Today is affectionately known as Good Shepherd Sunday. This title given to the fourth Sunday after Easter because of the Gospel passage we just heard – the one where Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.” As such, it is easy to focus on soft and sweet images of the good shepherd, to think of cuddly animals roaming along grassy hills all the while following their beloved leader on a quiet, sunny afternoon. Without any effort, I can recall my time in the Irish and Scottish countryside where I saw nothing but sheep for miles. For many, this is the image that Good Shepherd Sunday calls to mind. As long as we follow Jesus, we can enjoy a lovely afternoon, eat our fill, and not worry about any of the cares or occupations of this life.
I’m sorry to say this lovely image is not what today is all about. The lections for today give us a call to action, a reminder of the life we are called to live as Christians, and a warning as to what is ahead.
I do not know much about Wilton, but I did not notice any large pastures of sheep as I was driving down from New Haven this morning. I certainly have not found any sheep filled pastures in New Haven. If you are anything like me, your experience of sheep might look something like petting zoos and experiences abroad like I just described. For many of us if not most or even all of us the concept of being a sheepherder is a foreign one.
The life of a shepherd was anything but picturesque. It was dangerous, risky, menial, marginal, outcast work. Shepherds were rough around the edges, spending time in the fields rather than in polite society. For Jesus to say, “I am the good shepherd,” would have been an affront to the religious elite and educated. The claim had an edge to it. It would be like Jesus saying today, “I am the good migrant worker.” John’s audience understands this – they know exactly what a shepherd is. They recognize this dangerous, risky, menial, marginal, outcast work.
Stepping back and looking at the larger image of Jesus’ ministry it is easy to see that this is exactly how we should characterize His earthly life. Jesus hung out on the margins, associated with people that could do nothing for him, befriended those ignored by society at large, all the while breaking the rules and customs of his day to do it. His ministry was a dangerous, risky, menial, marginal, outcast kind of ministry.
Now if Jesus had embodied this type of ministry, and we are supposed to emulate Jesus’ life and ministry, then, it follows that we are supposed to embody dangerous, risky, menial, marginal, outcast kinds of ministry. Jesus seeks out the lost, those in need of being rescued, those who are forgotten, those whom are in need of restoration. I wonder in what ways do you seek out the lost, those in need of being rescued, those whom are forgotten and in need of restoration?
Beyond the images of sheep and shepherd, we are offered a glimpse of the larger message of John’s Gospel.
Our Epistle this morning comes from the First Letter of John. It is likely that this letter was written some time after the Gospel of John for a community that knew and loved that Gospel. In many ways the epistle reads like an interpretation and elaboration of the Gospel for believers who want to understand the book’s significance for new times and circumstances. This commentary like approach is clearly seen in the pericope we have today. Hear the words of First John 3:23, “And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commended us.” This is a stunningly succinct summary of the two great themes of the Gospel of John: first, we should believe in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and second we should love one another as he has loved us. The second of these is the focus this morning.
This morning’s Epistle and Gospel make it abundantly clear that the foundation for the commandment to love rests in Jesus’ own decision to love the believers even unto death.
“The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” This is the life we, as Christians, are called to. The dangerous, risky, menial, marginal, outcast ministries we are to embody should be characterized by this radical notion of love: love so strong that he laid down his life for us – and that we lay down our lives for one another.
While being willing to sacrifice one’s life to the point of death is still a present and powerful reality today that is not the call that many of us have. Laying down our lives also means something more common for us here in Connecticut in 2015. It means something that we cannot ignore because we are not called to give our lives to the point of death.
When we risk our own personal images and privileges to stand beside those who are victims of hate, violence, injustice and oppression we lay down our lives. When we put others first, we lay down our lives. When we live for the good of others, we lay down our lives. When we lay down the completely normal human desire to live for ourselves, and when instead we allow the love of God to reorient us toward the needs of others, we are laying down our lives. Each and everyday, by our actions we have the opportunity to lay down our lives for those we are called to serve. All of this we do out of love. This is our call.
So far, this sermon has been rather shepherd-centric. We have been focusing our attention on the Good Shepherd and what it means to model our lives and ministries from His. But what happens if we shift our focus to the sheep?
Sheep do not have the most stellar of reputations. Many think of them as rather dumb animals. It is rarely a compliment to be compared to or referred to as sheep. Sheep are, in reality, not dumb animals. Apparently, it was actually the cattle ranchers who started that rumor, because sheep do not behave like cows. Cows are herded from the rear with shouts and prods from the cowboys. But that does not work with sheep. If you stand behind sheep making noises, they will just run around behind you. They actually prefer to be led. Sheep will not go anywhere that someone else—their trusted shepherd—does not go first.
The question for us becomes, whom are we following? What shepherd have we gotten behind? Are we following the shepherd of power, greed, and consumerism? Or are we following the shepherd of love, compassion, and service. Do we follow the ways of this world, or do we follow the shepherd who models for us a dangerous, risky, menial, marginal, outcast kind of ministry? The sheep know the voice of their shepherd, so whose voice are we following?
For those of us called to be preachers, pastors, priests, or any type of leadership in communities of faith, it is easy to think of ourselves as the shepherd, but might I suggest that it is particularly helpful to think of ourselves as sheep. No matter what our role is in our community of faith, no matter how educated, no matter what fancy clothes we wear, we are all in need of new life and community offered because of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. What would it mean for us— clergy, seminarians, laity—to surrender ourselves to the care of God’s Good Shepherd?
It seems that it does not matter if we put ourselves in the place of the sheep or the shepherd – both images lead us to the same place. We are called by the Good Shepherd to go where he goes, to follow where he leads. We are to listen for his voice calling out to us when we are lost and confused, when we find ourselves getting mixed up in some other flock. We are to strive to be like the Good Shepherd caring for all and embodying a dangerous, risky, menial, marginal, outcast kind of ministry.
Today’s lections shift us from postresurrection appearances to the nature of God’s work in the world. By using the story of the Good Shepherd, the Gospel makes clear to us what this work, this mission of God, is to be. This is a powerful image for us who hunger for connection and community in a society that often looks out for number one. In our moments of loneliness, isolation, alienation, and hopelessness, the Good Shepherd responds to our deepest yearnings for community by offering an alternative to our fears, separation, and insecurities. In the world’s moments of loneliness, isolation, alienation, and hopelessness we can model the life of the Good Shepherd to respond to the deepest yearning for community by offering an alternative to the world’s fears, separation, and insecurities.
We have the opportunity to open our hearts and our communities to the unbelievably powerful love and grace of God. In turn we have the responsibility to offer that love and grace to a broken and hurting world.
As Episcopalians, as Anglicans, as Christians let us join together as sheep and as shepherds. Let us draw all people into to the fold and fellowship of God. Let us follow the one who heals us and makes us whole.
Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.