Shepherding

Officiating Mary Hunt’s memorial yesterday was an honor. It’s always an honor to remember a life. When the person who has passed and is being remembered is so dearly loved, the work of the pastor is especially meaningful. Indeed, this part of the pastor’s work is a sacred privilege. It is humbling to serve as a kind of conduit for a community of loved ones, friends, and family, and their remembrance and honoring of a life that has passed.

Do you the etymology – the root of the word – of pastor? Pastor is a Latin-based word meaning shepherd. The pastor in literal terms amounts to a shepherd of a church community.

At the memorial, whether folks knew it or not, there were a couple examples of the work of shepherding. One common element of the memorial service is the pastor reading the 23rd Psalm. Virtually every memorial I’ve officiated – and I’ve officiated a lot as a hospice chaplain and a parish minister – has included the reading of the 23rd Psalm. And how does that Psalm begin?

The Lord is my Shepherd… In other words, the Lord is my pastor. It is an occasion where the pastor and the congregation are united. and God serves both as the congregation’s and the pastor’s pastor. How comforting it is for the pastor in this case. The pastor grieves too, after all. 

To know I have in God herself a pastor, a shepherding figure who I can rely on, who I feel comforted by, who offers me a compassionate presence – “priceless,” as that old credit card commercial used to end with.

There is another element in yesterday’s service that spoke to me and reminded me of the way of the shepherd. In the funeral procession to the cemetery, I was directly behind the hearse in the processional to the burial site. Being directly behind the one we just remembered reminded me of the way of shepherd leadership.

When guiding his or her flock to the paddock, the flock’s home, the shepherd does so from behind. Sheep are guided by the shepherd’s rod and staff and by her voice that comes from behind.

Leading from behind is important for one significant reason. Only from behind can the shepherd see if a sheep goes astray or if sheep are headed toward danger. 

Maybe you remember the famous parable Jesus gives about a shepherd and a lost sheep. It is short and so I will simply read that parable from Luke 15:

“Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.

The way a shepherd usually knows that a sheep has wandered off and gets lost is that he or she sees that sheep actually wander off. Interestingly, the sheep that most often wander off and get lost are those sheep who run ahead. The sheep that run ahead are most at risk of getting lost because the shepherd is focused on guiding those at the back of the flock. By the time the shepherd gets to the sheep who’ve run ahead and wandered off, sometimes they get lost. 

Nonetheless, the good shepherd doesn’t give up on any sheep. He will find them one way or another, even if it's just one that goes astray. 

What a beautiful picture of Jesus here! The Lord Jesus is our good shepherd, and he doesn’t give up on any of us. Not one is left behind!

This reference to Jesus as the good shepherd, it also comes from the Gospel of John. Jesus himself says that’s what he is. John 10:11 says, “ I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

Today’s lectionary reading from the Gospel of John offers us an interesting paradox in this regard. John the Baptist sees Jesus coming and says, “Behold, the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”

Christ, the good shepherd is also the lamb of God. And all the while, the Lord God - Yahweh - is our shepherd as well. Jesus himself would have known Psalm 23, recited it to himself, and meant it – the Lord God was Jesus’ shepherd, too. 

How can this be? What does this all mean?

Well, we see the story of Christ’s divinity in the seeming paradox of the Lord God being our shepherd and Christ being both the good shepherd and the lamb of God.

The Lord is our shepherd. Hence, we humans are akin to God’s sheep. When Christ comes into the world, he comes in the form of a human. He becomes one of us. He enters and joins us. He becomes a lamb, a young sheep, and dwells among us.

Yet, Christ is also the Good Shepherd in the likeness of the divine shepherd of Psalm 23. But the Lord Jesus is a shepherd who is also a lamb. Divinity and humanity, heavenly and earthly, godly shepherd on earth and human follower of the heavenly shepherd’s way. Divine, human one, Christ our Lord.

See, the shepherd was the one to provide the temple a lamb to atone for the sin of the people, an ancient practice that thankfully no longer is practiced. 

But Christ, the good shepherd, forgoes this ancient practice of animal sacrifice. In fact, he aims to end this ghastly practice of animal sacrifice once and for all. He, the shepherd, becomes a lamb.

Not only to save real lamb and other animals used to atone for sins. He pays the ultimate cost to protect and save his disciples who were at risk of being executed like he was. The shepherd Christ lays down his life as a lamb and does so for his sheep, his followers, to protect them, to assure that they live and know eternal life.

To close, I return to the memorial yesterday where we celebrated and honored the life of Mary Hunt who was so special to this church and to members of this church. 
The first scripture I read was, as I mentioned, the 23rd Psalm. Recall the words. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want… Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil for thou art with me… thy rod and staff they comfort me…

To close the service, Steve, who has sung for us here, sang The Old Rugged Cross. There is a line in the hymn that goes like this: “the dear Lamb of God left His glory above, To bear it to dark Calvary.”

That’s it in a nutshell. The shepherd left glory and privilege behind to lead us in the most powerful of ways, by protecting us and saving us from harm as a selfless lamb. 

Let us like John the Baptist, raise our voices and proclaim, that Jesus, the one from Nazareth, this good shepherd, this holy lamb, is God’s chosen one. And let us like the writer of the book of Revelation, the same writer of the Gospel of John, worship this One, our brother, our father, singing, “For the Lamb in the center of the throne will be our shepherd. He will lead us to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.’” Amen.

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