This story comes from a mother. I want to share it in her own words. Years ago, when our daughters were very young, we'd drop them off at our church's Children's Chapel on Sundays before the service. One Sunday, just as I was about to open the door to the small chapel, the priest came rushing up in full vestments. He said he had an emergency and asked if I'd speak to the children at their story time. He said the subject was the Twenty-third Psalm. But just as I was about to get up from the back row and talk about the good shepherd, the priest burst into the room and signaled to me that he would be able to do the story time after all.
He told the children about sheep, that they weren't smart and needed lots of guidance, and that a shepherd's job was to stay close to the sheep, protect them from wild animals and keep them from wandering off and doing dumb things that would get them hurt or killed. He pointed to the little children in the room and said that they were the sheep and needed lots of guidance.
Then the minister put his hands out to the side, palms up in a dramatic gesture, and with raised eyebrows said to the children, "If you are the sheep then who is the shepherd?" He was obviously indicating himself.
A silence of a few seconds followed. Then a young visitor said, " Jesus, Jesus is the shepherd." The young priest, obviously caught by surprise, said to the boy, "Well, then, who am I?" The little boy frowned thoughtfully and then said with a shrug, "I guess you must be a sheep dog.”
Children often teach us important lessons, don’t they? Perhaps the priest in the story needed a little humility. He certainly received it from the young boy. It is a reminder that all things come from God. We should never take our eyes off the blessings we receive from Jesus.
Scripture is filled with references to shepherds. Psalm 23 begins with the words, “The Lord is my Shepherd”. God was the shepherd of the people of Israel. In the New Testament, Jesus spoke in parables about the role of the shepherd. We all seek the good shepherd even in the leadership of humans. I ask you to reflect with me on the leaders who are called to be good shepherds, to God’s presence with us on our journey and to the comfort that only God can give.
Jeremiah stood with a long line of prophets who spoke out against the political leaders of their time. Woe to those shepherds who scatter the flock, he wrote. Matt Skinner, a professor of New Testament shared some examples of leaders who were disparaged in the Bible.
- The idolatrous pretense of Pharaoh and his imitators
- The final verse of the book of Judges expresses despair over the lack of a good king.
- Micah and Amos are other prophets who joined Jeremiah in complaints about leaders.
- Political figures exposed by apocalyptic seers such as Daniel who showed them to be fools and monsters
- The Gospels’ depictions of Herod the Great, Herod Antipas, and Pontius Pilate as cunning and ruthless in their authority to decide life and death”
- Jesus himself often despaired the religious leaders especially the scribes and the pharisees.
What were the scripture writers looking for in a leader? Matt Skinner wrote “Among the many factors that contribute to the Bible’s criticisms of leadership is a deep concern about the danger that festers when a people—whether a nation, a community, a congregation, or a family—have no shared vision, no commitment to common values, no concern for neighbors, no basis for trusting others.
I wonder if Jesus were around today if he would choose to speak out against the leaders in our society. Scripture writers might have found their own reasons to complain about current day leaders. We know our job is not to complain but to reconcile. Ephesians says “in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” Perhaps we should focus on breaking down the walls.
Jesus is our example of the good leader, the good shepherd. Before today’s lesson, Jesus had sent out his apostles to preach the good news to others. He gave them a clear mission and clear direction. They were to take nothing with them and if they were not welcome they should just shake the dust off of their sandals and continue.
I wonder what it was like for the apostles when they first preached. Maybe they felt a sense of accomplishment for a job well done. They may have been hungry and tired from traveling and talking. They must have felt rejection and possibly fear that they would be physically harmed. Upon their return, they shared their experiences with Jesus. Then, Jesus invited them to go to a quiet place where they can rest.
Just as Jesus called his disciples to lead, we are all called to help foster a community with a common faith and commitment to our fellow worshippers, places where we care for our neighbors. Some people actively evangelize, inviting others to join us in our spiritual community. Others may simply show by example how a Christian should live. It can be hard work to create loving communities.
It doesn’t require a lot of people to build great places of faith. As I was reminded recently, Jesus picked twelve apostles to build a community of followers. Now there are billions of people who follow Jesus. Our community of faith may be small or large but every step we take makes a difference.
Psalm 23 expresses the words of God’s presence on our journey, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me.” The followers of Jesus referred to themselves as people of the way, people of the journey. We know the journey of the Israelites. They found freedom from the Pharaoh but thy walked in the desert for forty years. One commentator described it as “Israel’s national journey of deliverance, wilderness, and emergence in the land”. Their arrival in Israel did not end their journeys. Many years later, Jeremiah was upset about the kings of Israel who did not protect the people from the invasion of powerful armies. Jeremiah was also upset about the invading kings who took the people from their homeland into exile in Babylon. Jeremiah offered words of encouragement. He promised that God would bring the people of Israel back together. God would help the people of Israel to be fruitful and multiply. God would find leaders to care for them. God did not forget them, God helped them on their journey.
What has your journey been like? Has it been filled with joy and gladness? Or has it been sorrowful and a place of struggle? God is with us on our individual journeys and with us on journeys that we take as a community. Saint Teresa of Avila expressed it so simply, “The feeling remains that God is on the journey too”. We are not alone.
Psalm 23 does speak of God’s presence. It reminds us of God’s comfort “your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” God’s comfort comes to us many times and in many ways. In Isaiah 40 God expects leaders to bring comfort to God’s people. “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.” God will see to it that the people find comfort. Listen to this from 2 Corinthians, “So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.” God lifts us up.
I know that we always need God’s comfort, but I so appreciate it now. We have come through so much and there is still uncertainty about what is to come. I need God’s comfort more than ever.
The companion word for me in the Gospel is rest. Jesus told the apostles they had done their work, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” When our work is done for the day, when the difficult task is complete, let us go and find our rest with Jesus.
Psalm 37 encourages us to rest in the Lord. It can be translated as be still in the Lord, wait patiently for the Lord. My favorite verse about rest comes from the Gospel of Matthew, “‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”
Jesus called us to build loving communities. Jesus is present with us as we do God’s work. And Jesus calls us to find rest in his loving arms. The rest is needed. Often it doesn’t last long. Jesus took his apostles out to find some rest, but the needs of the people continued. They found Jesus and asked him to heal the sick. Our journey is a lifelong one and may have only moments of rest. That is why we should enjoy the times of rest. We may once again be called to care for others and to proclaim God’s glory. We will almost certainly enter into a new time of stress or struggle. Our journey, our search for God, is never over. Let us be thankful that Jesus is our shepherd. Let us be thankful for his presence with us. Let us be thankful that God give us comfort and peace and rest. Amen.