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I tried really hard to think of a shepherd story for the beginning of this sermon, you know one that would give a modern take on this ancient story, but we don’t really have shepherd stories anymore. Maybe it’s because we don’t have shepherds. I mean raise your hand if you know a shepherd, like personally know someone who spend their days shepherding. Ranchers don’t count, and there’s a reason for that. Shepherds aren’t ranchers. Ranchers stay put. Historically speaking, shepherds move their flocks around, sort-of free grazing on the land of other people. So it might surprise you to find out, especially given the number of positive images of Jesus as a shepherd, that shepherds are not thought of highly in the cultures where they have existed or still exist today.
There are shepherds in Palestine to this day, mostly Arabic-speaking and nomadic. In Jesus’ time, shepherds were on the lower rung of the Judean social ladder, like butchers and tanners, since they came into potential contact with all kinds of unclean things and since their herds often trampled and ruined any crops. They were tolerated in Jesus’ time, necessary but not embraced at all, kind of like used car salesmen or Congress. So add this to the list of things that Jesus uses as spiritual metaphors which are unclean, or questionable, to his culture. A mustard seed? Well, that’s a weed. A ‘pinch’ of leaven? Leaven is so questionable that you avoid it during the holiest holidays. Jesus touches the lepers, eats with the tax collectors and the prostitutes, and uses an encounter with a foreign woman of questionable character to emphasize the action of God, all of whom belonged to that same class of despised people that shepherds did, a class often labeled “sinners.” So, why not a shepherd, too?
In one of the many “I Am” statements from John’s Gospel, Jesus not only says he’s a shepherd, but a GOOD shepherd. Not like those othershepherds. Which sounds again like a used car salesman’s line as you step on the lot. But I think what Jesus is doing here, or rather John on Jesus’ behalf, is taking this common image and asking us to look at it again. After all, what does a shepherd do? A shepherd cares for the flock, tending to the wounded, keeping them safe from predators and moving through the seasons of life – birth, growth, change, stress, success, failure and, finally death. It is a necessary role for a sheep, someone to guide them and protect them. And while we may not much care for the metaphor when we realize that we are the sheep in this scenario, it does allow us to think about how it is that Jesus guides, protects and shapes us, which is a necessary function. And in his day and age, the metaphor would have asked people to take this tolerated work, see the good in it, and attach it to what Jesus was doing.
Maybe that’s why the modifier “good” is there. That word in Greek,kalos, means noble, beautiful, good…an outward indication of an inner character. So Jesus, through John, is even being inclusive with this metaphor. There can be such a thing as a goodshepherd…like there can be a good lawyer, or a good cop, or a good President.
It is possible, if that person has character and heart.
Maybe that’s why Jesus also uses this image of a hired hand alongside the shepherd, someone who is supposed to do those crucial things, but who’s not really invested in it, as a way of talking about the various kinds of things or people that we have leading the way. They’re not all the best leaders. We have “hired hands” all around us, supposedly as protection, presumably to do the necessary work of the shepherd, only they don’t. These hired hands don’t do the hard work of nurturing the flock, of caring and suffering with us. Instead they say that what will guide and protect us is acquisition…more money, more possessions, more youth, more cars, more food, more sex, more Facebook friends, more guns, more and more and more. Because these cultural “hired hands” don’t really care about us, they sell us the lie that we are insufficient, that we are not good enough, that we are not worthy, in fact, of love and respect and happiness without some product, some ideology, some weapon, something – almost anything else – beyond who we are and how God created us. They sell us that lie as if it wereprotection, or nurture, or growth. The good shepherd, in John’s metaphorical imagination, cares for us because we exist…because we are children of God, beloved by God and accepted by God.
This morning the word I have for you is that we doneed a shepherd, we need a good shepherd who cares so much for the sheep that a single lost one is worthy of attention. As much as I don’t care to think of myself as a sheep, I will be the first to admit that I don’t know where I’m going, even though I have goals, and I don’t know how to get there, even though I have plans. I am, in a metaphorical sense, wandering around, in need of guidance. In fact, I think we all are to varying degrees. And the lesson from John reminds me this morning that there is a shepherd for us, and it isn’t the 24-hour news channel, the latest social media post, or the free-market. It isn’t even, as hard as it is for me to say, National Public Radio (sorry, Rich) and it isn’t the New York Times. It’s not our favorite pop star, the greatest actor of our generation, any of a number of fearless, activist leaders nor anyelected official. And it isn’t your pastor. It’s Jesus.
Jesus, the good shepherd, believes in us all – every single other – as valuable and worthy. Jesus guides us to give up the false protection of certainty, of blame, denial and accusation, of acquisition and competition to support each other in embracing vulnerability, courage, and what author and researcher Dr. Brene Brown calls, “whole-hearted living.” For when we fall prey to the predator called “winning,” the sharp teeth of celebrity, fame or consumption, the tearing claws of shame and fear, we give up the realprotection that Jesus offers, the security of trust and vulnerability that is found in following a shepherd whose power is made perfect in weakness, as Paul wrote to his churches.
It is our shepherd, Jesus, who points us to a God whose love is far stronger than what we count as strength, whose grace is far more life-giving than any amount of righteousness we thinkwe could earn and whose compassion is far more restorative than any judgment to which we still cling, hoping that some kind of plastic “righteousness” can save us, at the cost of others. The goodshepherd, Jesus, guides us to the most important thing that we “sheep” could have in our search for meaning and hope, and it isn’t food or shelter, not security or shade, though those things are important. It is connection. It is value. It is our inherent worth as human beings, created by a God who knows all about us, our every supposed weakness, our oh-so polished strengths, a God who knows our every detail, and loves us without measure, because we are worthy…we belong.
God lets us lie down in green meadows,
God leads us by restful waters and refreshes our soul…
God will stay with us and guide our path…
She is with us all,
so that we might work for goodness and mercy
and share the bounty of the earth together.
May it be so. Amen.