I am convinced that I would make a bad shepherd. I don’t believe I have the patience, or the attention span necessary to watch over grazing farm animals hour after hour. I am too easily distracted, too easily taken in by shiny, flashy things. I have become more convinced here of late as Emeline, becoming mobile, is now able to make her way around the house and stealthfully and surprisingly quickly disappear from my field of vision. Perhaps, if I am somewhat aware, I will make half-hearted attempted to draw her back,
“Emeline, Emeline, come back here.”
But all too often, I will get enthralled in a book or…the latest cat video on Facebook, and then from one end of the house or other will come a crash and that distinctive sound of head versus floor followed by the momentarily delayed wail and shriek of pain. Yes, I am convinced that if I were put in charge of sheep, I would be summarily fired after the entire flock wandered over the edge of a ravine, with me blissfully unaware. If Jesus is the good shepherd, then, while I may not be the bad shepherd as he describes them, I am certainly the incompetent shepherd.
In this morning’s Gospel text from John, we are offered the last section of what is known as the Good Shepherd discourse. Now, over the years I have heard a lot of sermons about sheep and shepherds, I have preached some myself, that try to explain what first-century shepherds did and how sheep act, and try to extrapolate that behavior into our own. Sometimes to great effect, but to be honest, I have heard and read scholars with completely opposing insights on shepherds and sheep. So, this morning, I prefer to focus on what Jesus means his disciples to understand about himself and perhaps their role in God’s reconciling act of Love. I believe the key to this is looking at where this text is located in regard to John’s gospel.
Jesus is presumably still speaking to the Jewish leadership, after having healed the man born blind. The people of the community believed it was for some sin, of either the man or his parents, that he was blind, and had ostracized him for that reason. For the blind man’s part, he cannot see, but can only respond to the voice of Jesus, a theme of the Shepherd discourse. And in following Jesus’ commands, the blind man receives sight. But as importantly, Jesus invites him into the community of believers. The man is given more than sight; he is given relationship and community, he is humanized. Jesus reminds his hearers that there are always other sheep that are not of this fold, they only need to respond to my voice.
If this is the model for Jesus’ sheepfold, then I imagine it is a motley and sickly herd. This is the sheepfold that takes in the lost and broken sheep that others have rejected. This sheepfold takes in the blind man, the notorious woman at the well, the hungry, the stranger. I imagine that most shepherds would only want the strongest, healthiest, fluffiest sheep. Jesus seems to choose the opposite. In the murder of Abel and the wreck of Eden, Cain poses an unanswered question toward God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Here, in the Good Shepherd discourse, Jesus seems to answer that question with an emphatic “Yes!”
Perhaps that entails the real challenge behind the Good Shepherd text, which we are, each of us, to be shepherds, to indeed be our brother and sister’s keeper. So often the imperative of the Good Shepherd text is relegated to Church leaders or Jesus alone. The usual interpretation of the text consigns most of us to the passive role of sheep, picturesquely carried on the shoulders of Jesus. But I wonder if we are all invited, each of us to shepherd those lost, broken and sickly ones. The ones caught in the brambles, fallen in darkened ravines, and trapped in the mud. And I am mindful, that as much as we may want to don the mantle of a pure driven snow white fleece, our stories are not too different from the motley and dirty sheep from which we try to distance ourselves.
From John’s perspective, even in this broken state we are called to shepherding that is itself driven by the love that makes the incarnation necessary in the first place. That God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son. It is the self-sacrificing love that Jesus takes to the cross. It is the self-sacrificing love that he lay down his life in the garden of Gethsemane in order that none of his own be taken. This is the self-sacrificing love that drives shepherd to lay down life for the sheep, a ridiculous image in itself. What person would die for sheep? But this is the love we try to connect ourselves to Sunday after Sunday, and day after day. Through our thoughts and prayers, through our faithful action.
In one of the preaching resources I depend on, Karoline Lewis reflects that perhaps there is a reason why it is only the “Good” Shepherd, and not the “Great” Shepherd or “excellent” shepherd as we would expect to be applied to Jesus. Because, if these superlatives were used, we might be tempted to think I can’t possibly attain this. But the relatively innocuous term “good” implies that it is something to which we should strive. It is, after all, Peter, the denier, the one who fails, the one who doesn’t even seem to quite understand most of the time, who will take up the charge to “Feed my lambs.”
It is a tall order, to even be the Good Shepherd, considering my own inability to keep up with even my own daughter. If Jesus intended that we all partake in this role, perhaps he should have said the Okay shepherd. The passable shepherd. The Satisfactory Shepherd. But, as it is our church’s namesake, perhaps Good Shepherd will have to do. We are a church of shepherds. A church called to draw in the lost, broken, and muddy sheep of our world.
In a few moments, Sarah and I will invite the church into the shepherding of our family as we offer thanksgiving for the adoption of Emeline. We are thankful for Emeline; We are thankful for the birth parents who graciously and painfully gave their child into our care, in hopes that we could provide a safer and more stable and caring family. We are thankful for our family and friends who have supported us during this journey. And we are thankful for you, the People of Good Shepherd. The prayer itself looks like an extension of the marriage ceremony and is related to that vocation which Sarah and I entered into 20 years ago with the love and support of our church family and friends. In the same spirit of that endeavor, you are invited into this new vocation as well. Perhaps the Good news of the Good Shepherd is that this task of Shepherding was never meant to be done alone, that we are called into the love and support of a community of faith. It is good news that we are in a church of shepherds because, I assure you that given Emeline’s escape artist nature, she will break free one Sunday morning and run down the aisle, disrupting our worship services, she will find trouble in the Sunday school classroom, she will mischievously damage a beloved piece of church furniture. So, I ask that in those moments, you recall today, we are all in this together, the church of the Good Shepherds. Thanks be to God.