At first glance, the “fuzz factor” may seem to be pretty high in today’s readings–fuzz as in fuzzy wool of sheep, fuzz as in the images of love that we see on greeting cards or in movies or ads, fuzz as in many of our associations with shepherds, from the little kids in bathrobes portraying the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night in Christmas pageants or the pastel pictures of Jesus holding lambs in his arms. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” begins what is many people’s favorite psalm. And who, in this harsh, cold, often frightening, world, doesn’t need a warm blanket, a strong but gentle protector, let alone love?
As you may have come to expect by now, before we get all comfortable and cozy, we would do well to look at how the first readers, the first listeners, of these passages might have heard them. The image of shepherd was a familiar one to the Jewish community. Their leaders were referred to as shepherds–good shepherds or false shepherds. Moses was a shepherd, herding his flocks when he saw the bush burning but not being consumed. And David, of course, often called the Shepherd King, was a beloved, if not complex, figure.
But shepherds were not sentimental figures. In fact, the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night on Christmas Eve would have been the last people anyone expected an angel messenger, let alone an angel choir, to come to. They were not folks you’d want to get too close to–smelly, rough, dirty, not the most sociable of characters. And the word that usually gets translated as “good” when Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd,” is more often translated “beautiful.” You didn’t often hear the words “beautiful” and “shepherd” put together. “I am the Good, the Beautiful, Shepherd,” Jesus said. Really? How does that work?
The image of shepherd was not sentimental, but it was intimate. Sheep do, apparently, know and respond to their shepherd’s voice. And, of course, a good shepherd knows his or her sheep. You have to wrap your arms around a sheep to shear them, and of course, you can only shear one sheep at a time. You can’t just “know the flock.”
From both the passage from John and the 23rd psalm, we know that being a shepherd is risky business–the table is set in the presence of enemies, and Jesus uses words like bandits and thieves, wolves, and strangers. He talks about laying down his life for the sheep. Which, of course, is what he told his disciples to do–lay down their lives for one another. “We know love by this,” the writer of John’s letter says. Yikes! So much for the Hallmark version of love!
Martin Luther King Jr, who knew a thing or two about laying down his life, told his congregation in one of his sermons that when he spoke of love,
I am not referring to some sentimental or affectionate emotion. It would be nonsense to urge [people] to love their oppressors in an affectionate sense. Love in this connection means understanding, redemptive good will…We speak of a love which is expressed in the Greek word agape. Agape is not a weak, passive love. It is love in action. Agape is love seeking to preserve and create community. When I am commanded to love, I am commanded to restore community, to resist injustice, and to meet the needs of my brothers [and sisters]…. [Cited by Ryan Herring in Sojourners, May 2015, reviewing Cornel West’s The Radical King].
“I am the Good Shepherd,” Jesus says. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…The hired hand runs away [when a wolf comes], because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.” The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
Why is Good Friday good? That was one of the things we wondered about a couple weeks ago, in “wondering” about Easter. Why is Good Friday good? One of the reasons it’s good, perhaps, is because we are shown how far Love will go with and for us–not running away from our deaths, from our experiences of being crucified, not even our experiences of doing the crucifying and betraying. Love–God’s love– does not run away, like the hired hand. Love lays down his life, her life, for the other. For us. That’s good news.
“We are not loved by God because we are precious,” the late Henri Nouwen wrote, “but we are precious because we are loved by God.” I am–God’s name–I am the good shepherd. God knows us–in the incarnation, as one writer puts it, God knows the people [us] from up close” [Bernard Brand Scott, in Kate Huey’s sermonseeds, 4/26/15] and — still, often to my amazement– and yet, God loves us, willing to lay down God’s life for us.
But not just for us. “I have other sheep,” Jesus says, “that do not belong to this fold.” Bruce and I actually have an embroidered version of this that someone in one of our churches made for us–”I have other sheep which are not of this fold.” Let’s not get too smug here [in other words], too parochial or exclusive, as Christians sometimes have a tendency to get. “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.”
Do those other sheep include migrant workers? immigrants fleeing from wars and poverty and violence? People who, like the shepherds of old, are dirty and smelly and socially inappropriate? What about Muslims or Buddhists or Hindus? Might they be part of God’s flock? What about the “nones” as in “what is your religious affiliation”? “I have other sheep that are not of this fold.” We heard this weekend at Annual Meeting about physicist David Bohm, who wrote, “No one piece [of the universe] can have the entire picture of the whole.” Maybe we can hear from science, from quantum physics what we apparently haven’t believed from Jesus–”I have other sheep that are not of this fold”–unless the fold is as big as Love.
“I came that they may have life,” Jesus says in the verse just before we began reading this morning, “and have it abundantly.” “God is my shepherd. I have everything I need.” Abundant life, not more stuff. And abundant love, love for you just the way you are. You are enough. Right now. Already. What if we could really believe that–”You are, each one of us is, a beloved child of God and you are enough.” Do you know anyone else who needs to hear that? For whom hearing you say that and believing it might just plant a seed that could change their life? “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.”
Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of El Salvador was fatally shot while saying Mass on March 24, 1980. He had just read the passage from John which says that unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains only a grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit. Archbishop Romero himself became that seed that bore fruit in the struggle for justice for the El Salvadoran people. Weeks before he died he said, “A church that doesn’t provoke any crises, a gospel that doesn’t unsettle, a word of God that doesn’t get under anyone’s skin, a word of God that doesn’t touch the real sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed, what gospel is that?”
Now, we may not think that proclaiming a provoking, unsettling, get under your skins kind of gospel is any way to grow a church. Who wants to give up a Sunday morning or a Wednesday evening, to be unsettled? Maybe that’s our problem. We’ve been too fuzzy. We’ve been too boring. We’ve been too harmless, too innocuous. Who cares about a gospel that only stays on the surface of things, that only offers a momentary pleasant diversion, that never goes deep enough to the real, root causes of human suffering?
I got a Facebook message from a friend of mine this week, addressed to all her “minister friends.” [I think she meant that in a kind way–her dad was a minister.] It was a link to a blog from the Sojourners community in Washington, DC, entitled, What Struggling Congregations Need to Know to Renew Their Churches.” Those congregations addressed are struggling in the same ways we are–declining and aging membership, diminishing resources, … The answer offered was: “There is too much shallowness.” I hope we go deep, but maybe not deep enough.
“We know love by this,” John writes, “that he laid down his life for us–and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” The word for “life” here is psyche, which looks like our word “psyche,” often used with the sense of “soul.” Martyrdom is not everyone’s calling– literally laying down one’s life for another. But “martyr” does come from the root word for “witness.” What might it mean for us to “witness” to this incredible Love that knows us intimately, that does not abandon us, even in death, in all the kinds of death that we experience in life? Might it mean, for starters, that we could speak openly, in public, that we are part of Second Congregational Church? Might it mean that we could, individually as well as collectively, maybe even in a variety of media, that we could love, not in only in word or speech, but in truth and action, and so counteract the messages that our culture is blasting out that you are not loveable, you are not enough, you are not worthy of love or generosity?
How far are you–are we–am I–willing to go for love? Maybe begin by thinking about how far you’d go for your children or other loved ones. Would you do that for a stranger? For an “unattractive” stranger? Would you go to the point of civil disobedience? Would I have gone to Selma? Would you go to the place of confrontation–as in a drug or alcohol intervention–or a public demonstration? Would you or I go to the place, the action, the statement that would not make people like you/me? For love? How far would go for love?
“It’s your public face, your public invitation,” our new Next Level coach said, “that we can work on taking to the next level.” I believe she can help us develop such a process that has integrity for us, and I believe the proposal to begin the search for our next pastor points us in that direction. The Next Level–”up” from or beyond– our current comfort zone is almost by definition a place that is unsettling, uncomfortable, but it s place of growth and new life.
“I am the Good Shepherd,” Jesus said, “and 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. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? [Brothers and sisters], let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”
The flock that Jesus is the Good Shepherd of is bigger, wider, more diverse, more abundant than we an imagine. It’s as big as love. May we live within that flock and be guided and shaped by the Shepherd, with joy, with courage, with hope. Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark