Sunday, July 22, 2012

Sheep and Shepherds

By Keith E Gatling         Sermon for July 22, 2012

Lessons for Pentecost 8 [16] in Year B
Jeremiah 23:1–6
Psalm 23
Ephesians 2:11–22
Mark 6:30–34, 53–56

Today I want to talk about Mrs Olsen.

Now Mrs Olsen is not a pseudonym for some generic Scandinavian Lutheran woman. Mrs Olsen is a real person from my life. She was a substitute teacher, and later a full-time teacher at Ashland School, where I went from Kindergarten through 8th grade. But I also knew her from somewhere else. She was one of the Vacation Bible School teachers at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church on Glenwood Ave. Even though our regular church at the time was Mount Olive Baptist, a block away from our house, our parents signed us up for two weeks of VBS across town at Holy Trinity every summer.

It was from Mrs Olsen that I learned two very important things…which I promptly forgot. But then, when I learned them again later on in life, I remembered who taught them to me first.

The first thing was about church music. She asked our class one day, which was the more important type of music in church, hymns or [Charlie Brown sound]. Now, the reason I make that sound is because I couldn’t remember the other word she used. And the reason I couldn’t remember the other word she used was because I had never heard of it before. Down at Mount Olive, all I ever knew that we sang was hymns, so I guessed that, and DING, got the right answer. She said that hymns were more important because they were sung by the entire congregation, whereas the other type wasn’t.

A few years later, when I was recruited to join the choir at St Andrew’s Episcopal Church, a new word entered my musical vocabulary. Actually, a number of new words entered my musical vocabulary, as a whole new musical world was opened up to me. One of these words was anthem.

For me, the working definition at the time was the special music that the choir sang during the offering, while the congregation listened. But then one day, the little light went on and I realized that this was the other word, the other type of music, that Mrs Olsen had been talking about.

The other thing I learned from Mrs Olsen has a direct bearing on today’s readings, because it has to do with the 23rd Psalm.

Now back in the 20th century, before the modern English translation movement of the 70s and 80s, most of us learned the first line of the 23rd Psalm as:

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

Now this made absolutely no sense to a certain kid from Ashland School. Why wouldn’t I want the Lord to be my shepherd? Seems like he’d be the best person to have as a shepherd. So why are we saying that we don’t want him?

I asked Mrs Olsen about this, and she patiently explained the way that the Elizabethan style of English worked, and that it wasn’t saying that we didn’t want the Lord to be our shepherd, but rather, that because the Lord is our shepherd, we shall not want for anything.

Suddenly it made sense! For one brief, shining, moment, it made sense to me…until the end of the day, when the explanation she gave me fell out of my head, and landed on the ground, where it shattered into many little pieces. After that, I couldn’t remember what the explanation was, but I knew that it made sense somehow.

Many years later, with a little more experience with the English language under my belt, when I saw that line from the 23rd Psalm, I understood exactly what it meant. I also remembered Mrs Olsen explaining it to me, and what she must have said.

Why is Mrs Olsen so important? Because she was a shepherd. To this kid who didn’t quite understand, but wanted to, she was a guide. And most of today’s readings are about shepherds.

From Jeremiah we have “Woe to the shepherds who scatter and destroy the sheep of my pasture.” The 23rd Psalm gives us the classic, and previously-mentioned “The Lord is my shepherd.” And Mark’s Gospel gives us “They were like sheep without a shepherd.”

Each of those readings talks about God’s people – us – as being sheep. And if you know anything about sheep, you know that they’re pretty stupid. In the piece All We Like Sheep from Handel’s Messiah, the words, taken from Isaiah 53, are “All we, like sheep, have gone astray, every one to his own way.” This image of us as stupid sheep is much different than the one we so often see of us as willful and premeditated sinners. It implies that most of us do the evil that we do, and cause the harm that we do, not because we intend to, but because we bumble into it.

Make no doubt about it, though, the results are still the same; the person is still dead whether we specifically intended to run them into a ditch in a fit of road rage, whether we avoidably bumbled running into them by texting while driving, or whether we more innocently bumbled into it by getting lost and running into a bridge that was too low.

What is clear, however, is that we need a shepherd. What is clear is that we need to recognize that we need a shepherd. We need to recognize that we are like sheep, that we do screw things up, that our screwing things up, even innocently, has serious consequences, and that we need someone to guide us.
We need a shepherd. But with apologies to Thomas Jefferson, not all shepherds are created equal. Even if we know that we need a shepherd, some of them are pretty bad.

The passage in Jeremiah speaks to that. He uses the metaphor of sheep and shepherds to describe the evil kings who have driven the sheep…the good sheep…away. But he might just as well be talking about shepherds who mislead the sheep. He might just as well be talking about those who take advantage of people who know that they need a shepherd, and intentionally lead those souls onto a path of their own selfish devising. And woe unto those shepherds, of whom we know many, even these days.

Or do we?

As I’ve said so many times before, and will probably continue to say for years hence, we often know where we disagree with our fellow Christians, but we so rarely know where they’re wrong. We’ve all been led by different shepherds…who claim to be following the same eternal shepherd, and not every sheep is going to respond well to the same shepherd or the same shepherd’s methods.

Those of you who are teachers know this from your students. You know that what works for Bobby doesn’t necessarily work for Suzie. Those of you who are parents know this about your children. I have two daughters who are as different as night and day. The one constant about them is that anything I say is a bad idea, but if someone else suggests the same thing, it’s a wonderful idea worth trying. Ah…I see that some of you have been there too.

We may think that some of those people out there who have the nerve to call themselves shepherds aren’t worthy of the term, and deserve to have their rods and staffs taken away from them…after being smacked upside the head with them. But before we do that, it’s important to take a lesson from Mister Rogers.

Yes, that Mister Rogers. You see, in addition to being the host and producer of the long-running children’s television series, Fred Rogers was also an ordained Presbyterian minister, and his TV show was his ministry, even though he probably never mentioned God once during the entire 33-year run of the show.

According to a story that he told himself, as a seminary student, he had been visiting a church in New England one Sunday, and suffering through what he thought was the worst sermon ever. As the sermon ended, and he thought again about how bad it was, the woman in the pew next to him, said with tears in her eyes, “He said exactly what I needed to hear.” Rogers was a changed man…a better neighbor, as he said…after that incident, and learned that what speaks to him may not necessarily speak to someone else.

Perhaps the shepherd we think is so inept because they’re not reaching us, is doing just the job they need in order to reach some other sheep, and bring them into the fold.

To be sure, there are shepherds who, by their methods and spin on the message, seem to drive more sheep away than they gather up. There are definitely shepherds who seem to drive people away from God. But by the same token, there are sheep who don’t seem to realize that maybe there are other shepherds out there that might be better at guiding them.

Pastor Paul recently passed along a story about Steve Jobs, of Apple, and how as a teenager he asked his pastor…his Lutheran pastor…if God knew he was going to bend his finger even before he did. The pastor replied in the affirmative. Then Steve went on to show his pastor a picture of starving children in Biafra, and asked, “Then why can’t he do anything about this?”

The pastor, not knowing the kind of mind he was dealing with, fumbled the ball, and said something along the lines of, “Steve, you’re too young to understand, but God really does know what he’s doing.”
That was Steve’s last day at church.

Now, Pastor Paul, in his notes on that article, wrote a huge “UGH,” next to what that pastor said. My reaction was much different. My first reaction was to say “Steve, I thought you were smarter than that. You got one unsatisfactory answer from one pastor, and you walked away? You gotta be kidding me. You didn’t ask others? You didn’t research this to death? This is not the Steve Jobs I thought I knew about.”

My second reaction was to cut the poor pastor a little slack, because he probably really didn’t have any idea of the kind of mind he was dealing with. Maybe he had tried to explain this to kids before, and their eyes just glazed over as he tried to explain how theologians had wrestled with this for years, and still don’t understand.

This poor pastor was probably a very good shepherd to everyone except for this one kid who grew up to be insanely famous. And this kid who grew up to be known for being insanely smart turned out not to know anything about choosing shepherds.

And there are more people out there, who, rather than looking for a different shepherd, would rather just walk away and bail on the whole thing. Is that a failure of the shepherds, of the sheep, or is their enough fault to go around for everyone?

With that in mind, it’s worth noting that even our shepherds need shepherds.

Knowing that we need shepherds, and knowing that some of us are shepherds does not mean that we’ll always get it right. By no means!

Knowing that we are like sheep…all of us…means knowing that we need almost constant guidance so that we’re not going every one to his own way.

Fortunately, Jesus took pity on them…and us…because he saw that the people were like sheep without a shepherd.

And because of that, even though I understand the explanation that Mrs Olsen gave me, I can say, I will say: The Lord is my shepherd…the one that I want.

This is most certainly true.