The Voice of the Shepherd

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April 25, 2020
4th Sunday of Easter
Deacon Alex Benson

Text: John 10:11-18

Grace, peace, and mercy are yours through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Today is the Sunday in the church year that we often refer to as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” It’s the day when, as you might have guessed, we dwell in the metaphor of Jesus being our shepherd. It’s a lovely image, and it’s been depicted in paintings and hymns and stained glass windows for centuries.

The thing about metaphors like this one is that they become so familiar to us that it can be hard to think of something interesting to say about them. As a Bible camp counselor, I led what felt like two million renditions of the hit camp song “I Just Wanna Be a Sheep” with elementary school kids and have glued enough cotton balls on construction paper to make little sheep to last me a lifetime. But, despite how familiar and comforting this image might be to us, for most of us, this metaphor can seem a bit… out of touch. Our lifestyles and worldviews are very distant from that of a first century Palestinian shepherd. So, perhaps within these familiar words, we might find a renewed invitation to re-examine what we think we know.

When I think of the good shepherd, I think of those images of a very clean Jesus carrying a fluffy white lamb in his arms. They are lovely pictures. They give off those peaceful and gentle Psalm 23 vibes, and sometimes that’s exactly what we need.

And I think a good shepherd probably is peaceful and gentle. But I think a good shepherd also has to be fierce, determined, unafraid to get dirty, and probably a little rough around the edges.

The serene looking paintings of Jesus have their place, but these days, I find myself longing for a grittier faith, an edgier Jesus. Maybe it’s because the events of the past year have made me feel a little more cynical, have made me a little rougher around the edges in some ways, and I need to know that God can handle that, that God can handle this version of me as well as the pre-pandemic version. Maybe it’s because we’ve had sheep on our family farm on a few occasions, and, while I’m a terrible excuse for a farm girl, I do know that nothing on a farm is quite as clean and serene as some of those images make it seem. Maybe it’s because I’ve had the privilege to walk with enough young people in the justice system at this point to know that life is really, really messy, and I need to know that God is in the mess with us. Whatever the reason, I’m more and more convinced that to call Jesus our Good Shepherd can be as provocative as it is peaceful, as countercultural as it is comforting.

And the thing about shepherds – at least this good shepherd – is that they will go to great lengths to protect the sheep and bring them into the fold. Shepherds will keep calling the sheep back if they get lost, if they start to follow other sounds or voices. A good shepherd doesn’t just abandon her sheep or leave a sheep behind if they can’t keep up. Shepherds aren’t afraid to get dirty, to bring the sheep back from dangerous, scary, off-the-beaten path places. Our society just isn’t built for this kind of mentality. We’re taught to be competitive and self-sufficient, to strive to climb higher on the social and economic ladder, to worry about our image, our brand, to build our own empires. We want to stand out from the flock, protect ourselves from the crowd of others. And that doesn’t leave a lot of time or space to always be worrying about the weakest or the straggler of the flock or the one that got pushed to the margins in the midst of the chaos. But that’s precisely where the Good Shepherd focuses his attention.

The Good Shepherd is as likely to be found in trailer courts or sketchy motel rooms or on the streets as he is in fancy cathedrals or tidy sanctuaries. The Good Shepherd meets their sheep in rehab centers and prison cells, in hospital rooms and gravesides, at protests and in conference rooms, in all the ordinary places in between.

This shepherd is the shepherd of all kinds of sheep – the sheep who keeps wandering off, the stubborn sheep, the sheep who keeps trying to follow another hired hand. The meek sheep, the bully sheep, the extra smelly sheep, the individualist sheep that resents being lumped in with all the other sheep. The good shepherd seeks out, welcomes, and guides them all. 

Perhaps the best way to distinguish the voice of the good shepherd is in contrast to the hired hands. The hired hands aren’t necessarily bad, although sometimes they might be. The reality is, they aren’t in it for the long haul. They don’t really care about the sheep, at least not when the stakes are high. Their motive lies elsewhere – in money or some type of transactional fee—not the relationship itself. Scripture is filled with stories of leaders who have essentially acted as hired hands – judges and kings who were in the game for their own gain, who let their own greed overshadow the needs of the most vulnerable. Religious elites who were too concerned about protecting the religious and economic establishment of the day to care for those on the margins. Entire empires that promised protection and loyalty to their residents – but only insofar as people sacrificed themselves for the system at hand. 

Our world is still filled with hired hands that promise protection and prestige, safety and happiness, value and belonging, but only after we first market ourselves in the right way or say the right things or affiliate ourselves with the right people or disaffiliate ourselves with certain people or spend enough money. Debie Thomas talks about hired hands in her life as things that “call to [us], promising a version of love that is ultimately thin, cheap, fragile, and unsafe.”[1]

So, what is it exactly that sets this Good Shepherd apart? How do we know this shepherd’s voice among all the other clamor?

Well, I think it is both as simple and as complicated as this. The hired hands tell us you will be loved or you will belong after you do something or become someone else. The Good Shepherd tells us “You already belong and you are already loved. No strings attached. No matter what.”

Not after you get your life together, not after you get sober, not after you get a better grip on your depression or anxiety, not after you lose 10 pounds, not after you find the perfect relationship, not after you resolve your family drama, not after you figure out exactly what it is you even believe about God.

You belong. Here and now, as you are.

And you don’t have to prove to the rest of us that you are good enough to be here. Because the Good Shepherd has already declared that you are.

So, you don’t have to share something profound in our after-worship sharing times. You don’t have to have perfect worship attendance or volunteer for a million things. You don’t have to be feeling particularly holy or wise today or ever. You don’t have to come only bearing good news or positive emotions. You can be thrilled about returning to in-person next week or not.

Either way, you belong.

You belong when you feel frazzled and anxious. You belong when the pandemic fatigue is so intense or the weight of the world is so heavy that it feels like you can hardly get out of bed. You belong when you’ve messed up. You belong when you’re on discipline status. You belong after you’ve left YCC and can’t join us for worship in quite the same way. 

You belong even when every voice in your head tells you that you don’t. You belong not because I am telling you this this morning but because God claimed you at the very beginning and said that you were a child of God and that no power can ever change that. You belong because the Good Shepherd knows you and has created a space for you. And the Good Shepherd is not afraid of where you might wander. The Good Shepherd will call you back to the flock as many times as needed. The Good Shepherd restores us to community, to each other and to all creation again and again.

We sometimes make faith to be a really individual, private thing. And in some ways it is – God knows and loves you individually. But our faith is also about community. It’s about all of us together being called into the goodness of God’s Kingdom. We are incomplete without each other. A good shepherd knows this, and so Jesus is continually expanding the pasture making room for more. And together the shepherd calls us forward on the path of justice and mercy and new life. One community, diverse and a little mismatched and kinda messy, but united by God’s mercy and made new as one family in Christ’s resurrection.  

We are Easter people after all, and nothing can stop God’s promise of new life. God’s kingdom will prevail, even when it seems like the forces of death and destruction and isolation and injustice get the last word. But the Good Shepherd leads us through, and will not be dissuaded by even the darkest valley or the most impossible circumstance or the most intimidating terrain. Even here, the Good Shepherd lead us on, as he has in every time and place, seeking us out and calling us back until no one is left out of the fold.