Sunday, April 29, 2012

Shepherd or Sheep Dog?

John 10:11-18
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

One Sunday a young minister was talking to the kids in his congregation during the children’s sermon about the 23rd Psalm. He told the children about sheep, that they weren't very smart animals and needed lots of guidance, and that a shepherd's job was to stay close to the sheep, protect them from wild animals and keep them from wandering off and doing dumb things that would get them hurt or killed. He pointed to the little children in the room and said that they were the sheep and needed lots of guidance.

Then the minister put his hands out to the side, palms up in a dramatic gesture, and with raised eyebrows said to the children, "If you are the sheep then who is the shepherd?" He was obviously indicating himself. A silence of a few seconds followed. Then a young visitor said, "Jesus: Jesus is the shepherd." The young minister, obviously caught by surprise, said to the young visitor, "Well then, who am I?" The visitor frowned thoughtfully and then said with a shrug, "I guess you must be a sheep dog."

I admit that some days in my ministry I felt more like a sheep dog. While shepherds seem to be this idyllic symbol of peacefulness, confidence and authority—and the typical metaphor for a pastor, I most often felt more like that sheep dog—running around in circles, barking my head off, trying to protect my sheep. But, do you know any shepherds? Really? If you think about, the whole idea of shepherding doesn’t have much significance for me. For us city dwellers the image of a good shepherd has been replaced by other kinds of folk who protect us from things that might harm us in our daily lives. For instance, my credit card company will inform me if unusual purchases are charged to my VISA and Mastercard account. When I traveled to Brazil for a mission trip several years ago I used my credit cards quite extensively to take advantage of the fluctuating exchange rate. Someone actually called me from the company asking if I was indeed in Brazil at the time of the purchases! Now that is protection!

Other shepherd-like folk who look out for me include the garage where I take my car for servicing. I trust them to keep my car in tip top shape. Many times they’ve identified potential problems that needed to be corrected before they became serious issues. My doctor and dentist schedule me for regular check ups and inquire about my health. My bank automatically transfers money from my savings to checking account when my balance goes below zero, protecting me from potentially bouncing checks and incurring overdraft fees. And when you think really hard about all of the things we have in our lives to protect us from disaster, you don’t always need a real person to take care of you. The smoke alarm in my house will go off at the slightest hint of something burning—especially when I have to cook dinner!

The anti-spam software in my email program will quarantine any virus, and redirects all unsolicited messages to a spam folder. We have those little lights that show up in the dashboards of our cars when the oil or gas is low, when the engine needs checked, or when our seat belt is unfastened. We have a security alarm system at the church and in some of our homes, notifying us of any intruders. Even my cell phone has an alarm to protect me from missing any important meetings. Wow! We are really, really protected in our lives—whether by people or by technology. Who needs a good shepherd? Right?

Well, in the midst of all of these devices and people who exist to protect us, often from our own negligence—we still worry. Don’t we?

Time magazine recently conducted a poll in conjunction with the National Institute of Health over a six-year period. They reported that the No. 1 problem in America is anxiety. More than 13 million Americans are afflicted by it, and anxiety, not drugs, is the No. 1 cause of suicide in America. Why is everybody so worried about stuff? I know we all have a worry machine inside of us that seems to drive us, but why is everybody so upset? We have the best of everything in this country, but there are a still lot of things that produce anxiety.

A few years ago one Sunday night I was watching 60 minutes and they had a report about a nuclear waste facility in Eastern Washington state that was so old and falling apart that over 1 million gallons of waste has already leached into the ground water. This cloud of extremely toxic waste was making its way to the Columbia River—and if that happened, millions of people who get their water from this river would have to be evacuated until a clean-up could occur. Just one cup full of this nuclear waste could kill an entire restaurant full of people. It was a potential disaster just waiting to happen, and no one in congress seemed to be doing much about it. Apparently, there just wasn’t any money available to correct the problem because it would cost billions of dollars. As soon as I heard the report I called my sister who lives about an hour north of Seattle and told her about the nuclear waste facility. “Oh that is on the eastern side of the state,” she told me. “We don’t even get our water from the Columbia River.” “But aren’t you worried about it?” I asked. “Well, yeah!” she said? “But what can I do?” My worry turned into her worry. And then we both freaked out about it. The fact is, we all have a worry machine inside of us. Worry is thinking that has turned toxic. Worry is the imagination used to picture the worst. Worry is interest we pay on trouble before it appears. I am a world-class worrier. It's a family affliction.

But if you think about all the worrying we do, you have to admit that at its core, worry is atheistic. When we spend our time stewing and grinding about issues around us, we forget that God can take care of our issues. When we worry, we doubt God's ability, God’s influence, and God’s presence. We think God is not capable of knowing about us and is not concerned about us. People have said to me, "I am worried sick about this." That is a true statement because worry does make us sick. As a student of metaphysics I understand that there is a close relationship between mind, body and spirit. The root of the word worry in the Greek is "to choke or strangle." It does choke us down and strangle us. What happens when we worry? It only changes the worrier; it does not change what we are worrying about.

So what can we do about all this worrying? Our scripture text has some interesting suggestions. First of all, we must remember that Jesus said, "I am the Good Shepherd.” He notes that there are two kinds of shepherds: the good shepherd, who owns the sheep and takes care of them when the wolves come and scatter the flock, and the hired hand shepherd, who is only contracted to take care of the sheep and runs away when wolves attack the flock. The good shepherd stays and never abandons his sheep. The point that Jesus is making is that in doing God’s work, he will not abandon us. You may not understand all that God is doing. But the Scripture is there to remind us that underneath us are God’s caring arms. And if we understand Jesus as our model for Christian care, then we of course should also protect others when they are endangered. Our mandate is to protect each other.

Watching my grandmother’s response to this mandate was an incredible lesson for me. I had always considered my grandmother to be the most caring, compassionate, protecting mother hen/shepherd sheep dog I’ve ever met. When my Uncle was critically ill and near death from complications from a life of drug abuse and bad choices, my grandmother would not leave his side. Even in the midst of her exhaustion and grief, she sat with him until the end; making sure he was comfortable, speaking words of love to him even though he was incoherent, caressing his face and holding his hand. She was protecting him from the fear of death. She was such a good shepherd, and a sheep dog protector. I also think of Sherry and her constant care of her father and mother through his illness and surgery. My partner Wayne has been at his mother’s side every day since his father’s death on January 4th earlier this year. And think of yourselves; as parents and grandparents, and aunts and uncles of little ones and older ones for whom you care. You are good shepherds. And now imagine God, doing the very same for you.

The fact is, sometimes we also have to be sheepdogs; protecting others from influences that might endanger them, sometimes protecting them from themselves. And you are sheepdogs for each other and this community. The service you do for this community will often protect people from situations or environments that can destroy them. You do this everytime you feed the hungry, shelter the homeless and care for the poor. Our mandate is to protect each other, just as God protects and cares for us. And when you think of it that way, what’s all the worry about? (Excerpts from Rev. Dr. William Self’s sermon, "Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear" from April 10, 2005– www.

I just returned from a business trip to Memphis, and as I was thinking about preaching on this text I couldn't help but imagine; if Jesus were a rock and roll superstar he just might have sung something like this:

You ain't nothing but a sheep dog; barking all the time.
You ain't nothing but a sheep dog; barking all the time.
You gotta protect my children and make them friends of mine.

You ain't nothing but a sheep dog; praying all the time.
You ain't nothing but a sheep dog; praying all the time.
So go pray for my children and make them friends of mine.

Now sing it with me!

We ain't nothing but a sheep dog; serving all the time.
We ain't nothing but a sheep dog; serving all the time.
We'll serve God's children and make them friends of mine.

Now make some noise as you sing it!

We ain't nothing but sheep dogs; saving all the time.
We ain't nothing but sheep dogs; saving all the time.
We'll save God's children and make them friends of mine!

Well thank ya; thank ya very much!

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