|Union University Church|
By Reverend Laurie DeMott
December 4, 2011
Throughout Advent, I am preaching on some of the images presented in our Christmas carols and today I will be looking at the recurring metaphor of the shepherd. The carol “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night” is based on Luke 2:8-20, and says:
While shepherds watched
"Fear not," he said,
"To you in David's
"The heavenly Babe
In swathing bands
The stories of Jesus’ birth in Luke and Matthew are like paintings
in which the painter has included a number of images that are meant to
be symbolic of a deeper truth. It bothers a lot of people when I tell
them that the nativity stories were not meant to be historical accounts
of Jesus’ birth but if we mistake them for history, we miss the
theology they are meant to convey. People, for example, who take Luke’s
account historically spend a lot of time worrying about who was watching
the sheep while the shepherds traipsed down to Bethlehem instead of asking
the question that Luke wants us to ask – namely, what do the shepherds
symbolize and teach us about who Christ is for you?
Jesus is to be the shepherd king, the kind of ruler described by Isaiah who said: “See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.”
So, when was the last time you saw a shepherd? Unless you’ve been traveling in foreign lands, the last shepherd you probably saw was an eight year old in a bathrobe in last year’s Christmas pageant. Shepherds aren’t part of the western New York landscape. Since the advent of barbed wire made constant vigilance over the livestock less necessary, no one hires shepherds to keep watch over their flocks by night anymore.
In fact, I’d guess that it is only in the church that we still talk about shepherds. That imagery is part of a two thousand year old heritage that includes other dated images like lepers and Pharisees, characters that we no longer encounter in our daily life but who remain in our vocabulary because they have become archetypes for something deeper and in our human experience. We don’t need to know an actual Pharisee to know someone who is rigid in their love of rules; nor do we need to know a leper to know that even in 21st century America we still make moral judgments based on people’s physical disabilities. The imagery in the Bible remains powerful for us not in spite of its age but because of its age, because in two thousand years we can recognize that while the faces may change, human hearts don’t.
Max Lindenman, a Catholic blogger, imagines what it would be like if we tried to update our liturgical imagery and he titles his article, “The Lord is My Mentor.” 1
“The Lord is my mentor, I shall not want? He makes me take power
naps beside the chemically treated hot tub?” Even if the language
is more familiar to the 21st century ear, it’s nothing we would
want to say as we sat in a hospital room praying for the welfare of a
loved one. Maybe we don’t see many shepherds wandering the hills
of Alfred anymore, but we know what shepherds did and we know how important
they were for the welfare of the sheep. We know that without shepherds,
sheep got eaten by wolves. We know that without shepherds, sheep wandered
into dangerous ravines or couldn’t find the nourishing grass. We
know that without shepherds, sheep had problems staying together and often
followed other sheep who really had no more idea of the best path than
they did. Maybe we don’t see many real life shepherds out there
in the fields any more but frankly, there are an awful lot of days when
we still feel like sheep – vulnerable, desperate, wandering sheep
– and we know that on those days when we feel like sheep, we don’t
need a mentor; we don’t need a team builder, or a personal trainer,
or a lifestyle coach. When we are feeling like sheep, we need a shepherd.
When we are feeling like sheep, we first of all want a shepherd to protect us.
By this time the phone man couldn’t keep quiet. He interjected, “I found that the most powerful prayer I ever made was while I was dangling upside down by my heels from a power pole, suspended forty feet above the ground."
There are desperate times in our lives when we don’t care about what is proper or right; we just need to know there is someone who will catch us if we can’t hold on any longer! Think of the times in your life when you were desperate to know that there was someone strong enough to hold back the powers that threatened to overwhelm you. The shepherd that God sends to the people is a shepherd armed with a rod and a staff, and when our hearts are gripped with a fear that we will be too weak to survive the darkness before us, we can turn for comfort to the one who promises to keep watch over us throughout the night, no matter how long.
Shepherds needed to be courageous and strong, able to stand against the
wolves that would tear into the sheep. So too, the shepherd that God sends
is one who has the courage to stand against the social forces that prey
upon the weak. This is the Christ who overturned the tables of the money
changers, who rebuked the voices of greed and self-interest, who faced
the cruelty of the powerful, and who remained steadfast to the end, even
laying down his life for his friends. God sends us this shepherd to stay
with us through the night until the dawn breaks upon us once again.
One day three men were walking along and they came upon a raging, violent river. They needed to get to the other side, so the first man prayed to God saying, "Please God, give me the strength to cross this river." Poof! God gave him big arms and strong legs, and throwing himself into the water, he was able to battle the current and swim across the river in about two hours.
The second man prayed to God saying, "Please God, give me the strength and ability to cross this river." Poof ! God gave him a rowboat and he was able to row across the river in about three hours.
The third man also prayed to God saying, "Please God, give me the strength, ability, and the intelligence to cross this river." And Poof! the man remembered the map they had been carrying, and walked across the bridge.2
Christ is more than a mystical presence; Christ is the man who tramped the roads of Galilee preaching and teaching a way of life that would give people a map to follow. Christ knew that sometimes we need something stronger than our own impulses to guide us, because compassion and righteousness don’t always come naturally. The columnist David Brooks wrote an article for the New York Times this past September called, “The Limits of Empathy” in which he argues that today’s society depends too much on cultivating warm feelings toward one another and not enough on learning to act on behalf of others. The problem, Brooks says, is that feeling sympathy for the sufferings of others doesn’t always lead to moral conduct. He points to accounts of Nazi prison guards who wept as they shot Jewish women and children, feeling the monstrosity of what they were doing, and yet they continued to pull the trigger.
“Empathy alone is insufficient....,” Brook writes. “It has become a way to experience delicious moral emotions without confronting the weaknesses in our nature that prevent us from ... acting upon [those moral feelings]. People who actually perform pro-social action [on behalf of others] don’t only feel for those who are suffering, they feel compelled to act by a sense of duty. Their lives are structured by sacred codes.”3
God sent us a shepherd to teach us a way to live that would lead us in paths of right relationships with others, regardless of how we might feel at any given moment. Our emotions might change, our circumstances might change, but our conviction to act in love on behalf of others would remain steadfast.
When we are feeling like sheep, we want a shepherd to protect us, a shepherd to guide us, and finally we need a shepherd to bring us safely home.
A workshop preparing seminarians for ministry conducted an experiment with the 100 men and women in attendance. The workshop leaders sent a volunteer from the room, blindfolded him, and told him that when he returned to the room, he would be given instructions to follow that would lead him to a certain place in the room designated as the goal. While the volunteer was in the hall being blindfolded, the other 99 conferees were told that they were each to choose a place in the room as a goal and when the volunteer returned, they were to shout their individual instructions at him to try to get him to go to the goal they had chosen.
When the volunteer was brought into the room, everyone began shouting but because there were so many conflicting commands, the volunteer was not able to decide on a course and remained immobile.
The volunteer was removed from the room and this time, two people were given permission to not only shout directions but to walk beside the volunteer and speak directly at him. The volunteer was again returned to the room and this time ignored all of the other shouts from people in the seats, but still vacillated between the conflicting instructions of the two walking beside him and ended up just as immobile as the first time.
Finally, while the volunteer was once again out of the room, one of the two who had been walking with him was given permission to touch the volunteer’s arm while talking. He couldn’t tug it or push it, but he could gently lay his hand on the volunteer’s shoulder if he wished. The volunteer was brought in once more and when he appeared, the silence erupted into an earsplitting roar again as everyone shouted directions. The two messengers again left their seats to stood right by him, speaking into his ear over the din but this time, the second messenger rested his hand gently on the volunteer’s shoulder. Almost without hesitation, the volunteer began to move in the direction of the second’s instructions. As the volunteer neared the second messenger’s goal, all of those in the audience, suddenly joined in unison to try to turn the volunteer away from taking those final steps, yelling, "Don't go!" "Don't go!" "Don't go!" but the guiding arm of the one never left the volunteer's shoulder and with only a last hesitation, the volunteer reached the goal.
When the workshop leaders asked the volunteer afterward why he followed the one who had brought him to his goal, he said, "Because it felt like he was the only one who really cared."4
“See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.”
Christ is your good shepherd. He will stay with you through the night to hold back the powers that threaten to destroy you; he will teach you and guide you in the path of right relationships so that you may live at peace with others, and if you listen and trust his voice, he will bring you home.
1. The Lord is My Mentor… November 28th, 2011 by Max Lindenman http://www.patheos.com/blogs/diaryofawimpycatholic/2011/11/the-lord-is-my-mentor/
2. In the original joke, God turns the third man into a woman who has the intelligence to check the map. In the interest of being non-sexist, I’ve modified the joke with apologies to the original wit who told it.
3. “The Limits of Empathy” by David Brooks, published in the New York Times: September 29, 2011
4. For the full experiment, see Ken Davis, “How To Speak To Youth”,