For the Sheep

“For the Sheep”

John 10:11-18 (10:11) – April 22, 2018

Jesus Good Shepherd_BnF_Ethiopien_389_fol_1v

The Bible often talks about sheep. Sheep in a sheep fold. All we like sheep. The sheep and the shepherd. The nation Israel is like sheep. The followers of our Lord Jesus are like sheep. We can follow the repeated illustrations of sheep and a shepherd in many places in the Bible, in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. Just like in today’s scripture readings.

The words of Jesus can be a bit puzzling to both children and adults. We as adults can figure out what Jesus is saying here in chapter 10 of the Gospel of John. We have more developed brains and we can figure out what Jesus means by the metaphor “I am the Good Shepherd.“ Jesus is like a Good Shepherd, and we are like sheep.

But, what makes a shepherd “good?”

Jesus gives us further information in His description about what a Good Shepherd is not. A good shepherd is not a hired hand, since a hired hand doesn’t own the sheep. And so, he does not truly care about the sheep. If the hired hand is watching the sheep, a wolf might come and attack and scatter the flock. A hired hand will probably run away and leave the flock unprotected. So, the hired hand is most definitely not a Good Shepherd.

I go back to my initial question: what makes a shepherd “good?” For a more complete answer to that question, we need to take a close look at Psalm 23, our psalm reading for today. Remember, we are still trying to figure out what makes a shepherd “good.”

Our description from King David lets us know more about what makes a shepherd “good.” As sheep, we might be unsure about where we will find grass to eat, especially in a semi-arid region like most of the country of Israel. Yet, our Good Shepherd knows where there are places with grass to eat; we as sheep will feel safe enough to lie down in green pastures.

What else makes a shepherd “good?” When flocks of sheep are wandering around the fields and foothills of many dry places in Israel, sometimes it is difficult finding places to get water. A quickly rushing stream is not a place where sheep like to drink, since they can get hurt or swept away by the swiftly moving water. Yet, the Good Shepherd can lead His sheep to pools of still water, where they can safely drink.

Even today, we can ask similar questions. What makes a Shepherd “Good?” Dangers and problems can crop up today, at any time, among Jesus’s sheep, too. Will I have enough to eat or drink? What about a quiet place to live? Will the place where I live be safe? Or, will there be wolves and other nasty creatures wandering in my general area?

One of the earliest known depictions of Jesus in early church art is found in the Roman catacombs, under the ancient city. One of my favorite commentators, Carolyn Brown, tells us that “The catacombs are narrow, twisting underground tunnels.  The walls are filled floor to ceiling with graves that have been dug out of them.  They are dark and spooky.” [1]

Carolyn Brown suggests that we imagine we are walking quietly through the catacombs with a small oil lamp to find Christian friends who are gathering to worship by a designated grave. Can you hear the clank or crunch of Roman soldiers’ armor or boots? Christianity was an illegal religion. Christians were often hiding or on the run from the authorities. Since this was the case, it is easy to imagine why someone painted on the catacomb ceiling a picture of Jesus as a strong young shepherd who would take care of them.

What does a Good Shepherd look like, to you?

Jesus expands on this illustration of the Good Shepherd. The people of His time lived mostly in villages or small towns. Even if they worked doing other things, I suspect almost all of them were familiar with sheep, lambs and shepherds. I bet they had some ideas about what made a “good shepherd,” and what a “bad shepherd” looked like, too.

Even though today we might not be very familiar with the job of a shepherd, we still know how safe we feel when someone truly cares for us and looks out for our best interests. We still understand when someone protective stands guard and watches out for enemies so we can feel secure. We still appreciate when someone loving goes out of his or her way to search for a lost sheep when we wander away or get hurt or are in distress.

Jesus wanted to get across the idea of how much He cared for His sheep—that’s all of us. Jesus not only compares us to sheep (a biblical illustration repeated several times in the Hebrew Scriptures), but He tells us just what a hired hand does with the sheep. Or rather, Jesus tells us that the hired hand just runs away. The sheep would then be deserted and alone, liable to be attacked and perhaps eaten by wild animals.

Except, our Lord Jesus will not run away. Instead, He will care for the sheep, feed and water them, and lead them in good places. Jesus will not allow them to stray, but instead will lovingly protect and guard the flock.

As commentator Lucy Lind Hogan says, “To be [Jesus’s] followers was to enter into his sheepfold. He came to be the one who cared for and fed them.  It was a dangerous job; protecting the sheep from wolves and bandits. As the good shepherd Jesus had not only to be willing to, he did, lay down his life for the sheep that God had given him.” [2]

What does our Good Shepherd look like? How do we know when we have found Him?

And, is it possible that Jesus loves us so much that He gave His life for us? That He laid down His life for the sheep God had given Him? Jesus goes further in this reading from John 10, even further than King David in Psalm 23. Jesus not only cares for the sheep, and loves them, but He even dies for them. Gives up His life for the sheep.

Similarly, we lay down our lives every time we set aside what we want to take care of the needs of others.  We all need to hear Jesus’ insistence that if He lays down his life He can take it up again.  Giving up what you want once does not mean you will never get it or that you will always be called on to give up what you want.  Adults have learned that, but it takes a while for children to learn it, too. [3]

I said earlier that some people, young children especially, have a problem understanding metaphors. When Jesus said “I am the Good Shepherd,” that can be one of those hard sayings.

When Dr. Maria Montessori was working in a children’s hospital “she found that when she told sick children stories about the Good Shepherd using small wooden figures, they almost all grabbed the figure [of the Good Shepherd] and held onto it “for keeps.”  So the Good Shepherd made sense to them in some way.” [4] Jesus our Good Shepherd is able to come alongside of all of us, too. We are able to take hold of His hand, “for keeps.”

We know today Jesus loves us so much He gave His life for us. How much did Jesus love us? He loves us this much. [spreads arms wide]

Alleluia, amen.

[1] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2015/03/year-b-fourth-sunday-of-easter-april-26.html

Worshiping with Children, Easter 4, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2015.

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1239

Commentary, John 10:11-18, Lucy Lind Hogan, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2012.

[3] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2015/03/year-b-fourth-sunday-of-easter-april-26.html

Worshiping with Children, Easter 4, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2015.

[4] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

 

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Compassion for People in Need

Matthew 9:35-38 (9:36) – July 9, 2017

Matt 9-36 compassion, words

“Compassion for People in Need”

Who do we know today who comes to help people in need? Our Lord Jesus talked about sheep and shepherds in our Gospel message today. If you were to think of a modern example of a shepherd—someone who guides, protects, and cares—what or who comes to mind, especially in our neighborhood?

Let’s hold that thought in our minds and hear what Jesus said again. Jesus traveled all around the wider area, teaching in all of the local places of worship, the synagogues. As He went from place to place proclaiming the Good News, Jesus had compassion for the crowds, who were milling around aimlessly like sheep without a shepherd.

Taking a closer look at these bible verses, I think I know what “compassion” is, but I wanted to see what a proper, in-depth word study on the word “compassion” had to say. According to one word study, “Com-passio literally means to “suffer with.”  In Latin, com means “with” and passio means “to suffer.”  “Passion” is suffering, which is why we talk about “the Passion of Christ” during Holy Week.” [1]

In other words, Jesus was suffering with His fellow Israelites while He was traveling around the country. Jesus saw them hurting, and His heart went out to them. “True love … involves suffering.  Suffering is an inevitable consequence of the deep joy that comes with binding oneself to the heart and soul of another.” [2]

Our Gospel lesson from Matthew said Jesus “had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” We are going to take a tour through the Bible, tracing these words and these terms. This description using the word “compassion” and the term “sheep without a shepherd” is awfully similar to a description from the Hebrew Scriptures in Ezekiel 34. Picture this: the prophet said the nation of Israel is seen as sheep scattered over the mountains without a shepherd, lost, in danger. Sound familiar?

I understand that sheep are dumb animals. This word image is used over and over in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. Herding and keeping the sheep together is a big concern with sheep. Without someone to guide them, they move about aimlessly. They get lost. They wander off and often pay little attention to what is going on around them, especially dangers and difficulty. “This is the spiritual state of the people in today’s passage, and we see that in Jesus’s actions to teach the people. “ [3]

I would like to return to the word “compassion.” We looked at the Latin roots of that word, but the Gospel of Matthew was written in Greek. If we take a closer look at what the Greek word “compassion” means, we see the word splagchna, which appears in the letter to the Philippians. The Apostle Paul’s words in the King James Version say: “I long after you all with the bowels of Jesus Christ.”  The word splagchna means “bowels” – literally, the innards in your belly.  It’s an earthy image that might offend some.

“The people of the ancient world believed that all of the most intense feelings originated in the belly.  For them, “guts” did not mean “courage,” but depth of feeling.  It’s easy for us to understand why they would believe that, because when we feel anxious or afraid, our stomachs churn.  Our lower innards give away how much we are affected by our circumstances.  Splagchna oiktirmou means something like “’the bowels of deep feeling.’” [4]

We are talking about Jesus feeling deep feelings right down to His guts. Literally.

We have some vivid images here. Lost, defenseless sheep. Jesus feeling deep feelings for those sheep, right down to the bowels of deep feeling. Right down to His guts.

But, Jesus does not leave those lost sheep defenseless, afraid and isolated. No! He has recruited helpers. Shepherds sometimes have assistants or guard dogs that help them with their job. If you were to think of a modern example of a shepherd—someone who guides, protects, and cares—what or who comes to mind, especially in our neighborhood?

Think of an accident or a fire. Or, someone getting lost, especially a child. Who shows up? Who are the first people on the spot in an emergency situation? I was thinking of police officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians, and other first responders. What about people like social workers, trauma workers, and the medical team from a hospital’s emergency department or intensive care unit? They protect, guide and care for people in trouble, today.

That is the depth, the enormity of what our Lord Jesus was thinking of, in this reading today. In observing his fellow people of Israel, He was moved with compassion down to His guts, His “innards.”

And, what was Jesus’s compassionate response? Jesus did what He could to meet their spiritual needs—with salvation!

If we were to see a child running ahead of their parents or caregiver down the sidewalk, and that child went toward a busy street, what would any sensible person do? They would run to save the child, and stop him or her from running out in traffic. That’s what Jesus wants to do here, in our Scripture passage.

Let’s think about us, today. We are described as sheep. I own that. I realize that I am sometimes stubborn as a sheep. I sometimes wander off, blithely going in my own direction, away from the way that I know God wants me to go. And, sometimes I get lonely and lost. I get turned around and don’t know the way back to my home, to that safe place where people love me, care for me, and are concerned for my welfare. Does anyone else relate to these deep, anxious, lonely feelings? Are there some other sheep out there, in this congregation?

Jesus offers us salvation. He offers us the opportunity to become a sheep in His flock, a lamb in His tender care. Jesus is doing this out of the compassion of His heart, just as He did for His fellow countrymen, the fellow Jews in the country of Israel. Remember, Jesus saw the people as lost, alone, without direction.

How has Jesus been a shepherd for you, in your life? Either today, recently, or at a time when you really needed it? Has Jesus cared for someone close to you, for a loved one or a dear friend? Jesus is doing this out of the compassion, the deep feeling of His “innards.”

What is more, Jesus offers us the opportunity to show compassion to each other. We can show our friends, our loved ones, even absolute strangers the same compassion. We all know that feeling when we feel anxious or afraid, when our stomachs churn.  Our lower innards give away how much we are affected by our circumstances.  That is how deeply we are to feel with compassion! We are urged to go out of our way and care for others.

Can you think of ways in which you can show compassion this week? Nothing would make our God happier than to have us walk in our Lord Jesus’s steps and show compassion to others, today, and every day.

Alleluia, amen.

 

[1] Compassion in the New Testament (Part 1) http://www.jmarklawson.com/traveling-in-place/2012/03/compassion-in-the-new-testament-part-1.html

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/sheep-without-shepherd/  Ligonier Ministries – The Teaching Fellowship of R.C. Sproul

[4] Compassion in the New Testament (Part 1) http://www.jmarklawson.com/traveling-in-place/2012/03/compassion-in-the-new-testament-part-1.html 

(A heartfelt thank you to An Illustrated Compassion: Learning to Love Like God. Many of these sermon ideas and thoughts came directly from this series.  I appreciate this intergenerational curriculum, which is the basis for my summer sermon series on compassion. This curriculum comes from Illustrated Children’s Ministry. Thanks so much for such great ideas!)

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Sought by God

“Sought by God”

luke-15-lost-word-cloud

Luke 15:1-10 – September 11, 2016

Many people have expectations of leaders and important people. I am not sure whether these expectations are realistic or not, but regardless—many people do have them. Think of teachers or professors. Executive directors, or CEOs. Partners in executive firms, or coaches of athletic teams. And—what about pastors and ministers? Leaders of houses of faith? Do people have expectations of them? Sometimes, unrealistic or disapproving expectations? Of course they do.

Here in Luke 15 we have a crowd of tax collectors and “sinners” gathered around the Rabbi Jesus. But, the Pharisees and teachers of the Mosaic Law Code—the righteous religious people—were disapproving. These self-righteous folk had misconceptions. They had the wrong kind of expectations about how the Rabbi Jesus was “supposed to” minister. Imagine that!

Let’s take a step back, and look at the setting of this passage for today. Luke 15:1-2 tells us that the Rabbi Jesus ”welcomes sinners and eats with them.” It seems to be the case that Jesus was the host at dinner—at least, part of the time. But that isn’t the main thing, for the self-righteous folks. What about those tax collectors and “sinners?” What was the matter with them?

Yes, it was all about those evil, disreputable “sinners.” The people who did not keep the Mosaic Law Code were considered “sinners,” by the orthodox, observant Jews. A Pharisee and any of his family were forbidden to have anything to do with “those people.” No business dealings, and certainly no meals together.  According to the Pharisees and teachers of the law, Jesus was mixing in really bad company, especially for a decent, self-respecting Rabbi. At least—that was an unrealistic expectation a lot of people had about Him.

Luke chapter 15 is all about Jesus telling three stories. The first two stories—the two parables we had read to us in our Gospel passage today—could be about anyone, anyone at all. Not necessarily about Pharisees, observant people who were extremely strict about keeping the Mosaic Law, but about anyone. Anyone at all.

Do you remember high school groups and cliques? The popular kids, the cool kids. The math nerds, the science geeks. The jocks, the honors students. The Pharisees and teachers of the Mosaic Law considered themselves to be the ultra-cool kids. The kids who wouldn’t hang out with anyone else. They were the only kids who were going to make it into the presence of God. Everyone else? Tough luck. No way. Maybe—just maybe if the other people followed the Mosaic Law especially closely, dotting every “I” and crossing every “t”. Maybe, just maybe, God would allow the other groups and cliques into heaven, too.

What does Jesus say to these ultra-cool kids, these Pharisees and teachers of the Law, He tells some stories. The first story is about a shepherd and his hundred sheep. It was hard work being a shepherd. There was not a lot of arable pasture land in Palestine. Being a shepherd took a great deal of grit, persistence, and self-sacrifice. In this story, the shepherd lost one of his sheep—one out of one hundred.

To today’s loss prevention and quality assurance mindset, one sheep lost out of one hundred was an acceptable loss. Think of the rough and rocky terrain. Expecting a shepherd to keep track of all hundred sheep? To some people, that could be an unrealistic expectation. Shrinkage happens. It isn’t a huge deal. Except—to that one little lost sheep. What’s more, shepherds were excellent at tracking. They were personally responsible for each sheep under their care.

Let’s take a look at the second story. The Rabbi Jesus tells a parable about a woman. (Unusual for the Bible! Out of the ordinary for Jesus, too.) Reading from Luke 15:8-9, “Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ “

This second parable is a similar story about a lost thing. The typical Palestinian home was not huge. One room, two at most. Can you imagine this woman, losing a precious silver coin? The interior of the house probably did not have many windows. So even in the daytime the interior was dark, necessitating the lighting of a lamp. Can you see her sweeping carefully, methodically, listening for the clink of a metal coin?

The woman’s coin was lost. It didn’t grow legs and run away. All the same, the coin was lost. The sheep may have strayed away, but it still got lost. Both parables have lost things. What is to be done?        

Let’s go back to the ultra-cool kids, the Pharisees and teachers of the Law. If you can imagine such a thing, they avoided all contact with anyone—anyone at all—who did not keep the Mosaic Law Code to the absolute maximum degree. If you can go a further step in your imagination, these ultra-cool, ultra-strict Jews looked forward to the destruction of the “sinners.” Not, as Jesus said in 15:7, ”I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” And in 15:10,  10 ”In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

This is something radically different. Jesus sends a message of lost and found. Jesus sends the welcoming message to everyone, to anyone, a message of radical welcome. At least, as far as the Pharisees and teachers of the law are concerned.

Both of these parables are about God seeking the lost. How dare God forgive sinners! This is about false expectations about God, just as much as Pharisees had false expectations about Jesus.

Do we have false expectations about God? Is there someone who we don’t think God should look for? The woman in the parable was diligent in finding that lost coin. The shepherd was determined to seek out that lost sheep.

As one of the commentators on this passage said, “Many of the flocks were communal flocks, belonging, not to individuals, but to villages. There would be two or three shepherds in charge. Those whose [sheep] were safe would arrive home on time and bring news that one shepherd was still out on the mountain side searching for a sheep which was lost. The whole village would be upon the watch. When, in the distance, they saw the shepherd striding home with the lost sheep across his shoulders, there would rise from the whole community a shout of joy and of thanksgiving.” [1]

Do we have faulty expectations about God? Or, is the woman from the parable diligent to search and search, turn her whole house topsy turvy until she finds that lost coin? Is the Great Shepherd of the sheep concerned about absolutely every sheep that wanders away—no matter what? That is the picture Jesus paints for us in these two parables. God knows the joy of finding someone who was lost. No Pharisee ever dreamed of a God like that, a God with extravagant welcome, a God who would seek and save the lost, no matter what.

And both parables? They end with a grand celebration. “Then the shepherd calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” God does not want sinners—or anyone else—to be lost. These stories from Jesus illustrate that the goodness and mercy of God is for everyone, especially the most neglected and despised. Truly, good news for us all. Alleluia, amen!

 

[1] Barclay, William, The Gospel of Luke (The Daily Study Bible Series), (Westminster Press: Philadelphia, 1975).

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2016: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)