How many of you know a shepherd? How many of you have ever tended sheep? How many have even SEEN a sheep? I suppose most of us have seen sheep and even watched shepherds tend them, but today’s Psalm and Gospel reading, illustrate one of the big problems people have with the Bible – it seems so removed from the way we live life now. Most school children in the developed world have never even seen a sheep, much less have any idea what it takes to be a good shepherd.
If we go a little further down this road, we can easily imagine why so many men and women in the developed world dismiss religion. It seems at best a quaint relic of days gone by and at worst seems dangerously out of touch with modern reality.
The Good Shepherd seems not far removed from Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny. The child who professes to believe in any of these receives an amused, sympathetic, and perhaps slightly wisful grin. Ah, to be seven years old again and capable of believing in childhood magic!
The indulgent and amused adult who encounters such a child may feel a pang or two of nostalgia for his or her childhood but more than likely has no wish to be that age again.
“I am the good shepherd…” Jesus said. Was he saying that he was the only slightly more believeable equivalent of Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy – an appealing and fuzzy belief with which we comfort children, all the while knowing the universe to be cold, inhospitable and finally meaningless.
I wonder if perhaps Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy are figures that were invented to fill in the gap, to take up the slack in a world in which God was beginning to play a smaller part.
Obviously, shepherd was a powerful image in ancient Israel. The Old Testament often speaks of God as shepherd, and the best known example of this is, of course, Psalm 23.
Why shepherd? What is there about shepherds that made them an appropriate image for God?
If we were to choose an image for God that might be more appropriate for our day, where would we look? The image that comes to my mind immediately are the men and women of the New York City Fire Dept who rescued the victims of the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001. Indeed, the image of a rescue worker carrying a wounded person out of the World Trade Center bears a remarkable resemblance to images of the Good Shepherd bringing the lost lamb back to the fold.
But where, we might ask, is the Good Shepherd when the world comes crashing down? When bad things happen to good people?
Rabbi Harold Kushner in his commentary on Psalm 23 points out how realistic this psalm is. It doesn’t promise us that there will be no death but promises us that God walks with us through the valley of death’s dark shadow. It doesn’t say that we will have no enemies but assures us that God is with us in the presence of our enemies.
Where is God when the shadows grow dark and our enemies seem to be all around? Where was God when terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center? In the ancient world God was the Good Shepherd but in our world God may be the “Good Fireman or woman”. God is the one who goes into the burning building even as it falls down around us and carries us out safely.
Perverse and foolish oft I strayed
But yet in love God sought me
And on his shoulders gently laid
And home rejoicing brought me.