blissed out in joy, compassion and love. Good Wolf takes action that is intelligent, creative, inventive, ingenious and courageous. The Good Wolf offers solutions.
Jesus said, “they will listen to my voice.” The Good Shepherd guides us away from danger, even when we seem to be intent on getting lost, or stuck in the brambles or checking out that wolf. It’s not as if we have no guidance. We have the Gospels for guidance. We have the entire Bible for guidance. We have one another for guidance. We have the voice of Spirit within us. Where is Spirit leading us in our personal lives? Our community life?
Jesus is the Good Shepherd and works through each of us to love, care and heal one another. Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and his death brought a community to life. A beloved member of our flock died and it brought our community back to life. Ubuntu is open to all. “I am because we are.” And that “we” is very powerful.
Let us not lose that. Let us feed the Good Wolves.
We give thanks for the gathering of this day.
May we roam like sheep on the hillside,
knowing that we are guided and watched over,
May we feast on the grass of God’s love,
May we drink from the stream of God’s strength,
May we hear the music of God’s voice within us.
Let us go out in great courage and great peace,
To love and to serve. Thanks be to God.
*In the spoken sermon I wrongly attributed this story to a Native American tribe. If you want to know more about citing “Indian” stories, here is a good website. I have also rewritten the legend using gender inclusive the language.
**I was asked to use the benediction the clergy have been using and not the one I wrote. So I ended up tacking my benediction on to the end of my sermon.