It was hard, I tell you, not to spend this whole sermon talking about how lovely sheep are. As a knitter, this was a real danger for me, and I feel you should count yourselves lucky that I didn’t just devote 10 minutes of homiletical time to describing various sheep breeds and the characteristics of their wool. (TARGHEE!!! BFL!!!!). I realize that so-called “Good Shepherd Sunday” is right up there on the Unpopular Sermon list with Trinity Sunday and Low Sunday, but guys. Sheep are actually awesome. And so shepherds must also be. And why wouldn’t we all be really psyched to be compared to an animal that is pretty intelligent, and can produce milk, meat, and wool?*** Move over, cows.
In view of my sheep-fixation, I decided to go basic with the sermon. So here’s what I said.
(And no, I don’t explain the various types of wool. Though, if you’d like me to offer an opinion, I can do that.)
Rev. Megan L. Castellan
April 22, 2018
Easter 4/ Good Shepherd
1 John/ I am the shepherd
I had a professor in college who taught a whole semester on the Gospel of John. The thing he most appreciated about it, he said once, was that it was confusing. I can attest that he was correct. Jesus uses several metaphors to explain who and what he is in the Gospel of John. Each of them could fill a book, if you unpacked it all the way, and none of them are what you would call clear. The gospel of John as a whole doesn’t seem to be intended for people just entering the Christian life; it’s Christianity 2.0—the why of things are rather than the who and the what. Not the facts, but the reasons behind it all, the grand theology uniting it.
Which is lovely, but also confusing. So buckle up, because we’re going to be spending a few weeks here in the post-Easter lectionary.
One of the last metaphors Jesus uses for himself as he’s talking is “I am the good shepherd.” Now, this one is unlike the other metaphors he’s been using. For one, it is a person metaphor: he’s not becoming a plant, a gate, or a food item. For another, his Jewish audience would have had an immediate context for what he was saying.
Not only were shepherds pretty familiar images in the hills of Palestine, as they still are today, they were also a common metaphor for leadership. Israel’s prophets would talk about the king as the shepherd of the people, in either positive or negative terms. Usually negative. Usually VERY negative.
Jeremiah, for example, laments that his people have only had bad shepherds to care for them, shepherds who let all the sheep scatter and be lost. Ezekiel, too, has a long metaphor of bad shepherds neglecting the sheep of Israel, and letting injustice and corruption reign in the country. “Thus says the Lord God, ‘Woe, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding themselves! Should not the shepherds feed a flock? ‘You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat sheep without feeding the flock. Those who are sickly, you have not strengthened, the diseased, you have not healed, the broken, you have not bound up, the scattered you have not brought in, nor have you sought for the lost; but with force and severity you have dominated them.”
So, it’s bad. And what will God do? “Thus says the Lord God—I am against the shepherds. And I will demand my sheep from them and make them cease from feeding sheep. So the shepherds will not feed themselves anymore, but I will deliver my flock from their mouth, so they will not be food for them.” God is not messing around.
The idea of a shepherd-king being invoked as the person who rules was really familiar, then. Here, though, Jesus is picking up shepherd part, but more on the ‘good.’ The prophets used it all the time, but usually to make the point that SOMEONE had messed up, and now here the people were, wandering around lost, like errant sheep. But Jesus is doing something different. He’s making the point that yes, he’s definitely been given some sort of power, but more than that, that the way in which he uses his power marks him as trustworthy and good.
Those other shepherds us sheep had no choice but to follow, but this shepherd we do.
He’s not just the shepherd we have to follow, because we’re sheep. He’s the shepherd who is good, so we want to follow.
Jesus says “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. His sheep know his voice.” He draws a clear distinction between a leader who is good, who cares deeply and intimately about the creatures they care for, and someone who is just in it for the money, who abuses the trust given to them. Look, he says, I am the good one. I am the one you can trust because I care so much. I even sacrifice myself for those I care for! I am the good shepherd.
I know we know that God loves us. Or at least, I hope you know that. But how often do we sit with that knowledge for a bit? How often do we recall that Jesus really does love us? In a wonderfully-specific and life-giving way, born of knowing us intimately, and still just relishing the fact that we exist. I had a friend in college who was particularly skilled in finding what was lovable in others. One day we were discussing Shakespeare, and she commented that she would love Hamlet for his puns alone, and I thought that this must be how God sees us—utterly delightful in our uniqueness and complexity. God must love us for our puns alone.
So often, maybe, we skip to all the other truths about our faith—forgiveness, grace, salvation, our call to justice, and all that, that it’s possible that we can gloss over the foundation of the whole thing—that peculiar delightful love that Christ has for each one of us that keeps drawing us in. Calling us to follow. That we are loved in spite of, and even because of, our quirks and oddities, and our failures, and broken places, and that somehow, Christ loves us into something more whole, more holy each day.
The work of our lives in faith, perhaps, is to learn to love the whole world with this sort of love. The epistle has talked a lot about living in love, and this, really, is what it’s talking about. Gradually, we are meant to mirror outwards the love Christ shows us, so the whole world can bask in its warmth. But this is a challenge for two reasons: First, because other people are often irritating, and it is hard to love them, and frankly, it would be easier not to. Other People frequently live on the other side of the world, where we forget about them. Or they have different loyalties to ours, which makes it hard to agree with them, and sometimes we confuse that with love. And sometimes, other people hurt us badly. And it can be difficult to continue to wish the best for someone after they have clearly not wished the best for you.
But secondly, this can be a challenge to mirror this sort of love because it is sometimes hard to remember that we are loved. We live in a world that confuses so many things with love: agreement, conformity, even abuse, at times. And so to hold on to the idea proclaimed to us at baptism that we are God’s beloved, sealed as Christ’s own forever, can be hard, in the face of all that. That Christ loves us with a non-coercive, enveloping and freeing sort of love.
But the more we hold onto this as our birthright as humans, this inner knowledge of God’s love for us, the more we can show this same lifegiving love to the world around us.
Because it is this love that builds a better world, when we accept and cherish others. It is this love that urges us on to be better people, when others can see in us better than we believe ourselves to be, and it is this love that draws the lost and the lingering sheep back home.
***I know–Jesus isn’t using this metaphor to compare his followers to sheep, as much as he is comparing himself to a leader, like the ancient kings of Israel. The metaphor is about the shepherd, not the sheep. But, still. Sheep are cool, is my point. They don’t get enough credit in this bovine-centric world.