Monday, November 21, 2016

A Shepherd's Story

Originally preached on Christ the King Sunday, November 20, 2016, at the Keysville Grace United Church of Christ, Keymar, MD. Audio can be heard here.

Agricultural work is difficult. There is special calling for those who work the land, but more importantly, those who work with livestock. There is a special calling for those who work with livestock, and in particular, there is a really special calling for those who work with sheep. Let me go on and confess to you this morning, I would not want to be a shepherd. Mentioned more than 500 times, sheep, along with goats, were the most important domestic animals in the biblical world, so taking care of them was more than a notion.
I would not want to be a sheepherder, because, let me tell you, it is exhausting, thankless work. If you don’t believe me, listen to this job description as written by Dr. Gerald Mattingly from Johnson University of Knoxville, Tennessee.
Shepherds are responsible for the safety of the sheep. Yes, this is a simple concept, but there is more to it than just keeping the sheep safe. Keeping sheep safe involves vigilance, for it is monotonous work. They require constant care, since they are practically defenseless. Shepherds had to locate food and water for their flocks, and they often ranged far from home and went through numerous hardships. It was not easy being a shepherd.
Shepherds had to constantly guard against thieves, but more importantly, the greatest threat to sheep safety came from animals such as wolves, lions, and bears. It was not easy being a shepherd.
Sheep are naturally gregarious animals, and the shepherds had to watch for strays and count the animals as they returned to the fold at night. You see, sheep had a habit of just wandering off, and the shepherd was responsible for finding any lost sheep. It was not easy being a shepherd.
         A prime example of how defenseless sheep, for me, comes from, of all places, a Looney Toons. There were a series of cartoons based on two characters: Ralph E. Wolf and Sam Sheepdog. I’m going somewhere with this. The series is built around the idea that both Ralph and Sam are just doing their jobs. Most of the cartoons begin at the beginning of the workday, in which they both arrive at a sheep-grazing meadow, exchange pleasant chitchat, and punch into the same time clock. Work having officially begun, Ralph repeatedly tries very hard to abduct the helpless sheep and invariably fails, either through his own ineptitude or the minimal efforts of Sam (he is frequently seen sleeping), who always brutally punishes Ralph for the attempt. In many instances there are also multiple copies of Ralph and particularly Sam.
At the end-of-the-day whistle, Ralph and Sam punch out their time cards, again chat amiably, and leave, presumably only to come back the next day and do it all again. I would not want to be a shepherd, because it is monotonous, thankless work. You are responsible for the safety of the sheep, who cannot say thank you, and many times, are just off blissfully being sheep.
And don’t sheep sound like people? We are gregarious creatures, gathering among ourselves. We are often defenseless, and are off blissfully and peacefully being people. And that leads me to our Old Testament reading this morning. As we close the end of the liturgical year, I must tell you that I both love and fear this morning’s text from Jeremiah. Yes, I both love and fear them at the same time, because they hold leaders, especially political leaders in ancient Judah, accountable for their actions. It’s nice to see biblical passages that hold leaders accountable.
On the other hand, this text terrifies me because, by extension, it holds religious leaders, both in ancient Judah and today, accountable for their actions regarding God’s people. It’s not so nice to see biblical passages that hold religious leaders, including me, accountable.
Yes, there is a call for accountability on this Christ The King Sunday. God, through Jeremiah, issues a warning to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of God’s pasture. Sheep were important to the nomads and agricultural life of the Hebrews and similar peoples. Secondly, sheep are used throughout the Bible to symbolically refer to God's people. Now, while sheep are important, more important are the shepherds, for the shepherds are held accountable for taking care of the sheep.
So, Jeremiah, in the previous chapter, has done a chronological survey of Judah’s kings, and concludes with this warning against “shepherds”, a common metaphor for kings during that time, and a veiled reference to king Zedekiah, the last king of Judah. According to biblical writers, Zedekiah reigned over Judah during the most tumultuous and tragic time in that country’s history. He was 21 years old when he ascended to the throne, and he ruled for 11 years, and was listed as “one of a long line of kings who did evil in the sight of the Lord.” Zedekiah, according to the writer of Chronicles, “did not humble himself before the prophet Jeremiah who spoke from the mouth of the Lord.”
Outside of biblical literature, there is little knowledge of Zedekiah. The Book of Jeremiah portrays him as a weak and tragic figure who cannot master the faith and courage to prevent the collapse of Judah.
So, we have this king, this shepherd, who is a weak and tragic figure, unable to prevent the collapse of his kingdom, and the scattering of his sheep.
I would not want to be a shepherd. I would not want to be responsible for the safety of the sheep, and I definitely would not want to be responsible for the safety of the sheep in the Lord’s pasture.
But, remember I said that these verse hold both actual shepherds and the sheep of God’s pasture, the people, accountable? Then that makes all of us a shepherd. And we are in trouble. We are scattering sheep. We are driving people away with our stances on issues that really are no business of the church. We are driving people away with our attitudes and behaviors. Look at us. We are focusing on money as the message as opposed to the Messiah. Look at us. We are more concerned with maintaining our monuments to our ancestors than we are with maintaining a relationship with each other. There are some of us who have driven people away because we did not like them, or like their families, or because of some long-ago forgotten feud over a fried chicken dinner.
We are in trouble. God says that because of our scattering of the sheep, of God’s people, there’s going to be a scrutinizing punishment.
I really don’t want to be a shepherd, because shepherds are in trouble. I would be remiss in my duties if I did not mention the Gospel selection this morning, a retelling of Jesus’ crucifixion and the conversation between Jesus and the two thieves. It looks very dark for God’s people, the sheep of God’s pasture, because hope is hanging on a cross. The Shepherd is hanging on a cross.
But there is hope on the horizon. God, through Jeremiah, says that God will father the remnant of the flock out of the lands where they have been driven, and bring them back to the fold, and the sheep will be fruitful and multiply.
There is hope on the horizon. God says that there will be shepherds raised to take care of the sheep, and the sheep will no longer fear, and there will be no dismay, and no sheep will be missing.
There is hope on the horizon. The Lord will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely. This shepherd will be an amazing shepherd – he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. He will be called “The Lord is our righteousness.”
And on this Christ the King Sunday, we realize that Christ, our King, is on the way. God is raising up that Branch, that King.
So we look forward to Advent as the evidence of God’s loving intervention into human life, that gracious invasion which alone has the power to save us. Out anticipation, fueled by our own sense of inadequacy and failure begins to rise, and we sense that soon, very soon, God’s promises will be renewed. In this way we reiterate the experience of those so long ago who yearn for the birth of the Messiah. We also yearn for the consummation of God’s grace, that Second Advent.
The shepherd is coming to re-gather the lost sheep. Let’s be ready to be found.

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