A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on April 26, 2015 (Easter 4, Year B)
“Little Bo Peep has lost her sheep and can’t tell where to find them. Mary had a little lamb, its fleece was white as snow. Baa baa black sheep have you any wool, yes sir, yes sir, three bags full.”
Unless you’re a farmer — and, you’ll be surprised to learn, I’m not — it’s hard to think about sheep without reverting to childhood nursery rhymes. So it’s no wonder that when we arrive at what is traditionally known as Good Shepherd Sunday we’re transported back to the realm of Mother Goose.
The whole idea of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is actually an ancient and beloved image. In fact, one of the oldest known depictions of Jesus, a third century fresco from the Roman catacombs, shows him with a lamb over his shoulders. And we often read this passage from John’s gospel at funerals — the idea of Jesus tenderly caring for his sheep has been a source of deep comfort to generations of Christians.
The problem is that we tend to sentimentalize this image and in the process we end up shearing its power. One of the reasons we do this is that we take the passage out of context. We neglect the fact that it was born out of conflict and so it’s helpful to take a step back and see why Jesus is using this image in the first place.
Jesus doesn’t just show up one day and start talking about himself as a shepherd. The whole conversation is in response to an ongoing dispute with the religious authorities — the Pharisees — and it begins in the previous chapter when Jesus heals a blind man on the Sabbath day. Jesus, in classic fashion, tells the leaders who oppose him that while they have physical sight, they remain spiritually blind. And the whole idea of the good shepherd contrasts with their own self-serving leadership which Jesus refers to as the hired hand who flees when danger arises. The good shepherd, on the other hand, loves them to the end and is willing to lay down his life for the sheep — an obvious reference to the impending crucifixion.
What we lose amid the saccharine images of Jesus holding little lambs on decorative plates put out by the Franklin Mint, is the radical nature of this statement. “I am the good shepherd.” ‘Wait a minute. What do you mean you’re the good shepherd?’ Everyone was familiar with Psalm 23 — both disciple and Pharisee. Everyone knew the opening line: “The Lord is my shepherd.” ‘How can Jesus call himself the good shepherd? God alone is our shepherd!’
To those opposed to Jesus, this was pure blasphemy. To those who followed Jesus, this was pure revelation. So ultimately this statement is a question of identity — Jesus’ identity as the Son of God. After three weeks of hearing post-resurrection appearances — the women at the empty tomb on Easter Day, Doubting Thomas the Sunday after Easter, and Jesus on the beach eating broiled fish with his disciples last week — on this Fourth Sunday of Easter we zoom out and reflect on what this all means. And what it means is that Jesus is indeed the shepherd of humanity. The one who calls us each by name; the one who cares for us; the one who protects us; the one who seeks us out when we go astray; the one who loves us unconditionally.
So if Jesus is the good shepherd; if Jesus is our good shepherd, the natural question that arises is, how are we doing as his flock? Now, that’s a broad question with many possible avenues but this morning I’d like to focus on one particular aspect of our relationship to Jesus as the Good Shepherd: what happens when we wander away from the fold? Of course, we can’t really think about this without revisiting the Parable of the Lost Sheep from Luke’s gospel:
“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’
When we wander, and we all do either spiritually or physically, Jesus comes searching for us. Now, I realize it’s hard to preach about wandering away to people who are actually here. But we all wander away from God at various points in our lives. The Bible itself is basically a story about people like you and me who have known God, strayed, did things they shouldn’t have, repented, and returned to the Lord. Then the cycle repeats itself. Over and over again. We wander, we repent, we return.
But what’s amazing about this process is that Jesus doesn’t just sit around waiting for your return. Jesus goes out to find you. He seeks you out. He goes to the unsavory places of your soul and lovingly calls you back by name. He enters your apathetic heart and lovingly calls you back by name. He chases you down wherever you may be and whatever trouble you may have found and lovingly calls you back by name.
You may not know this, but I am the undisputed king of awkward grocery store conversations. I’m picking out bananas at the Fruit Center and a parishioner who hasn’t been to church in a long time sees me and is suddenly stricken with guilt. I get embarrassed looks and the excuses come fast and furious.
Please know that I don’t actually take attendance. It’s not my job to cruise around town looking to guilt people back into the fold. You don’t have to explain yourself or make excuses. I’d love it if you were here more often. The community is diminished when you’re not present at worship. But I’m not the Good Shepherd of Guilt.
Know this, however: Jesus, the true Good Shepherd is patiently seeking you out. Calling you by name; lovingly beckoning you home. Reminding you that the door is always open and that the gate to the sheepfold is never locked.
One of my favorite musicians is the late Texas blues rocker Stevie Ray Vaughn. He does a version of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” that I’ve been thinking a lot about and listening to this week. I think I like it so much because he takes a simple, non-threatening children’s song and turns it completely upside down. When you listen to Stevie’s version you can’t help but hear the cute little ditty in a new way.
And I’d like you to think about Jesus as the Good Shepherd in a new way as well. Reflect on this image not as something divorced from its context but set within it. The fleece may be as white as snow but sometimes it gets dirty. Sometimes the fleece literally gets dragged through the mud. It’s not light and fluffy as much as it is wet, smelly, and filthy. Yet, that’s precisely when Jesus seeks us out, reaches out to us, and holds us in his arms. It’s easy to be a good shepherd when the sheep are fluffy and docile and the sun is shining. It’s a different vocation entirely when the storms arise and the wolf encircles the flock. That’s when the Good Shepherd makes his identity known. And that’s when Jesus lovingly calls you back by name.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck