(a sermon for April 25, 2021, the 4th Sunday of Easter, based on Psalm 23 and John 10:11-18)
Would you not agree that there’s a huge difference between those who merely “go to work” and the ones who are out there each and every day “doing their jobs?”
By that I mean that there are those in whom you can really determine a true “work ethic” in, for instance, the level of their enthusiasm for the job, the quality of their finished work, or in how they carry a personal investment in what they do. It doesn’t even matter what the job is – they can be a movie star, a professional athlete or a ditch digger – at the end of the (work)day, what we’re talking about here are the ones who care – deeply – about what they’re called to do, whatever it happens to be; and that not only serves to make each day more meaningful for them, but it also ends up having a huge effect on everyone around them as well.
Years ago, my wife Lisa’s family owned and operated a Dairy Bar; for over 15 years every summer, they served up soft-serve ice cream, hamburgers and the world’s best homemade French fries for the populace of Mapleton, Maine! Now what was interesting about “The Shanty,” as it was known, is that it started out as a way to create summer jobs for each of the McHatten kids as they went through high school and college; but over time it became much more than that. As Lisa tells it, there were a whole lot of capable kids (and adults!) from all over that town who at one time or another worked at the Dairy Bar; many of them who were very good, others not so much. But here’s the thing; no matter who else might have been working for them, there was almost always one of the McHatten’s to be found working behind the counter; assuring that everything was always served up “just right.” After all, Lisa said, it was a family business, and family was going to care the most about it; in one sense, it might have been just a job, but at the end of the day they knew they were the ones who were ever and always going to take the weight for its success or its failure, and that mattered… not only to them but also, ultimately, to the community.
In our gospel reading for this morning, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd,” and perhaps the obvious question that arises out of that is, “what’s good about a shepherd?” After all, even in biblical times, this was not a profession that was particularly well-respected; shepherds were, more often than not, considered to be a fairly disreputable lot, and the people you’d hire for a job like that were pretty much the lowest of the low!
But a “good” shepherd, that was something different; and the thing is, the people who heard Jesus say this already knew the difference; even as Jesus lays it out for them: “The good shepherd,” he says, “lays down his life for the sheep.” A good shepherd would always have such a personal investment in that flock that he would willingly lay down his life for the sake of its survival. Certainly not like a hired hand, who – while necessary for the keeping of the flock – is there merely for the minimum wage and who runs at the slightest hint of danger; nor like a common thief, who pillages the sheep at first opportunity; nor, for that matter, like a wolf, ever ready to attack, destroy and then scavenge the flock! No, the “good” shepherd actually goes about his job as though it’s of vital importance to him; because it is! He truly loves each one of the sheep of his flock and, and moreover, he knows each one of them by name; and conversely, the sheep all know him as well. They recognize the sound of his voice and his is the one voice to which they’ll respond; one sheep-herd flocking to one shepherd.
Of course, when Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd,” he’s talking about something much more than the subtleties of life amongst the flock; he’s speaking of the love and care of God himself! To put this into a proper perspective, we need to understand that this whole section of John’s gospel from which our text is drawn – the 10th chapter that talks so much about shepherds, and sheep, and the gates of the sheepfold – is in fact Jesus’ response to the scribes and Pharisees making such a problem over his having healed a man born blind (on a Sabbath day, no less, which in and of itself raised the ire of the powers that be!). Finally, after a whole lot of theological back and forth about the legitimacy of all this, Jesus simply comes back to an old and familiar teaching, something that every single one of these righteous uprights would have understood: that God is like the good and loving shepherd; leading his flock beside still waters, restoring the souls of those who would follow.
But here’s the thing: what Jesus says to this is rather remarkable and downright bold; instead of merely repeating the words of the Psalmist: “The Lord is my shepherd,” Jesus announces that he is the good shepherd, that he is the one who will lay down his life, and that he is the one who knows his flock just as they know him, “just as,” he says, “the Father knows me and I know the Father.”
Make no mistake, that’s one radical assertion, and if the scribes and Pharisees were pretty upset before with what Jesus is saying; now they’re absolutely livid! But it’s truth; one that is central to what we believe as Christians, and one that actually speaks to just about everything we know about Jesus as the Christ. Even in the way this passage comes to us in the original Greek, we find that there’s huge weight ascribed to Jesus saying “I AM the good shepherd;” because the fact is that Jesus says “I am” many times in the gospels in describing himself and his ministry; but only in John, and primarily right here, does Jesus say “I am” so emphatically! In fact, one biblical commentator suggests that the only we can get to the sheer depth of this in English is to put those words, “I am,” in italics and bold! It’s as though Jesus wants to drive this point home so there can be absolutely no doubt at all: that this is what he came here for; that this is his job, and this is who he is beyond any kind of doubt at all: he is the good shepherd, who “lays down his life for the sheep.”
Of course, the thing we have to keep in mind about all of this is that what Jesus is saying here comes long before he’s gone to the cross; so neither the scribes and Pharisees, nor even his disciples yet have any real sense of the depth of what Jesus is proclaiming. But we do;and that’s why I think it’s very good that in these continuing days of Eastertide we’re getting the chance to go back and hear these words with the perspective that comes in knowing who’s been crucified but who is now risen.
How good it is that Jesus is the good shepherd and that he knows his sheep; how good it is that Jesus, our good shepherd, knows us in the same way that he and God know each other: with a personal, mutual, intimate kinship like that of a parent and a child; one that is nurturing and caring, and ever focused not on our failures or weaknesses, but rather on the best that we are and can be. Ours is the shepherd who truly does lead us on good pathways “beside the still waters;” giving us the kind of relationship with him that truly does make all of us together that one sheep-herd with one very good shepherd who is Jesus Christ.
That is very important for us to know, because the truth is also that Jesus is not the only shepherd who would seek to make a claim on our lives. There are indeed the myriad varieties of hired hands, thieves and other assorted predators who would seek to lead us in some way or another; only to deceive, rob or abandon us in the process. You know, back in the early days of the internet, I was a part of an online clergy community called ECUNET; in which clergy types from quite literally all over the world would gather to talk about our joys, struggles and what we happened to be preaching about that coming Sunday! It was a valuable resource, and I remember very specifically “talking” about this particular passage with a group that included a pastor from the hill country of New Zealand, which is, as you can imagine, prime country for the raising of sheep; and believe me, this man offered the rest of us a whole new perspective on the whole “good shepherd/bad shepherd” thing! He spoke of an animal that they referred to in those parts as a “Judas Sheep;” one sheep in the flock, usually a male, that was trained to meet and to gather together the other sheep so to lead them to the slaughterhouse! This is true – in other places, there are “Judas Goats” and even “Judas Cows” (!) that serve much the same purpose – the theory being that following this false leader kept rest of the flock calm as they went to slaughter, thus making the meat more tender.
It all sounds very cruel and inhuman; and yet when we think about it, there are plenty of “Judas sheep” and more to the point, “Judas shepherds” in this world who would call us to follow them in much the same fashion; bringing us down the bad pathways of life and living and making it so very easy for us to be lost or even destroyed in the following. It might take the form of empty promises set forth by whatever the prevailing winds of pop culture (or, might I add, the darker tendencies of social media!) happen to be at any given moment; and in all honesty, it can easily boil down to the kind of polarized and hyper-partisan politics of division that has been so prevalent in these days. The point is that there will always be for us people, institutions and even ideas that will carry the mantle of a “shepherd” seeking to lead and direct us; each one purporting to offer us safety, comfort and perhaps even salvation in the following!
There are many voices out there who are calling out to us to follow, but it is only the good shepherd, only Jesus, whose voice is true; for he is the one who has the power to lay down his life for us, and the “power to take it up again.” It’s borne in the relationship he has with God, and it’s extended to you and me here today; so that rather than walking the way of life that leads to “slaughter,” so to speak, we are given new life and an open future filled with purpose and unending possibility.
And it’s everything that we’d expect from a “good” shepherd! He leads us where we should go, and he knows as no one else does just what we need to restore our very souls. As Frederick Beuchner has written, “Our souls get hungry and thirsty; in fact it is often that sense of inner emptiness that makes us know we have souls in the first place… [and] there is nothing that the world has to give us… nothing that we have to give to each other… that ever quite fills them. But… like a shepherd, [God] feeds us. He feeds that part of us which is hungriest and most in need of feeding.”
To put it another way, “The Lord is [our] shepherd; and [we] shall not want.” And at the end of the day, at the end of the journey… that’s everything.
What more is there to say, except… thanks be to God!
Amen and AMEN!
© 2021 Rev. Michael W. Lowry. All Rights Reserved.