Rev. Danielle K Bartz April 25, 2021
John 10:11-18 “Shepherds and Sheep”
Today is referred to as Good Shepherd Sunday in the church. Each Easter season, we hear the Gospel lesson I just read, in which Jesus refers to himself as the Good Shepherd, differentiating himself from the hired hands, who do the work just for the money. This Gospel lesson is usually paired with Psalm 23 – so today we are encouraged to think of ourselves as sheep, grazing in lovely fields, being protected by our shepherd – who keeps the wolves at bay.
I don’t know about your previous pastors, but since I have arrived, I have ignored Good Shepherd Sunday. I don’t like the comparison of Christians as sheep. Quite frankly, I don’t hold a high regard for sheep. In fact, in the last week or so, a video has been circulating amongst my various clergy Facebook groups that sums it up well for me. In this video, a sheep has somehow gotten itself wedged head-first in a deep, but narrow trench dug in the ground. It looks to me like a trench that is dug to lay a cable. Anyway, the video begins with the sheep’s caretaker trying to pull the sheep out of its precarious position. Finally, the sheep is freed and it takes off running. It leaps into the air – and lands headfirst into the same trench about 10 yards down, winding up in the exact same position it was just in, forcing the shepherd to curse under his breath and start the whole thing over again. The video seems to imply that on Good Shepherd Sunday, if you are going to be a sheep, at least don’t be that sheep.
So, I have shied away from a metaphor that implies humanity is nothing more than sheep – especially since I have always considered sheep to be smelly and dirty. Another reason I have stayed away from this metaphor is because it is equally over-used AND unrelatable. For those of you who grew up in the church, you have likely seen and heard this metaphor used over and over again. Maybe as Sunday School children you found yourself gluing cotton balls onto popsicle sticks to make sheep. The artwork of a beatific Jesus with a lily-white sheep draped over his shoulders is…ubiquitous. In fact, in some traditions, clergy carry hooked staffs – a symbolic way to declaring themselves a shepherd. And some clergy refer to their congregation as their flock. In fact, I have often been asked, “how is your flock?”
I cringe at the metaphor. To begin with, I don’t think any of you as smelly and dirty. And I don’t see myself as herding you, keeping you away from all the dangers of the world, hoping you remain blissfully unaware of what is happening around you so you will follow me whenever as I ask you to go. So, my discomfort with the personalized version of this metaphor – clergy considered shepherds and congregations flocks – is transferred to the idea of Jesus as shepherd and Christians as flock. It makes me cringe. It makes me think that I am to have no say in what happens to me or how I choose to interact with the world and interact with God. I feel the metaphor implies a passivity that does not fit with my understanding of what it means to be a person of faith.
But, there is a reason this image of a shepherd tending to their flock has endured in Christianity. Have you, like me, ever wanted someone else to make all the decisions? Have you, like me, wanted someone else to be the one to keep an eye out for wolves, whatever form those wolves take in your life? Have you, like me, wanted to spend at least some of your time happily grazing in a field of abundance while someone else does all the hard work? Sure you have. We all have. Perhaps that is why this metaphor has lasted so long, even though very few people these days have any concept of what it means to be a shepherd. We like the idea of being cared for, we like the idea of all that is required of us is to trust the one tasked with caring for us.
And that is the trick of being a person of faith. We are on the one hand asked to be active participants in our faith. We hear the call of Jesus to love our neighbor, and we have learned that does not mean a passive form of love. That means an active form of love – taking care of one another. Helping those in need. Standing on protest lines. Speaking up in the face of injustice. Holding hands with the sick. Feeding the hungry.
But on the other hand, we are promised that if we simply trust in the promise of God’s love as taught to us through the lived example of Jesus, then everything will be alright. If we can fully and completely place our trust in God, then the world will right itself. If we, all of humanity, can embrace the promise of the Kingdom of God – then injustice will cease and prosperity will reign.
It is in this tension that people of faith live today. Which are we to do, we ask ourselves? What does God want of us? An active faith brought to the world through our hands and feet – in other words through our actions? Or does God want a passive trust, a complete, unquestioning faith? Does it have to be one or the other, we wonder?
Perhaps not. Because when we think of this idea of Jesus or God as the Good Shepherd and Christians as a flock – there is something crucial we must remember. There is a relationship implied. In fact I wonder, even though I have never actually shepherded sheep, the only way it works at all is through a mutual relationship. The sheep have to trust, and the shepherd has to understand. The sheep have to trust the shepherd has their best interest at heart. That they are valued and that if they follow, even if the direction seems odd, they will be led to a place of abundance.
And equally – the shepherd has to understand the proclivities of the flock. The shepherd has to know that sheep have minds of their own and will follow their hearts or instincts. Sheep react in fear and shy away from the unknown. They are at times more interested in feeding themselves of what they think they need and forget that they are part of a community. The shepherd has to understand all of that and leave space for grace when the sheep wander off or get themselves stuck in a trench once again.
This relationship implies trust and understanding in equal measure. Maybe that is why it has endured for so long. Trust and understanding are how we hold ourselves in the tension of faith. We trust that God is guiding us in love and we trust that God understands when we stray from that path. And when we are engaged in active faith – when we are living our trust in God into reality for all people – we can find comfort in knowing that God is there, keeping the wolves of doubt and fear at bay. And when we are tired and needing to be cared for – and just want to turn it all over to God, we can find comfort in knowing that God will lead us to cool streams and fields of abundance, watching over us day and night.
So, I am softening to the metaphor of sheep and shepherd, but I am not all of the way there yet. And one of the problems for me, is how this metaphor is often depicted in art.
If you Google Jesus as Shepherd artwork, you will be bombarded with, quite frankly, shallow images that imply the relationship is one of ease and luxury. So, instead, let me leave you with an image that makes more sense to me and I invite you to use your imaginations as I describe this:
The terrain is difficult and it is impossible to see what is around the next corner. But the flock moves together, staying close to one another – finding comfort in knowing that if they are moving into the unknown, at least they go together. And there in the midst of them, always there, always, always there – is the shepherd urging them to keep moving. They trust that the shepherd knows where they are and where they are going, is not afraid of the difficult terrain, and knows just how to keep the wolves away. The flock feels the comfort of community, but whenever they need – they can look and see the shepherd, just as dirty and smelly as they are because the way to difficult – but the shepherd is always there, leading them and making them brave.
PASTORAL PRAYER (based on Psalm 23)
Thank you for the way you have led us to green pastures and still water;
you’ve shown us beauty this week that has fed our souls.
The brilliant green of the budding trees glowing in the morning sun
the delicate symphony the birds sing each morning
the caress of the warm sun on our upraised cheeks,
the fragrance of lilac in the evening.
Some of us have walked through dark valleys this week,
and all of us know someone in a dark valley,
valleys of sickness, grief, uncertainty, fear.
You meet us there in the darkness, you protect us.
Our enemies are present in our lives;
forces that would take us away from you.
Pride, envy, hatred, selfishness,
all played out on an individual and corporate level.
We need your help in our lives.
You have heard the concerns of our hearts
spoken and unspoken
which weigh heavily on us.
We call on you for help; you guide us carefully.
You have provided for our basic needs this week,
thank you for the food we’ve eaten,
for the luxury of variety in our diet,
for the joy of cooking,
for the clean water that comes out of our taps.
You anoint us with oil,
you gift us with grace,
providing unexpected blessings over and over,
encouragement and new strength when we falter
tender compassion when we are spent.
Goodness and mercy is following us
all the days of our lives.
We give thanks for this good life,
for life and breath this day,
a day to praise and thank you,
we want to stay in your Presence forever. Amen.