Cowboy or Shepherd?
June 09, 2002
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside still waters;
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
For his name's sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I 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 overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life,
And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
Read also: John 10:11-18
Reading from Swedenborg
We should confess before the Lord God the Savior and pray for help and the power to resist evils. We should approach Lord God the Savior because he is God of heaven and earth, the Redeemer and Savior, all-powerful, all-knowing, all-present, and is mercy together with righteousness; and because we are his creation, and the church is his sheepfold. (True Christian Religion #538)
Our Scripture readings for this morning place before us the image of the Good Shepherd--an image that is very near and dear to our hearts here at the Church of the Good Shepherd.
What image do we have of the Good Shepherd? Why does it mean so much to us? And even more important, is it an image of a relationship with God that we seek, or does it reflect a reality that already exists? These are very important questions for all of us to think about as we reflect upon our New Testament lesson.
In our reading from the Gospel of John Jesus says not once, but twice, "I am the good shepherd" (John 10:11, 14). John's Gospel is the only one that stresses Jesus making such "I am" statements. In the pages of that Gospel Jesus says, "I am the bread of life" (John 6:35, 48); "I am the light of the world" (John 8:12; 9:5); "I am the vine" (John 15:1, 5); "I am the gate" (John 10:7, 9); and others--all of which use images that had beforehand been applicable only to God. After all, David proclaimed that the Lord was his shepherd. Thus, to have Jesus saying that he is the good shepherd may seem a bit presumptuous. And in fact, to many people of his time, such claims bordered on the blasphemous. No human being had ever claimed to be equal to God.
If you react to this statement in that manner, I suggest that you consider something: many Biblical scholars agree that Jesus never said these words! They argue that these were attributed to him some eighty years after the Gospel of John was first written, simply because in some earlier manuscripts they do not appear. But this theory, even if true, does not make them meaningless. In fact, it can make them all the more meaningful because they become an image, like the one used by David, that speaks of the relationship people had with our Lord.
For example, it means one thing to be called a teacher because you have the proper degrees and credentials. It means quite another thing to be called a teacher because you have touched a student's life in a real way. For example, it was one thing when the Keller family employed Ann Sullivan as a teacher. It was quite another when Helen gave her that title, because it spoke of a bond that existed between them.
Which use of the title is more meaningful? The one that reflects touching lives. In this way, the fact that the words might have been attributed to Jesus reflects the relationship people had with him. He had touched their lives as bread that nourished their spiritual hunger. He had touched them as a vine that nourished life. He had touched them as light that guided them in times of darkness. And then today, we learn that he had touched them as a shepherd who cares for a flock.
This is the really important truth for each of us. Not that it is a reference to something that God claims to be, but to how we perceive, understand, and appreciate God working within our lives. Yes, proclaiming that the Lord is our shepherd is important, because it affirms that we long to be treated that way, and it affirms that we are. It is a bond that nothing can sever.
There is another aspect of this image that I would like to consider. It came to me last week as I spent a night on a ranch in Summerland, British Columbia, looking out from the house over a mountainside where some one hundred cattle had recently grazed. It was a place that brought back special memories of my early years on our farm in Ohio.
I've shared with you before that we raised sheep, but I don't think that I've ever shared that many of our neighbors raised cattle. While I was in high school, I worked one year on the Taylor dairy farm, helping them each evening after school with the milking and other chores.
That experience taught me something: that sheep and cattle are entirely different creatures. You see, cows are herded. Sheep are not, and never can be. By this I mean that cows will follow anyone's direction, as long as the cowboy sticks to a standard routine that the cows have grown accustomed to. This is what makes the cowboy's job possible. They can ride on their horses and give general direction to that herd, knowing that their commands will be heeded. Yes, cows go where the cowboy wants them to go.
Oh, every now and then a stray will wander from the herd and need to be redirected. But for the most part the cowboy can sit still much of the time and just watch over the herd, singing of life in those lonesome valleys. Also, very little panics a herd of cows. A strange noise comes, and they just look around, wondering what the noise is about. And seldom will they run off and get into trouble. They just keep their heads down, munching with one end, and swatting flies with the other. They are the epitome of keeping life simple and taking it one day at a time.
Cows don't even need to be fetched or called when it comes milking time. Some inner clock told those cows that it was five o'clock in the afternoon, and they would come marching in from the back forty on their own to gather outside the barn. All I had to do was open the door and in they would walk, single file, even going to their particular stall, where they would wait for me to hook up the milking machine. And if one took a bit longer than normal, the others would patiently wait, turning their heads every now and them as if to say, "Well hurry up and get on with it." Yes, cows know what a cow's life is to be.
But with sheep it's an entirely different story. They need much more attention and direction. A shepherd has to continually check on the flock, because they can get into all kinds of trouble. They panic with the first strange sound they hear, and it only takes one upset sheep to panic an entire flock. And when they are not running about, they get so caught up in doing their own thing that they easily wander from the fold. Once a sheep has it in its mind to wander, it is bound and determined to do so. Yes, a lost sheep is not a rare occurrence.
Come feeding time, the shepherd needs to go get them; and it has to be a voice that they know calling them. A stranger will not do. And come feeding time, where cows wait patiently for their food, a flock of sheep will knock you over as you try to pour out their supper in that feeding trough. They care only about themselves as they crowd around you, so that it is almost impossible to tend to their needs.
Because of all of this, in a way, a cowboy has a much easier job than a shepherd. Cowboys seldom need to put themselves in danger. Each day for them is predictable. But not for shepherds. Those sheep will wander off and get into some pretty precarious situations. And the shepherd has to be very ingenious sometimes in order to rescue them.
Perhaps this is why Jesus is called the Good Shepherd and not the Good Cowboy! Even more important, perhaps this is why we human beings are more often referred to as sheep than as cows. It's a statement about our human nature. We need attention from God. Things happen, and we panic. We get so caught up in doing our own thing that we easily wander off course and find ourselves lost. And yes, even when we have a hunger, an inner need, so often we would just as rather knock over our neighbor to meet that need than to cooperate so that everyone gets their fair share.
On one level then, we might assume that Jesus was being condescending in this statement, as if calling us sheep was a way of putting us down. But I don't think that was his intent at all. It was a reference to how deeply God is committed to caring for us, watching over us, and tending to whatever need we bring his way. And this perseverance on his part is what makes that shepherd "good": because we can always depend on God's caring for us.
I hope that this meaning of the Good Shepherd is why we cherish it so at this church. It affirms what God does for us. It affirms what we can be for each other. Amen.
Divine Shepherd, we realize that all we, like sheep, have gone astray, each to our own way. We admit that we have followed our own path instead of listening to your voice, and have become lost. Thank you for laying down your life, so that we may have life. Thank you for leaving the ninety-nine and coming to find us wherever we have wandered. For although we want to believe that we can guide our own lives, we acknowledge that it is only when we are listening to your voice and following your way that we can find safe spiritual pastures in the community of your love. Amen.
Rev. Ron Brugler