These weeks after Easter have a certain rhythm to them.
A familiar cadence.
If you’ve been attending a church like this one for a while you might have felt it too.
There’s the first few weeks of surprise,
Where the disciples are catching their bearings
Trying to reorient themselves to this new world, this radically new world
That has unfolded before them as the realization of the resurrection dawns.
We look at the appearance stories of the risen Jesus to explore all of this:
–Jesus appears in a locked room, with the disciples and then, again, with Thomas,
the persistent patience and love of God
–On the road to Emmaus, breaking bread and unfolding the scripture
–Back in Galilee, commissioning his followers for service and witness
–On the seashore, by the lake of Tiberius, sharing breakfast and planning the future.
Those stories are always particular, concrete:
Jesus is in this room, on that lake shore, going to that town.
And then, as the impact of these encounters begins to collide
With thinking about what God is doing in them,
we begin to expand into bigger, broader concepts.
So it is that the fourth Sunday of Easter is always “Good Shepherd” Sunday.
Jesus the Good Shepherd.
We’ve already heard the beautiful words of the 23rd Psalm: read and sung.
Now we turn to Jesus’ words as recorded in the Gospel According to John:
Let us open our hearts and our minds to this reading of God’s Word:
11 ‘I am the good shepherd.
The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
12The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep,
sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—
and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.
13The hired hand runs away
because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.
14I am the good shepherd.
I know my own and my own know me,
15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.
And I lay down my life for the sheep.
16I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.
I must bring them also,
and they will listen to my voice.
So there will be one flock, one shepherd.
17For this reason the Father loves me,
because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.
18No one takes it from me,
but I lay it down of my own accord.
I have power to lay it down,
and I have power to take it up again.
I have received this command from my Father.’
And may God bless to us our reading,
And our understanding
And our applying of these words, to how we live our lives. Amen.
Something about Good Shepherd Sunday never quite clicked with me.
I’ve been trying to figure out why.
Before we moved to the Saint Louis area
The first twelve years of my life, give or take,
Were spent in the rural communities of western Iowa.
Many of you know my father is also a pastor, and my mom was a school teacher
And those towns of my childhood—Villisca, Iowa and Atlantic, Iowa,
Gave me plenty of rural upbringing.
Mine wasn’t a farming family, but I had friends and knew church members who were.
There were play dates on a farm.
I’ve been in a combine; I’ve picked an ear of corn from its stalk
and I’ve walked through a soybean field.
I’ve been to my share of state and county fairs, too.
There are pictures of me, somewhere,
On one of those little toy tractors that you ride
Kind of like a tricycle or bike, it had pedals
The tractor has a wagon attached to it, on the back
And at the state fair, the kids would ride that toy tractor
From one end of a course to the other
While they’d add weight to that wagon, brick by brick
And you’d see how far you could go.
I don’t think I ever won the tractor pull. But it was so much fun.
Even though we moved when I was twelve,
and have lived in urban or suburban communities ever since,
I remember those days fondly.
I like to think that I have some comfort in both rural and urban settings
But the truth probably is that those early days didn’t stick all that well.
I was there, I did those things, but I couldn’t find my way around a farm today
If I had to. I was just a kid.
But I remember spending quality time with people whose connection to the land
Is so much more intimate than what I’m used to these days.
My kids, by contrast, have really only spent time at Deanna Rose Farmstead
Where, sure, they’ve seen a cow up close
Have gotten into the petting zoo area a few times,
Fed a goat with a bottle.
But their experience is more one of an urban kid experiencing something novel
Rather than as someone where these things are an everyday fact of life.
So what do we do with this image of Jesus the Shepherd, the Good Shepherd?
John, just a few verses before what I read this morning,
calls this a “figure of speech:” a way of looking at the world
that helps us understand something important
about Jesus and about God and about ourselves.
So many of the images and stories that Jesus tells are written
for an agrarian people, for farmers and fishermen and herd keepers.
Jesus didn’t have to explain how big a mustard seed would grow: because they knew
The people who heard the stories of Jesus’ birth understood
Why the shepherds were keeping watch over their flocks by night
And also knew that they were odd witnesses to the birth of a King
Being somewhat shabby and dirty and not really the best audience for that sort of thing.
They knew. But for us, so there’s always a bit of translation going on
Particularly for people, like me and probably like you, who live and work here in the city.
The image of Jesus the Good Shepherd
is so very cherished by many faithful Christians,
perhaps by many of you: and you don’t have to be from a rural place to love it.
What more beloved psalm will you find than the 23rd Psalm?
And what more inviting image is there
than Jesus as the tender shepherd,
often posed with a lamb
cradled in his arms, or hoisted up, on his shoulder?
How many of us grew up in churches
adorned with bucolic images of a gentle, long-haired man
(often a decidedly non-Arab looking man,
with honey colored hair and blue-green eyes,
but we’ll leave that critique aside for today),
a gentle, long-haired man
robed in white
walking sandal-foot through the green grass,
with a cluster of fluffy, white sheep gathered around his ankles?
These are among the most popular images of Jesus, loved by many.
But I read verses like these, in the Gospel of John,
And here’s the truth: I don’t want to be a sheep.
No matter how sweet they look in famous stained glass windows.
Here’s what I know:
sheep are dirty
they wander aimlessly all day,
bumping into one another and invariably getting lost
(which is why we have that parable of the lost sheep, right?).
Our associations with sheep are not flattering:
sheep (we say) are timid, and vulnerable
unable to think for themselves.
Counting sheep is so boring that it will cure insomnia.
Sheep will follow but do not lead.
In this culture, we value independence and innovation!
Sheep have none of this.
What they have is a fondness for grass,
and devotion for their shepherd,
whom they trust without reservation.
Do you know the difference between sheep and cows?
If you stand behind cows and make noise,
they will move, there ahead of you.
If you stand behind sheep and make noise,
they will all circle back to get behind you.
Cows can be pushed, but sheep must be led.
They want their shepherd to go first.
Perhaps it’s that last bit that gives me pause.
Do I trust God, or Jesus, like that,
like a sheep who follows without reservation?
Well, I’m not so sure.
Truth be told, wouldn’t I prefer to set my own course,
strike out on my own,
do my own thing,
forge my own way…
Educator Parker Palmer calls this “practical atheism,”
living our daily lives as if we have to do it all ourselves,
even as we claim to believe in God.
How often do I live like that? “Thanks, God, but I’ve got this one!”
But even as I wave off the idea that anyone else need guide me,
I picture Jesus the shepherd, the good shepherd,
hanging out over there, on the other side of the pasture,
patiently waiting for me to notice him.
Maybe, it occurs to me,
maybe the Good Shepherd metaphor is actually a helpful corrective,
in this culture that values such fierce independence and self-reliance.
Maybe it serves to remind us that
a) someone else is in charge (I’m not the Shepherd), and
b) we are not children of God in the singular, but in the collective –
all members of one really big flock –
all equally cherished,
none, ultimately, more valued than any other, but all so very loved indeed.
Suddenly I really do feel a bit, well, sheepish. Pardon the pun.
For failing to see that Jesus isn’t remotely interested
in whether I am clever or independent – or not.
In speaking of himself as the Shepherd,
Jesus is reminding his listeners
that his care extends to everyone,
regardless of status or skill, wit or wisdom.
Regardless of the color of our skin or who we voted for in the last election.
In the eyes of the Good Shepherd, we are all worthy of love and belonging.
When we’re lost, we’re worthy of being found.
When we’re scared, we’re worthy of finding solace.
When we’re off course, we’re worthy of correction.
I think we tend to forget that.
How often do we think in the first person –
in terms of my own needs,
or those of my family or of my tribe?
But then the Good Shepherd comes along and gives us a nudge,
prods us back toward each other,
gathers us together.
Seats us all at the table.
“You set a table before me in the presence of my enemies,” says the psalmist.
This is NOT our chance to mock those who have been left out,
to thumb our noses at our adversaries.
On the contrary: they are invited to the table, too.
We eat in their presence,
look them in the eye, break bread with them.
That’s what the psalmist means.
We may not think of ourselves as belonging to the same flock
as those with whom we disagree, but God does.
We may not want to associate with the sheep in the next fold over
but Jesus is determined to reunite us.
If this gives us a bit of pause, there might be something there to attend to.
Consider that line from the Psalm,
“Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.”?
It turns out, most scholars don’t think the writer of the 23rd psalm meant ‘comfort’
the way we think of comfort –
as in, to reassure or make someone feel better.
There’s an older meaning of the word that comes from its root:
fort – which means strong.
To comfort, in the biblical sense, means to strengthen,
to empower someone to pursue a goal, to encourage with purpose.
As in: Thy rod and thy staff, they catch me when I get off track;
they guide me where you would have me go.
Whether or not you like the notion of being prodded along the path
probably depends on how you feel about the one doing the prodding,
whether or not you trust your Shepherd.
So how about that Good Shepherd?
If the whole being-compared-to-a-sheep thing makes me squirm a bit,
the image of Jesus as a good shepherd gives me pause, too.
Not that I have anything against Shepherds.
On the contrary:
I suspect that herding sheep is a whole lot more demanding
than I could ever appreciate.
And that’s my point:
the Jesus is those paintings of the Good Shepherd
always seemed to me to be too clean, to sanitized,
too refined to be a real shepherd.
Have you ever met a shepherd?
Their faces are suntanned and weather-worn;
their arms are powerful and their hands and feet are grubby.
Shepherds must be gentle enough to serve as midwife during lambing season.
But they also have to be fierce enough to ward off foes,
fierce like a Momma bear defending her cubs.
That’s the kind of Shepherd I could use,
the kind I could trust without reservation.
Not the one in the pictures of my childhood, maybe,
but the rough-around-the-edges, worldly-wise,
big-hearted shepherd that will always have the well-being of the flock at heart,
who will always put his very body between his flock and danger.
“I am the Good shepherd,” said Jesus.
“The Good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.”
Not just any shepherd, not a careless or self-centered shepherd.
Not even a good shepherd, if good means anything like docile.
In fact, the word so often translated as ‘Good’ comes from the Greek kalos,
which means not just nice or kind,
but faithful, noble, as things should be:
the model shepherd.
In other words, Jesus is setting an example.
“This is how you care for God’s people,” he is saying.
Saying this, would have reminded Jesus’ listeners of that other time
when God compared Godself to a Shepherd,
Its found in the book of the prophet Ezekiel.
At the time, Ezekiel wanted to make this point:
the Israelite leaders were falling down on the job –
a disgrace to their office.
They fed themselves, instead of their ‘sheep;’
Here’s how The Message Paraphrase puts that reading from Ezekiel chapter 34:
“Aren’t shepherds supposed to feed sheep?
You drink the milk,
you make clothes from the wool,
you roast the lambs,
but you don’t feed the sheep.
You don’t build up the weak ones,
don’t heal the sick,
don’t doctor the injured,
don’t go after the strays,
don’t look for the lost.
You bully and badger them.
And now they’re scattered every which way
because there was no shepherd –
scattered and easy pickings for wolves and coyotes.
Scattered – my sheep! –
exposed and vulnerable across mountains and hills.
My sheep scattered all over the world
and no one out looking for them!”
(Ezekiel 34:1-10, The Message paraphrase)
God is appalled and declares:
“From now on, I myself am the shepherd.
I’m going to go looking for them;
I’ll rescue them from all the places they’ve been scattered to in the storms.
I will bring them back…lead them into lush pasture,
I’ll doctor the injured,
I’ll build up the weak ones…”
(Ezekiel 34:11-16, selected, The Message paraphrase)
Now you’ve got my attention!
Because isn’t that what we need?
Isn’t THAT what we yearn for: that kind of fierce and tender advocate?
In a world so fraught with trouble?
In communities where we so often find ourselves divided,
in the face of tremendous challenges.
Yes God: Please gather, us feed us, heal us, comfort us.
But here’s the twist:
After the resurrection,
Jesus appears on the beach to Peter and the other disciples.
He barbecues up some fish, eats breakfast with them,
then takes Peter aside. “Peter,” he says. “Do you love me?”
You know I love you,” Peter answers. “Well then” says Jesus, “Feed my sheep.”
Three times Jesus says this.
It’s a kind of passing of the mantel.
A handing over of the rod and staff.
And just when I’ve started to get comfortable with the idea that we could be sheep,
all members of one flock,
cared for by one fierce and tender Shepherd,
the metaphor gets turned on its head one more time.
Now we are called to do as Jesus did,
to feed and tend and defend with our very lives…
to be good shepherds ourselves…
We’re called to do that, right here, in this city.
To witness to the love and the comfort and the leadership of God
To work so that no person who calls this city their home
is lost, or unwanted, or uncared-for.
I’ve changed my mind about Good Shepherd Sunday.
I think I’ll need to come back to these texts again and again,
not because they are sweet and snuggly texts,
but because they are quite the opposite,
when you dig into them – they are deep and demanding.
Am I up to the challenge that Jesus lays before us?
Can I show Jesus the same devotion that a sheep shows its shepherd?
Can I share the grass with my flock mates?
Am I willing to follow where the Good Shepherd leads?
Even though it means laying down my life?
But the Good News is this: I am not alone in the pasture.
We are in this together.
And there is one who is ready to guide us, if only we are willing to follow.
May we, this very day,
Listen for the voice of our good shepherd calling us by name
So that we may serve the other sheep of his pasture in Kansas City, and Beyond.
May it be so.
Image Source: Jesus the Shepherd, in the Catacomb Priscilla, third century fresco. More info at https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/ancient-cultures/ancient-near-eastern-world/borrowing-from-the-neighbors/attachment/catacomb-priscilla/