By The Very Rev. Sherry Crompton
May 3, 2009
Read: Psalm 23 and John 10:11-18
We heard a great deal about shepherds in our scriptures for today. And, not surprisingly, today is referred to as “Good Shepherd Sunday”. Psalm 23 tells us that “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want. ..he leads me beside still waters. He revives my soul”. And in John’s gospel, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.”
Today, let’s consider the difference between good shepherds and hired hands; that is, between those who care out of a genuine sense of compassion and love, and those who care because of the benefits, either real or perceived.
John begins with “I am the good shepherd”. What we need to know is that, in Jesus’ day, the term, “good shepherd,” would have been heard as an oxymoron – a contradiction of terms. In Jesus’ day, shepherds were anything but good. They lived as nomads, grazing their sheep on other people’s land. The life of a shepherd was anything but picturesque. It was dangerous, risky and it was menial. Shepherds were rough around the edges, spending time in the fields rather than in polite society.
And so, for Jesus to identify himself as a shepherd is quite remarkable. It goes along with his willingness to befriend the outcast, touch the leper and eat with tax collectors and sinners. It speaks of Jesus’ humility, to become as one of us in order to redeem us from our sinful nature and give us grace to become more like him. Paul said it best when he wrote to the Philippians,
“ … Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped,
but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave …” (Phil. 2:6-7)
Or, in the case of today’s text, taking the form of a shepherd.
All this is to say, we don’t have to be perfect in order to walk in Jesus’ company, he meets us where we are. The Good News is, we’re accepted, zits and all.
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” That is what makes him good, according to John—his willingness to get involved, to risk his life for the life of his flock. His flock. Not somebody else’s flock, which he gets paid five dollars an hour to look after, but his own flock—the one he has invested his time in, the one he has doctored and protected, the one he has come to develop a relationship with. He cares deeply, he loves, his flock. He is invested in his flock in more ways than one.
His sheep are his livelihood, for one thing, but they are also his extended family. They know his voice, his touch, his walk. If they are grazing with a thousand other sheep and he calls them, they will separate themselves from the crowd and follow him home. His flute is the sound of safety for them—the sound of still waters and green pastures. He knows them too, by name and disposition: Houdini, who is always escaping from the flock; Pegleg, who limps from the time she stepped in a hole; Bossy, who likes nothing better than butting heads.
There is something about a sense of ownership here that creates a certain kind of relationship. The ownership is not about mere possession, but about being bound to something beyond ourselves, about identifying with it so strongly that it becomes part of us. When it is threatened, we defend it as if we were defending our own bodies, and sometimes that can get us into trouble.
Barbara shares a story about visiting a friend in California not too long ago. They met at the airport and as they were getting into the car to leave, my friend opened his door so wide that it whacked the sideview mirror of a red sports car parked next to it. There was no harm done, but the owner of the sports car happened to be sitting inside of it at that time, and when he heard the whack he exploded out the driver’s door.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he yelled at my surprised friend, at which point his friend jumped out of the car and said, “Don’t you talk to him like that! It was an accident, for crying out loud, and you can see for yourself that nothing’s broken.”
“I’m talking to him, not you, buster,” the man said furiously.
“Yeah, well, when you’re talking to him, you’re talking to me.” My friend’s friend said, and the man backed down.
Say what you will about brawls in airport parking lots, there is ownership in that statement. “when you’re talking to him, you’re talking to me.” There is intimate relationship in that, full willingness to risk one’s own safety in order to defend someone else’s. Not because he can’t take care of himself, but because you care for him—you are connected to him, and you know it.
We all deserve to have someone in our lives who will say, “when you’re talking to him, you’re talking to me.” Someone who will tear her clothes off and dive into the water when what is disappearing down the river happens to be us. That is agape, self-giving love, the kind of love the good shepherd practices and the kind he teaches.
If the shepherd had been a hired hand, we would not even know his time. A hired hand would have taken one look at the wolf, or the river current, or the bully, and vanished….because a hired hand does not care for the sheep; he does not involve himself so deeply in their lives that he risks his own to protect theirs. He minds his own business. He takes care of himself.
The good shepherd, on the other hand, lays down his life for the sheep. He cares deeply. The good shepherd is calling and inviting us into a close and loving relationship with himself. Jesus desires to know us and be known by us. Jesus longs to be our leader, to be our guide, to be our friend and our protector.
When was the last time you listened for that voice?
He’s calling today. Amen.
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