4/22/2018 Fourth Sunday of Easter The text is John 10:11-18; Ps 23.
Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
The image of a shepherd tending his sheep is deeply rooted in our faith. Although most of us have not seen the relationship between a member of the flock and the shepherd, sheep herding was a common job for the Bedouin people of ancient Israel. These people were fully aware of all the intricate meaning of the relationship. But, we live at a time and place which is very different.
For the most part, today’s shepherds face the same problems that confront all of us in the 21st century. But unlike the jobs that most us have, their job is outdoor work, the type of work that most consider to be menial and meaningless. Sadly, we city folk sometimes think of those people who till the soil or produce animals for the market place as lacking in the ability or intelligence to do anything else. But, the opposite is true and nothing points this out more than the story of an encounter between a shepherd and a modern-day yuppie.
One day a shepherd was herding his flocks in a remote pasture when suddenly a brand new Jeep Cherokee advanced towards him out of a dust cloud. The driver, a young man in a tailored suit, Gucci shoes, Ray Ban sunglasses and a YSL tie, leaned out of the window and asked: “If I can tell you exactly how many sheep you have in your flock, will you give me one?” The shepherd looked at the yuppie, then at his peacefully grazing flock and answered, “Sure!”
The yuppie parked the car, whipped out his notebook, connected it to a cell phone, surfed to a NASA page where he called up a GPS navigation system, scanned the area and opened a database and some 60 spreadsheets with complex formulas. Finally, he printed a 150-page report on a miniature printer, turned to our shepherd and said: “You have exactly 1586 sheep!” “That’s correct. As agreed, you can take one of the sheep,” said the shepherd. He watched the young man make a selection and bundle it into his Cherokee.
As the car starts to pull away, he called out: “If I can tell you exactly what your business is, will you give me my sheep back?” “Okay, why not?” answered the young man, stopping the car. “You are a consultant,” said the shepherd. “That’s correct,” said the yuppie, “How did you guess?”
“Easy,” answered the shepherd. “You turned up here without being asked. You want to be paid for information I already have. And you don’t know anything about my business because you just took my dog.”
In every century, people have thought of shepherds as being strong in body and weak in mind. That’s because their job is dirty and hard. It’s a 24/7 occupation with most of the work being done on foot. It requires hands on – for there’s nothing distant between a shepherd and the animals in his care. A shepherd tends to their needs, cures what hurts them and leads them to safety.
Now, any job where there is not much of a payoff in money or recognition or where you feel taken for granted can seem like a thankless job. Repetitive jobs, boring jobs, repulsive jobs, jobs like that of a shepherd are not occupations people long to engage in. Imagine dealing with dumb, smelly sheep all day. In Palestine, flocks of sheep are plentiful. They dot the countryside, clutter up roads, and crowd the streets of towns and villages. The shepherd with his long staff walks in front of his flock and his sheep follow him so closely that they often hamper his movement – dumb, helpless sheep that they are! And yet, it’s the image of the sheep and the shepherd, not a king and his subjects, or an owner and his renters, or a boss and his employees that has been stamped into Christian thought. For, it is this relationship between shepherd and sheep that was part of Jesus’ heritage and culture.
To God, shepherding is no menial, meaningless, thankless job performed by menial, unintelligent people. Abraham, the father of the nation, was a keeper of great flocks. Moses was tending the flocks of his father-in-law Jethro when God called him into special service. David was a shepherd boy when he was called in from the fields to be the King of Israel. When Isaiah spoke of the coming of the messiah, he spoke in terms of a shepherd-sheep relationship as he wrote: “He will feed his flock like a shepherd! He will gather his lambs into his arms.” This image was brought forward as Jesus told a story about a shepherd who had 100 sheep, but one of them went astray. In our way of thinking a 99% return on our invest would be delightful, but this was not the thinking of this shepherd. He left the 99 to go in search of that one lost sheep.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is using this familiar image of a shepherd, faithfully tending his sheep, to describe his relationship with his followers. Jesus’ work is not menial and meaningless for us even though some might claim it to be thankless. As the good shepherd, Jesus is more than just some heroic shepherd who rescues lovable little lambs from the mouths of hungry wolves. As THE good shepherd, Jesus claims us as his own and he assures us of his protective care as he says, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me…and I lay down my life for the sheep.”
As THE good shepherd, Jesus tells us that he will give us his all. He will not run away in the face of danger like someone tending another’s flock. Jesus will protect and provide for us. He will take the job of shepherd to the extreme, not because he’s all brawn and no brain, but because he love us that much.
The relationship between Jesus, our Good Shepherd, and us, the sheep of his flock, is a relationship which provides ultimate care in a world filled with danger. The promises Jesus makes come with an extraordinary price tag for him and no cost to us for his inexpressible love will be made complete by a terrifying death, followed by a glorious resurrection.
As sheep in the pasture of this world, we need what Jesus offers to us…so we must listen to his voice, remember his promises and live as his gathered flock. For when we do, we will find that we have nothing to fear even in the darkest moments of our lives. We have hope in the presence of our Shepherding Lord.
My friends, we cannot be our own shepherds. We need the gentle lead of a protective Lord on our side. Jesus promises to be that for us as he lays down his life for us. May we find comfort and peace in this relationship that THE Good Shepherd provides. And may the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.