Wednesday, October 1, 2014

God Is Our Shepherd

I will be speaking Oct. 7 on the Prince Frederick (2:30 p.m.) and La Plata (6 p.m.) campuses of the College of Southern Maryland on the “Intersection of Faith and Sexuality” related to Coming Out Day. The events are free.

Pay no attention to the man or woman behind the curtain, behind the pulpit, or behind this blog!

Our first love, our first allegiance, our first lover, our first faithful relationship, is with God. No one will care for us as God does. No one loved us before we were born as God has. Few will love us forever as God will. “Till death do us part” we say in marriage, but even death does not separate us from God’s love.  I believe the scriptures witness over and over again that God is our Shepherd in life and in death and always.

Our faith in this God is not and should not be dependent on any leader, writer, or congregation. We have to work our own programs, as they say in 12-step groups. And, as Jesus said about the Sabbath, the day of rest and reflection on spiritual matters, the Sabbath is made for us, not us for the Sabbath.

All Christians are ministers. I believe we are all called to extend the right hand of fellowship to one another in a myriad of ways. Nothing will tightly bind us together like sharing our selves. It’s risky, it’s vulnerable, we might disagree, but God is everyone’s Shepherd.

There are over five hundred references to sheep in the Bible. The references in Jewish scriptures are usually literal, while the references in Christian scriptures are usually metaphorical.

Lest we think the metaphorical reference to us as the sheep of God’s pasture in Psalm 23 is a pejorative image, one of docility, it’s important to know that sheep, like us, are highly gregarious. Because they look for adventure, much as we do, they are easily lost. Just as we know truth when we hear it, sheep know the voice of the one to whom they belong, and the shepherd of biblical times typically knew each sheep by name.

But sheep are unaggressive and defenseless, and thus dependent on good shepherds whose staffs guide them to quenching waters and nourishing pastures, those whose rods ward off predators: wolves and poachers—thus, in Psalm 23, the Shepherd God’s rod and staff comfort the psalmist, offering protection and guidance. Note that the rod was not there to be used on the sheep—only on predators.

The ideal religious leader has been patterned after God as Shepherd. Not just in Jewish  and Christian cultures, but others as well. God through the prophet Jeremiah despairs at the bad religious leaders of Judah, “the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture.” Jeremiah also speaks of religious leaders whose ungodliness has allowed the people to enter “pastures of the wilderness [that] are dried up.” He decries those who comfort rather than challenge those unwilling to make the personal transformations needed to be right with God and with one another.

I believe all ministers—which again, means all Christians—are called to confront our addictions, our rage, our bitterness, our self-absorption, our passive-aggressive behaviors, our manipulativeness, our materialism, our control issues, our violence (in whatever shape it takes), and our inattention and even apathy toward all things spiritual.

Each of us knows what we need to change within ourselves to make our spiritual communities work. When a congregation finds itself in a dry patch, Jeremiah’s  “pastures of the wilderness [that] are dried up,” it is not necessarily the fault of pastors, past, present, or future. It is because we have not taken our own ministries seriously.

Thus we may all, with Jesus, see the great crowds of those with needs, and have “compassion for them, because they [are] like sheep without a shepherd.” Having described Jesus’ compassion in this way, the Gospel of Mark says, “Jesus began to teach them many things.”

Some ministers have a vocation, a “still, small voice” calling them into pastoral leadership. Pastors are different from other ministers in job description but not in kind. They are given the leadership role of a flock, a congregation. “Pastor” comes from the Latin word for “shepherd.” When we hire them, we covenant to respect their training, their experience, their guidance, and their leadership.

Toward the end of the film version of L. Frank Baum’s wonderful children’s story, The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and her friends, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Lion, with Toto’s help, all discover the man behind the curtain manipulating images in an attempt to pretend he is a Great Wizard. This is a huge disappointment for Dorothy trying to get home, the Scarecrow wanting wisdom, the Tin Man wishing for compassion, and the Lion hoping for courage. When Dorothy’s dog, Toto, pulls the curtain back, they see the Wizard for who he is.

“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” the would-be Wizard says in his artificially amplified voice. When they realize they have been duped, Dorothy says to the so-called Wizard of Oz, “You are a very bad man!” The would-be Wizard corrects her, saying, “No, I am a very good man. It’s just that I’m a very bad wizard.” Then he shows each of them that what they are looking for already resides within them, even the ability to find home.

Spiritual leaders are usually good people. But they are not wizards who can necessarily give us wisdom, compassion, and courage, or get us home.* At best they can help us find our own wisdom, compassion, and courage, and help us find our own way home. And all interim** and imperfect shepherds can only point to the One who is our permanent and perfect Shepherd.

God is our Shepherd.

This post serves as prelude to next week’s post, “What to Expect of a Pastor,” which is as much about what not to expect!

*I first used this metaphor in a sermon for my seminary community in the 70's.

**Having served as interim pastor of three congregations in transition, I have come to realize that all spiritual leadership is “interim,” that is, temporary.

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Copyright © 2014 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. 

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