Good Shepherd Sunday Contemplations

This Sunday is sometimes called Good Shepherd Sunday.  The 4th Sunday of Easter our lectionary in each of its three years reads a portion of John chapter 10 which contains within it one of the “I AM” saying of Jesus – “I Am the Good Shepherd.”  Artistically it is one of the deep wells.  The hymns worth singing range from the Sunday School simple “I Am Jesus Little Lamb” to the depths of “The King of Love my Shepherd Is.”  But I’ve always had a nagging question about the day itself.

I grew up around farms, but even then you could say I grew up around modern farms. My dad as a child grew up on a farm.  And portions of it you might have considered “modern” – like the tractor – but other portions were still  pre-modern, like milking the cows. There is a big difference between growing up on a farm, growing up around farms, and like most people today who have no experience of rural life at all. I find the 20 something craze of keeping chickens a charming call back. My mom, who also grew up on a farm and kept chickens as what farm girls did, chuckles at giving up buying a dozen at the store to keep them. But what almost everyone who keeps chickens discovers quickly is two things: 1) chickens are incredibly dumb and hence annoyingly always getting into dumb spots and 2) they are a lot more work than you might have thought.  When we city mice read the good shepherd type passages I fear that we come at them only through a pastoral romantic haze. Like The Natural stepping off the train to throw a baseball around in the field. Everything is clean and fresh and sunlit and well pressed. Everything is a little too cute.

And I wonder if this isn’t part of what puts some distance between how most people might have heard these passages and how we do. Just thinking about parts of Psalm 23 – a Psalm of David who was literally a shepherd at one time – the implements and verbs of the trade are contrary to the romantic glow.  “He makes me to lie.” Like I said about chickens being stupid, sheep aren’t known for their brains either.  The comic nearby captures that with a modern flair. Likewise, if you have never seen it, please watch this video: (It’s the sheep jumping into the ditch, if you have seen it.)  The Psalm uses forceful language – “He makes”.   That is not something the soft romantic glow usually allows. But the shepherd decides the general course of the sheep and the flock. And the straying sheep are brought back, unless the wolves have got them.

Alongside that forceful image of “he makes” are the implements of the trade, the “rod and staff.”  Why do they comfort in the Psalm?  Because they are pointed outward.  The shepherd and the sheep walk through the valley – through the wolves – and the rod and staff are the implements of protection.  But we should also ask what those implements are in the spiritual life.  And I think the best answers is the law and the gospel. Sometimes it takes the rod – the law – to make us wake up and realize where we are. Sometimes it is the staff with the crook – the gospel – that is pulling us out of some ditch we’ve fallen into. The spiritual applications of those shepherd’s instruments are toward ourselves. And at least when they are employed might not be as comforting as the romantic picture.

Our modern mechanical comforts allow us to think of the pastoral with that romantic glow.  Our distance from the reality allows us to have childlike thoughts when Jesus says “I Am the good shepherd.”  Thinking the spiritual life is gambling in sun dappled fields.  The reality I think they would have heard is exactly the opposite.  This is life and death. The Good Shepherd doesn’t exactly care about sun-drenched happiness.  He cares that you live. And life and death things often require serious instruments. Instrument that we might no longer accept.  I’m going to go dig out my precious moments shepherd now after those comforting thoughts.

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