Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

The Lord Is My Shepherd: I HATE that! – Sermon for Easter 4 – April 29, 2012

Revised Common Lectionary for the Fourth Sunday in Easter, Year B: Acts 4:5-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3:16-24; and John 10:11-18.

Jesus the Good ShepherdMy father died in an automobile accident when I was five years old. Two things important to my religious life resulted from that. First, my mother and I stopped attending the Baptist church which she and my brother and I had gone to up to that point. Second, I started spending every summer with my paternal grandparents, Charles Edgar and Edna Earle Funston, in the town of Winfield, Kansas, and thus began attending the Methodist church during those summer vacations.

My grandparents were staunch Methodists. In those days that denomination was known simply as the Methodist Church, but as I remember the cornerstone of Grace Church identified it as having been established as a congregation of “the Methodist Episcopal Church (South)” which means that it was started as rather (shall we say) conservative parish. That certainly would have described my grandfather. (I’m named for my grandfather, but I thank my parents every day for deciding to change the middle name from “Edgar” to “Eric”. I don’t think I would have liked having the name “Edgar” – I’m not sure he did, either. The only person I ever heard call him “Edgar” was Edna! Everyone, including his grandchildren, called him “C.E.”)

My grandfather was a Sunday School teacher. When Edna and C.E. relocated to Winfield from Dodge City, Kansas, in 1919, the immediately joined Grace Church and almost as immediately my grandfather became a kindergarten Sunday School instructor. And he continued to teach that class for the next fifty years. I don’t mean that he continued to teach kindergarten. I mean that he continued to teach that class of individuals for the next five decades. The next year he was their First Grade teacher, and then their Second Grade teacher, and so on up until they were in their 50s and my granddad was in his late 70s! In that tradition, you went to Sunday School every week, regardless of your age; infants, children, youth, adults, everybody went to Sunday School.

As a result, my grandfather was well-versed in the Bible and in Wesleyan theology (probably as well as if not better than a lot of Methodist clergy), and he took it upon himself to make sure that his grandchildren were also well-instructed. So during those summer months, I not only went to Sunday School at Grace Methodist Church (where Sunday School was a year-round program; none of this “summer off” nonsense), I also received daily religious instruction at home. And one of the absolute requirements of that was that I learn the 23rd Psalm by heart (the King James Version, of course) and recite it every night at bedtime.

I hate the 23rd Psalm!

Eight years of saying it every night of every summer will do that to you! I tried to get him to change that. “Granddad, couldn’t we learn another psalm now? Say Psalm 117?” (I was being pretty cagey with that suggestion – the 117th Psalm is the shortest in the book – only two verses.) But, no, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” . . . every night!

After two years, my three cousins started also spending summers with our grandparents and I started sharing a room with my nine-month younger cousin Randy. In the room we shared, there was a picture of a nice looking young man (I suppose it was supposed to be Jesus), well-groomed with longish brown hair and neatly trimmed beard, wearing a long white robe, carrying an adorable (and clearly adoring) little lamb. That picture became the victim of our dislike of the 23rd Psalm. Every night after we’d said the psalm and bid our grandparents “Good Night”, Randy and I would throw spit-wads at that picture! (They say confession is good for the soul . . . I hope so – this is the first time I’ve ever told anyone about our late-night target practice with Jesus as the target!) Of course, that meant that we’d have to get out of bed early to clean off the picture for Grammy got a look at it!

So fast forward several years and here I am, now ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church, and every year on the Fourth Sunday of the Easter Season I find myself confronted by the 23rd Psalm and Good Shepherd Sunday. Every year, it’s the same thing, the same lesson from the Gospel of John: “I am the Good Shepherd.” Every year, “The Lord is my shepherd.” (Of course, since the 1979 Prayer Book and its new translation of the Psalms, that long-engrained memorization of the KJV means that I get tongue-tied when we recite the gradual.) And every year I try to find something nice, something pleasant, something up-lifting to say about this metaphor that not only means very little to an urban, city boy like me, but one that I really actively dislike.

I suspect that the metaphor of shepherd and sheep doesn’t really work for most modern Americans. If Jesus is the shepherd that means we are the sheep and that’s not a terribly flattering thing to say. I know that a few of us in this congregation have some experience with sheep, but most of us just have vaguely sentimental fuzzy notions of cuddly little lambs, notions that are wrong because sheep really aren’t very loveable animals . . . so what does this metaphor really say about us and about our Lord? And this is a metaphor, make no mistake about that. Jesus wasn’t really a shepherd and his followers not really sheep. But metaphors are supposed to aid our understanding; they use the qualities of the one element to illustrate the qualities in the other. So Jesus as shepherd sort of works; followers as sheep, on the other hand, doesn’t work for me at all and probably not for some of you, either.

If you, like me, spend some time each day surfing the internet or checking out your Facebook page or using the web for research, you’ve probably learned that there are dozens if not hundreds of compilations of quotations, some famous, some not so well-known, from poets, playwrights, philosophers, holy books, and so on. You can search through these collections for pithy remarks on just about any topic imaginable. I tried doing that several times earlier this week . . . . Do you know that there are no positive comments about sheep!?!

I think that’s where and why the Good Shepherd metaphor breaks down for me. Yes, it says wonderful things about Jesus and his dedication to the flock . . . . But it doesn’t say much about the flock and what it says doesn’t really fit with what Jesus expects of the flock! Jesus expects the sheep to become shepherds . . . .

In the 21st Chapter of the Gospel of John there is a story familiar to all of us, a story one of those post-resurrection appearances Jesus made during the fifty days before he ascended into heaven. The story is that some of the disciples were fishing on the Sea of Galilee and from their boat they see someone grilling fish on the shore. At first, they are not sure who it is but eventually one of them realizes that it is Jesus, at which point Peter, impulsive Peter, jumps out of the boat and swims to the beach. The others bring the boat in and Jesus invites them to have breakfast. As they are eating the grilled fish, Jesus asks Peter “Do you love me?” Three times he asks this; Peter’s feelings are hurt because he asks three times. Each time Peter answers, “Yes, Lord. You know I love you!” And each time Jesus responds in some fashion commissioning Peter, who here represents all of us, “Feed my sheep. Tend my flock. Take care of my lambs.” Jesus expects the sheep to become shepherds . . . .

St. Paul put it this way: we are called, he said, “to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ;” we “must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” (Ephesians 4:13,15) In the real world, sheep don’t do that! They do not grow up into shepherds! One of those quotations I found said, “You cannot make a man by standing a sheep on its hind legs.” (Max Beerbohm) It just doesn’t happen. So the metaphor breaks down, as all metaphors do. Jesus’ expectation, that the sheep become shepherds, nonetheless remains.

When I was in British Isles this past summer, I saw a lot of sheep. All over southern Scotland and northern England and throughout Ireland, one sees these lovely vistas of rolling hills, green pastures, and huge flocks of sheep. Sheep are lovely at a distance; not so pretty up close – they’re really quite dirty up close. But at a distance, they look like these lovely, fluffy white balls ambling across the beautiful, rolling, green pasture, mirroring the fluffy white clouds in the sky above . . . except in Ireland and Scotland. There, that pastoral scene is sort of marred by spray paint! Each sheep is marked with this splotches of bright red or bright blue spray paint! Sometimes both! First time I saw that, I wondered, “What’s that all about?”

Jesus says in today’s gospel lesson, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me,” but how is someone else supposed to know whose sheep are whose? By those markings! Those splotches of paint are the way the shepherds, who mix their flocks in the common fields, identify ownership of the sheep. I got to thinking about that in terms of our identity as members of Christ’s flock, because we are marked as well.

In the liturgy of baptism or of confirmation, a follower of Jesus Christ in the Episcopal Church and in a few other traditions is marked just as surely as those painted sheep are marked. We call it “chrismation”. Some specially blessed oil is taken and with it a cross is made upon the forehead of the newly baptized person or the person being confirmed; the person is marked! In the baptismal rite we say, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit is baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever.” (BCP 1979, pg. 308) We are marked just as surely as those painted sheep are marked! The problem, of course, is that our outward mark is made with clear oil which no one else can see. How is that mark to be made known to others?

There was a news story recently about a woman who was arrested for car theft. Apparently, another driver did something she found annoying and she hit the roof, and the horn, screaming in frustration, cussing a blue streak, making certain hand gestures. As a result of this conduct a police officer who witnessed it approached her vehicle and ordered her to get out with her hands up. He took her to the police station where she was searched, fingerprinted, photographed, and placed in a cell. A couple of hours later she was released and the arresting officer apologized. He said, “I’m very sorry for this mistake. You see; I pulled up behind your car while you were blowing your horn, flipping off the guy in front of you, and cussing a blue streak at him. I noticed the ‘Honk if you love Jesus’ bumper sticker, the ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ bumper sticker, the ‘Follow Me to Sunday School’ bumper sticker, and the chrome-plated Christian fish emblem on the trunk. Naturally, I assumed you had stolen the car.”

How do others know we marked as Christ’s own? In the absence of big splotches of red or blue paint, how does anyone know whose sheep I am? St. John said it in that bit we heard from this first general letter to day: our identity is made known “not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” St. James put it another way, “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.” (James 2:18) It is through our actions that our mark is made apparent to all. It is through truth and action, through faith shown in works of mercy and justice that we the sheep become shepherds, that we grow up into the fullness of Christ, that our mark is seen.

This is the question the 23rd Psalm (as much as I dislike it) and the Good Shepherd gospel raise for me. Am I like that woman arrested for car theft, who had a lot of words about Jesus on the back of her car but whose mark was not made visible in truth and action? Is my mark apparent to those around me? Can anyone else tell that I am “sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever”?

“The Lord is my shepherd . . . .” Is that apparent to anyone else around me?



  1. Patrick Funston

    A good sermon which addresses a good question. How are we as sheep supposed to act? Do sheep, like dogs, reflect the identity of their owners?

    I thought you’d do more with the Sheep growing into Shepherds thing. That’s a nice image and one that I’ll probably hearken to if I ever do a Baptism on Good Shepherd Sunday.


  2. Kevin Phipps

    I agree with Patrick — think I’m going to steal the sheep growing into shepherds thing … which probably means I’m a goat!!! Good sermon, Eric.


  3. eric

    I agree with Patrick, too. The sheep-into-shepherds thing would be a really good place to begin a sermon transformative spirituality. This past Sunday, however, was the end of a really long and busy week and I had not time to write a sermon … this is a “transcript” of an extemporaneous piece. I came home from church, sat down, and typed out what I remembered saying in church! I didn’t theologize on my feet fast enough to develop that transformative piece. Maybe in a later homily.

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