A man is walking down the road in ancient Israel.  He checks his voicemail and sees he has a missed call and decides to return the call.[1]

Hey, James, it’s John.  No, not that one.  No, not that one.  We go through this every time.  Yes, right.  John Mark from the office.  What did you need?

About This Sermon
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
April 29, 2012
Psalm 23; John 10:11-18

Did I get the memo about the cover sheet on the weekly reports?  … Yeah, I got it.  I just forgot to put the cover sheet on.  … No, I have the memo.  … No, I just forgot.  Look, I’m used to writing on scrolls.  This shift to using a codex with pages and everything really threw me. … No, that’s all.  … I’ll use a cover sheet the next time, I promise.  … No, I don’t need another copy of the memo.

Hey, James, as long as I have you on the phone, I have a question for you:  you studied with the rabbis, right?  … Yeah, I know you didn’t finish. … Well, seminary’s not for everyone.  … Coulda been worse, right?  Coulda been training to be a lawyer.

So, listen, here’s the question I have for you: what’s the deal with God and shepherds?

Have you ever noticed how many times shepherds are mentioned in the scriptures?  … My cousin Simon… no not the Zealot, the other one.  … The pacifist.  He points out that shepherds are mentioned more than almost any other profession.  More than scribes, teachers, builders, carpenters, farmers, and then of course, soldiers.  … No, no, he’s not a shill for the sheep industry, he’s talking about how for some reason the scriptures talk more about shepherds than soldiers… No, no, he’s making an argument about pacifism… No, James, anyway… he counted and soldiers aren’t mentioned much and shepherds are mentioned a lot.

He’s got a point don’t you think?  … No, not about pacifism – the shepherd bit.  Think about it… The great king David: shepherd.  Abraham, Isaac, Jacob: shepherds.  … No, I am pretty sure there were other things to do back then.  … God just seems to like shepherds for some reason.

It’s like that Psalm that everyone always likes.  Yeah, “The Lord is my shepherd,” that one. Someone told me that that was the most memorized portion of the scriptures outside of the Shema. … I don’t know. … Probably one of the Marys.  What’s that about?  … No, of course it’s popular.  … I’m not saying I don’t like it.  … No, it’s beautiful… Of course… green pastures …. Right, still waters. … What’s not to like? … Right and ends with a big party with overflowing cups and goodness and mercy.

… I guess if there were six verses of scripture that had to be memorized, those would be the ones.

But it’s curious that so many people should like it. … Well, I mean, how many shepherds do you hang out with here in Galilee? … No, I know that there are a lot of shepherds… No, how many do you hang out with?  … Right, none.  … No, I’m not accusing you of anything. … I don’t hang out with any shepherds either.  And most of the people who like that Psalm don’t either.  Most of them live in cities like Capernaum, or Sepphoris, or Jerusalem.

Doesn’t it seem strange that God likes that image?  … Well, consider this: it’s kind of strange for God to be thought of as a shepherd… it’s so docile and soft.

Look, aren’t you the one always going on about the Romans, how it’s about time someone kicked them out?  … Don’t worry there’s no one around—you’re not going to get in trouble and I’m not going to tell anyone. … Right, now let me ask you, wouldn’t you rather our God were identified more as a warrior rather than as a shepherd?

word cloud of the sermon text what's the deal with God and shepherds
Image courtesy wordle.net

Also, I don’t know if I am comfortable with the image of God as a shepherd, because if God’s the shepherd then guess what we are … that’s right … we’re sheep.  … What do you mean why is that a problem?  … Have you ever met a sheep?  They’re idiots.  … How smart can they be?  They can train dogs to keep them in line.

I just never liked that image of God as a shepherd and us as docile little sheep resting on green grass and laying beside still waters.

Do I know Shadrach?  … The guy from accounts?  Yeah, I know him, so what? … He’s a Babylonian?  Yeah, I know. He’s totally obnoxious about it.  Babylon this, Babylon that.  If it weren’t for Darius that Persian guy in human resources who always puts him in his place he’d be insufferable.

What?  His gods are designated as shepherds, too?  … He says, it’s a symbol of justice?  … Come on now, James—what does a shepherd have to do with justice?

Right, green pastures… yeah … not about tranquility?  What are they about?  … About getting fed?  Oh, about ensuring that the sheep have enough food.  And let me guess, the still waters … about getting enough to drink.  … No, I never thought about it that way before.  … Shepherd as a guarantor of justice.

So, then help me understand something.  I just came back from hearing Jesus of Nazareth speaking. … Right, the rabbi who was at that wedding in Cana I went to last year. … Yeah, we saw him that one time in Capernaum.

Anyway, he was saying “I am the good shepherd.”  … That’s strange, right?  … It gets stranger, he said that the good shepherd lays his life down for the sheep. … Right, who does that? … Remember, Isaac the guy from accounts receivable?  … No, not that one. … No, not that one.  … No, the guy with the thick Jerusalem accent.  … Right, he said that he once had a summer job tending sheep and the first time there was a threat, he just took off.  Shepherds don’t usually give their lives for the sheep.  I mean that’s pretty bizarre.

Because what is this Jesus saying?  That we’re all sheep and that he’d die for us?  … That’s crazy, right?  I’m no sheep, are you?

Well, yeah, I remember that … Okay, well, there’s no need to bring that up is there? … Look, if we’re going to bring up every office party since the reign of Augustus … Okay, Okay.  … I’ve been really stupid sometimes.  … I guess we all have.  … Yeah, yeah, yeah. … I remember what Isaiah said, “All we like sheep have gone astray…” Okay, fine.  We’re sheep.

But still, why would Jesus use that imagery?  … Well, it may have been fine to be a shepherd in David’s day, but you know how it is these days—they have a really unsavory reputation.  … Right, aren’t allowed to be judges or be witnesses in court. … Rabbi Simon was telling me a midrash the other day: “There is no more disreputable occupation than that of a shepherd…”

So, again—what’s the deal with God and shepherds?  There are shepherds in scripture, shepherds in the Psalms.  And then comes this Jesus, probably the best hope we’ve had in a while for being the Messiah and what does he do … calls himself the “good shepherd”.

By the way, one of my cousins from Bethlehem says he remembers the night Jesus was born there.  Says there were shepherds all over the place.

But doesn’t this Jesus know that whatever the ancient understanding, shepherds are unsavory? …

What do you mean, maybe that’s the point?  … We’re supposed to bear that tension in mind? …

What are you saying, that the God we’re in relationship with is at once mighty and glorious, a provider, guardian, and preserver of justice and at the same time one who comes to us in ways that are disreputable? … Isn’t that a bit much?  Arguing that God could be found among the disreputable is like saying that you can be a tax collector and a follower of this Jesus. …. You’re kidding me. … Levi?  Yeah, I know him. … No, hadn’t heard that.

Okay, so maybe it’s like saying that the messiah could be, I don’t know, crucified. … No, I’m not wishing anything on anyone.  … I’m just saying that that would be pretty disreputable. … You know they only crucify bandits and rebels and such.  … No, that’s my point James… right… it’s really disreputable.  Are you saying that God could even be found in something as disreputable as that?

Well, you are the religious scholar.  … If you say so. …  It seems pretty surprising to me.

Yeah,  I know God likes to do that kind of thing. … So is that it, then?  God likes shepherds because they represent both honor and disrepute? … And God can be found in both.

Alright.  Well, I should let you go.  I need to get something to eat. … No, I know it’s late. … Well, I was planning on getting a bite to eat when went to hear Jesus.  … But then I saw that they only had five loaves and two fish and figured there was no way they were going to be able to feed that crowd with just that. …

Alright, James.  See you at the office.  … Right, cover page. … Won’t forget.  … Goodbye.


[1] With both sincere admiration for and profound apologies to Bob Newhart, from whom the idea for this entire sermon was stolen, again.

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What Happened to the Galilean Fishing Industry?

The Texts

Psa. 23:0-6 ¶ A Psalm of David.
The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
¶ Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
¶ You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
my whole life long.

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.”

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