Sermon May 12, 2019
Emmanuel Episcopal Church
The Very Reverend David Bumsted
Sermon from May 12, 2019
O good shepherd, seek me out, and bring me home to thy fold again. Deal favourably with me according to thy good pleasure, till I may dwell in thy house all the days of my life, and praise thee for ever and ever with them that are there. In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
I’ve mentioned this before over the past few years, but most of us don’t have much contact with someone that raises sheep. I mean, really most of us here in Orlando have a fairly limited relationship with sheep in general; after all wool is not a super popular material around these parts and mutton shank is not a real common cut for Tuesday dinner. And yet, there is a kind of ancestral familiarity with the idea of shepherds and their sheep that cuts across many cultures, many backgrounds, despite the fact that fact we are relatively distant from the workings of the modern sheepfold.
I bring that up because most modern Christians are still pretty comfortable with that pastoral metaphor, agreeing with the Psalmist when we say together: The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want. This morning, therefore, I thought we’d walk through some of the pasture of the biblical texts and find a few ways we can consider together our Lord, Jesus as the Great Shepherd of our souls.
We’ll start with the image of the shepherd just doing their job. The Psalmist, many of the Old Testament Prophets, and especially Jesus really love the basic and gentle figure of the Shepherd caring for sheep. The twenty third psalm, for its remarkable brevity, draws us into the life of a shepherd so easily; describing the nature of a shepherd’s custody and care over the sheep. The Shepherd is pictured as a leader through all sorts of terrain, with sweet grass and cool water, but also through rough and dangerous places. The Shepherd’s care for the sheep is complete, with all needs having been met, even discipline and defense. The earthy quality of the shepherd’s work is depicted as noble and virtuous, despite the anonymity and sometimes even ignominy of the task, historically speaking
I think this can be very helpful for us as we look to God for help and guidance in our own lives. I’ve mentioned this before but my default image for Jesus is the Christus Rex, Christ the King, (a figure we’ll return to in a moment), exalted and ready to pull the universe back into line with his divine program. As amazing as that figure is, sometimes the grimy complexity of our lives leads us to call out for a simpler consideration of God. In the image of the Lord as shepherd, then, we find an image of Christ with dirt under his fingers from working with us, perhaps the subtle grimace accompanying our correction, and certainly the gentle grin of a leader who delights in the flourishing of his charges, especially when they heed the sound of his voice. No matter where we find ourselves, whether we are in the cool pond of peace and plenty, or the darkened morass of spiritual poverty and profligacy, we can rely on God to care for us completely, so long as we look to him when He calls. The Good Shepherd always has our back.
Interestingly, the scriptural writers take the image of the Shepherd and do some rather stirring things with it. In fact, one of the most important ways the figure of Shepherd develops in the unfolding Scriptures is observed as a way for ancient Israel (and therefore the Church) to reflect on the relationship that the people would have with their leaders, especially their Kings. The prophet Ezekiel, for example, in his word to the Israelites, delivered a prophetic call for Israel’s shepherds, their rulers, to turn back to the Lord and to stop oppressing His people. In this prophecy, The Lord also foretold the Lord’s own shepherding, and thus His own kingship, over all peoples.
In light of this, we can see how Psalm 23 can go from the pastoral scene familiar to shepherd and sheep, to the courtly banquet hall replete with full chalice and royal oil for anointing. This exalted locale is where we can recall that fine image of Christus Rex, and how we can track with Jesus as he spoke with the gathered Israelites around him in the tenth Chapter of John. Jesus was more than willing to exert the full biblical weight of the Good Shepherd image, especially when they were ready for him to claim their idea of messiah. When Jesus spoke to them, he spoke as the one who would be fulfilling the promise given to Ezekiel (and others besides) that the Lord was here to be the Good Shepherd. Jesus’ claim that he and the Father are one can be seen in light of this; indeed we might even frame the incarnation of the Son of God in light of the Shepherd metaphor: the exalted and only-begotten King of the Universe had to get pretty grimy in order to live when and where he did so that he could save us. And as the exalted King Shepherd, we find a reality that is sufficient for our every concern and care. Jesus’ Lordship is so complete, that we can take every care, occupation, and joy to his throne of grace.
Sometimes, whether we realize it or not, we act as if Jesus doesn’t have enough gas in the tank to pull us out of the rut of our bad decisions, or even to drive us towards blessed felicity. But the reality is that the Great Shepherd of the Sheep, through the Blood of the Everlasting covenant, means to work in us that which is well pleasing in the sight of God and humanity. And because he and the Father are One, through the mysterious arithmetic of the Blessed Trinity, He can work in and through us more than we can ask or imagine. Whatever we are dragging behind us, whatever that may be: it is not enough to keep us from God’s love; and certainly not enough get his help. It’s there for the asking.
The earliest Christians knew this, though imperfectly like we do. But they, and we receive great encouragement from the fact that Jesus really does care for his people, and really does want to guide us through the valleys of the shadow of death towards the everlasting bliss of the spread out table, set before the throne of the Lamb. Jesus seeks to be with us as our Shepherd-King giving us everything we need to meet the complexity of our lives. He even gives us his own blessed presence, in our hearts and in the sacrament of the altar. This morning as yet among so many that Jesus promises to shepherd us by being close to us, filling us with the strength of this holy food and drink. Beloved, this is why we have been coming together for, lo these two thousand years to meet and be led by our God and King Jesus Christ. This is how the Church has gone out, like Peter did, stirred by the power of the Resurrection to help restore life to the world in God’s name. So is the promise given to us, and so are our lives meant to be for the life of the world.And then, when we have spent our lives in his gentle and just leadership, we will find ourselves in the pasture of life eternal where we will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike [us],
nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be [our] shepherd,
and he will guide [us] to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes.”
To God be all glory. Amen.