“The Compassionate Shepherd”

~ John 10:1-5/Psalm 23 ~

Sheep! We saw lots and lots of sheep. In a nation of about 4.9 million people, Aotearoa New Zealand has about 40 million sheep. And Linda and I are pretty convinced we saw about 90% of those sheep as we drove around the country. We saw lots and lots of sheep.

I think it’s safe to say that the way sheep ranching is done there is not the kind of sheep herding Jesus is talking about in our gospel reading today. It’s almost as if Jesus is describing how shepherding was done in the ancient world. You don’t drive sheep; you lead sheep. When it’s time for the sheep to go out to pasture, you don’t push and shove the sheep out, you open the gate and call to them, maybe by name, and lead them out. And because the sheep know you, they won’t just follow any person, a stranger, they follow you because they know your voice. Of course, Jesus used this extensive metaphor to describe himself and those disciples who follow him. And so it is that on this Sunday with this gospel text we consider Jesus as the ‘Good Shepherd’. On this Good Shepherd Sunday we consider the good shepherd full of compassion. Jesus is the Compassionate Shepherd.

I believe compassion permeates Psalm 23. Every line speaks of God’s compassion for us. Think on it. Because God is my shepherd, I want nothing more! God puts me in comfortable places—pleasurable places, refreshing places, quite places—which restores my soul. Even in difficult places I can experience comfort because God is present with me. All of these are profound statements of God’s compassion towards us.

There’s one particular line that has always intrigued me: “You spread a table for me in the presence of my enemies.” What an interesting mashup of ideas. What might that look like? I imagine a scene from the middle ages. There I am in the middle of a field of battle with hundreds of armed soldiers standing on the hill ready to attack me. They are rattling their swords and beating their shields and taunting me with all kinds of vile words to scare me. At any moment they could rush down the hill with weapons flashing and ear-splitting screams filling the air. And what am I doing? Well, I’m sitting at a table spread with food enjoying a delicious meal. As I bite into the roasted turkey leg, I look up at my enemies and smile. Oh, the audacity of it all. They, of course, are incredulous at the gall of me enjoying a meal as their threat looms over me. Can you picture it? The Psalmist wants us to see that God’s presence is more than enough to overcome our enemies. We can even enjoy a meal before their threat.

Well, today our enemies might not be medieval armies looming over us. And they certainly are not just people who are different than I. Indeed, they might not even be people. No, our enemies today are the billions and billions of microscopic critters that are wreaking havoc in our world today – the novel coronavirus or COVID19. And they are an enemy not to be laughed at or mocked. Where is the compassionate presence of God which Psalm 23 speaks of, all of that comforting language, or the metaphoric gospel language of “the sheep follow him because he knows there name?” Indeed, where can we see God at all in these perilous times?

Well, I believe we see it in the people doing it – doing works of compassion. Jesus is our model of compassion. This theme of shepherding occurs frequently in the gospels. It is a metaphor that was worked for all it’s worth. Matthew uses it to describe Jesus’ ministry in chapter 9:

Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he was moved with compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

Jesus had compassion on the harassed and helpless crowds. Henri Nouwen, along with two of his Catholic colleagues, Donald McNeill and Douglas Morrison, wrote a book many years ago simply entitled Compassion. In this book the authors delve deeply into the meaning of the word. And while I usually steer clear of Greek and Hebrew word studies, this word is worth digging into. The phrase, “moved with compassion,” found several times in the gospels, is used only to refer to Jesus or God. In Greek the phrase is splangchnizomai. Now the splangchna are the entrails of the body or guts. For people of Jesus’ time, the guts were where the most intense and intimate emotions were located. We speak of feelings of the heart; they talked about their guts. So when the Gospels speak of Jesus’ compassion, they are saying he was moved in his guts, something very deep.

This Greek word is closely related to the Hebrew word for compassion, rachamim. This word actually refers to the womb of Yahweh. So, compassion is such a deep and powerful emotion in Jesus that it can only be described as a movement of the womb of God. As Nouwen, McNeill and Morrison put it:

There, all the divine tenderness and gentleness lies hidden. There, God is father and mother, brother and sister, son and daughter. There all feelings, emotions, and passions are one in divine love. When Jesus was moved to compassion, the source of all life trembled, the ground of all love burst open, and the abyss of God’s immense, inexhaustible, and unfathomable tenderness revealed itself.

Where do we find such compassion today? Well, we see it in the healthcare workers who are putting their lives in harm’s way to care for those whose bodies are being decimated with the coronavirus. On her nightly broadcasts (and I admit Linda and I are faithful viewers), Rachel Maddow features self-made videos of healthcare workers around the country speaking to their experience in whatever hospital or care facility they happen to be working in. They are heart breaking and poignant.

One video in particular got to her and, likewise, to us. Dr. Sharon Duclos is the Chief Medical Officer at Peoples Community Clinic in Waterloo, Iowa where there has been a massive outbreak of COVID19 in the meatpacking plant there and which is spreading out through the community. Almost 1500 cases to date. It should be noted that the governor of Iowa refuses to put any protective measures in place, such as shelter-in-place, because, as she says, “this isn’t New York City.”

Dr. Duclos was giving a report on the local community TV station when she got unexpectedly emotional. “You see the impacts on the families who have to sit at home and can’t be with their loved one, who have to FaceTime as somebody is going through one of the most traumatic experiences of their life,” as she tried to speak through the tears. “I’ve never seen that before, ever in my life as a physician. I would’ve never thought that we would have to isolate people in order to help protect the bigger good.” “It’s hard because you start to go through the grief of realizing, again, this is not a sprint, it’s a marathon.” And then, expressing concern that a member of her staff might contract the virus, she said, “…I encourage my staff to come to work every day and be compassionate and help people.”

It is said that Jesus went about the land “curing every disease and every sickness” And in doing so, it says, “he was moved with compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Jesus the Compassionate Shepherd. I think it fair to say that our healthcare people putting their very lives at risk every day to care for the sick and cure this disease are the epitome of compassion. May we honor them, applaud them, celebrate them. And may we, ourselves, seek to emulate their compassion in whatever way we can, even as we stay at home. Amen.


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