This is a sermon that I delivered on 11/10/2013. It is not academically cited or proofread for academic purposes. If you have questions about this, please contact me here.
Sermon Title: The Good Shepherd
Primary Scripture Reference: John 10:1-10
“For thus says the Lord God: I will search for my sheep, and I will seek them out.”
This is powerful image for our God – that of a shepherd.
Throughout history, people have wanted to think of God as a King. We still do this today. The last sunday of the Christian Year, which this year is November 27, is usually celebrated as “Reign of Christ – Christ the King” sunday. In the Catholic National Cathedral in Washington, DC, in the main worship space there is an enormous image of Christ making a “weightlifter pose”, flexing enormous muscles and wearing a heavy crown.
Thinking of Jesus as a king is an easy metaphor for Jesus’ leadership. We want him to be powerful, sovereign, and perfect. Perhaps we want Jesus to be like a president, one who can command our attention, deploy militaries to solve problems, and act with the strength of nation-states.
We like deciders.
But in the face of the devastating storms that caused millions to die in the Phillippines, we might wonder why God would let these things happen. Or even in the face of personal setbacks or catastrophes, we wonder what we did wrong to fall out of favor with God.
I do not believe this is how God works in our world. We may want God to be a King, but the deeply spiritual prophets of Ezekiel and John describe God as a Shepherd.
The Prophet Ezekiel was writing during the Babylonian exile. In other words, Israel was conquered by the Babylonians, and the aristocratic Jews were moved from their home to Babylon. They were far from their home, and were deeply homesick. Surely, many wondered why God would let this happen to them. “What awful sin did we commit?” they might ask. But Ezekiel offers that instead God is like a Shepherd, who, when a lamb is missing, will search and seek for the missing sheep so that it can be restored.
Jesus Christ, the great shepherd of the sheep, searches for us, and seeks us out when we are off course, or out of sync with God’s dream. Sister Blair and I had this conversation the other day: If movement to become closer with God is like a deep and wide river, there will inevitably be driftwood and edys and rapids and canoes that throw us off course – and Jesus is like a lifeguard who seeks us out and helps us back on course.
Shepherds are the inverse of Kings. Shepherds are nomads, responsible for their sheep, and they are poor. Shepherds are the least of these. Shepherds can much more easily empathize with “the least of these” than can a king, who never wants for anything.
Another name for a shepherd is a pastor. Ministers are pastoral, because they have taken vows to care for Jesus’ flock. But, I have discovered a play on words: If you look at the word pastoral, you have the words past and oral. We servants of Christ, therefore, are called to listen beyond the words of people. We are called, therefore, to empathize.
Emapthy is a hallmark of Jesus’ leadership. When a sheep is discovered missing, do you imagine that Jesus would search every nook and cranny of the landscape in a systematic way, or do you imagine that Jesus try to empathize with the missing sheep, trying to gleen some insight into where they may have wandered?
In 1741 our Moravian movement was developing and becoming more sophisticated quickly. Moravian leaders were going all over the world during a time when travel was deeply hazardous and took months if not years. Communication, by letter, was similarly difficult. And still, the Moravian church needed dynamic leadership. How could the Moravian movement be led by Zinzendorf alone if, for example, he was in the wilderness called Pennsylvania?
In those days, the Moravians used a system they called The Lot, which they believed was led by the Holy Spirit to confirm important decisions. Every name they submitted to the lot for this essential Chief Elder position was denied. Several of the Elders gathered – both men and women – decided to choose Jesus Christ for the position of Chief Elder. The Lot returned an affirmative response; Jesus was elected. This determination was announced on August 13.
In those days, Elders had a somewhat different role than they do today. They were responsible for ensuring that people were prepared for missionary work, for worship, and that they had the things they needed to live a spiritual life following Jesus, like food and safe dwellings. But they were also responsible for the care of souls. Each week, prior to Communion, a Moravian had to speak with their Elder, or Elder’s Helper, and discuss the state of their soul. The question the Elder would ask is, “how is your soul today?” When I ask that of people, people look at me as if I have nine heads – How is your soul today?
This is a radical question of empathy. Tell me how your soul is, because I want to listen, to feel, and to know what it is like to be you. Jesus asks us regularly about the disposition of our soul – but are we in conversation?
Many of the 18th century Moravians took Jesus’ election to the position of Chief Elder seriously, because they believed that Christ was active in their midst: Leading them to decisions and actions; forgiving their sin; and being a dear and loving friend who cared for them.
I also believe this. And this is why, for me, it is sometimes difficult to criticize national leaders who do questionable things but say “God told me to do this”. But I believe that taking Jesus’ chief eldership seriously requires us to do one, fundamentally important thing: be like that shepherd, and empathize.
When we can empathize with our sisters and brothers with whom we are in relationship, our perspective changes altogether. No longer is that cranky neighbor next door an awful person to avoid, we recognize him as a lonely, homesick person, seeking relationship the only way he knows how. No longer is that woman with misbehaving children a terrible, irresponsible mother, she is a young woman with a lot on her plate, and no one to care for her. No longer is that gang member an evil, disturbed young man; he is a person who needed family and protection from the elements and who accepted its offer.
This, I think, is why Jesus is such a tremendous Elder. This, I believe, is why Jesus forgives us – because he sees the broad pictures, and knows our hearts intimately.
When there are people in our lives that we just don’t understand, know that there are people who do not understand us. But with Jesus, there is deep redemption in these misunderstandings and separations – these sins.
Our Lutheran sisters and brothers have a motto: “God’s Work; Our Hands”. When we are paying attention to Jesus our Chief Elder’s leading – and perhaps the easiest way to do this is to be in perpetual discernment through empathy – The Lord’s will becomes done – God’s dream becomes more clear.
Obeying Jesus as our Chief Elder isn’t simply a matter of our heart. It isn’t simply a spiritual decision that a person makes for a fraction of their lives, it is a life commitment. Jesus Christ is our chief elder whether we are in Church, watching TV, at work, at bridge club. Jesus Christ is our chief elder even when we are doing the things that we don’t want him to see.
Sisters and brothers, Jesus’ Election as our Chief Elder is a call to be, at once, a shepherd and a sheep. It is our obligation to open our Christ-like hearts to others – to seek reconciliation and community with even the people who disgust us. But we do this with the full knowledge that Christ also does it for us. Amen.