Here we are after Easter. The sadness of Holy Week is just a memory. The elation of Easter morning has worn off. And we return to our “in the meantime” lives, waiting, as did that first church, for Jesus to come back and make all things right.
So what is life supposed to look like, “in the meantime?” Some people point to this passage from Acts where the followers of Jesus live communally, sharing what they have, taking care of each other. It’s a beautiful ideal, but if you read the rest of the Acts of the Apostles, they can’t quite keep it going for very long. Does that mean we just throw up our hands and shrug, “Ah well, it was a nice idea,” and go back to living as we have done in the past? Is there any imperative for us post-resurrection?
Just as we talked last week about the burning of their hearts on the road to Emmaus, I see that the seed of the church gathered (at temple, and at home), gathered (breaking bread and eating), with glad and generous hearts. And others around them noticed who they were with each other. That’s a sobering thought. That the gospel gets preached, not just with what we say, and not just with what we do for others, but also with how we live in our own community.
And what is the predominant image today for how we should act? It is the image of a shepherd; for this is Good Shepherd Sunday—we have sung a version of Psalm 23, and the gospel lesson, if we had read it, is from John 10—where Jesus identifies himself as the Good Shepherd.
Both those images are of God—“The Lord is my Shepherd” says Psalm 23, “I am the Good Shepherd” proclaims Jesus. But what does that have to do with us? Ah, do you remember the story from John of Peter on the beach after Easter. Jesus is allowing him to “make up” the test he failed in denying Jesus. “Do you love me?” Jesus asks three times. “Yes Lord” comes the answer, each time. And Jesus replies—“Feed my lambs, Tend my sheep, Feed my sheep.” All of a sudden, that shepherd imagery jumps from being about God to including us. Paul and others of the letter writers often use this shepherd language for how we are to take care of one another.
Here are some musings about. Sometimes I think we forget that shepherds weren’t the CEOs of the ancient world. They were looked down upon. It was considered menial work, for the least among us. (And this mentality didn’t change even though there were important men, like King David, who had started out as shepherds.) Being called to be a shepherd isn’t a glamourous thing. It involves hard work out of the lime light. It requires perseverance. It rarely gets you rewards. But we are called to this with glad and generous hearts, just like those who were first figuring out what Resurrection meant.
Let’s examine one phrase from Psalm 23—“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” Phillip Keller (A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23) suggests that this is specific shepherd work. A “table” could be talking about the flat, well-pastured areas in the hills of Judea that were used for grazing. A shepherd would move the flocks from one “table” to another. But this wasn’t such a passive activity. The shepherd had the responsibility to protect the sheep from noxious plants and from snakes. A good shepherd would pour thick oil around the hole of a snake den to make it more difficult for them to come out. And might also anoint the sheep with aromatic oil whose smell acted as a deterrent.
This required a shepherd to be on the look-out all the time. It meant the shepherd had to be willing to get one’s hands dirty by being close to the sheep. And it suggests that shepherds will use anything they can to protect and nurture their flock. All these are wonderful images for us as we go about our work with those around us.
Of course, this image of a table prepared in the presence of enemies also evokes the Lord’s Supper, and well as Middle Eastern insistence on hospitality. Eating with someone isn’t just possibly entertaining angels unaware, or just following a ritual started by Jesus, but it can be a statement of solidarity with the other person.
John Indermark, of Seasons of the Spirit, shares a story he heard about a Presbyterian missionary and scholar based in Egypt.
He had been summoned to appear before a hostile government board in southern Egypt. This was at a time when the Islamic fundamentalist movement was asserting itself, particularly in the region to which he had been ordered to go. When he arrived in the town where the hearing was to be, he was met at the train station by a local Egyptian pastor. The pastor, who was well-known and respected in the community, insisted on taking the missionary out to lunch in a very public place. The pastor’s act was not only hospitable in sharing food, but in making the clear statement that he stood by this individual. In the missionary’s mind, this act of hospitality saved his freedom and perhaps his life.
We should never underestimate the power of the small things we do in life “in the meantime.” They are visible to others, and fulfill our commandment to be shepherds in the very image of God.
May we find our own way of living with glad and generous hearts,
And May God bless our shepherding work in our wider world. Alleluia, Amen.