April 30, 2023, A Little More Light on the Good Shepherd, John 10:1-18 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell

To listen to this sermon, click the link above. An outline of the sermon is given below

It’s Good Shepherd Sunday, and strangely, we find ourselves without our Good Shepherd window – the beautiful image that is such a comforting presence every time we come in. Today, all we have is the unfamiliar light of a gray April day pouring in through a pane of glass that is in need of washing. Which actually seems like an appropriate setting for taking a fresh look at this image that is so familiar to us.

We know that when Jesus taught, he drew his parables from familiar situations and images. He told stories about farmers sowing seed in the fields, about poor widows and unjust judges, about weeds and bread dough, about lost coins and lost sheep – all kinds of everyday things that people could understand. It seems reasonable, then, to assume that on this day John is telling us about, Jesus looked out over a hillside dotted with sheep, and he saw the shepherds watching over them, and he decided to weave that image into a story, to teach the people around him about his faithful, tender watch-care over his people.

But the truth is, this image of the shepherd and the sheep is not something Jesus made up on the spot. It has an ancient lineage, going back centuries to the great prophets of Israel. In the Hebrew Scriptures, God refers to the leaders of his people, the kings of Israel and Judah, as shepherds – many times in judgment, when he was accusing them of failing to care for his people.

Ezekiel (ch. 34) wrote: ‘The word of the Lord came to me: “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? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not 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. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered; they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.’

We hear the echoes of Ezekiel’s indictment of Judah’s faithless kings in Jesus’s words: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

God also cries out against the wicked shepherds through Jeremiah (ch. 23), who wrote: “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” declares the Lord. Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who care for my people: “You have scattered my flock and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them.”

We can hear Jeremiah’s accusation, when Jesus says, “The shepherd of the sheep calls his own sheep by name, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They won’t follow a stranger – they’ll run away from him because they don’t know the voice of strangers.”

“All who came before me are thieves and bandits.” Jesus says, and we can hear Isaiah’s words of condemnation when he wrote (ch. 56): “They are shepherds who have no understanding; they have all turned to their own way, each to his own gain, one and all. “Come,” they say, “let me get wine; let’s fill ourselves with strong drink; and tomorrow will be like this day, great beyond measure.”

This parable of the Good Shepherd isn’t just a comforting image – though it is that, too. But it is also, in a very real sense, a political word and a word of judgment – because Jesus is presenting the kingdom standard for leaders of all kinds, from heads of state to religious leaders.

Jesus starts talking about the Good Shepherd right after he has been wrangling with religious authorities who are furious because he healed a man who was blind from birth – on the Sabbath. They were so entrenched in their power structure and the maintenance of their legal authority that they weren’t able to have compassion. They weren’t willing or able to rejoice that this poor man had been freed from lifelong suffering.

But clearly, this isn’t just a first-century problem, or a Jewish problem; in our day, we see the misuse and corruption of authority all around us. On a secular level, it’s pretty easy to recognize the wicked shepherds in an autocratic ruler like Putin. And sometimes we can see a trace of the Good Shepherd in secular rulers. (meeting with Zelensky in Kyiv, after the massacre in Bucha)

And tragically, we are seeing the results of bad shepherding in the church. The many instances of sexual abuse by clergy in our time are examples of leadership and authority horribly misused – of shepherds who turned out to be thieves and bandits rather than real shepherds. And it’s not a “Catholic” problem, either. The Diocese of Albany is dealing with charges of abuse – fortunately from our past. A church right here in the North Country is being torn apart by accusations of abuse and misuse of authority. And in our time, Christian leaders who have been respected and honored for many years, for decades, like Jean Vanier and Ravi Zacharias, have fallen, through the betrayal of their positions of power.

All human beings are flawed and sinful, we know that, and leaders especially are exposed to greater temptations even as they are held to a higher standard. James, Jesus’s brother, wrote: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”

Jesus has given us an example of the gold standard, the perfection of leadership in stark contrast to the controlling, self-serving leadership of the world: it is a leadership of humility and sacrifice; leadership that seeks first the well-being of those in their care; leadership born of genuine relationship; leadership, at its highest, that is willing to give up everything out of love.

Jesus trained his disciples in what it means to lead – he had to tell them, repeatedly: “If any one of you wants to be great, you have to be a servant of all, and if you want to be first, you have to be a slave of all, just as the Son of Man came to serve, not to be served, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” And to Peter, when Jesus spoke to him after his resurrection, his command was: “Do you love me? Feed my lambs. Care for my sheep.” That is our Lord’s mandate, for all who are called to leadership in the church.

Jesus, our Good Shepherd, is our one and only perfect example of leadership. Six hundred years before Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Ezekiel (ch. 34) prophesied about his coming: “Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land.  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 the fat and the strong – the bullies – I will destroy. I will feed them in justice. And they shall know that I am the Lord their God with them, and that they are my people, declares the Lord God. And you are my sheep, human sheep of my pasture, and I am your God, declares the Lord God.”

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As Jesus traveled from village to village in his ministry, when he saw the multitudes of people who flocked out to hear him, anxious and confused and helpless, his heart went out to them in great compassion, because he could see that they were like sheep without a shepherd. And how true that still is today – just look at the people all around us, at young people with no real hope for a future, at people of all ages who live every day in loneliness or fear or anger or despair. We are living in a day of clouds and thick darkness. Our neighbors, our children and grandchildren, the people we meet along the street or in the store, we are all of us sheep in desperate need of the Good Shepherd. May we all hear his voice and follow him.

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