May 7, 2017, Out of the Hornet’s Nest, Into the Sheepfold – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000022
Today is Good Shepherd Sunday, and for a lot of people, decades of Sunday School lessons and religious artwork have conditioned us to think of this passage in a certain way. We read Jesus’ proclamation about being the Good Shepherd and we picture this beautiful image of Jesus with the little lamb in his arms, and we find it comforting and uplifting. But because the imagery of the Good Shepherd is so familiar to us, and maybe even because we love it so much as an image, we are in danger, I think, of missing what is really going on when we read this passage.
To set this in context, Jesus was speaking out in the middle of a major confrontation with the Jewish authorities. He had just restored the sight of the beggar who was born blind, and he had healed him on the Sabbath day, which was hugely offensive to the Pharisees and all the others who had dedicated their lives to studying and following the Law of Moses to the letter. That act of healing had set off a storm of controversy. The authorities tried at first to deny that the healing had even happened. They tried to say that the man standing there, able to see, wasn’t the same man as the blind beggar everybody was used to seeing sitting in the dirt of the roadside asking for spare change. It was just somebody that looked like him, they said. When the man’s parents confirmed that that was indeed their son, and that he had indeed been born blind, the leaders threatened the man (and his parents – and anyone else foolish enough to say that they believed Jesus was the Messiah, the One sent from God) with expulsion from the synagogue unless he stated publicly that Jesus must be a sinner for breaking the Sabbath.
So Jesus had stirred up a real hornet’s nest with that healing, and in the midst of all that hullabaloo, he began to speak about shepherds and gatekeepers and robbers. And far from being nice and comforting and uplifting, Jesus’ words in that moment, and to that crowd, were deliberately provocative. Specifically, he said two things that, in that time and place, were pretty shocking.
First of all, in that crowd (and there must have been quite a crowd that had gathered when they heard about the healing of the blind man) pretty much everyone listening to Jesus on that day would have been Jewish, and that means they would have been raised on the Hebrew Scriptures from childhood, and accustomed to hearing the Scriptures read every Sabbath in the synagogue. When Jesus began to talk about good shepherds and bad shepherds they would have known immediately that he was referring back to the prophesies of Ezekiel and Jeremiah, where God cried out against the leaders of Israel, calling them bad shepherds of his people.
It would be like someone here saying, “One if by land and two if by sea” – and any American man, woman or child would instantly think of the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, and the Revolution, and the British soldiers, and all that, because that is part of our cultural heritage.
So when Jesus talked about the bad shepherds who were thieves and robbers, and the good shepherd who cared for the sheep, the people in the crowd would immediately have remembered the words of Jeremiah, who said, “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! ”
And they would certainly have remembered the words of Ezekiel, who said, “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord God: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God. 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. And they shall know that I am the Lord their God with them, and that they, the house of Israel, are my people.”
So when Jesus cried out, “I am the door of the sheep.” and “I am the Good Shepherd.” and “I came that they may have life.” the people standing there on that day would have begun to suspect that he was making the shocking, public claim that he was the Messiah, sent from God – that, in fact, he was God. And because he was claiming to be God he was also claiming that the people of God, God’s own flock, belonged to him.
And that was shocking thing number two, because just notice who the sheep turned out to be. Who was it that had heard his voice? Who was it that had come flocking to Jesus by the hundreds and the thousands? Not the Pharisees and Scribes, not the religious upper crust; that blind beggar was a much more representative sample of the flock of the Good Shepherd. If the people of God were truly those who heard the call of Jesus’ voice, what a strange and unexpected flock it was! Blind beggars, yes, and prostitutes and Samaritans; women and children; tax collectors and adulterers and lepers. It was all the dregs of society, it would seem, who heard the voice of Jesus and came out like the children of Hamelin-town following the Pied Piper. But if Jesus was indeed God as he claimed, then those dregs, those outcasts and low-lifes – they must truly be the beloved, called people of God.
John tells us that the Jews were divided among themselves about what exactly Jesus was claiming. Half of them said, “Obviously he’s crazy – or demon-possessed – or both!” But the other half weren’t so sure; they held back their judgment, looking at the blind man who now stood there able to see clearly. “How could a lunatic open the eyes of the blind? Is it possible,” they wondered, “that he might be who he says he is?”
On this Good Shepherd Sunday, it is our joy and firm belief that Jesus, who opened the eyes of the blind and made the lame walk and unstopped the ears of the deaf, is our Good Shepherd, our Lord and our God. We believe that he has called each of us by name, and that in him we have, even now, the abundant life of the Spirit. But if we know that we are his sheep, we also need to understand and accept that everyone who hears his voice is being drawn into his sheepfold, no matter who they are, or how acceptable or unacceptable they might seem to us – or we to them – because the only thing that matters is that we all belong to the same Shepherd. We recognize the same Voice; we share the same abundant life.
Rich or poor, married or divorced or widowed, man or woman or newborn baby, artist or teacher or farmer or priest, retired or unemployed, gay or straight or transgender, black or white or brown, handicapped or mentally challenged, alcoholic or cancer patient or homeless: we are his flock. We all alike belong to the one and only Good Shepherd. We all have heard his voice, who said, “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.” And that’s us, all of us, the sheep of Jesus Christ, all of us who are lost and strayed and injured and weak; we who recognize ourselves so clearly in the helpless little lamb our Lord holds in his arms in our beautiful window.