A sermon I preached at Ann Street United Methodist Church, Beaufort NC, on July 22, 2018
The assigned, lectionary readings for the week were Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 23; Ephesians 2:11-22
The prophet Jeremiah announces the word of the Lord:
“Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!”
These words of God, spoken through God’s prophet Jeremiah, terrify me.
Yet, here they are, in our assigned Scripture reading for today.
These words are akin to the words of warning to religious leaders in the Gospel of Mark:
“If anyone causes one of these little ones – those who believe in me – to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea.”
One of my tasks at Duke Divinity School is to teach future pastors, and sometimes I envision myself as an angel-mermaid, diving deep to try to pull back up for air new youth pastors, chaplains, and others who are at the bottom of the sea. I have watched so many Christians stumble because someone has tripped them up with bad words. But who can make sure their own words don’t trip someone else up, unintentionally? The work of being a shepherd is scary.
“Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!”
Maybe I should just tiptoe back away, slowly from this shepherd thing. No, thank you. No millstone around the neck for me. I won’t cause anyone to stumble or scatter, because I will just stay over here and keep my mouth shut . . .
Here we are, though, and I am supposed to preach a sermon to you.
So. What God promises through God’s prophet Jeremiah is that God will give to his people a shepherd who will bring wisdom, justice, and SAFETY.
“I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing.”
In a time to come, God declares, the people, we, the sheep will no longer be dismayed.
No longer be dismayed.
What does that mean?
No longer to be dismayed?
I turned to the Oxford English Dictionary for help with this. The people who translated the Hebrew of Jeremiah to the English of the NRSV were linguists, good dictionary people, so I went to the OED.
Here is the OED definition of the action of someone who dismays other people:
“To deprive of moral courage at the prospect of peril or trouble; to appal or paralyze with fear or the feeling of being undone; utterly to discourage, daunt, or dishearten.”
Here is the OED definition of someone who has been dismayed by a bad shepherd:
“To be filled with dismay; to lose courage entirely.”
God is speaking through Jeremiah to a people whose shepherds have scattered them through fear. They are a people who have been undone, discouraged, disheartened, by the very same people who were supposed to encourage, hearten, and repair them.
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when God’s people will receive a shepherd who causes us no longer to be dismayed.
The imagery of a Shepherd (capital S) here is tricky, in that the Shepherd, when it comes to ministry, is also a sheep. Imagine a Shepherd who is also a Sheep. This may seem weird, but imagine a sheep walking around in shepherd’s clothing.
I am a Pastor, a Shepherd, but I am also a person. It is not as if I am a totally different category of creature because I am a pastor. So, I am both a sheep and a shepherd.
As we turn to Psalm 23, I want to think about what it means, for each of us, as people who believe in the ministry of all believers, that I am part of a flock, and also a shepherd, with this particular Lord as my Shepherd? What does it mean to be a shepherd who is a sheep/shepherd who is beloved by the God of Psalm 23?
The Lord is my Shepherd . . . Even people who never intended to memorize a Psalm probably know this one by heart. Maybe we know it because it is short. It is, well, handy. If I were going to play in the NFL, and I had the chance to put something across my forehead, it would be Psalm 23.
(This is a visual joke that I cannot convey on the blog. I am very short, and the thought of my playing in the NFL is a form of vaudeville.)
Some of you know the basics of shepherding. Some of you may have taken care of actual sheep, not just people sheep.
But not everyone does know the basic pattern of shepherding sheep in a place that has valleys and little water or grass.
In Psalm 23, the Lord grants us a place where we not only eat, but rest. We rest in green pastures. We don’t gobble them up until we are prodded along to keep moving.
The Lord grants us a place not only to drink water, but to rest. We are not gulping on the run, not merely surviving, while being dismayed, but resting.
Anyone who has eaten in a school cafeteria while afraid of the next test, or afraid of being mocked by a group of mean girls, or afraid of being kicked under the table by a mean boy, they (we) know what it is like to eat and gulp while being dismayed.
Anyone who has been worried about their next Advanced Placement exam knows what it is like to gulp water and gobble food while being dismayed.
Anyone who has been scared about their new haircut in Junior High knows what it is like to sit in a cafeteria dismayed.
Anyone who has been dreading the next baseball game, because somehow the bully became the team captain – or the coach – knows what it is like to try to sleep beside still unstill waters, while dismayed.
The Shepherd who is the Lord brings to his people not just food, but food without fear, water without fear.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will not fear.
Think of the word valley. Creatures who prey, who dismay, who cause sheep to be scattered and very literally undone, they stalk their prey through valleys. They stalk through places where they are sure to snatch one of the less swift of the flock.
The words of Psalm 23 tell us that, fundamentally, there is not a wolf stalking us through the valley.
Read the words of the Psalm again.
Who is following us?
“Goodness and Mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”
It is goodness and mercy following us through the valley, because the Lord is my shepherd, and you, we, will dwell.
What God is describing here may be something like what God describes for us in Ephesians, our third Scripture reading for today.
The new Christians Paul is writing to in Ephesus have been aliens, strangers, people not part of a flock.
They have been “Strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.”
While those citizens of the Roman Empire who are hearing these words may not have known they were dismayed, Paul explains to them that they have been living without rest, without encouragement. Jesus. Look up what it was like to live under the Roman Empire. They may not have even known they were disheartened, because they didn’t even know they had a heart to be heartened.
But now, in Christ Jesus, you who once were far off have been brought near . . . For Jesus is our peace, Jesus has made peace between groups of people who were set apart from one another. “So then we are no longer strangers and aliens, but members of the household of God.”
What kind of good news might this have been for us, the sheep, living under the Roman Empire?
Think of Psalm 23 read in reverse, as part of a corporate pep-talk for people trying to live divided, dismayed, gobbling and thirsty.
The Lord is my Shepherd, I will be fit. I will be the smartest. I will be indispensable.
What one of my tech savvy friends told me recently is that people in the tech industry are supposed to be fungible.
If you look this up in the Oxford English Dictionary, it means:
“Of a good that has been contracted for: that can be replaced by another identical item without breaking the terms of the contract. More generally: interchangeable, replaceable. My tech boss is my shepherd, I shall be rendered identical, replaceable, and interchangeable.”
We know what this looks like.
To eat and drink in dismay, to walk through the valleys in fear.
And one answer we are given repeatedly is that we are to be resilient, persevering. These are two words that we hear again and again in the work-a-day world. PERSEVERE. BE RESILIENT.
This is what I call the Austerity Gospel. This is what Social Darwinism looks like. This is the Survival of the Fittest Sheep.
If we are no longer strangers and aliens, but members of the household of this truly Good Shepherd, how may we live in a world where the forces of evil do try to dismay and stalk us through the valleys, seeking to scatter and divide us?
As sheep with a Good Shepherd, we may help one another simply by refusing a logic of fear, where only the strongest, bravest, and most resilient or fungible sheep are worth keeping.
We may tell the Social Darwinists to take a hike in the other direction.
When facing a false shepherd that is trying to scatter and divide you, you can remember Jeremiah’s words.
God means for us to have a Shepherd who heartens and encourages us and brings us peace.
This is a word for us as sheep and as shepherds.
If you think about it, someone who is responsible for other people is a shepherd. So, a teacher, a pastor, a nurse, a parent, a flight attendant, a team captain, a coach, is a shepherd.
And so that person is playing God, is playing a Shepherd. The question then becomes, what kind of Shepherd, what kind of God is that person playing at? When you are responsible for other people in the room you are in, you are playing God, and what kind of God are you playing? Are you the God of the 23rd Psalm? Are you the God of the Austerity Gospel of Social Darwinism?
Here is some good news, if you don’t know which you are, or if you are, like me, both a sheep and a shepherd, any given time of the school year.
Together, a group of sheep like us can remind one another to be good sheep shepherds, and we can, if we are not dismayed, divided, and scattered, call out a bad shepherd like Jeremiah does.
Woe to you, dismaying bully fake shepherd, we will not be dismayed.
My younger daughter and I went to see the documentary about Rev. Fred Rogers recently. The documentary is “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.”
We went to see this at the Carolina Theater in Durham. It is an old theater, so it is now full of hipsters with tattoos. There was not a seat left in the theater, and my daughter was the only person there under the age of 20. I left thinking that it was very brave for so many men to sit next to women they didn’t know, watching this very poignant documentary. Won’t you be my neighbor, while I blow my nose into my slightly ironic John Deere ball cap. It was, truth be told, more like church than many churches.
Fred Rogers was a Presbyterian minister who saw TV as a medium for the Gospel.
At the beginning of the documentary, they show Mr. Rogers speaking to the Senate about PBS Funding, delivered 1 May 1969. I was only 1 year old at the time, but some of you may have seen this in real time? In the documentary, Mrs. Rogers says that she could tell, watching him give the testimony, that he was truly nervous. (Someone who loves someone truly can tell when they are scared.)
And this is what — This is what I give. I give an expression of care every day to each child, to help him realize that he is unique. I end the program by saying, “You’ve made this day a special day, by just your being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you, and I like you, just the way you are.”
That is it. So true. We are not fungible.
We should not have to snarf our food and gulp our water and try merely to survive in this world. No one of us should be forced to give a reckoning that we deserve to be cared for by this good shepherd.
At the end of the documentary, Mrs. Rogers explains that, when he was close to death, Mr. Rogers asked her if he was a sheep? In this case, Mr. Rogers was asking if he had lived as a sheep or as a goat. Meaning, was he bound for heaven or hell. Mrs. Rogers relates that she told him, if ever there was a sheep, you are it.
But please hear me on this. Even Mr. Rogers needed to hear these words of assurance. And he needed a shepherd near him to remind him of these words.
The Lord is your shepherd. The Lord is my shepherd.
Don’t let a false shepherd bamboozle you.
You are beloved.
Be not dismayed.