April 25, 2021, I Will Make You Shepherds of People, John 10:11-18 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
Of all the images Jesus has given us so that we can know who he is, I think the one that gives the most comfort and assurance is the image of the Good Shepherd. “I am the Good Shepherd.” he tells us. “The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. I know my own, and my own know me. The Good Shepherd calls his sheep by name, and they know his voice. When one sheep goes astray, the Shepherd leaves the rest and goes to find the one who is lost, and brings it home, rejoicing. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
How wonderfully comforting is our Good Shepherd window! Everyone who comes into St. Philip’s, everyone who comes up to receive Communion, faces that image of Jesus carrying the lamb in his arms, the other sheep walking close beside him, looking up to him in complete trust, and it speaks to them of the love and care of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. No matter how old we are; no matter how successful or competent we might be, we are never too old or too successful to see ourselves in the place of that little lamb, safe and secure in the arms of Jesus. He is our Good Shepherd, and we are his beloved sheep. He knows us by name. He lays down his life for us. That is our Blessed Assurance.
I’ve had a bit of personal experience with shepherding. Many years ago, when we lived on our farm, a neighbor, through some unfortunate circumstances, found himself with five orphaned lambs. It was more than he wanted to bother with, so we adopted them. We called them collectively “The Calamities” because we’re always fond of a good pun, but of course, we gave each one her own name: Clover and Daisy and Marigold and Poppy and Peggy. The Calamities lived in our kitchen, in a cardboard box at first, but pretty soon they were scampering all over the place. We fed them by bottle every few hours, day and night. We gave them baby aspirin from a dropper when they got sick. We loved them, and cared for them, and they were the first of our flock of sheep.
I think sheep often get a bad rap, and I find that annoying, because I love sheep. People like to talk about how stupid they are. But to my mind, what is most important about the relationship between sheep and shepherds is that more than any other beast of the field, sheep need their shepherd. Sheep are easy prey, utterly helpless against predators. They will eat poisonous plants and die if they aren’t kept in a safe pasture. They often need help birthing their babies. If they roll over on their backs (which they do fairly often) they can get stuck, and they will literally die if you don’t come and help them back onto their feet. They need the shepherd to shear off their wool every year or they will get sick. They need the shepherd to trim their hooves or they will go lame. Chickens or cows or horses or goats might possibly be able to survive in the wild if they were abandoned, but sheep would never make it. And I think that is maybe the most important and significant parallel between us and sheep. Because without our Good Shepherd, where would we be? How could we survive? Could we survive? I don’t think so.
And I think that’s why the image of the Good Shepherd has such a deep resonance for us, because like sheep, we human creatures are needy and helpless, and occasionally stupid. We are surely sheep in need of a Shepherd. But if you paid attention today, when the Lessons were being read, you might have noticed that John, in his first letter to the Church, took Jesus’s image one step further. John wrote: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us– and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” It was the same John, in his gospel, you remember, who wrote what Jesus had told us about the Good Shepherd. Six times, in the nine verses we read from John chapter ten, six times Jesus speaks of the Good Shepherd laying his life down for the sheep. It is the ultimate proof that Jesus is the one and only true Shepherd, that he alone lays down his life for love of his sheep. The image of the Good Shepherd is about comfort, but first and foremost, it’s all about what it means to love. Love is complete self-giving. Love gives absolutely everything for the sake of the Beloved. That’s how we weed out the Pretenders, the false shepherds. When their own welfare is at stake, the false shepherds head for the hills. Only the Good Shepherd gives everything. That’s love.
But John, like the good pastor he is, doesn’t stop at comforting his flock with the knowledge of God’s love for them. He goes on to tell them – and us – OK, now that you’ve learned from the Good Shepherd what it means to love, it’s time for you to grow up to be like him. And that puts a whole new light on this image of the Good Shepherd, because that is radically different from what we know about a shepherd and his sheep. No matter how much we loved our little lambs, they only grew up to be sheep and nothing more. They never learned to be like us; sheep can’t do that. A sheep gets bigger and louder and woolier, but they never grow beyond trust and total dependence; that’s the very best they can do. But we are called to do and be more.
If we belong to the Good Shepherd, if his love abides in us, then we are called to become like him. We’re called to become more than sheep; we’re called to become little shepherds who lay down our lives for one another, as our Shepherd has done for us. He laid down his life for us, because he loves us. And therefore, “we ought to lay down our lives for one another,” John writes. “Because, how can we say God’s love abides in us, if we have the world’s goods and we see a brother or a sister in need but we refuse to help them? Little children, let us love, not in mere words, but in truth and in action.”
We human beings are more than mere sheep. But we see an awful lot of sheepy-ness all around us in this world. People follow this idea or that leader, this style or that goal. They follow trends in huge masses, or they wander off blindly on their own. But love shows up when a person sees their brother or sister in need and is willing to give of themselves to help. Love shows up when we care enough to act to protect another person or to speak up for them. Love shows up when we are willing to give of our time or our energy or our personal stuff. Love shows up when we become more than sheep: when we are willing to put ourselves at risk, when we lay down our security or our comfort or maybe even our very lives, for our brother or sister. And when we love, however we love, we are becoming little shepherds like our own Good Shepherd Jesus.
Psalm 23 draws a picture of how a Shepherd shows his lovingkindness to his sheep. David begins with basic needs: our daily bread, sheep-style. Under the loving care of the Shepherd, the sheep lack nothing. He leads them to find the green grass and the quiet waters they need. In the same way, John tells us that if the love of Jesus abides in us, we will take care that our brother or sister lacks nothing. When you bring groceries for the food pantry, when you bring your bread or salad or dessert this week for the Community Dinner, when you support the Lunch Program or Snack Pack program, you are being a little shepherd. And maybe even more so, when you see your next door neighbor has a need, and take it upon yourself to provide for them as you are able, then you are truly being a little shepherd, laying yourself down for love of your fellow sheep.
David also shows us that the Good Shepherd is an encourager. The Shepherd revives our soul in times of sorrow. The Shepherd walks alongside us when we are going through the valley of the shadow of death. The Shepherd comforts and encourages us by his very presence. When you lay down your schedule to spend time with someone who is suffering, you are being a little shepherd. When you lay down your patience and your agenda to just be a good listener to someone who needs to pour out their sadness or their hurt or their fears, you are being a little shepherd, and the love of the Good Shepherd is surely abiding in you.
The time when the false shepherds are most sure to run off and betray the sheep, though, is when an enemy threatens them. The Good Shepherd, David writes, stands right in the path of the enemy and sets a table for the sheep. The Good Shepherd puts his life at risk out of his great love for the sheep. And there will be times when we little-shepherds will be called on to stand in the way of the enemies of our brother or sister. I think of the many people who risked their lives, even lost their lives, to help their brothers and sisters escape slavery through the Underground Railroad. I think of all the people who hid Jews like Anne Frank and her family from the Gestapo during World War II. Those are some big capital-E Enemies. But you might find well yourself, right here in Norwood, called to stand with someone who is threatened or abused or mocked, for their race or their disability or their gender or just because they’re different. When you refuse to join in a joke, when you speak up for someone, even if it might be scary, you are being a little shepherd.
All five of our little Calamities grew up to be adorable, big, fat sheep. Once a sheep always a sheep. But the love of our Good Shepherd raises us up to become more and more like him. We will always need his loving provision; we will always need his comfort and encouragement, his protection in the face of our enemies. But because he laid down his life for us, we are being raised up to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. We too are growing up to become little shepherds, learning from the Good Shepherd how to lay down our lives for one another: how to love one another, not in mere words, but in truth and in action.