The Disarming Shepherd

Felicity Wright

April 13, 2008


I hope you noticed today’s sermon title – the Disarming Shepherd.  What do you think of when you hear the term disarming?  I think of charming.  And isn’t psalm 23, and the image of the Good Shepherd well – charming? 


So what can we say about this psalm that hasn’t already been said?  I’ve been reading a most interesting book – A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 by Phillip Keller.  It’s an old classic, written by a man who began life as a shepherd in East Africa, then served as a lay pastor of a community church, and finally became a celebrated author.  He looks at Psalm 23 from the standpoint of actual shepherding in primitive societies. 


The whole book is a gem, but a couple of things really struck me.  As you may know, sheep are really dumb.  They take missteps and get lost on a regular basis.  They are totally dependent upon the competence of the shepherd. The author writes that, after years of hard physical labor during the Depression, he finally saved enough money to buy his first herd of 30 ewes.  The seller took his money, smiled, and said, “They’re yours now – put your mark upon them.”  And so, they were branded, and in that moment the author recognized that whether they lived or died depended totally upon him.  His life would never be the same.  There would be little rest for the weary.  Who owned whom, he wondered.... 


It also happens that sheep have dominance issues.  With chickens, it’s called a pecking order.  With cattle, it’s the horning order.  With sheep, it’s the butting order.  Keller has wonderful stories – actually, cruel and horrible stories – about the things that sheep do to each other to establish dominance.  The interesting thing is that sheep abandon these dangerous power games when the shepherd comes near.  Just the shepherd’s presence calms them enough to stop bullying each other. 


Also, sheep are clumsy and helpless.  There is a common condition known as “cast” sheep, where a sheep will lie down in some comfortable spot and then roll on its side.  Suddenly the center of gravity shifts such that the sheep is on its back and its feet can no longer touch the ground.  It panics and paws the air frantically. This “cast” condition typically happens with large, furry sheep, and it means that they are totally vulnerable – tasty morsels for whatever predators might happen to be near enough to hear their frantic bleating.  If the shepherd doesn’t arrive in time, the sheep is a goner. 


And what was most interestingly to learn – it’s very hard to get sheep to relax.  Four things are required in order for sheep to rest: 


1)    Because of their timidity, they won’t lie down unless they are free of all fear.

2)    Because of social behavior, they won’t lie down if they’re being bullied.

3)    If tormented by flies or parasites, they won’t lie down.

4)    They won’t lie down if they’re hungry or thirsty. 


The shepherd’s job is to make sure that these conditions are met.  Clearly “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures” is easier said than done! 


In short, shepherding is unbelievably hard work.  The sheep need to keep moving so that they can feed on healthy pastures.  They move to higher ground in the summer and return to the valleys in the winter.  In between, there are wolves, coyotes, ravines, gullies, flash floods, windstorms, and parasites.  If the herd moves too slowly, they overgraze the land – which brings parasites and disease.  If too fast, they get overheated and die.  The shepherd has to ensure quality grasslands and safe water, has to keep them from wolves and cougars, has to find the “cast” sheep before they die, has to control bullying, has to loose them from barbs and thorns, has to check for parasites – the list goes on and on.  Hired hands may do good work, but their fortune is not invested in the well-being of the flock.  Shepherds who are also the owners get pitiful little rest indeed!  Keller writes about getting snippets of sleep for days and nights on end.  Considering the endless and exhausting requirements for keeping the flocks healthy and thriving, shepherding must truly be an act of love!


With these facts in mind, let us listen and sing the 23rd psalm, which can be found in your Hymnals on page 734.  Oscar will play the tune for response #2, and we will sing and also speak the sections in bold face.


The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name's sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, 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 my whole life long.


Thank you.  And now, our New Testament lesson is excerpted from the gospel of John, chapter 10, verses 1-18.  It happens just after Jesus has healed the man who was born blind, which caused him to be rejected by the Pharisees.  In this passage, Jesus is trying to explain his ministry to the disciples.  Let us listen while Jeff reads it.


"Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers."


Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. So again Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep.  All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them.  I am the gate.  Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.  The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.  I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.


“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away--and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.


I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as God knows me and I know God. And I lay down my life for the sheep.  For this reason God loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from God."


So Jesus becomes the Good Shepherd, taking on the responsibility of being God to His sheep.  From David and Phillip Keller, we know what an awesome task this is.  Jesus takes it on willingly – willingly staying up to safeguard the flocks from predators, checking them constantly for cuts and parasites, searching for them if they have been “cast.” 


And then Jesus introduces the gate that leads to the lush pastures of calm and salvation.  We take a look at the beautiful photograph that Allan took of Arches National Park, and we want to explore the glorious world of possibility before us.  But can we?  How do we follow our Good Shepherd through the gates to new life?


Before I try to answer that, I want to tell you about a workshop I participated in on Powerful Non-Defensive Communication.  The speaker – Sharon Strand Ellison – gave one of the most important talks I’ve ever heard. I’m hoping to get her to come to ACC to give a talk, but suffice it to say that I only wish I had learned of her decades ago, before I made a lot of mistakes that I wish I could un-make.


Ms. Ellison pointed out that, intentionally or not, our communication problems – and thus our relationship problems – are rooted in power struggles.  When we are asked the wrong question – or the right question from the wrong person – or the right question from the right person but at the wrong time – or the right question from the right person at the right time but with the wrong tone of voice – you get the idea – we become defensive.  We all do it; it’s part of our DNA programming that pushes us to fight, flight, or surrender.  And, every time we do it – which is most of the time – we create real or imagined feelings of dominance or inferiority. 


To use her language, “we’ve been using the rules of war as the infrastructure for how we carry on conversations.  This paradigm, as carefully constructed as computer code, dictates how we respond to conflict and shapes every other human experience, from love, to competence, to freedom.”


In studying why we rush to find or create power struggles, even unintentionally, she discovered that all of her dictionaries defined the word “question” along the lines of “interrogation.”  Not one – not one! – implied curiosity.  And what does interrogation imply?  It means dominance, power.  In war, openness means vulnerability, and vulnerability means weakness.  Interrogation is police language, military language.  It is the opposite of curiosity; it is the opposite of learning.  Often we ask questions not to learn new information but to put people “off their guard,” such that we have new power over them.  And we respond with anxiety and defensiveness.


And then, as Ms. Ellison researched communication and power issues more thoroughly, especially modern research on human behavior and hormones, she came upon a most interesting insight: power struggles are addictive, as vicious as alcohol, drugs, or gambling.  Now each of us is addicted to something, for addiction is merely an inappropriate dependence upon a substance or behavior.  Anything done in excess, anything done without self-control, is an addiction.  And – here’s the point – Ms. Ellison believes that each of us is addicted to desires for dominance.  And its proof is in the way we communicate with each other.  It’s not just politicians who crave power; it’s all of us.  The adrenalin enlivens us, makes us feel good.


Ms. Ellison explains how, in communication, each of the three natural responses to stress – fight, flight, or surrender – has an active and a passive aspect.  For example, the active fight response is to blame the other person, while the passive fight response is to justify ourselves.  Being passive aggressive is when we pretend to surrender, only to sabotage later.  Ms. Ellison explains how to ask genuinely curious questions and provides tools for making statements that disentangle the question from the power struggle in which it is enmeshed.  In the process of disengaging from actual or perceived power, we actually become more effective – and far more powerful – than we might otherwise be.


And this is when I had a real epiphany.  I have previously described Jesus’ teachings on the kingdom of God in terms of a comfort-confrontation-commonwealth paradigm, in which Jesus comforted the weak and confronted the arrogant – some people call it “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable” – so that they would come to understand that they needed to be in equal relationship with each other.  The ideal relationship between equals is the commonwealth of God, in which all of our riches are held in common. 


This is a good start to understanding Jesus’ message, but, in studying today’s scriptures in the context of Keller’s explanations of sheepherding and Ellison’s research on communication, I realized that Jesus’ entire message boils down to one word:  power.  He argues that true power comes from God and is nourished when we acknowledge our dependence upon God the shepherd, and end our dominance games with each other.  Jesus had one goal and one goal only: to end our addiction of abusive power.  Remember this and the fact that sheep stop bullying each other when the shepherd comes near as we listen again to the words of Jesus:


I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as God knows me and I know God.  And I lay down my life for the sheep.  I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.


We can use our power for good, or we can be enslaved by power addiction.  Who is in control?  Us, God, or our addiction?


Jesus invites us to follow him through the gate – the gate that leads to new life.  He says:


Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep.  Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.  I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.


In summary, it is clear that the path through the gates begins and ends with – you got it – disarmament.  Jesus is telling us that we will never make it to greener pastures unless we take war thinking out of our language.  We will never make it to greener pastures until we give up our addiction to power and follow God’s call – the call of disarmament.  The message is both charming and powerful.