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Of Sheep and Shepherds…

April 16, 2016

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After our week at Cursillo and time with family & friends, Denise and I spent the day in New Orleans before flying back to Denver and heading home to Estes Park. We always enjoy spending time in New Orleans (our first visit there together was for my 50th birthday). We didn’t have a whole lot of time to explore since we left Mobile later than planned and Denise wasn’t feeling 100%. But we did manage to get a poboy at “Killer Poboys” in the back of the Erin Rose Pub on Conti Street before heading to the hotel for some much needed sleep ahead of our 3:30 am alarm.

I took the above picture as we made our way back from the waterfront. Once we made our way through the barriers, we made our way back into the French Quarter. I quickly snapped this picture and only later did I look more closely at it. What I noticed was the combination of barriers to keep cars out and the Railroad Crossing warning signs.

Today I am reflecting on this picture in light of the Scripture readings for the Fourth Sunday after Easter. In John 10:22-30 and Psalm 23, I see a common theme developing. I have lost track of how many times I have preached at Funerals and Memorial Services using the 23rd Psalm as one of the sermon anchors. What stands out for me today, in light of some life circumstances that friends are facing (illness, grief, loss, hospitalization), is the phrase “even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me…”

How often do we take the presence of the Lord for granted? I know in my own life I often find myself cruising along thinking that I am doing just fine. Yet when a bump in the road happens, I open my eyes and search for whom I had been taking for granted. So who guides me through the obstacles of life? Well, if I am smart, I listen to the Good Shepherd who calls me by name. The signposts are pretty clear if I take the time to look and listen. If I am not smart, I stumble and bumble around for a bit. However, the ever patient Shepherd who knows his flock by name watches over me and brings me safely back to the path.

It was this recognition problem that Jesus was dealing with in the reading from John 10. The chapter begins with Jesus talking about thieves and bandits breaking into the sheep fold. Yet the one who knows the sheep walks through the gate and the sheep recognize the shepherd’s voice.

Essentially, Jesus has poked a stick in the proverbial eyes of the Pharisees, Sadducees, and High Priests. He has called them out as thieves and robbers and liars. Pretty harsh words designed to make a drastic point. He was essentially saying that they were false shepherds who didn’t care one bit about the flock or even know them by name. Plus these false shepherds wouldn’t even think of laying down their lives for the sheep… likely because they were in collusion with, or were in fact themselves, the wolves!

By the time they got to the portico of Solomon in the temple precinct, the Jews were pestering Jesus for an answer to the question of the hour. “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” (John 10:24)

“Haven’t you been listening to me?” he must have thought. I have told you over and over and over again, yet you still don’t get it? The work I do is the Father’s work and testifies to who I am. Obviously, you aren’t a part of my flock because you don’t believe. I can almost hear him say: Instead of breaking down barriers, you are erecting barriers which keep the people under your care from the loving heart of God!

Wow, those are some pretty harsh words to hear. You don’t believe? You aren’t a part of my flock then! If you were, you would be able to answer your questions! “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” (John 10:27) It doesn’t get any more blunt than that.

Back to the picture at the top of the blog… you could look at it and see barriers that keep you and your big old car off of the road. I choose to see it in a different light. I see a way that keeps pedestrians safe (the bollards and the railroad crossing lights) from cars and trains. I also see it as a way to keep those who are “driving” the trains safe from hazards that might otherwise pop up as the train goes down the track.

All people will be kept safe if they will only watch for the signs and walk in the path that leads to safety. “You lead me beside still waters, you restore my soul. You lead me in right paths for your name’s sake.” (Psalm 23:2b-3, Padre’s paraphrase) He leads… we need to listen and hear him calling us. Just as Mary Magdalene heard Jesus call her by name and in that instance recognized him; so we must listen with our ears of faith.

Today it seems, there is a very loud thunder coming out of too many churches and out of the mouths of too many preachers who are more interested in fleecing their flock and lining their pockets. As a chaplain and pastor, I have seen how powerful the whole naming scenario is. Winfield is not some nameless homeless man in New Orleans (Who Is My Neighbor). James is not some nameless homeless man in Mobile (I Met Jesus in Tent City). Denise and I got to know them both by name and they both offered us a blessing in return.

During my time in the Air Force, I met many strangers who came into my office on the flightline, in the chapel, in the hospital, in the jail, or down range. They may have been strangers when we first encountered each other. But after that initial encounter, we knew each other by name. We knew each others stories. We were no longer strangers.

I am but an imperfect servant, a cracked pot if you will. Yet I have found the power in knowing another by name and knowing their story. I have also found the Lord in the face of many strangers who are no longer strangers, but are now sisters and brothers. Perhaps, in some way, James and Winfield were themselves the voice of the Good Shepherd calling to me, one of his sheep. Perhaps, the Good Shepherd was introducing his sheep to one another so that love might be shared.

Will you join with me… with Winfield… with James… with Denise… in responding with our lives to the call of the Good Shepherd? He knows us by name! He promises to lead us through the valley of the shadows… always!

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