This was my last sermon at Tabernacle, which I preached today.
Of Sheep and Shepherds
Today we hear a portion of Jesus’ last public teaching, as recorded in the Gospel of John. It is a confession of sorts, a confession of who he is. But in order to confess, one needs a crime or a cause. This kind of thing is sort of a double movement, from infraction to admission.
So what kind of crime did our Christ commit? To gain the background to today’s reading we need to go back quite a ways. This is because the Gospel of John relishes long discourses about the nature of spiritual matters. Back in chapter nine a blind man was given sight by Jesus and the religious leaders of the time question the nature of this miracle, they ask the blind man and his parents to bear witness to what has happened and eventually call Jesus onto the carpet. And so Jesus confesses who he is.
And this double movement from crime to confession, healing to announcement, is not unlike Peter and John’s actions outside Solomon’s Portico as found in our reading from Acts—For they too had healed a man “Lame from birth,” and then were questioned by the religious authorities. They wanted to know how such a thing was done. Peter and John state clearly that Jesus Christ is the center of salvation—that the rejected stone has become that which holds up the whole building.
Likewise the confession of Jesus is this: “I am the good shepherd.” Previous to this statement he had made similar pronouncements, “I am the bread of life” “I am the light of the world” and right before today’s reading “I am the gate.” These “I am” phrases are bold pronouncements. They are phrases found on the lips of Jesus only in the Gospel of John. A gospel, as I said, very interested in inquiring about the deep and spiritual nature of the events surrounding the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. It is most probably the last of the gospels written, written after a time had passed, after the author had had time to reflect extensively on the reality of Jesus and the events portrayed in the three other canonical gospels. And so I believe the weight of the words, “I am,” is entirely intentional.
What do I mean by this? What weight hangs upon the words, “I am?”
“I am” can be seen as a pronouncement of divinity. The etymology of The Divine Name, that is where The Divine Name comes from, is strongly linked to this phrase. When Moses is receiving his commission to free his people from the bondage of Pharaoh, he asks, in essence, “who are you?” And the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob answers, “I AM WHO I AM.” Only God has a reality without contingency. Only God is source of all that is. As is often pointed, out only God can say I am and put a period.
And if that was not enough Jesus is not only the “I am” but “The Good Shepherd.” Again this image evokes the divine. For example, in Ezekiel chapter 34 God is declared to be the true shepherd over and against the “shepherds of Israel” who have been feeding upon the sheep instead of strengthening the weak, healing the sick, binding up the injured, and seeking the lost.
And more to the point the psalmist wrote:
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his names sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
This description of the LORD as shepherd is all-encompassing, as is the LORD’s providence. Because of God’s shepherding we can claim to want nothing. We can claim to be provided for as sheep. Yet this Psalm blows up that metaphor. It explodes it, reshaping what it means for the LORD to be a shepherd. Not only does the LORD pasture, lead, restore, and comfort, but the LORD also acts as a host to us the guests. In the ancient Near East if you are someone’s guests you couldn’t be troubled by anyone as long as you resided in the hosts house. This is why, for example, we see Abram and Sarai quickly bringing water to wash feet and fetching food for the three men who appear to them in Genesis 18.
Yet, perhaps I discard the root image of Shepherd too quickly, especially with regard to what it means about us. If the LORD is our shepherd, we are sheep. Now, I don’t know how many of you have experience with sheep, after all we’re kinda in the city here. In fact, it is very likely none of you here raise sheep in your spare time.
But it wasn’t so over in Saffron Walden, that tiny English town I lived in for a year. I’ll always remember Jane. She had greying to white hair and was always graciously offering me tea. She was the town post-mistress, but additionally she weaved with a loom, and had her own source of wool… her sheep.
I remember one time she let me meet her sheep. Now, when we think of sheep we often think of those white cotton-ball like animals we have children make as a Sunday school project. Yet when I met them in real life they were smelly, loud, and didn’t appear to be that smart. And if you look up the word Sheep in the Anchor Bible Dictionary it will affirm the experience I had with Jane’s sheep—it will tell you much the same thing. It says sheep are, “nonaggressive, defenseless, and in constant need of supervision.” That’s us, that’s humanity!
There was once a Gary Larson Far Side cartoon that describes us well. In it two sharks lay on the beach stuffed, like they’d just finished a Thanksgiving meal. One says to the other, “I can’t believe it, no horns, so claws. They’re like spam!” We’re like spam to the Devil and all his empty promises; we’re easy prey, we’re vulnerable, we’re easily led astray. And that’s why we need a Good Shepherd, to protect us from carnivores, to protect us from the wolves Jesus speaks of.
And there are some wolves out there—Sin, Death, and the Devil. Addiction, depression, and loneliness. Economic hardship at home and violence abroad—violence at home for that matter! New strains of flu, questions of torture, and temptations of all sorts.
And Jesus proclaims himself as the proper protector against these things saying, “I am the Good Shepherd.” He does this over and against the “hired hand,” who runs away. Now, most commentators take their cue from Ezekiel 34 where God is compared with the current leadership of Israel, and assume that these “hired hands” are the Pharisees that Jesus is talking to.
I don’t think we can be so quick to assume this. If this is forshadowing on the part of John, if he is pointing toward something that is going to happen in the future, we would then assume the Pharisees will run away sometime in this Gospel. But we know our gospels don’t we? Do the Pharisees run away when things go south? No. No, those that run away when the wolf comes are Jesus’ disciples.
Now, it is of no small consequence that I, on my last official Sunday here, am talking about the disciples, fleeing. I am in a sense fleeing here—a very orderly and expected fleeing—planned by the seminary from the moment I arrived here—but fleeing none the less.
Why do I bring this up? Because of some sort of repressed guilt at leaving Tabernacle? No, I just want to point toward Christ. I’m not the Good Shepherd—I don’t have the ability to lay down my life and take it up again—I’m just a hired hand—fleeing. I’m an impermanent fixture in the church—I’m fleeing. Whereas Christ is permanent.
For that matter Pastor Rogers isn’t the good shepherd, Bishop Burkat isn’t the Good Shepherd. Bishop Hanson isn’t the good shepherd. As today’s gospel is saying, even the disciples aren’t the good shepherd. Jesus is the good shepherd, for he lays down his life for his sheep.
That is not to say Christ’s actions, his laying down his life for his sheep, are not a model for us—all of us, not just clergy—for his actions are archtypical and exemplar. In the first letter of John he writes that we are to love one another as Christ loved us and so, “we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” Through the use of a rhetorical question he gives us an example of what it means for a Christian to lay down her life for another. He asks, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuse to help?” Christ, in parables and miracles exemplified this self-giving love. In his story of the good Samaritan and in his multiplication of loaves of bread.
And today I can think of a few places where we can show love. Tabernacle is inviting in some new, and new-ish, members. Sisters and brothers show them love.
At the synod and national assembly when we’re discussing matters of human sexuality we ought to show love. Now I admit I’m a partisan on the side of full inclusion of gay-folk into the life of our church, but I still hear John’s words ringing forth to me and to the whole church. Lay down your life, don’t let your ego and your agenda get in the way of the love of Christ.
We ought to put the best construct on the motives of those brothers and sisters we disagree with. We ought to recognize they are acting out of their conscience just as we are. We ought to reside in love for one another, we ought to be constantly laying down our lives, we ought to be freely giving of all we have to one another, we ought to be healers of this world!
Of course ought does not imply can. As I said in my first sermon here we are at the same time both sheeps and goats, saints and sinners. We are sheeps and hired hands, all of us—we’re like spam.
We will fall short. But the good news is that as it is written in today’s epistle, “God’s compassion is greater than our hearts.” We are all sheep of the same fold, one flock of the same Shepherd. Christ has healed us, he has lay down his life for us and taken it back up again that we may not fear death, but live into eternal life in Him. He says to us, “I am the Good Shepherd.” And we say, “The LORD is our shepherd.”
Amen and Alleluia.