Rod and Staff

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 23; 149, Exodus 13:17-14:4, 2 Corinthians 4:16-5:10, Mark 12:18-27


Psalm 23 is arguably the most recognized psalm in the psalter. It chronicles the typical day in the life of a shepherd and flock, through danger and safely home again. The metaphor of Christians as sheep may seem less than flattering; author Russell Banks once observed sheep were only slightly more intelligent than lawn furniture. Critics of the faith have said it accurately describes mindless followers, but the metaphor is not so much about following as about the relationship binding a shepherd and his flock.

At the end of the day, a shepherd uses a rod to count and inspect each sheep for injuries, a practice known as passing “under the rod.” The rod can also be thrown in front of a sheep to startle it back on course. Although other images of rods, such as “spare the rod and spoil the child” and Proverbs 13:24 (“He who withholds his rod hates his son,
But he who loves him disciplines him diligently.”) are more about discipline, the audience of this psalm knew the rod was not used to strike, but to tend.

Impulsive pursuits may leave us stranded in a spiritual bramble. We get caught up following other sheep and find ourselves in unfamiliar or even hostile territory. We tangle ourselves in gossip at work or church. We feel pressure to overspend in order to keep up appearances with friends and neighbors. As a result, we feel lost, overwhelmed, or out of control. At these times, depending on our relationship to our shepherd can literally save us.

To Jesus’ contemporaries the rod and staff were symbols of loving authority. When he called himself the Good Shepherd, Jesus was telling his listeners, “I have your best interests at heart, and often that will require a course correction.” Are we challenged when trying to integrate the ideas of “love” and “authority” into a unified whole? Have we learned to picture the rod in Jesus’ hand as an instrument of punishment or nurture?

We may not be immediately comfortable accepting the humility necessary to admit we need shepherding, but eventually we realize it is a true blessing that our God does not send us alone into the wilderness. Following Christ will always lead us home.

Comfort: Christ seeks to rescue every sheep, no matter how lost.

Challenge: If possible, visit a meditation labyrinth (or use a finger labyrinth). As you move to the center, meditate on a problem that has you feeling lost. On the way out, ask God to lead you home, and give thanks for Jesus, the Good Shepherd.

Prayer: Merciful and loving God, always lead me home to you.

Discussion: How do you feel about being disciplined? How do you react to it?

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Harassed and Helpless?

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 104; 149, Jeremiah 35:1-19, 1 Corinthians 12:27-13:3, Matthew 9:35-10:4


When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them,
because they were harassed and helpless,
like sheep without a shepherd.

Domesticated sheep are not capable of thriving unattended by a shepherd. Some of them may survive for years, but they become unshorn, parasite-ridden, vulnerable, malnourished, painfully diseased creatures. It’s not really the sheep’s fault; centuries of breeding to maximize their economic potential have manipulated them so far away from their wild counterparts that they lack the strength and intelligence to flourish.

When Jesus looked at the crowds, he saw people who’d been manipulated for the economic benefit of both the empire and their religious leaders, then left to their own means of survival. To paraphrase Tiberius – a Roman statesman and contemporary of Christ – they had been skinned rather than sheared.

Reclaiming an abandoned or neglected flock takes a great sacrifice of time and effort, but we know Christ didn’t want a single one to remain lost.

Do we feel any less harassed and helpless today?  As corporate, religious, and political interests become increasingly entangled and mutually corruptive, it can certainly feel like we are used up for gain and then abandoned. Government “of the people, by the people, for the people” seems more like government despite the people. These forces are less concerned with tending us than commodifying us.

Fortunately, none of those entities or people is our Good Shepherd.

Christ calls and guides us through the wilderness to the pastures of compassion. We are of course expected to be more responsible and accountable than actual sheep, but Christ is there to help us with the things we just aren’t built to do. He can shear us of our anger, doubt, and fear when then have grown thick and burdensome. His words – in the Gospels and in our hearts – can talk us away from the cliffs and warn us of those wolves lying in wait.

Always remember that Christ is looking at you with compassion. Even if you think you’re a real mess – maybe especially then – he understands how you got there and calls you to come home.

Comfort: Jesus calls because you need help, not despite it.

Challenge: Read about what can happen to sheep who don’t have a shepherd.

Prayer:  I give you thanks, O LORD, with my whole heart. (Psalm 138:1)

Discussion: When do you feel harassed and helpless?

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Hearing The Voice

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 67; 150, Isaiah 66:7-14, 1 John 3:4-10, John 10:7-16


One of the most popular images of Jesus is The Good Shepherd. Shepherding was a central part of his culture, so his audience would have been familiar with how tended their flocks. He contrasted the role of the true shepherd – who would lay down his life for his sheep – to the role of a hired hand, someone likely to flee if things got dangerous. He also spoke of the thief and the wolf, who scatter and harm the sheep out of greed and selfishness. Jesus is confident his own flock will hear and know him and be led to safety.

Sheep are not bright, but the constancy of their shepherd helps them come to know him as a companion, protector, and guide. They won’t survive long without listening. We, on the other hand, are free to follow our shepherd or not, to listen or to ignore. How can we learn to discern our shepherd’s call the hired hands and thieves who may be wolves in shepherd’s clothing?

We can know his words. Reading the Gospels ourselves is different than trusting others to interpret scripture for us. Many a thief has used scripture to bilk well-meaning sheep from their money and eventually their faith. Regularly studying the Gospels and reliable sources of instruction help us understand them in context and teach us to recognize that voice.

Our shepherd will lead us to abundant life. Any message that leaves us feeling diminished or unloved by God is being delivered by an inept hired hand. Our shepherd will challenge and correct us for our own good, but only in loving ways. Christ always calls us out of the wilderness onto the path of life, not into a tangle of thorny condemnation.

Finally, we can pray. Not long, bleating prayers to fill up the silence, but quiet prayers which leave room for the divine voice to reveal itself. If we are out of practice it may take us a while to hear that voice, but we’ll know it when we do.

Comfort: Jesus calls us home with a familiar, consistent voice.

Challenge: Make a point of regular scripture reading and prayer time to train yourself to hear the voice of Christ.

Prayer: God of Grace, thank you for calling to me, even when I try not to hear. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever been mislead by spiritual thieves or wolves?

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