April 22, 2018 – Easter 4 B
[Jesus said:] 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.”
It’s Good Shepherd Sunday and it got me thinking. We will often speak about Jesus as the Good Shepherd, guiding and protecting the flock. Jesus seems to have a soft spot for shepherds – they were the first told about his birth by the angel, they often raised sheep for the temple sacrifices, and they were nomadic, often earthy, and had a bad reputation. They often didn’t choose that job out of free will and it kept them from being able to attend ritual worship and cleansing, so they were often seen as unclean and uncouth. Jesus, here, is choosing to identify himself with these sorts of people. That tells us something about the how Jesus operates – he has an eye toward the outcasts and the oppressed. This is good news.
But if Jesus is the shepherd, that would make us the sheep. And sheep have a rather unfortunate reputation. They’re often seen as dull, dumb, and unthinking. And, while it may be true about myself sometimes, I refuse to be defined by my worst characteristics. So, in honor of Good Shepherd Sunday, I was doing a little research on sheep. Here’s 5 things I found about sheep. You tell me if this sounds familiar:
- Sheep tend to travel better if they are lead, rather than herded from behind. Shepherds, then, are better serving of their flock if they, or someone they choose, is up front, rather than urging them on from behind.
- Sheep are social creatures. They are healthier and safer when they are together. They look out for one another and they get anxious when they aren’t in community with other sheep.
- Sheep rarely walk a straight line. The paths they leave zig and zag through the land – they are be easily distracted and they like to be able to watch their back by walking with one eye pointed back to where they’ve been and one eye pointed to where they want to go.
- Despite their great eyesight and senses, they have really terrible depth perception. Shadows and heavily running water scare a sheep because they can’t be confident of where it will take them.
- When a sheep is scared, they often run away. Their first instinct when it comes to danger is to run (even if they thing they are afraid of is nothing but a shadow, as I mentioned above).
So. I think that’s a better picture of sheep. They’re actually pretty intelligent, if not disorganized and easily frightened. So, a shepherd has an important set of tasks – lead the flock to its destination, keep the flock from scattering in fear, and protect the flock from danger, whether the danger is a predator or just the natural urges of this flock mentality.
Jesus, in our gospel today, makes a claim and a bold one at that. He says the he is a good shepherd. He will not abandon the flock and he will, in fact, protect and bring others into the flock. And Jesus, by taking on this shepherding metaphor, is really telling us something about what he saw as his mission and how he continues to be our shepherd. Jesus has traveled through the shadows, he knows the way, and he knows the experience of the flock. He knows what scares his flock and he knows that, in order to bring them safely through the shadows to the other side, he will have to lead them and encourage them to listen to his voice, rather than the voices of fear which often drive them.
And how does Jesus know the experience of the sheep? How can he know what the sheep need and what they feel? Because, in Jesus, God became one of us. He is approaching his sheep as the Lamb of God. He knows the pain and grief of death, he knows the sting of the grave and betrayal, but he also knows the joy of friendship and new life. And that is what Jesus is offering.
And not only that, but he’s also make the flock bigger, bringing others into it. This is not just good for those who are brought in, but also for those already in the flock. Because we, like sheep, are made for community. We are formed by community and the people we know. But this also means that we will come into contact with people who think differently, speak differently, and behave differently. We will be challenged by what they say and their experiences and, in turn, they will be challenged by us. But what we are, how we are defined, is not by the qualities which separate us, or our worst qualities, but by what unites us. We are united by Christ, the Good Shepherd. We have been brought into this flock by Jesus, who died and rose again for forgiveness of sin, and that great gathering of God’s flock continues. Sometimes, we will not understand those around us. Sometimes, we will grow frightened and run away. But Christ continues to gather and lead, as a Shepherd who has been a Sheep, who knows the way, and whose energy and compassion are boundless. The flock belongs to Christ and Christ will never abandon it.
I think that sometimes we begin to think of sheep as sinful and dumb, but what they really are is just sheep. Sometimes, we can begin to think of people as sinful and dumb, but what they really are, what we really are, are just people. We have our own behaviors, our own experiences, and Jesus the Good Shepherd knows them. He knows his flock and he knows what they’ve gone through. And when we wander off, whether by choice or by distraction, when we listen to the voices of fear, we hear our shepherd kindly calling us back to himself, leading us, rather than standing behind us barking orders. And that, sisters and brothers, fellow flock of Christ, is good news.
Jesus knows you, has called you, has died for you, rose for you, and has not, will not, cannot abandon you. You are part of a flock, the Church of God, which is made up of imperfect, broken, and beautiful people. And this flock is guided by a perfect, healing, and understanding Savior. Even in the valleys of shadow and fear, even when still waters are hard to come by, your Shepherd is there, because he has been there. There is nothing you can do, no place you can go, where God has not been and will not be there to help and lead you. The Lamb of God has gone for as our Shepherd and we, like sheep, follow. Amen.