“Exploring the ‘I Am’ Sayings of Jesus: I Am the Good Shepherd”
John 10: 11-18 ~ Rev. Gabrielle Suedfeld ~ Northwood United ~ May 19, 2019
More than thirty years ago, in my ministry in Hazelton, I had to preach on this passage from the gospel of John. This was a small rural community, and many children were in 4 H clubs, and raised animals. I decided to enlist the help of four children whom I knew had sheep, and start the service by reading Psalm 23, and then asking them what it was like to be a shepherd and care for the animals. I called their home and got the son, appropriately named David. He said that he and his sisters would be delighted to come up front, and share their experiences with the congregation. He stopped for a moment, consulted his parents and then asked if I would like him to bring in one of their lambs. Great idea! On the Sunday, I stood at the front of the little church, and began to read, in a serious voice, psalm 23 “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want…” and the children slowly came down the aisle, pulling a little black lamb, who baaa’d every few steps in response. Everyone smiled, but then they began to laugh. As I got to “He leads me in the paths of righteousness..” the father entered the church at the end of this little parade. He was a surgeon at the hospital, and he was wearing his “doctor coat”. In his right hand, he held a broom and dustpan, and under his left arm, he had tucked a huge roll of paper towel. Surely Goodness and Mercy and the cleanup squad will follow me all the days of my life….
So much for the solemn introduction to the Gospel that I had planned. A sense of humour was much more welcome. Just in case you are wondering, the little lamb was very polite, and waited until he was on the front steps after the service to need sanitary attention. Today once again, we hear the passage from John’s gospel: beautiful, familiar, and complex. Usually the fourth Sunday of Easter is the time to read about shepherds, but today we are fitting it in a week later. It describes the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep, of his own accord, and has the power to take it up again. The Good Shepherd, we are told, has a relationship with his animals; they know him, and he knows each of them by name. He searches for others, to add to the flock, and they too, follow his voice. In contrast, we hear that the hired hand is uncaring, and leaves when things get difficult. He has no emotional investment in the flock, and abandons the sheep when danger threatens. This is one of the light/dark, good/evil, saved/condemned passages that appear so often in the gospel of John. I think this is a poetic form in which appears in many ancient writings. We find it in Hebrew Scriptures, in the psalms and in Proverbs, presenting us with what seem to be ironclad choices. How are we to behave? A good person obeys the laws of God. An evil person turns away from what is right. A woman of virtue keeps her household in order, but watch out for the temptress. Obedient children will prosper in life, naughty ones will come to a bad end. We may sometimes feel that we are being forced into trying to be perfect, or falling into utter degradation.
I think John and other writers use this poetic method to get us to pay attention. These exaggerations force us, not to choose, but to find the middle ground of real life. It may tempt us to classify ourselves, to label others. Reality, of course, is never so simple. If we want to know the fullness of this concept of shepherds and hired hands that we are offered today, we have to expand our ideas. There are good shepherds, and some who are less involved with the welfare of their animals. There are paid workers who just do their jobs, and others who give extra effort and service. This passage brings up a multitude of images and examples in our world today, and that’s where we want to be guided – to become involved in the gospel message so that it reshapes us, opens our hearts, offers us new insights and paths to follow.
Upon hearing this story, we could classify things in terms of leaders and followers, of executives and staff, or consider the difference between a call and a job, a covenant and a contract, the collection and the offering. The language we use, especially in our church life, is important! A call, a covenant, an offering, mean something else than a job, a contract, a collection. They involve the soul, the sacred; they invite God to be part of the action. And that attitude can be carried into our secular life as well. Wherever the love of God intrudes upon our work, we become good shepherds and good hired hands. We can apply this to our work situation. Imagine a company, large or small. A business with an owner and several employees. A restaurant with a manager and young people working in the kitchen or serving at tables. A hospital with a board of trustees, medical staff, maintenance people. In what situations have you worked? The good shepherd is a leader who cares, a person concerned about the people they employ. A person who evaluates the work situation: are the people happy, are there ways to do things better, have workers been consulted? A good hired hand does the job for love, not just money. The job itself may seem uninteresting or methodical to some, but it may also be a means of feeding a family. It becomes worthy action, no matter what kind of work is being done. It brings dignity, meaning, and self-respect. Mother Teresa said “work is love made visible.”
The uncaring shepherd is just that – uncaring, uninvolved. To them, employees are nameless, faceless, disposable. If a person quits, there’s always someone else, waiting for work. There is often a huge gap between what the staff take home, and the benefits of the management. The uncaring hired hand goes through the motions, and leaves with no sense of loyalty, perhaps because the shepherd is also uncaring. It’s just a job, and all the fun in life is someplace else. There’s no feeling of involvement, or a sense that perhaps their ideas would be recognized and valued, that they could make a difference. This is a passage that might make us take a closer look at our own life and work, our “job satisfaction” and our volunteer commitments. It might make us take a closer look at what‘s going on in the world around us, in our community, our schools, our government, or other world situations. Of course, we don’t want to judge; or stuff everything into one of the four categories. What we want to do is to look at our attitudes towards work, politics, happiness and conflict, and then change ourselves to make a better world.
We are surrounded by a world which has grown smaller because of improved communication. Today, it is possible to know about disasters a few moments after they occur, anywhere in the world. Often, we feel powerless. We become, not shepherds who are committed to their positions of responsibility, but hired hands who throw out the newspaper, turn off the TV or Google News, and run from danger. We don’t vote, because what’s the use? We become the sheep, bleating in fear and panic, wanting someone else to take care of us, to fix things. We are constantly bombarded by the “Bad News”, because that’s what sells. But God asks us to look for the Good News, the news of healing, reconciliation, mercy and love. That’s a burden that we must bear. Every time we hear the voice of God, and answer it, we know that we are responsible for others. The voice of God asks us to be caring shepherds, involved hired hands. To see the world in terms of a covenantal relationship, to see our work as a call to action, to see our giving, not as a forced collection, but as a joyful offering in response to grace.
We look at our church, and realize that caring shepherds and hired hands, ministers an laity, executives and staff, may all need to change in order to live more fully in God’s world. Buildings, camp properties, programmes need to be evaluated on a continuous basis to make sure that we are using our resources and our ministries to serve God and others, and not just our own preferences and habits. Let’s look at these changes in terms of the Good News, not with fear and anxiety, but with a generous spirit of cooperation. Creative solutions are happening all around us. The barrier between the shepherd and the hired hand is being lowered. The borders between who makes the decisions and who carries them out are being crossed, as more people become involved in the process of making things happen. Every time we see our work in terms of life-giving tasks instead of hourly wages, every time we approach our work in terms of joy and a sense of call, we are following in the way of the good shepherd and the good hired hand. Today, all over the world, are people aiding refugees, working in relief centres, doing rescue work in their own communities in hazardous positions such as fire control and police work. There are volunteers who willingly put their lives on the line, because they care about others. There are people in this room who do the same.
Jesus says the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. For us, laying down our lives may not mean death, but it does mean taking risks, living with uncertainty, becoming involved, using time and energy for the sake of others in God’s family. It is the life that we are called to as Christians. It is not a job, an onerous task to be completed in a certain time so that we can go home and play. It is an everyday, all day, lifetime thing. It is the call of God, to make this world a better place for all of God’s people. Two weeks ago, two people I held in great respect, died. They were different in so many ways, but their faith and their actions came down to the same thing: devoting themselves to life-affirming activities. Jean Vanier was 90 years old. He was the son of a Governor General of Canada, he grew up in France and England where his father’s diplomatic career took him, he began his adulthood with a naval career in England and Canada, and then in his late twenties, he gave up all that he had, began a time of spiritual searching, and founded the L’Arche communities, homes where people with developmental challenges would live in community with people who cared more about them than for them. Vanier said: “the most important thing is not to do things for people who are poor and in distress, but to enter into relationship with them and help them find confidence in themselves and discover their own gifts.”
Rachel Held Evans was a young woman who died from a sudden illness at age 37. She was described in an article in the Atlantic magazine as “a well-known Christian blogger, author and joyful troublemaker online”. She left the shelter of her family’s evangelical church and struck out into the unknown world of God’s justice, expressing herself in contemporary articles and books, supporting those who felt rejected or unwelcome by the church, providing encouragement and acceptance and “a new place for diverse voices who (had been) denied authority or power in the Christian world.” (Atlantic May 10, 2019,) Women, LGBTQ, the poor, the sinner, the ones who didn’t fit in. She allowed herself to be vulnerable, “acknowledging human fragility and failings, including her own. Speaking with care and humility, summoning grace for the abandoned.” (op cit.) One of her quotes which touched my heart is: “the Gospel doesn’t need a coalition devoted to keeping the wrong people out. It needs a family of sinners saved by grace, committed to tearing down the walls, throwing open the doors and shouting ‘Welcome, there’s bread and wine; come, eat with us and talk.’ This isn’t a kingdom for the worthy, it’s a kingdom for the hungry.” (Searching for Sunday)
Who is Jesus Christ for you, today? Lamb, Shepherd, leader, teacher, worker, companion on the way? How do you lead? How can you follow? For what do you hunger? How can you be an example to others, as you work for change, for justice, for compassion, for love? Be a caring shepherd as you lead. Be an involved hired hand as you work for others. Remember to see each task that you do in terms of love, backed by the power of God and the sacred call of the Christ. Offer your life for others, so that they may have justice and grace in the name of Jesus.