What does it mean to be a Good Shepherd?
Clearly, in the text from the gospel of John, Jesus is saying he is the Good Shepherd, but then in the psalm we read together, God is the shepherd and often Pastors are referred to as shepherds of their flock. As brothers and sisters to Jesus, are we, too called to be shepherds? If so, what does this mean?
When you hear scripture like we heard this morning, it is easy to get caught up in the idyllic images presented to us. In this season of hope, of living into images of an empty tomb, images such as butterflies bursting forth from a cocoon, images of little green shoots of plants breaking thru the cold brown ground, it is easy to hear the 23rd Psalm and think of sheep peacefully grazing in a green field or placidly drinking from a perfectly still little pond.
In this season of Easter, the fourth Sunday is typically called Good Shepherd Sunday. For the past few weeks, the lectionary gives us stories of Jesus appearing to the disciples after his resurrection. Today, we are moving from these attempts to cement into the disciple’s heads and hearts that Jesus has died and been resurrected to what this means in the world. The gospel according to John gives us the image of the Shepherd. When we think of The Good Shepherd, more sweet images come to mind- images of a flock gathered serenely around their shepherd or a picture of Jesus surrounded by sweet little sheep.
I am curious, though, how many of you have ever spent any time around sheep? Are there any of you that know some actual shepherds?
Suffice it to say that working with sheep is not quite as sweet and serene as artists over the years would like us to believe!
I have taken groups to Heifer International’s farm when it was in central MA and on those trips; we had the chance to work with the sheep. Each morning, a couple of lucky volunteers would get to work with the staff at the farm either feeding the sheep in their enclosure or running the sheep to the pasture so they could graze. Neither of these chores could be considered peaceful nor pretty.
You see, sheep like their food and they like to bump into you to get it, they don’t care if you fall down in the muck and…other stuff…they want their food! Sheep also like to run! But, unlike cows or goats that need to be herded from the back, sheep like to follow the voices and noise of their shepherds. So, when I think of shepherding, I am blessed to have forever etched in my brain the image of one of the young people from my former youth group running full-tilt down a dirt road towards a pasture with a bucket of grain in one hand and a bell in the other with a whole flock of sheep on his heels! Quite a sight!
I also have two friends, one in Maine the other in Washington State, who are shepherds. One friend works mainly with herding dogs and trains them to keep the stragglers with the rest of the group, the other friend runs a farm with a variety of livestock to care for; sheep being one of them. My friend in WA works her dogs every day so they can keep the sheep in line. My friend in Maine has been in danger of losing her farm several times due to high taxes and not much income. Neither of these scenarios is particularly idyllic or serene.
So, what is going on here? As we are surrounded by our hopeful images of butterflies and sweet scenes of Jesus holding a lamb, what is it that John is trying to get across to us?
Typically, the term Good Shepherd is used to refer to Jesus and his care of the church; his flock. Often, this image of a shepherd tending the flock gets passed on to pastors and their congregations conveying the idea that pastors lead their people and tend to their spiritual needs. But, if the reality of working with sheep entails running around and clapping your hands frantically to get them to follow you or being pushed over into a pile of poop…hmmm, I don’t know, maybe I need to look for a new line of work!?!?
The fact is that being a good Shepherd is a lot of hard work. Metaphorically and literally. In this day and age, being a shepherd has its challenges, but being a shepherd in the time and context that John was writing about was extremely challenging. You led a nomadic life, going from pasture to pasture trying to find some place for your sheep to graze. You constantly had to be on the lookout for predators. Your entire livelihood came from the creatures you cared for. “A shepherd, therefore, needed to be strong but not overpowering. If the shepherd came on too forcefully, the sheep would scatter and run away. If the shepherd was too gentle or inattentive, too passive or distracted”, a whole host of troubles would ensue (FOW, French, 437).
The people John was writing for knew the reality of being a shepherd, much more so than we do. But that doesn’t mean we miss the meaning.
As we move more deeply into Eastertide and the reality that Jesus has died and has risen settles upon us, what can we learn from this morning’s scripture about our relationship with God and with each other?
David Lose, former President of Lutheran Theological Seminary, offers the following, “Amid Jesus’ discourse on being ‘the good shepherd,’ what jumped out to me was Jesus’ simple but bold assertion that, ‘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’… What strikes me is that, quite simply, Jesus isn’t done yet. Despite his healings, despite his preaching, despite all that he had already done and planned to do, Jesus isn’t done yet. He still has more sheep to reach, sheep that are not in this fold. By extension, I’d suggest that God isn’t done yet, either” (davidlose.net).
Lose continues to outline how God isn’t done- not by a long shot! First, he says, “God continues to call people from all walks of life, from every nation on the face of the earth, and from each and every generation, (if that weren’t true, we wouldn’t be here right now)… Second, simply, by praying for someone or inviting someone to church [we are] the vessels by which God continues to reach out and embrace all of God’s children… Third, the members who will one day make up Jesus’ flock are beyond our imagining. There is a tremendous expansiveness to Jesus’ statement here” (http://www.davidlose.net/2015/04/easter-4-b-god-is-not-done-yet).
This scripture we have this morning not only moves us more deeply into the hope that the resurrection of Jesus gives us, but it also puts us right at the heart of what is going on in our world today!
In the face of the concerns and prayers we carry on our hearts, we hear hope in this scripture- the work of the Good Shepherd is not done. God is not done, Jesus is not done and, therefore, we are not done.
Week after week, we pray for those who have experienced the loss of loved ones, we pray for the end to racism and injustice, we pray for an end to violence and war, we pray for lives lost in tragedy and natural disaster, we pray for cures for diseases and an end to poverty and hunger and homelessness. Our prayers are from a world not unlike that of the psalmist when he writes about the “valley of death.”
And, then, we move from our time of worship, our time of prayer, out into the world to continue God’s work. We are living proof that the work Jesus started is not done.
This church has a mission statement that says, “We seek to live a Spirit-filled life defined by the pursuit of justice, generous welcome and inclusive love, through our faith, worship and service to others”. With this statement, we are saying that we accept Jesus challenge to be expansive, we understand that God’s work is not done and we are willing to continue that work in many ways!
We serve the community every month with an amazing breakfast, we go to prayer vigils and marches to share God’s love and justice, we invite Seacoast Family Promise to eat and sleep here, we walk in the Crop Walk, we offer space for AA and ALANON and the Ukulele Group to meet to name a few…
But, what else can we be doing? How can we more fully live into our purpose statement and continue God’s work in this world?
This past Thursday night, a group of about 20 of us gathered together to begin the process of getting clear on the mission and future ministry of Pilgrim Church. When you go into the Social Hall you can see part of the work we did that evening. For those who were not able to join us the other night, we will have a chance to delve more deeply into the topic next week during worship as we gather for Breakfast Church in the Social Hall.
You can see on the sign in the Social Hall that Pilgrim Church is currently involved in a lot of projects and supports a lot of programs and since I have been here, a lot of new ideas have been bubbling up- new ideas about fundraising, new ways to be a better community partner, new ways of being church together- it is very exciting!
One of the things we talked about the other night and we have been talking about in various Board and Committee meetings is all of this stuff that we are involved in is good stuff, but we cannot do it all well. We need to do the hard work of figuring out what we are uniquely called to do, who we are called to be in this time and place.
I hope and pray that each of you will find a way to be a part of this important conversation!
Friends, no one said that continuing the work of God would be easy or peaceful or idyllic. It is difficult and dirty, but so very hope filled!
I love what Pastor Isaac Villegas offers on the text of the 23rd Psalm, “As the church, we practice a stubborn hope…no matter how precarious our lives, no matter the threats from enemies. We do what God does, make room for people to grow… The church is a [place] where all are welcome to rest in God’s love. It is a table where all are welcome to eat and drink God’s life. In us, the body of Christ, God is made flesh and we fear no evil” (Villegas, Christian Century, 4/15/15, 19).
May it be so, dear God, may it be so.