Shepherding the Flock
The fourth Sunday of Easter has become known as “Good Shepherd Sunday”. The readings focus on the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. It is a beautiful image for us. Even in our urban society where most of us have little experience around sheep the shepherd imagery of the twenty-third psalm is universally known. The God who shepherds us, leads us, walks with us through troubled times. This is the comforting picture of the good shepherd who meets our needs, who cares for us. The good shepherd is depicted in artwork, in stained glass windows. We have one in our church. The image speaks to us of comfort and care.
At our Clericus this week we had a discussion about sheep and shepherds. There was a reluctance to consider ourselves as priests and pastors to be shepherds. If we are the shepherds then taking it one step further our people are the sheep. Sheep have a bad image of being rather stupid creatures, blindly following where the shepherd leads.
But the irony of it all is that in John’s time as in Jesus’ time, shepherds were the dispossessed, the lowest rung of society. Having lost their land and then their sheep, they hired themselves out. They often became the hired hands of wealthy Roman urban dwellers, the absentee landlords so often mentioned in the parables of Jesus.
Not only were they poor, but they depended on work that required them to be out in the fields and away from their families. They were considered to be unreliable at best, bandits at worst. The shepherds of John’s time were despised in much the same way as the Samaritans. To be a “good shepherd” was as much a contradiction in terms as to be a “good Samaritan”. One person suggested that in our day he might well have said, “I am the good migrant worker.”
And yet Jesus says, "I am the Good Shepherd." He goes on to tell what it means to be a good shepherd. A good shepherd cares for the sheep, knows them by name, knows which ones are sick or suffering. A good shepherd protects the sheep, putting their lives before his own. A good shepherd lovingly leads the sheep. A good shepherd searches for the sheep when they get lost.
Once again Jesus uses an identity despised by society to challenge our preconceptions about others. It is an invitation now as then to think about what is truly important in human relationships. We are not to condemn others. Rather we are to look into the eyes of those we are tempted to categorize as unworthy and embrace them. We are to see them as beings created by a loving God. We are to see in them the face of Christ. We are to see them as brothers and sisters.
And that brings me to a rather ominous note in the gospel. “I have other sheep who do not belong to this fold,” Jesus says. “I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.” This is the downside of the Gospel, the part that makes a demand on each of us, the part that is not so warm and cozy. The part that should make us feel a little uncomfortable; make us squirm, in our seat. For Jesus says, "I know my own and my own know me."
Such phrases in scripture have been used to create exclusive communities that shut out those who don’t look, behave or believe like us. Yet what we have here is Jesus’ response to people who have questioned him, intending to entrap him. "Are you the Christ?" they demand. A subversive question calling for an equally subversive answer! And Jesus gives it to them.
"Because you do not know me, because you are not in relationship with me," he tells them, "you cannot answer that question. On the other hand, if you recognized my voice, if you knew who I was, you wouldn't have to ask the question in the first place."
It is, after all, not about being excluded from the flock. It is about excluding oneself. There are always other sheep that do not belong to this fold and yet belong to Jesus. God tells us that it is precisely those on the other side of the wall who belong to the fold. It is up to us, not to change them, but to accept them and rejoice that they belong to God.
This passage speaks to us of our call, not just of the call of the ordained, but our baptismal call. For the call of the Good Shepherd is a call first of all to loving. That is the call of every Christian. “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” So says John in his letter. Love needs to lead to action. If we truly live in obedience to God, then it requires that we lovingly and actively reach out to meet the needs of others. In that way we live in him, and he lives in us.
We have all had times in our lives when we were hurting or afraid. Someone was there for us. So when others are hurting, our call as Christians is to reach out to them. Not that it is an easy task!
Sheep do get lost, at least in a geographical sense. When this happens the shepherd goes out and looks for them. Often it is an easy job to find them. The shepherd gets to know where the sheep hide out. When found the shepherd brings them back and they reenter the fold.
We too get lost in a geographical sense. It happens in faith communities. People come to church, get involved in the community, seem committed to the faith, and then somehow lose themselves. They drift away from the community and from the faith. The tragedy is that so often we do not even notice that they are gone. We do not miss them. We may think from time to time, “I wonder what happened to …” but that is the job of the clergy.
In September we are going to celebrate “Back to Church Sunday”. It is a time to invite those who used to go to church but have lapsed. It is a simple plan. Everyone in the congregation is going to ask a friend or colleague to come to church with them that day. We’re going to practice. “Will you come to church with me on September 27th? What time can I pick you up?” That part is the easy part. Then as a church community we need to be prepared to welcome them. And that is not as easy as it might seem.
I remember speaking to a woman in my first parish. She had been an active member of the congregation and then simply disappeared. People would bump into her in town, but no one asked her why she had left the church. I asked. Her response, “I just got out of the habit of going.” She wasn’t angry at the church. She just stopped going. So I invited her to come back. Her response was “I wouldn’t even know where to begin.” She was worried about what to wear, what had changed in the service, whether she would still know any of the people. It took a great deal of courage on her part, but she came back and was welcomed. She was embraced by the congregation.
But as humans there are other ways in which we get lost. In fact, most of the time we get lost in so many other ways! We are good at finding ways to get lost. We become addicted to alcohol or drugs. Or we can find ourselves unable to maintain stable relationships in our lives. Or we wander through life without managing to finish anything or ever holding onto a job.
When people become lost in such ways it is very difficult to find them. In such cases it is the task of the shepherd, not so much to find them as to help them find themselves. As a congregation, how open are we to helping the lost find their way? Would we recognize it if they got found?
The call of the Good Shepherd is a call to lead. That is about allowing change to transform the lives of those to whom we minister. Transformational change is something that we avoid, especially we Anglicans, but it is our mission. The proof of the resurrection is always the transformation that it causes in peoples’ lives. An awesome power has been released into the world. Can we see that power in our lives?
And then can we act on it? Can we apply our faith to our everyday lives? That is how we will come to know the power of the resurrection at work in our lives. We will reach out to others in real and tangible ways. We will be the Church.
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