Unexpected Shepherds and the Good Shepherd

GOSPEL: John 10:1-10
Jesus said:] 1“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out… (Read the whole passage)

The early church understood the 7 week season of Easter to be like one great day of celebration. Time kind of gets mushy in Easter, unlike other seasons of the church year where we are so often counting the weeks as they go by. And while many comparisons to our pandemic isolation have been to the season of Lent, there have been also similarities to Easter. Disciples hiding out in upper rooms, sticking to small groups and avoiding crowds, time becoming mushy and hard to keep track of. We just might be living the most authentic Easter season of our lives. 

Today, we are four weeks into the season of Easter, nearly a month since first hearing about the women going to the tomb early on the first day of the week. And yet, today is the first time that we are moving on from that first day. We divert somewhat to familiar images of the pastoral Jesus. Psalm 23, and John 10. Shepherds and sheep. Comforting images of the love and care of God, poured out for us. 

The church that I grew up in had a stained glass window of Jesus the Good Shepherd, a blonde hair blued-eyed Shepherd lovingly gazing at the lamb he is holding in his arms. An imagine imprinted on my mind, that often surfaces on this fourth Sunday of Easter, or when I hear psalm 23. 

And there is a certain amount of comfort and safety that we imagine into the image of the Good Shepherd, especially in times of struggle and hardship… such as in this moment in time. 

In John’s Gospel, Jesus gives us another comforting image of the Shepherd, who is known by the sheep. The Shepherd who lays down as the gate to the pen to provide protection for the sheep. 

Yet, Jesus isn’t talking his disciples or the hungry crowds about the Shepherd, but rather the  Pharisees. The Pharisees who have just criticized him for healing the Blind man… a story that we heard only a few weeks in Lent. Jesus is speaking to those who bear responsibility for caring for the sheep, caring for the community. To the religious and community leaders who are balking at any change to the social order, even if it comes in the form of  healing a blind beggar in their midst.

As Jesus describes the familiar voice of the shepherd, he also describes the voice and motives of the thieves, bandits and strangers… labels he is applying to the religious leaders. Jesus suggests that not everyone charged with the care of the community is tending to that charge as they should. They are instead more concerned with the status quo, with keeping the power and control in their own hands and out of the hands of others…. Whether it is Jesus wantonly offering God’s love and care, or a blind man becoming self-sufficient. These are voices and leaders who are calling the sheep into danger for their own gain, their own selfish purposes. 

Does this sound at all familiar?

As we enter into week 8 of lockdown and staying at home, the calls to #OpenforBusiness are starting to get louder and louder. Here in Manitoba, we are beginning the slow yet still ambitious move of opening up some businesses tomorrow – hair cuts and restaurant patios and select other businesses will be aloud to open. Even as public health officers tell us it is isn’t exactly safe yet.

This pandemic moment has taught us a lot about the voices that we listen to, the voices who call us sheep to follow. And what is clear is that there are those in our world too, charged with caring for our communities who might not have our best interests in mind. 

And while Jesus declares that the sheep know the voice of the Shepherd, I am not so sure that it is easy for us to recognize. In fact, perhaps what is clear is that most of the voices out there are seeking something from us other than our wellbeing. Our votes, our dollars, our consumption, our attention, our productivity and labour… even our willingness to be sacrificed for the sake of profit and maintaining social order. And all with promises fo green pastures, still waters, prepared tables, and cups running over. 

Knowing the shepherd’s voice is one thing, hearing the shepherd’s voice at all is another. And if the Pandemic has made something clear, it’s that shepherds and their voices are not heard as often as they should be. 

So as Jesus declares that the sheep know the shepherd’s voice, we might be asking, do we really know it?

_______

We always hear Psalm 23 on Good Shepherd Sunday, but there is of course a reason far more common for us to hear this most familiar of psalms. 

Over the years, as I have presided at many funerals, I have often read Psalm 23 as I lead mourners into worship. Pall bearers and casket, followed by grieving family. And in that moment, we enact that what the familiar psalm describes. We walk together into the valley of the shadow of death.

You see the Good Shepherd does not promise us that everything is green pastures, still waters, and abundant tables and cups. Rather, the Good Shepherd is honest about the world, about the dangers and risks. The Good Shepherd tells us that the there are dark valleys ahead, there is the shadow of death in store. And there is no going back, no staying in the green pastures. There is only forward into our future.  

However, the Good Shepherd also promises to lead us through the valley of the shadow of death. 

Jesus promises that the sheep know the Shepherd’s voice not because the sheep are good sheep, but because the Shepherd is a Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd whose only concern is the well being and care of the sheep. The Good Shepherd who knows the sheep. The Good Shepherd who gathers and collects the confused and lost sheep, wherever we are going – green pastures or dark valleys. 

And as we navigate this shadow valley of pandemic, there have been voices emerging from the fray, voices whose only concern has been our health and well being. Shepherds who didn’t know they were shepherds only a few months ago. 

Often in this pandemic the voices of Chief Public Health Officers have cut through the fray of the voices out there calling us to follow. And these unexpected shepherds have surprised us by being singularly focused on our health and well-being…  voices that are seldom heard among the leaders of our world. Shepherds that tell us the truth, that do not promise all green pastures and still waters, but who warn of the valley of the shadows of death ahead. 

But Shepherd voices who also promise to lead us through. 

To lead us through the dark valleys to whatever lies in wait for us on the other side. 

To go with us all together. 

And this promise is of course the promise of the Good Shepherd. 

In this pandemic moment, our whole world feels as though it is gathered at the back of a church about to walk into the dark valley. Yet today, the Good Shepherd promises that we do not go alone, that the Good Shepherd will see us through, that the shadows of death will not be the end of our story, that there is life on the other side.  

This is the only voice, the only promise that really matters. 

And so on this fourth Sunday of Easter that on the surface it feels like we have moved on from Easter morning, the promise of the Good Shepherd takes us right back to the empty tomb, right back to glimpse of the other side of the shadow of death. 

The Good Shepherd comes to us in the middle of Easter because the Good Shepherd is an Easter Shepherd, a shepherd whose voice knows the sheep, whose voices knows us and knows what we need, a shepherd who has been through the valley of the shadow of death and promises us see us through, to the other side and into New Life. 

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