Just came across this sermon from last year; looks like I missed posting it the first time around.
Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 4th Sunday in Easter + April 26, 2015
Today is Good Shepherd Sunday — as you might have figured out from all the pictures of sheep and shepherds in the bulletin. It’s a day to read and sing that psalm we all know and love; a day to hear Jesus tell us once again how much he cares for us, his sheep.
Maybe you’ll be surprised to hear that a lot of preachers don’t look forward to writing their sermons for today — at least from what I’ve heard over the last week. These passages are so familiar and so comforting. After reading “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want,” and “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,” what can we say besides “Amen”?
So as I was trying to find a little more to say to you all this morning, I tried out a little experiment. I re-wrote Psalm 23, trying to make each line say exactly the opposite of the original — to refresh what this familiar Psalm tells us about God by hearing what God is NOT. We might call it “Psalm 23’s evil twin.” If the original psalm paints us a beautiful picture of the good shepherd, this version is the haunting image of an evil shepherd. It is the opposite of who God is and what God wants for God’s people.
My master is my slave-driver. None of my needs are met. He makes me march on gravel without shoes. He pushes me towards blazing fires.He exhausts me. He tricks me into doing wrong just to watch others mock me. Even when I walk in the sunshine of a new spring day, I’m always on guard, for he could be anywhere with his rod and his staff, threatening me. He makes me watch, hungry, while everyone else feasts. He throws the leftover bones at my face, while my bowl remains empty. Surely torture and rage will stalk me all the days of my life, for I am jailed in the house of my master for all of my short life.
Writing this was painful. Not just because I was taking such a beautiful, sacred poem and turning it into something horrible, though that made me tremble. But the sharpest, most surprising pain I felt — the pain that stuck with me after the task was done — came from how familiar these images felt. It wasn’t the familiarity of the real psalm, the kind where I can close my eyes and whisper along and remember the great God who brought me into the Good Shepherd’s fold.
It’s the kind of familiarity I feel along the cracks of my heart in the places that it has been wounded; it’s the kind of familiarity I feel when I hear the news of yet another shooting; it’s the kind of familiarity I feel when I hear so-called street evangelists telling the strangers passing by that they are going to hell. It’s familiar because it’s true — it describes a real and common set of experiences. And it’s been true for a long time.
When I re-read the Evil Shepherd Psalm, I couldn’t help but think of how many times I’ve heard people talk about God as if God were that Evil Shepherd. I expect you each have your own memories of hearing about God as that angry judge just waiting to smite us. I think of a close friend, whose young ears picked up more fear and guilt than grace at her childhood church. Even though now she has rejected that view of God, sometimes she still struggles with crippling guilt over acts she doesn’t even believe are sins anymore.
Then I thought of the many rulers throughout history who claim that God gave them the right to kill or steal or enslave. That God gave them the right to ignore the suffering of others. How can the people they rule this way hear and feel the message of God’s love?
Finally, as I read over that Evil Shepherd Psalm, I thought of how many times we let others become our masters, from abusive husbands who say the Bible gives them the right to abuse, to bosses who demand too much and fill our lives with anxiety, to friends who take and take and take without giving. None of this is what God wants for us — or from us.
When Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,” he is taking a strong, dangerous stand against the long tradition of evil shepherds. And I’m not just saying “When you compare what Jesus said to what other people do, you can see it.” But, literally, Jesus is giving this little speech to a crowd that includes some of the evil shepherds of his day. And he knows it. He’s doing it on purpose, because he’s been arguing with them for a while.
About two chapters before we get to today’s gospel is really where the story starts. Jesus is talking with a crowd of people at the Temple in Jerusalem, and it includes a bunch of the Jewish leaders: some of them are starting to — maybe — believe in Jesus, some are already plotting to kill him. They’re all trying to figure out who he is and what he’s up to. They start getting into it about being children of Abraham, and since this is an all-Jewish crowd, it’s a really important topic. They are God’s chosen people, and they know this because they are descended from Abraham and God’s promises to him. But Jesus says they are not children of Abraham or children of God, because they are rejecting him and even trying to kill him. When he says, “before Abraham was, I am,” the crowd can’t take it anymore, and they pick up rocks and take aim at Jesus. He escapes.
As Jesus is getting away, he notices a man who has been blind since the day he was born. His disciples are curious about the man and his situation, and since the Son of God is right there with them, they take advantage of the situation and ask Jesus a question only God could answer: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answers, “Neither…he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” In one sentence he transforms this man from a sinner into a man chosen by God for this special moment. And Jesus bends down towards the dusty ground, spits, mixes up the spit and the dust, spreads it on the blind man’s eyes, and tells him to go wash it off. This must be where they coined the phrase “God works in mysterious ways,” because that saliva-mud did the trick, and the man could see for the first time in his life.
When the religious leaders find out about this miracle, they are still divided about whether this Jesus guy is good or bad. Some of them say, “Well, he healed this man. God wouldn’t give a sinner the power to do a miracle like that.” But others said, “No, this man can’t be from God. He healed on the Sabbath. That’s a sin.” (John 8:31-9:16).
I discovered this week that there’s a place in the Old Testament where God gives us a description of evil shepherds (Ezekiel 34). Actually, it’s God speaking to the evil shepherds, and condemning them. And what God condemns them for sounds a lot like those religious leaders plotting against Jesus. It goes like this:
“Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.” (Ezekiel 34:1-4)
The religious leaders aren’t at all concerned about the blind man, this sheep of their flock who could use some help. They don’t even seem to feel joy when this man is healed. Instead they seek to rule, to be the most righteous, and they condemn the good shepherd, the one who did care and did heal, for doing it on the holy day of rest.
They question the healed man about whether he thinks Jesus is a sinner or sent by God. When he calls Jesus a prophet, they don’t like that answer, and they go to his parents. The parents are like, “Why are you asking us? He’s a grown man. He can answer for himself.” So the religious leaders go back to the healed man, and, I guess hoping for a different answer, they question him again. But he answers with even more faith this time: “Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” The religious leaders don’t hear his logic, and instead they get angry and defensive: “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” and they throw him out.
Jesus, the good shepherd, hears about what happened. And whereas the evil shepherds condemned by God in the book of Ezekiel do not seek after lost sheep or bring back strays — and clearly, neither do these religious leaders — Jesus seeks out this healed man. This man who probably grew up hearing and believing that he was born in such great sin that God made him blind, this man who had heard Jesus say that he was not so horribly sinful, only to be condemned and cast away by the religious leaders. Jesus finds this lost, hurting sheep, and welcomes him into the fold, and in doing so he condemns the religious leaders who claimed to be so much better than everyone. He calls them sinners to their faces. (John 9:17-41)
This is when Jesus starts talking about being the good shepherd. It’s almost as if Jesus is rewriting Ezekiel like I rewrote Psalm 23, in both his words and his actions. He is the good shepherd. He cares about his sheep. He heals them. He seeks them out. When he speaks or acts, they recognize him. And he does not rule over the sheep with harshness and force, benefiting from their expense and their suffering. No. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He says that three times in that tiny speech. “The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
The religious leaders aren’t getting it. A little while later they’re questioning him again. And they’re trying to keep ruling over their sheep, so again they pick up stones to kill him. (John 10:19-31)
I imagine it was hard for that man who was blind to see anything good about God, not because he was blind, but because other people told him — over and over — that he was blind because he was a sinner, and treated him like one. I bet he thought of God as an Evil Shepherd, because that’s all he’d ever heard. It took Jesus — his words and his actions — for this man to begin to see his world and himself clearly as created and loved by God.
There many people in our own world and our own lives who only know of God as angry judge, because that is what the church has been to them. Let’s change that. Let’s be the Good Shepherd to them, in word and in action, so that God may heal them and bring them in to God’s flock — where they can finally feel that they matter and they are loved.
 This idea comes from Dick Murray’s Teaching the Bible to Adults and Youth, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993), p. 72-76. He calls it “reverse paraphrasing.”