Thursday, November 17, 2016

Bad Shepherd, Good Shepherd

As someone who pastors a congregation, I get nervous whenever the prophets speak of shepherds who have led God's flock astray. Over and over, the bible warns those who would be teachers or priests to be careful. Jesus says something about hanging a millstone around the neck of those who cause his little ones to stumble and throwing them into the sea. As an ESTJ, I'm wired to be staunchly orthodox, but I'm sure I've unwittingly uttered a heresy from the pulpit. I cringe when I consider how often I've misquoted scripture, offered the wrong citation, or mixed up my biblical names. Those, however, are not the mistakes that worry me. More than anything, I worry that, as a sinful, self-interested, egotistical human being, I have confused God's path for my path and have blindly, unintentionally led our congregation away from the gospel.

On Sunday, Jeremiah will prophesy what will happen to those ungodly shepherds: "Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord...It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord." No, I'm not an overtly wicked shepherd. I rarely feel the gospel's pull and consciously turn by back on it, marching confidently in the other direction. I'm not proudly leading God's people off a proverbial cliff, but it's easy to leave the sharpness of God's prophetic word on the sideline and climb into the pulpit with a feel-good message instead. It's easy to look at the poverty, violence, and hatred of the world during the week but close my eyes to them as I preach Sunday's sermon. Why? Because people get weary when their shepherd is always talking about wolves. But, then again, bad shepherds rarely lead their sheep into a pack of wolves. Much more often, the shepherd stops paying attention to where the flock is headed and then, when it's too late to do anything about it, he looks up to see that they are being devoured.

What does the rest of Sunday's Old Testament lesson say? After dispatching the wicked shepherd, the Lord declares, "Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord." And what is the mark of those good shepherds--that "righteous Branch" that God will give his people? That one "shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land." God's sheepfold is marked by justice and righteousness. When God is in charge, when God reigns on the earth, all of God's people dwell in security and safety.

So what are shepherds like me supposed to do? First, we acknowledge that we are not the Good Shepherd. We are sinful human beings, subject to fear and pride and ego. We must admit that we like it when people come out of church and say, "I really enjoyed that sermon," and are nervous when people come out and say, "That was really difficult for me to hear." We must remember that there is only one shepherd worth following and that we are not he. Then, we must pray that God would lift the veil of insecurity from our eyes and give us the boldness of his messenger. We are not pointing people to ourselves. We are pointing them to God. They may never thank us for that work, but, again, we cannot be in it for ourselves. Lastly, we must allow the Good Shepherd to lead us along with his people back into the sheepfold of justice and righteousness. That is where we belong, too, and we still have a ways to go to get there. May our work as shepherds be always and only for the sake of the one who shepherds us, Jesus Christ.

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