Changing the Shepherd's Mind  

 Any of us who have roots deep in our Presbyterian branch of Christ's Church here on Earth might be shocked at the title of this little talk, "Changing the Shepherd's Mind." How can a people who believe in Predestination believe God, our Shepherd, can change his mind? We hold that if God has predestined us for Heaven, not to worry. But maybe today's readings are a cautionary tale pointing out some good news…and some bad news. The obvious bad news is that if we really don't want to go to Heaven, it isn't hard to change God's mind. Any of us can select a course of bad behavior and bad attitude that will probably separate us even from a very forgiving God. Add in a stiff neck and a closed, unrepentant heart and a comittment to selfish behavior, and it's not hard to see how God's mind might be changed against us.

But, getting God to change his mind about his Will and His Plan for a life here on Earth, changing his mind about the destiny of a person, a country or a people…surely there's no way that can happen? "God's Will" is a phrase that's part of our culture. God planned it out; it will play out, forget about changing it. Right? Maybe not right.

Our lessons today show us another way. In Genesis, God appears as an angel to Abraham – actually three angels. It's a hot day, maybe the end of July. Abraham is at his tent, near Hebron. After the familiar events where the promise of descendants who will bless all peoples on Earth is given to him and Sarah, the Angels get ready to leave for Sodom, where because of its great sins of inhospitality and selfishness, God plans to destroy it. But Abraham stops the last Angel and says, "Lord, if there are even 50 righteous men in Sodom, will you still destroy it?" The Angel considers and says, "No, if there are fifty innocent people in Sodom I will not destroy it." But Abraham persists. "Lord, (he speaks reverently and politely) see how I am presuming to speak to my Lord, even though I am but dust and ashes. If there are forty-five innocents, will you destroy the city? The Lord considers, then says, No, I will not destroy it if I find forty-five innocent there. Still Abraham persists….all the way down to ten. And the lord agrees. "For the sake of those ten, I will not destroy it."

Abraham, through his perseverance, did change the Lord's mind. Sodom, however, did not cooperate. Aside from his Nephew Lot and family, no innocents. We know the rest of the story. So long Sodom! Goodbye Gomorrah.

In our new Testament lesson, Jesus disciples ask him how to pray. He first teaches them the proper posture of prayer, its brevity, and its completeness. We know this prayer today as The Lord's Prayer. As we know, in The Lord's Prayer we praise God, confess our complete dependence on God, ask God to please give us what he knows we need, not what tempts us, and to keep us from getting into trouble. Jesus teaches we should begin this prayer by reminding ourselves that God IS God, and Blessing him. He prays using the traditional Jewish way of blessing God: In Hebrew, Boruch Atoh Adonai Elohanu Melech Holom. Blessed are you o Lord our God, you are the King of all that is, seen and unseen, the entire Universe. This is the same prayer introduction Jesus uses at the last supper when he blessed the bread and the wine.

Next, Jesus teaches us to pray that what God wants to be done, BE done here on Earth.  We pray for God's purpose, what God wills, be done here on earth, not what we want. In another place, Paul, in Romans, says…"the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words." The simple prayer is better than many words.

In the next phrase of the Lord's Prayer we are taught to ask God to give us just what we need for today. Not enough to last through the week. Not for retirement. Just what we need today. Here we acknowledge that God knows what we need better than we do, and that he has it. All we pray for is that he give it to us. Not because we earned it, but because we need it. Then, because we are still human beings with animal bodies and instincts, and not yet fully developed spiritual creatures, we ask God to forgive our stupidities and errors – our sins. And intimately connected with that request, we ask God to be as forgiving of us as we are of our fellow human beings who have done something wrong to us. Hmmmmm. We get forgiven the same way we forgive? I guess this means we are asking God to deal with us exactly as forgivingly and as lovingly as we have forgiven those who have insulted us, cheated us, frightened us or harmed us or our children. Perhaps an attitude of revenge, retribution and getting even may not be such a good idea. Jesus winds up the lesson on how to pray by teaching we are to ask our Shepherd to lead us not into the lush, sensual clover and bluegrass we think we want – the temptations offered to us daily, but instead we ask him to keep us out of trouble, out of the grasp of our own animal instincts and cravings. We have plenty of internal enemies trying to knock us off the right path. These are the enemies we need protection against.

Jesus ends the prayer right there. Over the years our church fathers have added a little extra coda of praise at the end. It's hard for us humans to leave well enough alone.

Then Jesus goes on immediately to teach them HOW to pray the Lord's Prayer. He gives them the parable of the persistent nagging of the midnight host who has just received unexpected guests – as Abraham did at Hebron. He knocks at the door of his friend next door. His friend says, NO, and makes excuses. Yet the needy friend perseveres. Jesus teaches us, that even if the sleepy friend does not give him what he asks for out of friendship, he will give him the bread he asks for because of his persistence and his neediness. God, too, wants us to nag him. How does he want to be nagged? Jesus goes on with the third part of the lesson.

A trick for reading the New Testament: The Old Testament teaches in pairs, the New Testament teaches in triplets. Teaching in pairs? Here is what I mean by teaching in pairs. In the Old Testament, lessons are given twice. They are repeated, for a pair. As you look at The Law, The Prophets, the Psalms, everything is repeated. Right off the bat, in Genesis, the story of Creation is told twice - with slightly different emphasis. Each psalm states a truth, then restates it. There is even a whole book called, Deuteronomy, which means "the second telling." You will notice this pattern of repetition as you read carefully. It is not a mistake. The repetition itself is a lesson. We, like sheep or small children, need to be told at least twice. The lesson is stated, then restated with a slightly diffferent emphasis, to help us understand what the teaching means. The repetition itself is a lesson. God knows it's not easy to become a moral human being.

Similarly, in the new Testament every lesson is given not once, not twice, but three times for a triplet. As you study the New Testament look for the pattern of lessons in groups of three; a teaching, a parable to illustrate the teaching, then another parable to deepen our understanding. Why three times in the New Testament and only twice in the Old Testament? Maybe because it's hard to become a moral human being, but it's perhaps even harder to become a fully mature spiritual human being. Another explanation may be that in the Old Testament era, we clearly see only the two facets of God – God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. In the New Testament era – now – we see not only these two facets of God, but also the third – Jesus the Redeemer.

Back to our lesson - In the third teaching of today's set, after teaching the Disciples how to pray in humility and dependence, and after the explanatory parable of the persevering neighbor in need, Jesus teaches us more clearly how to pray with persistence. Jesus teaches us to ASK, then to SEEK, and then to KNOCK. If we ask we will be heard. If we look hard we will find the door. If we knock, the door will be opened. And just as a father will not trick a son or daughter who asks for a piece of fish by giving him a snake – even though he says it tastes like chicken – or give him a stinging insect if he asks for an egg salad sandwich, when he opens the door, God will give us what we really need. Like Abraham, we ask with humility, with reverence, and above all, with persistence. The gift God gives when we ask is more than a fish or an egg salad sandwich. He gives us the Holy Spirit to guide, to support and to strengthen us through this difficult journey of life, with all its necessary troubles. He may not spare us the troubles, as he himself did not spare his own son. But he promises to give us something better; a way to deal with these troubles with joy and good cheer. God knows what we really need when we pray. When we pray the Lord's Prayer we are asking God for the gift of himself, the Holy Spirit, to guide us, to shield us and to shepherd us through.

Our Psalm today describes the Shepherding He promises us. And yes, we need a Shepherd. At least, I need one. People ask, "Why do I need a Shepherd. I'm not a sheep. I can manage on my own."  Well, I'd like to recall a brief sermon given recently by a pastor* in another Skaneateles Christian church. He called it, "Do you need a shepherd?"


Do you need a shepherd? I mean, come on, we are people, not sheep. We can think for ourselves, decide for ourselves, move for ourselves. What do we need a shepherd for, even a Good Shepherd like Jesus? Well, maybe if we look a little more closely at sheep, and knew a little bit more about them, we just might understand.

            Sheep mostly eat, and they start rather early. The shepherd leads them out at 3:30 in the morning. While they are still groggy and undiscriminating, he lets them eat rough herbage. As their taste develops, he gradually leads them to finer weeds and eventually to the sweet, smooth pasture grass.       

            Deep in their sheep hearts, they develop a sense that the day gets better as it goes along, and they trust the shepherd to do it again tomorrow. Well, people also need a deep sense that life does not go from bad to worse. In order to live and grow, we need to trust that, after every rugged way, there is a restful pasture. We need a shepherd.

            Sheep cannot distinguish between healthful and harmful plants to eat. They depend on the shepherd to lead them to safe fields, to pull out deadly weeds, leaving a healthy banquet. We sometimes don't know what's good for us, either. The world shows us many attractions that are poisonous, that harm or even kill us, we need a shepherd to show us what leads to life and not death. We need a shepherd.

            Sheep are skittish about running water. Even if they are very thirsty, they will not drink it—perhaps they're fearful of some unseen danger. So the shepherd will build little dams in the stream to create small pools of still water. Exactly the same water in the same place, but now safely calmed. Only then will the sheep drink.

            People also need to be on the still side of life now and then. We need to struggle out of the raging torrent and find shelter in a quiet cove. Sometimes we are so bone-weary that someone else has to construct those resting places for us. We need a shepherd.

            "Even though I walk through the valley of death, you are with me," goes the psalm, and there is a valley of death for sheep in Israel. It's a narrow pass, four miles long, between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. The walls are 1500 feet high, the width at places no more than 15 feet. Twice a year, the sheep have to pass through this valley to change pasture, to reach a milder climate, escaping heat in summer and cold in winter. Danger lurks along the path. First the sheep have to cross a ravine that frightens them. The shepherd has to coax them to jump. Sheep cannot be taught to overcome a present fear for a future benefit; they simply have to be coaxed across.

            People also have to be coaxed into the future. The promise of love does not automatically create a good marriage. There is no guarantee that the new job will work out. We can never promise our children that everything will be fine if they just make that fearful leap into adulthood. Some things cannot be taught or proven; sometimes, we must be coaxed, lured, led, prodded into what is best for us. We need to be shepherded—especially by one who has been there, who knows what it is like.

            A second danger in that valley is from jagged rocks. No matter how sure-footed the sheep may be, they will suffer some cuts and gashes as they navigate the four-mile narrow passage. The shepherd checks each one of his flock and rubs healing oil into their cuts.

            And no matter how careful we are, we get bruised by life. We are wondrously self-healing in many cases. But, in other cases, there is no cure unless someone holds out their hand in forgiveness. Some broken things cannot be mended, cannot be fixed. They simply have to be forgiven by a loving shepherd.

            So, what do you think? Could you use a shepherd? Someone to show you the way through a hostile world? To coax and encourage you into what is really good for you? To heal you where you are hurt? Well, if you're interested, I know a good one.

*( Used with permission of Father Joseph P. McCaffrey - St. Mary's of the Lake R.C. Church )

Thus ends our little sermon.

  The 23rd Psalm is one of our favorites. Steven Mitchell translated and adapted the original Hebrew in a slightly unfamiliar, refreshing English translation that helps us see ourselves in the scene. Reading together from the bulletin, let's join with David the King, as he praises his Lord Christ, his Shepherd.

The Lord is my shepherd:

I have everything that I need.

He makes me lie down in green pastures;

            he leads me beside the still waters;

            he refreshes my soul.

He guides me on the paths of righteousness,

            so that I may serve him with love.

Though I walk through the darkest valley

            or stand in the shadow of death,

I am not afraid,

            for I know you are always with me.

You spread a full table before me,

            even in times of great pain;

you feast me with your abundance

            and honor me like a king,

anointing my head with sweet oil,

            filling my cup to the brim.

Surely goodness and mercy will follow me

            all the days of my life,

and I will live in God's radiance

            forever and ever.

                                                                        - Amen