Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | April 17, 2016

04.17.16 “Shoving Leopard or Loving Shepherd?” – Psalm 23

Central United Methodist Church
Shoving Leopard or Loving Shepherd?
Pastor David L. Haley
Psalm 23
The 4th Sunday of Easter
April 17th, 2016

Shepherd Herding Sheep on Road

Lhasa Municipality, Tibet, China — Shepherd Herding Sheep on Road — Image by © Rob Howard/CORBIS

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul.
He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.      
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil; for you are with me;
Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil; my cup runs over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life;
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”
– Psalm 23, New King James Version


Have you ever heard of a “spoonerism?” A spoonerism is what happens when your brain goes faster than your tongue, and you transpose a few letters here and there. For example, instead of “spoon and fork,” you say “foon and spork.”  Instead of saying, “she was wearing a ‘red wig,’” you say “wed rig.” You might say that’s what happens when your “tumb gets nongue.” (tongue gets numb.)

spoonerSpoonerisms are named for William Archibald Spooner (1844-1930), who was an Anglican priest and warden of New College, Oxford. You might say he is less famous for what he did than how he did it. In his sermons he delivered such memorable lines as “a blushing crow” instead of “a crushing blow.” Instead of saying a “half-formed wish,” he said “I have a half-warmed fish in my mind.” One day while trying to say “God bless our dear old queen,” it came out as something embarrassing to everybody.

For today’s purposes, our favorite spoonerism might be when Rev. Spooner said, instead of “The Lord is a loving shepherd,” “The Lord is a shoving leopard.” Now while the Lord is a “shoving leopard” might be a metaphor worth exploring someday, today – on Good Shepherd Sunday – it leads us to “The Lord as a Loving Shepherd,” one of our best loved and most familiar of Biblical images.

For most of us, Psalm 23 and its image of the Lord as our Shepherd is an image we have known since childhood. Was Psalm 23 the first Psalm you memorized as a child? Did you spend umpteen hours in Sunday School making sheep out of toothpicks, cotton balls, and Elmer’s glue?

Even though it is a much loved image, we also have to acknowledge it is not actually one with which we are that familiar. To my knowledge I don’t think there are too many working shepherds on Chicago’s North Shore, other than us clergy types shepherding people, not sheep. So, today, I would like take a light-hearted look at the basics. Basically, there is the Shepherd. There are the sheep. And there is the Sheep Dog.  Which one are we?

First, there is the shepherd, who watches out for the sheep. The shepherd is the star of the show, although, in reality, throughout much of the world it is poor people and children who serve as shepherds, not white blonde Jesus types with sheep on their shoulders.

That has not stopped anybody for wanting to be the good guy in the story, the shepherd. Even the business world has borrowed the metaphor of shepherd for leader, such that consultants get big bucks for teaching leadership skills in high priced seminars. The problem is that everybody wants to be a shepherd or a leader; nobody wants to be a sheep or a follower. Ever heard of a seminar on following, or books titled, “The Art of Followship?” It’s like the cartoon portraying a team of sled dogs in harness, with the caption saying; “If you’re not the lead dog, the scenery never changes.” If you want to be a leader, at some point you have to turn around and see if anybody is following you.

For us Christians, there is really only one shepherd who has earned his crook, so to speak, and that is Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who was willing to die for his sheep. That’s why on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Good Shepherd Sunday, we always read Psalm 23 together with a passage from John, chapter 10, where Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd; The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.” You want to be a shepherd? Lay down your life for the sheep; die on a cross and rise in three days, then you can be a shepherd of the sheep.

If we can’t all be shepherds, we can be sheep. Can anybody genuinely see themselves as a sheep? Someone once said that if we really knew sheep, it would be an insult to our intelligence to be called a sheep. Someone else said God invented sheep to make chickens look good. I can’t say either way, not knowing any sheep personally. The closest I have ever come was when I was a child, my parents bought me a goat for a pet, but that didn’t work out, because it kept butting me, and my parents had to get rid of it because they didn’t want to be accused of child abuse. Or goat abuse.

In a Christian context, however, to be called a sheep is not necessarily a bad thing. Because in the Christian sense, to be a sheep is not so much a role of subjugation, submission, or slavery, as it is a position of security, provided for all the sheep of the flock, because the Good Shepherd protects us at all costs, even at the cost of his life. So what do we have to fear?

Think of the images of Psalm 23: green pastures and still waters, restoring our souls. We are led along right paths. When we walk through the valley of the shadow, our shepherd is with us, comforting us, protecting us. Thanks to God’s gracious provision, our tables and cups overflow, and goodness and mercy pursue us, all the days of our lives.

Hannah Whittal Smith, author of the famous devotional book Streams in the Desert, says:

“The shepherd is responsible for the sheep, not the sheep for the shepherd. The worst of it is, that we sometimes think we are both the shepherd and the sheep, and then we both have to guide and follow. Happy are we when we realized that he is responsible, that he goes before and goodness and mercy shall follow.” (Hannah Whittal Smith, Streams in the Desert)

OK, if we can’t all be the shepherd, and even if it might not be so bad to be a sheep, is there any else we can do? Leonard Sweet suggests, “How about Sheep Dogs; can’t we be Sheep Dogs? But before you see yourself as Ralph the Sheep Dog in Bugs Bunny cartoons, always doing in Wile E. Coyote, think about what a sheep dog really does.

On that trip to New Zealand many years ago, we stayed for a couple nights on a sheep farm. I can still remember blasting through a sheep gate in the farmer’s pickup truck: farmer, family, and sheep dog on board. I remember how the farmer called and whistled – in ways I don’t think I could ever do – and in response, out in the field – that dog did exactly what he was supposed to do: gathering up the sheep, moving them toward the gate and the sheepfold. Every now and then one would start to stray, and that dog would be on it, moving it back to the flock.

So here’s the point: the job of the sheep dog is to do the shepherd’s will, to protect and care for the sheep, to keep the sheep moving toward the shepherd, back into the fold. We can’t all be shepherds – and even though we may all be sheep – like it or not – we can also be sheep dogs to each other.

It starts with our own children, and definitely includes our children and youth. For that matter, are we ever exempt, at any age, that we do not need encouragement along the way? Have we fallen in with the wrong crowd? Is someone missing, in need of help? As we accompany each other on the way, we may have to nip at those who fall behind, nudge the lonely back into community, and defend each other from dangers. Sometimes – along the journey that is life – we all need a little help to keep moving along, toward the goal – toward the fold – where the Shepherd awaits.

With over 200 people in the circle of this congregation, as pastor (which means shepherd) I cannot keep track of everybody. Sometimes, at night, when I wake up, I realize I’ve not seen someone for awhile and wonder if they are OK? Will you be a sheep dog, to help keep track of the sheep, to see if they are OK, not to chide, but to encourage them back into the flock.

There is only one good shepherd, who as the Psalmist notes, is a shoving leopard – I mean – a loving shepherd. Meanwhile, we are called by God to be shoving leap dogs – I mean – loving sheep dogs – in God’s service. In the name of and after the example of the Good Shepherd, may we so be.


[This sermon is based upon sermon material supplied by Leonard Sweet, “The Lord is a Shoving Leopard,” Homiletics, 4/20/1997]


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