[Jesus said] “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The 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. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I 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. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No 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.”
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)
We have lots of stories involving wolves:
- The wolf in the story of the Three Little Pigs.
- You have the big, bad wolf in Little Red Riding Hood.
- “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”
But did you know that Jesus once told a story about a big, bad wolf? In the story that Jesus told, the good shepherd is Him, and the sheep are us. The wolf in Jesus’ story is anything that is God’s enemy.
Besides stories about wolves there are so many directions to go with our readings today.
- The story in Acts is our story, the story of Easter people of every age summoned in the risk and freedom of discipleship. It asks us questions like: what keeps us from following Jesus in the life that is truly life?
It asks us what do we need to lay down so that we can take up the life we are meant to live, and become the people we are made to be?
- The words of 1 John 3:16 (We know love by this, that he laid his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another) recall the whole narrative arc of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
- In John 10 today, Jesus calls himself the good shepherd, who lays down his life for his sheep.
I have decided to to concetrate on John’s gospel.
The metaphor of the shepherd and specifically of Jesus as the good shepherd is one that the church has long used as a means of assuring Christ’s followers of his unending and unfailing care for them. I have preached this text many times where the analogy of shepherd and sheep are representative of the divine/human relationship, the understanding of the nature of sheep and their need for care, protection, and guidance by the shepherd.
Given the context of our times, the image of shepherd is not only an appropriate response to the felt needs of society but also of the church that, like the society in the United States, is divided over too many issues. Certainly the great division caused by politics is no secret and while it has the possibility of unleashing fierce anger in some places, even in some churches, I believe our Gospel text this morning is about more than the good shepherd, shepp and wolves.
In this moment of societal disagreements, perhaps we may consider to focus more widely on another side of the issue; namely, the call for diversity in and as the Body of Christ. In language similar to that used in the parables, John directs his hearers to focus their worship on Jesus Christ, their only true guide.
But he makes clear that the Body of Christ is incomplete; there are many who have not yet come to the knowledge of Christ and therefore have not taken their place in the beloved community under Christ. In John’s time it was the Gentiles who were yet to become a full part of that fledgling community.
Certainly, we Gentiles can and should be considered as being part of the group who, through our acceptance of Christ as Lord, have become members of Christ’s body. That leads to wonder: who are the Gentiles of our time? Who are the “other sheep that do not belong to this fold?” Can we look beyond our congregation as a starting point. Maybe we should focus on the meaning of the Body of Christ that is inclusive of all nations and races, and open ourselves to the full meaning of what it means to be the loving community where the only requirement is unity.
So I challenge us to instead of fearing diversity that we welcome diversity, in whatever form it is, in the wider community of Kettering and the greater Dayton area. And given the separation of cultures, races, class, and even political affiliation that is representative of the majority of communities in the USA, this will be a challenge…but it’s a challenge I think we are up to.
Here at GSLC, and many other churches, we may pride itself on our ecumenical stance and involvement, but it is more often than not difficult to welcome expansive diversity, despite proclaming statements to the contrary, and for us to move beyond the familiar in the makeup of our community. Even churches that are heavily involved in mission and outreach projects beyond their immediate borders are often hesitant to reach out to immediate neighbors and bring them fully into the fold. Too many arms-length or distance projects offer us the security of loving the neighbor without actually seeing the neighbor.
And unfortunately, even when caring for neighbors involves giving access to food and clothing provided by the church, inviting and including the recipients of our ministry as members of the congregation is all too often beyond our ability.
Beyond denominational divides, there are issues of race, class, gender, sexual orientation and even political affiliation. However, the common denominator that brings all together is the good shepherd. John is clear that in the voice of the good shepherd, the ultimate goal is “one flock (under) one shepherd.” That shepherd is not me, or the ELCA, or the institutional Church. That flock belongs only to “the good shepherd (who) lays down his life for the sheep” (verse 11b). In this post-Easter season, that good shepherd is the one who has already not only laid down his life for the sheep in his crucifixion, but who has taken it up again in his resurrection.
Every year, regardless of the lectionary cycle, we are invited to live in a rich, metaphorical world. A world where there are a whole slew of sheep and one, good, sacrificial Shepherd. But scripture is beckoning us to try on its world. The Lord is inviting us to live among the grassy slopes and rocky hillsides. While we often ask the words and stories of scripture to enter our worlds. This morning, scripture is patiently and imaginatively asking us to enter its world.
This morning I want us inhabit our metaphor in a simpler manner. We shall imagine where we might find ourselves in this world. And since there are not too many animate options and it seems rather obvious who we’d be, let us imagine ourselves taking on the furry wool of a sheep, nuzzling our noses into the supple earth, and meandering around with our sheep buddies, listening for that one voice who calls us by name.
What does this mean, then, to be a sheep? To be a sheep is, at its most basic, to be a creature.
- Sheep probably do not contemplate whether or not they are God.
- They likely do not spend their days thinking about ambition and success and storing up wealth for themselves.
- They have much more pressing tasks to tend to. For instance, they must eat. And eat. And eat. And when they are done eating, they must take a little rest.
- Perhaps, they will find that they need some time to roughhouse and playfully pick on one another.
- Then they find that they need to rest some more, cuddling up in a heap, snoozing a bit in the sun or the shade of a tree, depending on their desired temperature.
- They do not spend their days thinking that they are the Source of all that is, the center of the universe, nor the creature at the heart of creation.
Sheep, it seems, are just so happy to be sheep: eating and walking and playing and sleeping and bleating their way through life. A sheep is a creature, created and loved by their Creator.
Being a sheep also means being a part of a community, a herd. They are safest and happiest as part of a big community of sheep. When one does wander off, it knows it is alone, scared, and in a precarious position. It knows that—out here on this hillside all by itself –it will be an easy and quick dinner for that wolf or other roaming predator. Sometimes, a sheep gets lost, it’s true. But most sheep know to stick together, that their body depends on other bodies forming into one large protective pile. Sheep do not think they should live all alone, independent, and never – ever—reliant upon any other sheep. A life alone would be a sad and crazy life for a sheep. Sheep know that they need other sheep, desperately—because their very lives depend on it.
We are sheep, in this metaphorical world, because we can’t be anything but sheep. We are not the ruler of our lives, our herds, nor the masters of our destiny. To be a sheep is remarkably similar to being a human. Creatures who need community and who can’t help but follow—since we often have no idea where we are going in the first place.
We are sheep because we are in desperate need of a Shepherd. And this shepherd is a particularly good shepherd. One who will lay his life down for you. For me? A mere sheep? Yes, for you, for me, for everyone. This good shepherd will take us on a long and winding journey.
The Good Shepherd is beckoning us—can we hear him? He is singing out our name, he is inviting us to get close, to join the herd for the journey, to rejoice in our created goodness, and to follow him wherever he leads, even through those valleys of death.
- So we live into our promises of baptism?
- Will we follow?
- Will we go where he calls?
- Will we let him love us?
- Will we let him carry us when we’re wounded and heal our loneliness?
- Will we trust him, the Good Shepherd, with our very life?
No matter how you try to image it the Good Shepherd can be unfamiliar to us in our modern world. Or the image can be too familiar and over-used in church contexts to offer the power of a good metaphor. So, I want to close with a different metaphor through which to hear Jesus’ teaching.
After this past year, our society has come to a new appreciation of the self-sacrifice of nurses, doctors, and other medical workers who have consistently put their own lives on the line to care for the desperately ill through this long, hard pandemic. Many of the workers who have born the brunt of the risk and labor are nurses, respiratory therapists, physician assistants, lab technicians, and orderlies. Far from “hired hands” who flee from danger, these workers have run themselves ragged, and spent weeks or months away from their families, so that they can care for the ill and dying. Their commitment can invite us to connect with the depth of love and the promise of protection that the good shepherd metaphor I’ve tried to convey this morning. How might we hear Christ’s promise to guard our lives in the claim “I am the COVID nurse.”
Again, I come back to the part of our lesson where Jesus says: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.” How might this call us into a reflection on the way that health care workers long to provide care to all, regardless of insurance coverage or immigration status? Their commitment is to healing, not to profits or gatekeeping systems. Can we hear Jesus explaining “I have patients who do not belong to this HMO, but they also need my care. I must bring them respirators and medication, and they will be healed by the treatment I offer. So, you will all survive, and understand your common humanity in a new way, because you have all received my care.”
Of course, there is one way in which this metaphor breaks down, in the same way that any human metaphor fails to capture the work of Jesus. Jesus has the power to lay down his life and the power to take it up again. But in so many tragic cases, our front-line workers have not had the second power. They have laid down their lives without the power to rise again to continue their service.
So as this contemporary metaphorbreaks down, the final justice issue is the way that we ask fragile human beings to protect us with their lives. And they do not always lay their lives down “of their own accord.” For some, it is a choice between continuing in a hazardous job that puts them at risk or failing to pay the rent or buy food for their families. As we recognize their heroism let us not turn them into Christ-figures whose lives we demand as the cost of our freedom.
We need to be in community. I diverse and united community where we all do our part to protect one another. So in our pandemic we socially distance from one another; we wear masks; we get vaccinated; we live with incoveinces of what used to be normal…and we do it to protect one another. We do it to love one another. We may be sheep and need the guidance of the good shepherd, but we still have to listen to that voice and act on it. We need to do what we can to protect, and love, one another.