Feeding the Flock: The Duality of Discipleship
Rev. Beth Hoffman Faeth
October 3, 2021
Scripture: Psalm 23; John 21:14–17
Betsy Cussler selected the readings for the service as part of the “Command to Preach!” series, where the congregation selects the scripture. Betsy writes:
I have often thought about these two passages of scripture, both so central to the Judeo-Christian faith, and truly complementary, the two sides of the faith experience: What do you need? How can you help?
Especially now, when so many are food insecure, and when so many—starting with our own Groveland Food Shelf but including Loaves and Fishes, Second Harvest Heartland, Open Arms, ICA Food Shelf and many more wonderful organizations—are doing so much, there are still hungry people. And that’s just the literal hunger!
As I was preparing to read this beloved psalm, I noticed something for the first time: The first three verses are meditative, thinking about God, the good shepherd, in the third person; in the fourth verse, the psalmist switches to second person, addressing God directly. Listen for this change and see how it may affect your hearing of these familiar words.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.
This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.
Will you pray with me?
Holy One, may these words of scripture and sermon create an opening for new understanding, a possibility for deeper connection with You. Amen.
I confess: I have not had a lot of experience with sheep. This spring I visited the University of Minnesota farms to view the newly born lambs because . . . oh my, they are cute! It wasn’t only Mary who loved a little lamb. So to help with my understanding of sheep, I did some very unscientific research. I googled “sheep facts,” and I talked with a friend whose mother grew up on a sheep farm. Here is some of what I learned:
- There are 1000 distinct breeds of sheep.
- They have an excellent sense of smell.
- They can self medicate, using a variety of herbs in their pasture.
- They are emotionally complex, and they use different vocalizations to communicate different emotions.
- Sheep can recognize up to 50 other sheep faces and remember them for 2 years . . . unless you shear them, and then they do not recognize each other and they may fight.
- Sheep build friendships, stick up for each other in disagreements, and feel sad when their friends are sent to slaughter.
- They are highly social and smart; however, they are stubborn and lack self-awareness.
My highly sophisticated investigation has drawn me to this conclusion: sheep and humans share a lot of similarities. Perhaps this is why sheep and shepherd imagery is so prevalent in the Bible. Humanity is just one big herd of sheep, and our mission is to identify our place in the flock.
I appreciate Betsy’s thoughtfulness in her submission for our “Command to Preach!” series, pairing two sheep/shepherd scripture passages together, wondering about their commonality while also inviting us to embrace their distinction. I would expect many of you could recite the 23rd Psalm from memory; we have heard it read, sung or said together at perhaps 90 percent of the funerals we’ve attended. This is a passage of scripture that has transcended the constraints of Christianity, and those who have no connection to a church or our religion often have an awareness of these six verses.
The 23rd Psalm invites us to understand the Divine as our shepherd—caregiver and protector—making the relationship both communal and personal. The words portray one who is with us at the beginning, middle, and end of our life’s journey. While Betsy’s observation of the change in point of view—the psalmist shifting from third person narrative to second person—has befuddled some grammar scholars, it suggests an acknowledgement of a progression towards intimate relationship, an individual turning towards God for both protection and reward. Sheep trust in the shepherd, even when the shepherd is out of view. This psalm declares that God enfolds God’s people so that we all are part of the flock; and yet this shepherd intimately knows the sheep in all their distinction and difference. This ever-present capacity of the Divine is important for those of us who feel burdened by both independence and aloneness, we are reminded of our Great Shepherd, into which we can lean for support and sustenance. The metaphorical rod and staff of the Divine is not to be punitive, but rather to provide comfort, a directive to take in nourishment for our sagging spirits by the living still waters that the Divine shepherd provides. The Shepherd waits for us patiently, offering us the constant reminder that we are not alone and that we have a source for spiritual food. We, the sheep, must be willing to follow the Shepherd’s lead, and our reluctance to do so is exactly why we get lost.
In our reading from the gospel of John, Jesus appears to the disciples after his resurrection. We might empathize with the disciples here because like us, they are in a liminal time. The last three relentlessly hard years traveling with Jesus had been a constant battle against the establishment, but that time was also filled with discovering their purpose and understanding life’s meaning. Now Jesus is no longer with them, the future is filled with uncertainty, and there is angst in not knowing what to do. Sound familiar? Just prior to this morning’s pericope we read that the disciples endeavor something familiar to them: they go fishing. Their effort unsuccessful and their nets empty, Jesus appears to them from the shoreline and instructs them to try a new way of doing their old thing. And of course this new way fills their nets, and with their bounty they enjoy a hearty breakfast together. Then Jesus, knowing the disciples’ anxiety during this time in between what was and what is to come, begins his quiz. “Do you love me?” He asks Peter three times. (Remember how many times Peter denied knowing Jesus; the multiple asks are not a coincidence.) “Yes! Yes! Yes!” Peter replies, the third time I am sure exasperated. Jesus responds to each affirmation with a similar yet distinct command: “Feed my lambs; tend my sheep; feed my sheep.” Feed, tend, feed. Time to put the love given and received from the Divine shepherd into action.
As Betsy suggests in her reasons behind selecting this scripture, we absolutely can take this command literally.
Rates of food insecurity have varied week to week, and hard data is often many months behind. But in July 2020, “37% of Minnesotans reported some level of food insecurity. Not all Minnesotans are impacted equally though. Black and Hispanic/Latino Minnesotans reported food insecurity at more than double the rate of White residents (83% of Black residents and 70% of Hispanic residents, compared to 32% of White residents). Fifty-two percent of Asian residents and 55% of people of other races, including American Indians, also reported some degree of food insecurity.”
“Minnesotans made 3,831,293 visits to food shelves in 2020, a record high for an unprecedented year and 434,587 more visits than the record high set in 2019. If Minnesota Food Shelves were open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, more than seven people would visit a food shelf every minute.”
In March of 2020, at the onset of the pandemic, Plymouth was serving a hot meal every third Sunday of the month—a program begun decades ago in cooperation with Hennepin Avenue United Methodist, Westminster Presbyterian, and St. Mark’s Episcopal, in which a meal was served each Sunday night at one of these churches. In a matter of days, we changed our approach so to best serve our neighbors, and, in the last 18 months, we have offered a hot meal every single Sunday to over 100 people on the east side lawn. This remains a cooperative effort as volunteers help from all the sponsoring churches. And we have partnered with the Groveland Food Shelf, which was one of the only food shelves to stay open in those early pandemic days, so that we can provide fresh fruit and nonperishable items to our Community Meal guests. This is only one small but extraordinarily significant effort to “feed my sheep.” So much more must be done. If you are not yet supporting or otherwise involved in some kind of food ministry, I encourage you to take Jesus’ directive to heart and do something to make a difference. There is no reason why anyone in Minnesota should be hungry. We live with abundance while others waste away. There is so much in the world that may feel beyond our capacity to change, but feeding people is not one of them.
Then there is the spiritual impact of Jesus’ mandate: Feed, tend, feed. Joy Moore, Academic Dean and Professor of Biblical Preaching at Luther Seminary, explains:
The disciples are still on a journey of discovery . . . . They have to recover the habits of discipleship they practiced for three years: regular experiences of God intruding on the ordinary, followed by lengthy discussions about seeing the difference God’s grace makes in the lives of people who encounter acts of love and kindness. Up close and personal ministry.
The challenge for the disciples was to be the bridge for someone else to experience justice. The disciples have to grasp who they are now . . . . Their old occupations have been transformed into a godly mission.
“The challenge for the disciples was to be the bridge for someone else to experience justice.” This is our charge, too. This is how we tend and feed: to be a presence of grace for someone who is hurting, to risk discomfort by advocating for another’s need, to get our hands dirty to make sure someone has shelter, clothing, food. We must become the shepherd.
I know we are feeling depleted in these days, the pandemic only one of many burdens weighing us down. In addition to our personal maladies, the plight of the world beckons us to feed, tend, feed. Recently someone told me that even being at church, a place that had been where they spiritually fill and garner strength for the journey, leaves them feeling like they haven’t done enough. The duality of discipleship means we must turn towards the shepherd to fill our spiritual cup and delve deeply into practices like prayer and meditation, worship and small group connection, so that our soul is restored in order to become the shepherd of a needy human flock . . . ready to tend and feed. One without the other will lead to a lifeless, inactive faith or a burned-out vessel of attempted good works.
Indeed, we are both sheep and shepherd. Let us remember the faces of 50 others just as the Divine shepherd remembers us. To know and to be known: this is the path of discipleship and the understanding of a sustaining faith.
“New Food Insecurity Data Highlight Minnesota’s Continuing Disparities and the Need for Multi-Sector Solutions,” Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, September 3o, 2020, (accessed October 7, 2021).
“Minnesota food shelf visits up 7% in 2020 — a new record high,” Hunger Solutions Minnesota, (accessed October 7, 2021).
Joy J. Moore, “Commentary on John 21:1-19,” Working Preacher, May 5, 2019, (accessed October 7, 2021).