EASTER 4, 2006 (The Good Shepherd….)
The 4th Sunday of Easter is known as “Good Shepherd Sunday”. The Gospel is always from the 10th Chapter of John, the OT reading—as in Ezekiel today—always refers to sheep and shepherds and the Psalm…O’ the Psalm…is usually the 23rd Psalm (“The Lord is my Shepherd”) and when not it is Psalm 100 (“we are his people and the sheep of his pasture”).
I was ordained in 1975 and in the years since then I have preached on “Good Shepherd Sunday” nearly two dozen times. And I’m here to tell you today that the well is dry, I’ve told you everything I know about sheep and shepherds, I’ve emptied the tank and exhausted my reservoir of Biblical, historical and personal information about herding sheep and tending sheep and sheep in general, never mind the shepherd who herds and tends them. I’m finished. I have nothing to say about “the Good Shepherd”. I hereby swear off sheep and shepherds for the rest of my preaching life! I am dry and finished with that metaphor.
So, enjoy the music and come to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, but don’t expect me to talk about sheep and shepherds today….I’m taking the day off….
However, I’m an old English major, so I’m never through with metaphors.
A metaphor, according to my dictionary, is: a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them.
The English word, “metaphor” comes from the Greek “meta-pherein”, which means, literally, “to bear”. A metaphor “bears” a second meaning.
“You are my sunshine,” is a metaphor. Even though a person CAN’T BE “sunshine”, we all know what the metaphor means. It means that the person referred to “lights up my life”, “gives me warmth”, provides joy and comfort and meaning to life.
(OK, if you aren’t an old English major, I’m making your eyes glaze over. But this kind of conversation “is food and drink to an old English major.” That, by the way, is a “metaphor”. Obviously a conversation about figures of speech isn’t really “food and drink”, but we all know what that means.)
One thing about metaphors—they all eventually fall apart. A person, no matter how much you love them, ISN’T “sunshine” and a conversation about metaphors ISN’T “food and drink”. Metaphors all fail eventually.
Jesus’ metaphor: “I am the good shepherd” falls apart on a couple of levels. First of all, and most obviously, Jesus wasn’t a shepherd and we aren’t sheep. Secondly, unlike metaphors about “sunshine” and “food and drink”, both of which we all have intimate knowledge about, you and I don’t know much about sheep and shepherds. We just don’t.
So, what is the reference Jesus is making? What is the likeness and similarity of “who he is” that is comparable, in the metaphor, to being “the Good Shepherd”? What is he trying to tell us?
There was probably something obvious to those who heard Jesus’ metaphor first hand, or those who read the metaphor in Ezekiel when it was first written, and to David as he wrote the psalms about sheep and shepherds that is not obvious to me and most likely, not obvious to you. And here’s what I think that obvious thing is: the shepherd, in their culture and experience, wasn’t just a “caretaker” of the sheep…the shepherd and the sheep were interdependent…the shepherd’s well being depended upon the sheep’s well being.
So, what Jesus is trying to tell us in this metaphor, it seems to me, is that his relationship to us is like that as well. Jesus feels interdependent with those whom he loves. His well being depends on our well being. And for love, he was willing to lay down his life for us.
Remember Jesus’ parable about the shepherd who would leave the ninety and nine sheep and go seek the one that was lost? That too is a metaphor for the love God feels for each one of us. No matter what happens, no matter how far away we roam, no matter how lost we get—God will come looking for us, seek us out, risk all for each of us.
In most every funeral homily I give, at some point I will say that the person who died is “in the nearer presence of the one who loves them best of all.” I don’t have any idea what that means, realistically, but I “trust” with all my heart that it is so.
That, in my mind and heart, is a Truth we shouldn’t have to wait to “trust” in. God loves each of us—each of us—“best of all”. We are never alone, no never, not ever alone. And God’s love is so eternal, so wondrous, so unfathomable that God really can love each of us “best of all….”
I’m going to date myself now. How many of you know what a “Slam Book” is?
When I was in grade school and even junior high school, people would circulate spiral notebooks for everyone to fill in. The book would ask all sorts of silly questions like: “What’s your favorite food?” and “What TV show do you like best?” and “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
And always, always there would be a question like this: “Who do you like best of all?” That was the question about pre-adolescent and adolescent unrequited love.
When I was in 5th grade, Donna Comber gave me her Slam Book to fill out. The great thing about Slam Books was to read what other people wrote. And as I read it I saw that Anna Maria Osborn wrote “Jimmy Bradley” under the question “Who do you like best of all?”
Anna Maria was the prettiest and nicest girl in our school and I was this dorky kid with a crew cut, Coke bottle thick glasses and goofy clothes. My heart leapt up! I was as close to heaven as I’d ever been! Anna Maria liked me best of all….There was nothing life could throw at me that I couldn’t handle!
We were 10 years old and I was dorky and Anna Maria’s parents moved away that summer. But it was so incredible and astonishing to know she liked me “best of all”.
God’s Slam Book is coming around. And when it comes to you under God’s line at the question “Who do you love best of all?” you will find, wonder of wonders—YOUR NAME. Your name and no other.
Each of us is the one God loves best of all.
That is what Jesus’ metaphor is trying to tell us. And we should listen. We should listen and trust that it is so….