Year B, Proper 11
We continue in the theme of leadership with shepherd being a prominent image.
- 2 Samuel – Nathan, the prophet, receives instructions from God about the tasks of David’s kingship; the temple will be built by David’s son
- Psalm 89 – Continues extolling the faithfulness and kingship of David
- Jeremiah 23 – Describes bad shepherds and what will happen to the flock under their care.
- Psalm 23 – The ultimate shepherd imagery; In ancient Middle Eastern nomadic tribal culture the image of shepherd was prominent as imagery for a strong king. People understood that shepherds were fierce protectors, warriors even, in assuring the safety of their flocks. They were canny guides as they found water and pastures for the sheep and goats. Good shepherds insured the health, wealth and welfare of the community. Bad shepherds as in the Jeremiah passage destroyed the community. Ironically by the time of the common era the cultural role of shepherds had been denounced by strictly observant Jews and they were in the same class as tax collectors as Gentiles. This sheds new light on the appearance of shepherds at Jesus’ birth in Luke. A shepherd leader was one who would have understood the oppressed and marginalized. Regaining its radical imagery and association with kingship the imagery of Psalm 23 with the shepherd leader became an allegory for baptismal chatechesis in the early centuries of the church. We must be careful not to sentimentalize the image of shepherd as gentle, meek and mild. As Gail Ramshaw writes in Treasures Old and New; Images in the Lectionary, “Had Jesus been a meek and mild babysitter, he would not have been executed.”
- Ephesians 2 – In Christ the flock of God is united, Jew and Gentile. “In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”
- Mark 6 – Jesus tries to get away from the crowds for some rest. But they follow him. “He had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.”
- There are three small stories which I have used often at children’s times from Barbara Berger’s book, Animalia, (http://www.amazon.com/Animalia-Helen-Barbara-Berger/dp/0890875081/ref=sr_1_8?ie=UTF8&qid=1435153985&sr=8-8&keywords=Barbara+Berger ). They could also be used in adult sermons. Below is a retelling in my words of the stories in Berger’s book. While they are not specifically about shepherds their protagonists embody the fierce protection and tough love direction of the ancient shepherd imagery. Two of them also connect with the common era’s association of shepherds with marginalized people.
- “The Fly”
Once there was a maiden who lived alone in a small cottage in the woods. One day a prince came riding by. He had been separated from his hunting party. When he stopped to ask directions the maiden invited him in for refreshment before he went on his journey. They sat down at her humble table for tea. Just as the prince was about to drink, the maiden gasped and seized the cup from his hand. Then she carefully extracted a fly from the cup that had fallen into the steaming liquid. She blew on the fly’s silken wings and tiny fine hairs on its legs. Carefully she placed the small creature on the windows sill. It was only after she saw that the fly had recovered and was grooming himself in the sun did she return to the table to pour the prince a fresh cup of tea.
- “The Stag”
St. Godric lived deep in the forest. He was a hermit and a holy man, spending his days in prayer, study of the scripture and contemplation of God’s word. One day he was deep in prayer when the sound of hunting horns and great barking of the hunting dogs aroused him from his reverie. Opening his door to see what the commotion was all about he saw a great stag bounding through the briars and into the clearing around St. Godric’s hut. He was a magnificent, regal animal, yet he was trembling with fright. St. Godric quickly gestured to his open door and led the stag inside. Then he shut the door and sat down on a stool outside to pray.
Soon he was interrupted again by the barking dogs and their masters in search of the stag. “Where is the stag?” they cried. “Surely you saw it come this way.” Godric looked up from his prayer and replied, “God knows where he might be.” With that the hunters departed thinking that he was a holy man and so would never lie. When all was safe and quiet again in the forest, St. Godric opened his door and set the stag free.
You can find an audio version of this tale at http://www.storyfestjourneys.com/listen-to-stories-here/tales-from-the-peoples-of/european-tales/england/godrics-sheep-england-173.html
- “The Doves”
Once there was a prince in China who once a year showed a great kindness by setting all the doves in the palace free. One year his wife, the princess, looked at him with big tears in her eyes as the doves flew with a great beating of wings into the air. “Why are you sad, my dear? said the Prince. “We have set them free.” “Do you not know,” she said, “that every year the doves are caught by your servants and put into the big nets so that you can joyfully set them free? In the nets they are so crowded up against one another that their wings and necks are broken. You do not see from where you stand for the ceremony the doves that fall dead to the ground while their sisters and brothers fly in fear away from the nets. That is why I am so sad.”
Upon hearing his wife’s story the prince made a law that never again were doves to be captured so that he could set them free. And ever after that the doves came willingly and freely to the palace on that same day of ceremony to coo in peace and receive food from the hands of the prince and princess.
 Gail Ramshaw, Treasures Old and New; Images in the Lectionary, (Minneapolis, MN, Augsberg Fortress, 2002, 369.) The information on shepherd imagery in the commentary on Psalm 23 is from the chapter, “Shepherd”, in Ramshaw’s book, pages 366-370.
©Jane Anne Ferguson, 2015 and beyond. Text and photos may be reprinted only with permission.