A shepherd’s job is to care for the sheep. Psalm 23 gives us a good idea of the job description. “He maketh me lie down in green pastures, He leadeth me beside still waters.” Sheep need food and a place to graze. Sheep need plenty of good clean water to survive. So a shepherd pays attention to the wells and springs, to the land and its greenery. They would be the first to notice the effects of climate change, because their sheep will suffer. Job #1 for a good shepherd is to provide for the basics.
The basics go beyond food and water, because the flock also needs safety. “Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.” What kind of comfort do you expect from someone brandishing a wooden pole? You hope they are on your side, because the pole is used to poke and prod and whack whomever and whatever threatens the sheep. Sometimes it is used to break up fights among the sheep, to keep predators at bay, to even fight off thieves or other shepherds. When the Psalmist says “Thou preparest a table in the presence of my enemies,” the diners can eat because the shepherd is protecting the feast. The rod is justice, it is the shepherd’s version of the Winchester rifle.
Shepherds in the Old Testament, are a metaphor for good governance and leadership. Kings and priests are called to have the same qualities, to put the flock above themselves, to make sure people have the basics of food, water and justice, so people can live. We may think of shepherds as a lowly occupation, lonely agriculturalists hanging out with sheep on the fringes of society, but in the Bible shepherds become kings. David was a shepherd, and he fought off lions and learned to use a sling shot, which came in handy with Goliath, and he was a defender of Israel. Moses spent some time as a shepherd and when he went before Pharoah, he had his rod in his hand. The prophet Amos was a shepherd and when the monarch was corrupt and did not establish justice, he came out of the hills and reminded everyone of the covenant of justice.
I see Rev. William Barber, the leader of Moral Mondays in North Carolina in this light. Rev. Barber has been a pastor for many years, and we have all seen what happens when someone does not have health insurance, and what a prolonged illness or unnecessary death does to a family. We do what churches know how to do, to pray and grieve and bring cassaroles to the house. But that does not replace a decent health care system for everyone. When Congress was trying to repeal health care, Barber and many other pastors left Bibles at the office door of the Speaker of the House, with the message that the Christian faith does not caste out people in need. That is the work of a good shepherd. Barber said in a recent Esquire article:
People who focus their moral energy [against] gay marriage and [for]prayer in schools…are missing what Jesus cared about the most: justice and mercy….They are saying so much about what God says so little, and so little about what God says so much.”
I can’t find anything in the book that says your major concern ought to be tax cuts for the wealthy…. But I can find in Deuteronomy that you’re supposed to care for the stranger and the poor.”
There is one more thing that belongs on a shepherd’s LinkedIn profile. The Psalm says it in several ways, “He restores my soul…He leadeth me in the paths of righteous for his name’s sake, surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” We are now moving up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs from food and safety to relationship, purpose and self-actualization. I don’t know exactly what sense of purpose sheep need, but I know that people need meaning, purpose and a sense of integrity. As Jesus addresses this in our Gospel reading today, “I came that they might have life and have it abundantly.”
The past Tuesday, we hosted a tour from the International Language Institute, who come twice a year to learn local history and practice their English. They read the church’s website and come with great questions, and I always get a sermon story out of the experience. This class was about half Muslim, from Turkey, Pakistan and several from Saudi Arabia, at least four women with headscarves After we had cleared the standard questions about how old the building is, and does the organ work, and what is the baptism font for, this class really wanted to know about my faith and what I believe.
One man said he had stopped going to church at age 15 and lost his faith. He wanted find his faith again, wishing he could see God and gain some certainty and hope. There were several nods and “me too’s” and a student from Turkey followed up before I could answer, asking, “Why are so many Americans atheists, 40% don’t believe in God, what is happening in your society, and how do you feel about this, because it worries us a great deal given the power of your country.” Here is what I think:
Atheism often rises when we make our view of God too small. I asked the group what they thought God was like when they were children. Most of us see God as a larger version of our parents, a being who will provide for us and who is an absolute authority for right and wrong. But as we grow up we discover moral questions are hard, that life is not fair and things are not always clear cut. This is the time where our view of God has to change or our faith will get distorted and shallow. On the societal level, when we make God into our God, a projection of ourselves, our tribe, our nation, when we see God as white, or male, or American, who only cares about Christians, that is not God. An atheist knows this is false, and it is sometimes their moral sense drives them from religious institutions who have made God much too small.
Many of you read Rob Bell’s book together last year, “What do we mean when we talk about God.” Who do we think God is? Throughout my life, my answer keeps changing. My faith does not always let me have peace, because it pushes me to look more deeply into other points of view and integrate them into my thinking. I am challenged to open my heart when I would rather look the other way. I am compelled to do things that make me feel anxious and afraid, because they are the right thing to do. If our view of God does not grow and change, we are not paying attention to ourselves and our own life experience.
So I can’t tell someone, this is God and now you can believe again. Instead, the starting point is, what God don’t you believe in anymore? I can’t show anyone God, but I do see glimpses of the divine, especially when people love, when love is not easy. I see God in the compassion of caregivers, and parents who give of themselves. I see God when Muslims in Egypt surround the Coptic Church after a bombing, and give them safety to pray and have worship. I see God when Jews stand up for Muslims right to immigrate to the United States, and when Christians challenge the increasing rise of Holocaust deniers.
The genesis of many of these actions of courage and selfless compassion is in the silent chambers of each of our hearts, where we decide how we are going to live. As important as teach-ins, rallies and marches are to change, so is prayer. That is why we are here this morning. You may have gone to the climate rally yesterday, and now today we are here to sing and pray and learn from scripture, and listen for the voice of the still speaking God, the Good Shepherd.
As glad as I am about all the events in the Meeting House, and all the ways we seek to make God’s love and justice real, I am equally moved that you are reading spiritual books in each other’s homes, or coming to Bible Study on Monday, the peace prayer vigil every Tuesday, and deepening your spirits in whatever spiritual practices and ways of ministering you chose. I’m grateful that you are willing to build this community of hope and faith. We need this place to be a microcosm, where we can at least get a taste of the possibilities of God, a bigger God worth celebrating. Jesus did not come to judge us, Jesus did not come to give us certainty, he came that we might have life and have it abundantly.