Pastor Annabelle P. Markey
Year B – Fourth Sunday of Easter
Community Lutheran Church, Sterling, VA – April 22, 2018
“Like a Good Shepherd, Jesus is there!” Well, it’s not a State Farm commercial, but it is Good Shepherd Sunday. And in Jesus’ description of being the Good Shepherd, he draws on some really rich imagery from the Hebrew Scriptures: “For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered… I will feed them with good pasture … I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down… I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak … I will feed them with justice.” That kind of watchfulness, protection, caring and tending does kind of sound like one terrific insurance policy though, doesn’t it?
But if we simply think about our lives and relationship with Jesus as just some kind of insurance, we’re missing out on this whole other piece of the shepherd imagery. Not only was the king of Israel described as a shepherd, but the shepherd motif in literature also represents a nomadic figure because shepherds are not rooted to a single place. This figure stood for the soul, not from this earth, one who was a stranger and a pilgrim. So if we merely think about Jesus as a ticket to heaven, or as fire insurance, a way of avoiding hell, we miss out on the abundant life Jesus promises here and now. We miss the wisdom our shepherd has to give. We exclude the promise that Jesus as shepherd, as our companion on the road, travels with us and we will be changed in the process.
One of my favorite movies growing up was “Babe” and to this day, I cannot watch it without blubbering and crying. Animal movies do me in every. Single. Time! Anyway, Babe is about a little pig who escapes the slaughterhouse and finds his way to Farmer Hoggett’s farm. Farmer Hoggett had won sheep trials with his dog Rex in the past, but hadn’t had a win in a long time due to a tragedy in which Rex lost his hearing. While Babe is trying to find his place on the farm, he ends up being cared for by the sheepdogs and wanting to herd like them. He tries to do it their way, but to no avail – he is not a sheep dog and cannot act like one. But he can use his own voice to speak with the sheep in a gentle manner and ask them politely to go through the gate and into the pen. He defends the flock from wild dogs and, in the end, ends up becoming Farmer Hoggett’s prized sheep-pig. “That’ll do pig. That’ll do.”
Babe was shepherded by the sheepdogs and Farmer Hoggett, but also by his mentor Maa, the oldest sheep in the flock. This guidance is crucial to shepherding others, but he also needs to communicate with the sheep. He has no problems on Hoggett’s farm, but Babe has to get the special sheep password in order to speak to another fold at the sheep trials. “Baa-ram-ewe. Baa-ram-ewe. To your breed, your fleece, your clan be true. Sheep be true. Baa-ram-ewe.” Using this, he is able to communicate with the other fold. To be the good, kind, and gentle shepherd of any sheep he may come across.
Jesus, our good shepherd, seeks us out, calls us by name, and communicates with each of us in ways that we can understand. It may not be the same for each of us, but he knows each of us as individuals – he knows that what may speak to my heart, may not necessarily speak to someone else’s. And over time, as we perceive Christ communicating with us, shepherding us through our lives, we come to know him and his voice. We learn what he sounds like and we grow in our trust and our understanding of what it means to be a disciple, a follower of Christ, and a member of the flock. We are shepherded through others in the fold – parents, sponsors, other congregation members, pastors, musicians, teachers…
In John’s Gospel, one of the resurrection stories is Jesus eating breakfast on the beach with the disciples – it’s one of my favorite stories. It shows the resurrected Jesus, but it also shows Jesus’ forgiveness for Peter’s threefold denial of him before the crucifixion. Three times Peter is asked if he loves Jesus, and three times after saying “yes” he is told to feed Jesus’ lambs and to tend his sheep. Not only is this forgiveness and bringing Peter back into the fold of the disciples, it’s empowering him to be a servant leader and shepherd of the people. Later, in Acts, we hear that Peter has courage and boldness through the Spirit and in Jesus’ name. He is out in public healing people and proclaiming the Gospel, unafraid of being arrested or even killed. He was shepherded in order to shepherd others in the faith. Talk about a steep learning curve from denying Jesus to boldly sharing the good news!
Peter’s story may sound like a “special” story of the transformation that comes from being shepherded by Christ, but while it’s unique, it’s not exceptional. As we hear in 1 John, “We know love by this, that [Jesus Christ] laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. … Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. … This is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.” We are shepherded, tended and nurtured in faith through God present in the church in the Word, the sacraments, and in the body of Christ. But it is not just so that we can feel all cozy and cuddly about being little lambs in Jesus’ arms. It’s so we can lay down our lives for one another in love and service. It’s so we can live not for ourselves, but for each another, caring for, tending, supporting and advocating for others, and accompanying them on their journeys. So we can stand with those who are struggling and hurting, defend those who are defenseless, feed the hungry, empower the poor, grant shelter to the refugee, care for creation and the resources we’ve been given, and commit to love and peace in the face of intolerance and violence. That’s what abundant life in Christ looks like.
That may sound overwhelming, but shepherds not only tend and protect their flocks, they also push them onward to green pastures and still waters. It’s a lovely picture, but sometimes the journey to the scenic view is directly through the “valley of the shadow of death.” It’s through Good Friday to Easter. It’s through those places and situations we have to navigate in order to grow – individually, in relationships, or even as a congregation. These difficult times and “opportunities for growth” happen to us all, whether thrust upon us or by our own making. We may resist like stubborn sheep, but we must always remember that we are not shepherded in order to stay put or to remain comfortable.
As the hymn prays, “shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life.” The promise is that the good shepherd always guides us through to new life, sustaining, comforting, setting a life-giving feast for us, and blessing us with the promise of God’s presence all our days. Christ has shown with his life that that promise is true.
Jesus knows us as individuals, as well as how to communicate with us. He knows how to protect, care for, and nurture us, and how we can serve his flock. He gives everything to shepherd us and we, too, are called to lay down ourselves in love for the other – even those who aren’t in our “fold” whether family, congregation, political party, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, or any other way we might see fit to try to divide the flock. Because as Jesus reminds us, “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.” There are others whom Jesus has called and although we might not know the password to communicate with them, I’m guessing that it might be love, compassion, and service.
There is a blessing from Jonathan Bailey that is quite beautiful: “may the Son of God be Lord in all your ways; may He shepherd you the length of all your days.” To that I would add, and may you, having been shepherded, love and tend to others in truth and action in the name of our shepherd, Jesus Christ. Amen.