Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | May 11, 2014

2014.05.11 “Shepherding: The Life-Saving, Life-Giving Business” – Psalm 23; John 10: 1 – 10

Central United Methodist Church

Shepherding: The Life-Saving, Life-Giving Business

Pastor David L. Haley

Psalm 23; John 10: 1 – 10

May 11th, 2014


Let me set this before you as plainly as I can. If a person climbs over or through the fence of a sheep pen instead of going through the gate, you know he’s up to no good — a sheep rustler! The shepherd walks right up to the gate. The gatekeeper opens the gate to him and the sheep recognize his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he gets them all out, he leads them and they follow because they are familiar with his voice. They won’t follow a stranger’s voice but will scatter because they aren’t used to the sound of it.”

Jesus told this simple story, but they had no idea what he was talking about. So he tried again. “I’ll be explicit, then. I am the Gate for the sheep. All those others are up to no good — sheep stealers, every one of them. But the sheep didn’t listen to them. I am the Gate. Anyone who goes through me will be cared for — will freely go in and out, and find pasture. A thief is only there to steal and kill and destroy. I came so they can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of.” – John 10: 1 -10, The Message

When I reach the end of the day, and brainpower and focus fade, one of my late night entertainments has become catching up with some of the best dramatic series on TV.

Over the last year, one show at time (or more if the suspense is unbearable), I’ve watched The Walking Dead, and all five seasons of The Wire, critically acclaimed as one of the best series ever on TV. Recently I got diverted by Scandal, and finally got around to Breaking Bad. Yes, I eventually should do Mad Men, although I’m not sure why anybody would want to revisit the ‘50’s, especially those of us who were a product of them.

What’s changed to make such viewing possible are the viewing alternatives such as Netflix, Hulu, and other sites. Like everything else in society, such as healthcare, journalism or church, the media landscape keeps changing. In the first age of TV, you had to watch TV series on the networks timetable, and, though it was for free, it meant you had to watch those loud and annoying commercials.  The second age of TV was cable, where you could avoid commercials, but you had to pay for cable, and you were still on their timetable. The third age of TV is to cut the cable, which we did about two years ago (as increasing numbers of viewers are doing), and for a small fee, watch TV series on your timetable, without commercials, on such sites as Netflix or Apple TV.

Why watch such series? While not for everybody (mature audiences only, as they say), at it’s best, good drama like good art teaches us about life. Whether it is ancient Greek dramas or the dramas of Shakespeare or Charles Dickens or Victor Hugo or The Sopranos; whether such characters as Herschel of The Walking Dead or Omar on The Wire or Olivia Pope on Scandal or Walter White of Breaking Bad, we can not only be entertained by them, and but learn life lessons, applicable to ourselves and others.

The theologian Paul Tillich once made a statement I’ve never forgotten: “Culture is the form of religion; religion is the substance of culture.”  That is, when we watch contemporary art and drama, we see how contemporary issues are addressed; but when we look underneath at what’s expressed, we find the same issues that have always concerned us as human beings: what is the meaning of life, how do we live a good life, what destroys and detracts from that good life.

Consider Walter White, foBreakingBadr example, on Breaking Bad. If you’ve not seen it, Walter White is a high school chemistry teacher who finds out he has cancer and limited time to live.  He realizes he’s got little to show for his life, and little provision for his family. So far, we empathize. But when he accompanies his brother-in-law, a DEA agent, on a drug bust, and sees the large amounts of cash involved, he realizes he could do that, could become and a methamphetamine cook, and do it well, as a way of providing for his family. And thus the downward journey begins: leading to lies and deceit and even murder. As the five seasons progress, Walter White becomes less a hero than a monster, at far greater cost to his family than any financial benefits he can provide. Is this really an ethical, meaningful life; or is it participation in something that cheapens, degrades, and even destroys life by feeding the addictions of others?  That could never happen to us, could it? If not meth production or addiction, choosing money over a moral and ethical life, the good life?

I’ve said all this to prepare you to make the leap, from modern cultural forms of discussing such issues, to an ancient form of discussing such issues: the imagery in our Biblical texts today, about shepherds and thieves and bandits.  Because you see, the stories and parables and metaphors of the Bible worked the same way, in their time, to talk about such issues.  Especially in religious terms, which our modern culture does not always address.

Consider today, the image of God as shepherd, from one of our favorite Psalms, Psalm 23; and the corresponding image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, from the Gospel of John, chapter 10.   Thus the 4th Sunday of Easter has unofficially become known as Good Shepherd Sunday.

But here’s the problem: know any shepherds? Or any sheep, for that matter?  I think it’s safe to assume we know nothing – other than what we’ve likely learned from the Bible – about sheep, shepherds, or shepherding. Thus far, I haven’t encountered too many shepherds in Skokie, although, given all our immigrants, there probably are a few retired shepherds, if we could find them.

While we love Psalm 23 and its image of God as our Shepherd, we also know that it’s alleged author, King David, was once a shepherd.  And we know the story of what happened when the shepherd boy grew up to become King, as told in the Old Testament books of Samuel and Chronicles: it is a story as sordid at times as anything in the life of Tony Soprano.

And when we turn to John, chapter 10, and its presentation of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, it doesn’t help us to understand, when John presents it in such a confusing manner.

If you remember from our previous readings in John this spring, in John’s Gospel, Jesus talks a lot. And so, after healing the Man born blind in John 9, and calling himself the “Light of the World,” Jesus mixes metaphors in chapter 10, and starts talking about sheep and shepherds. The language is often confusing: at one point, Jesus is the gate; at another, he is the Shepherd. At one point, the thieves and bandits try to enter the sheepfold through the gate; at another, they climb over the wall or fence. Judging by all the interest in them, these sheep must have been something else.

So when you read it – if you find yourself confused – you’re in good company, because everybody else did too. And so it says, “Jesus told this simple story, but they had no idea what he was talking about.” “Sheep, gate, shepherd? I don’t get it!”

So, Jesus tried again:

“I’ll be explicit, then. I am the Gate for the sheep. All those others are up to no good — sheep stealers, every one of them. But the sheep didn’t listen to them. I am the Gate. Anyone who goes through me will be cared for — will freely go in and out, and find pasture. A thief is only there to steal and kill and destroy. I came so they can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of.”

Do we get it?  Whether in ancient or modern life, there are life-stealers, the thieves and bandits, only in it for themselves, to steal and kill and destroy. And then there are those like Jesus, whose mission is to give us life, more and better life than we dream of. Not life that begins after death, but overflowing, abundant life, which begins here and now.

If you think about it, it raises questions, doesn’t it? What thieves and bandits are attempting – maybe actually are – stealing our precious life away from us? Self-pity? Procrastination? Addictions? (like binge watching TV?) Guns and violence? Our Bishop, Sally Dyck, in a recent post on her blog, noted our appropriate dismay at the abduction of 200 girls in Nigeria, but also noted that as of late April, more than 50 children 16 years old or younger have been shot in Chicago. What are we doing about the thieves and bandits, stealing life away?

The other question we need to ask is, if we are not in the life-stealing business, like thieves and bandits, are we on the side of Jesus, in the “life-saving” and “life-giving” business? How are we living, what are we doing, not only to insure that we ourselves are living an authentic and full life, but to insure that others around us get a chance at it as well, as far as it is within our power?

Even in the Gospels, to give life to different people meant different things. For the man born blind, for example, it meant sight, light. For hungry people, it was the bread of life.  For the woman at the well, it meant someone who knew everything she’d ever done, but loved her anyway. For Nicodemus, the Rabbi who came to Jesus at night, it meant insight, knowledge, understanding.  What it means to be in the life-saving, life-giving business is contextual, depending upon whom we are talking to.

And there’s another question we might ask:  If Jesus is the Good Shepherd of the sheep, and we are his followers – his sheep – how can we, like him, be good shepherds?  I’m not talking about taking care of sheep; I’m talking about being good people, who watch over and care for others? Aren’t we good shepherds when we are good parents, (good moms) watching over and caring for our children, giving them the knowledge and skills and resources to live a real and full life, even if it may at times mean depriving them of what everybody else might be doing? Aren’t good teachers good shepherds, caring for and watching over their children, even sometimes laying down their lives for them, as we saw last year at Sandy Hook Elementary School? Aren’t we good shepherds when we are good neighbors, watching over and caring for those in our community? Aren’t good public servants, like firefighters and police and public workers, good shepherds, when they put their time and lives on the line for us, their sheep, total strangers.

By now, I hope we get it.  On the fourth Sunday of Advent, Good Shepherd Sunday, we are not really talking about sheep or shepherds on hillsides in dreamy ancient tableaus. We are talking about life as we know it, portrayed not only in good dramatic series, but on the evening news. We’re talking about rural and suburban populations riddled with heroin and meth addiction; we are talking about urban streets shadowed by poverty and drugs and gangs and violence. We are talking about thieves and bandits that are stealing life right out from under us; we are talking about walking through the valley of the shadow of death, whether that is in the country or the suburbs or on city streets. And even though we may say we do not fear because God goes with us, we still have to ask ourselves the question: which side am I on: the life-stealing business, or the life-giving business? Because every church, as the followers of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, must be about the life-saving, life-giving business.

leonore-draperDid you hear about Leonore Draper?  On Monday evening, April 26th, Leonore Draper, 32, a member of St. Mark’s United Methodist Church on the south side, well-known in her church and community, was shot and killed as she sat in the car in front of her own home.  She had just returned from a fundraiser for non-violence in the streets, led by her long-time friend and college roommate.


RallyBishopDyckTwo days after that, dozens of United Methodists, along with our Bishop, Bishop Sally Dyck, gathered with residents in the 116th and Laflin community to walk up and down the street, and invite the community to a prayer vigil, to call for, to pray for, and to commit themselves to stopping the violence that grips Chicago’s streets.  Afterwards, Bishop Dyck said:

“As Christians we are in the life saving business and we need to help save our children, youth and citizens from this senseless and random killing. While one death is too many, what gives me hope is that I am also aware that our churches are in the business of saving lives through their various outreaches into their communities.

On the Saturday after Ms. Draper was killed, I was on a mission trip with youth from our annual conference. We went to four churches in Chicago; all of them are in the life-saving business. Several of them have an outreach to those in the community who are juvenile offenders or who are the ones threatening violence in their neighborhoods. Through the churches’ outreach they are helping these young people turn their lives around, trust that there is a future of hope for them, and providing skills that they can use in a non-violent lifestyle.

What also gives me hope in the life saving business is what I saw on Maundy Thursday. I spent the day visiting eight of the Safe Havens that our United Methodist churches provided during Chicago Public Schools’ spring break. The weather was chilly and we all tend to believe that weather impacts the level of violence on the streets so there weren’t as many shootings that week/weekend but if nothing else, these churches grew in their capacity to provide community safety for the children in their neighborhoods. How many lives can we save? We will never know because it’s not something we can count but I believe that when we as the church are engaged in our communities, we are in the business of saving lives . . . the lives of children, youth and citizens.

Not only in Chicago, but throughout our entire annual conference (and beyond), I trust that we as the church will be in the business of saving lives . . .” (“Saving Lives,” Bishop Sally Dyck, Blog post, April 29, 2014)

Because the life-saving, life-giving business was and still is the purpose of Jesus, the Good Shepherd: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”  May this be our purpose as well, to give life, real life, to whoever we meet.  Amen.


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