Our lectionary readings this morning, unlike some Sundays, have a common theme related to shepherd, sheep, and self-sacrifice. Underlying all that is love, God’s everlasting love. Psalm 23 is the most familiar psalm. Many of us had to memorize it when we were in Sunday school. Its words, enhanced by the poems rhythms, cadences, and pacing, lead us to a place of comfort and peace. In The Message the psalmist says to God: “ Your Beauty and love chase after me every day of my life. I’m back home in the house of God for the rest of my life” (v. 6). God blankets us with love. It reminds me of how we swaddle newborns in blankets. They are wrapped in such a way that they feel like they are back in the womb—a place of safety and comfort for them. This psalm makes us feel like we are blanketed in God’s love; we are safe and secure.
“He leads me beside still waters” (psalm 23 v. 2b). Our waters are anything but still! We continue to be in the turbulent waters of the Covid-19 pandemic. Even the pictures that Ch. 3 offers for a “moment of calm” are not still or calm. With all the rain we have had the brooks, lakes, and rivers are swollen with fast moving water. Yet the words of this Psalm reminds us that we can trust God to still the waters and calm the storms in our lives. God blankets us with love.
We Christians immediately jump to the image of Jesus the Christ as the good shepherd when we read the 23rd Psalm. However, this was written long before “…the Word was made flesh and lived among us…” (John1:14). We must not forget that the Hebrew Bible uses a multitude of images of a shepherding God.
From 1 John 3:16-24 we are reminded again of divine love and self-emptying. “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (vv. 16-18). Jesus death is the ultimate example of love.
Finally in John 10:3-4, Jesus tells his disciples: the gatekeeper opens the gate for the shepherd and the sheep know his voice…and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” Jesus proclaims: “I am the gate for the sheep… I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:7, 10).
What would living life to the fullest look like for sheep? Rich green pastures, clean water, shelter from the elements, protected from predators, a shepherd to look after them, nap times after getting their fill of lush grass, raising lots of lambs, and dying peacefully in one’s sleep rather than butchered for our dinner feast. The sheep would just let their wool grow and consume grass while the shepherd does all the hard work.
If the sheep are a metaphor for we humans, what then would the parallel abundant life be for us? Well it wouldn’t be too much different from the sheep. We would need enough food and drink to sustain us, wages that would provide for a comfortable lifestyle, police, medical care, fire fighters, national military personnel to protect us from harm, perhaps
even human resources staff, career counselors, job training leading to ample employment
We are not sheep though. Yet our culture tries to convince us that the more “stuff” we accumulate the happier we will be.That is what abundant life means to society in general.
Jesus’s teachings were about living in community; “real life amounts to mutual dependence, co-existence, and mutual help” This is abundant life.
Sheep know the shepherd’s voice and the shepherd knows her sheep. Knowing Jesus and being known by him shapes us as a faith community. In the UCC we assert that in essentials unity, in non-essentials diversity, in all things charity, that all may be one. God’s knowing changes into “love” that blankets us. This belonging is not about a personal relationship with Jesus but that of a community of followers who are watched over by God, like a shepherd watches over her sheep. I was struck by the fact that there is no singular form of sheep—I had never thought about that.
What then do we do about the other sheep that do not belong to the fold? How do we make room in the fold of divine love? It seems simple; we just need to move over and let God’s love blanket everyone. But that doesn’t come easy to us. It is difficult not to think about who’s in and who’s out, to make judgments. Furthermore, we then equate that thinking to who is loved the most by God. Here is the clincher—it is not up to us to decide who’s in and who’s out! Jesus has other sheep and he intends to enfold them as well. There are always others who know his voice and enter the fold. God will welcome them and blanket them in love as well.
Our interpretation of hospitality is challenged. It is more than a warm welcome, an invitation to break bread together and drink a cup of coffee after worship. Don’t misunderstand me; those things are wonderful and necessary, but we are called to a deeper understanding of hospitality. Like the Good Samaritan we are to cross the street and tend to those who are in need of experiencing the love of God. We are called to love the stranger.
Who is the stranger? Immigrants. Homeless. Differently-abled. Discriminated according to race, gender, religion, and sexual orientation. Poor. Bullied. Anyone different from us.
How does belonging to the fold and knowing the voice of Jesus shape our lives and our life as a church? How does it guide us, keep us together, and sustain us? How often do we fail to recognize the voice of the Still-speaking God? How is the Still-speaking God calling our faith community today? Who is God calling us to blanket in love today? To whom do we need to offer support, comfort, kindness, hospitality and love in the midst of these difficult times.
May we ponder these questions seriously.
We can only answer those questions if we trust that God is our shepherd, we shall not want, He makes us lie down in green pastures; leads us beside still waters; and restores our souls. He leads us in right paths for his name’s sake, even though we travel through rough times we fear no evil for you are with us always. Our cup overflows! In the greatest of hope may we have life abundantly and be blanketed in God’s love always.