May I speak in the name of Jesus, the great shepherd of souls. Amen.
In case you haven’t noticed yet, today is Good Shepherd Sunday. The image of the shepherd and the sheep suffuses our worship in story, prayer and song. It is an ever-present Eucharistic image, as we recall that Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us – the Passover sacrifice being a lamb. Christ is for us both shepherd and sheep; indeed, he is the Good Shepherd and the sacrificial lamb par excellence.
For most, if not all of us, however, the metaphor of shepherd and sheep doesn’t carry much resonance. I suppose even in our era of agribusiness and livestock factories there remain a few shepherds tending flocks somewhere in the USA, but I’ve never met one. Sheep are not part of my daily life, and I rarely encounter lambs except on my dinner plate with a bit of mint jelly. While sheep and goats continue to hold great economic value in many developing nations, making the difference between life and death, that generally isn’t our experience.
Still, there is one place in my life where this image remains powerfully operative. I affectionately call my son “lamb” or “little lamb,” much as my mother often referred to me when I was a child. In my best moments, I understand my relationship to my son on the model of the Good Shepherd, as one of tender care, vigilant oversight, and sacrificial love. This profound religious image still has the capacity to shape my sense of who God is and who I am called to be in response to God’s love. The image of the shepherd is a deep metaphor that, once it takes hold, continually, even unconsciously, calls us to model our own lives after that of the Good Shepherd.
In fact, the phrase, “good shepherd,” that we find in John’s Gospel might be translated more accurately, though perhaps less artfully, as the “model or ideal shepherd.” In today’s Gospel lesson Jesus is pointedly identifying himself as the good shepherd in contrast to the religious and political leadership of his day, echoing the prophet Ezekiel’s fierce denunciation of the corrupt leadership of the rulers of Israel as well as his assertion of God’s sovereignty as the true shepherd of Israel. The point of the shepherd imagery is not only to reveal something of who God is as exemplified in Christ, but also something of who we are called to be in imitation of Christ. Christ is the model after which we are to pattern our life. Christ is both shepherd and sheep, and so are we. So what might it mean to be “model shepherds?”
Our tendency is probably to identify with the sheep in this story; not with the shepherd. It is the shepherd parables in Matthew and Luke that have been most influential, where Christ is the shepherd and we are the stray sheep for whom Christ risks all to find and safely bring back home. The problem with this reading of the parable is that it relieves us of the responsibility of being good shepherds. We tend to sentimentalize and privatize the shepherd image, like so much else having to do with religion, and make it about our personal relationship with Jesus. While the personal aspects of our relationship with God are not to be neglected, we need to read Ezekiel and John’s use of the shepherd image to provide a wider, corrective interpretive lense.
In Ezekiel and John, the shepherd image is not about a personal drama of guilt and forgiveness, of being lost and found, but rather a collective experience of exile and homecoming. We are not to model ourselves after the good shepherd only in the intimacy of private life, but also in the equally morally demanding sphere of public life. What is at stake is not simply personal salvation, but the right ordering of all creation in conformity with God's desire for wholeness.
Ezekiel is emphatic on this point. The problem is that Israel’s leaders have exploited the public for their own benefit: they have fleeced the sheep rather than feeding them. The weak, the sick, the injured, the marginalized have been treated with force and harshness rather than justice. The experience of being fleeced by politicians (or by preachers for that matter) is perhaps one with which we can all identify. This failure of leadership led to the complete disruption of the bonds of social life that held the community together, leading ultimately to the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of the Jewish people in Babylon.
In the midst of this corruption and chaos, God speaks through the prophet Ezekiel saying, I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice. (Ezekiel 34:15-16)
This gospel vision is the opposite of the social Darwinism that operates all too often in our society, in which we are cast as lone and lonely individuals in a competition dictated by the survival of the fittest, where the winners take all and the losers must fend for themselves. No, the gospel vision articulated by Ezekiel is one of mutual care and connection, where the needs of the neighbor are not neglected, and good shepherds feed the sheep the justice for which they are so hungry.
Jesus takes this image from Ezekiel and expands upon it in two directions. He agrees with Ezekiel’s indictment of so-called shepherds who are like hired hands throwing the sheep to the wolves, leaving them scattered. Social connections are fraying, people are divided and alone, vulnerable to the wolves of the world, and in need of a shepherd who will restore the bonds of community.
In response to this crisis, Jesus points to himself as the model shepherd, emphasizing two dimensions of his ministry that reflect and stretch the shepherd image presented in Hebrew scripture. Jesus speaks of his relationship with the sheep in the same terms of mutual indwelling, knowledge, and identification that mark his relationship with God. For the Good Shepherd, the relationship with God and the relationship with the neighbor are one and the same thing. To know and love one is to know and love the other.
Moreover, this love is sacrificial in character: “I lay down my life for the sheep.” Here, Jesus goes beyond the inherited meanings attached to the shepherd image. God as the true shepherd may vindicate and restore the sheep, but die for them? What is novel about Jesus’ use of the shepherd image is the sacrificial nature of love that it manifests, not only in human terms but also at the heart of the divine life. Yahweh, the Holy One, the God of Israel, is revealed in Jesus to be the Shepherd who becomes himself a sacrificial lamb for the sake of the sheep.
Jesus is the good shepherd in that he refuses to sunder love of God and love of neighbor, as if divine sanction could legitimate exploitation of the weak, the sick, and the poor. Rather, Jesus feeds the sheep the justice for which they hunger, just as God does.
Jesus is the good shepherd because he refuses to sacrifice the sheep for his own benefit. Rather, he sacrifices his own life that they might be saved. Jesus dies to expose the injustice of this world, so that we might be raised up with him into the reign of God where all the sheep are truly cared for – even those that do not belong to “our fold.” In God’s reign, there is but one flock, one shepherd, and we are called to care for them all.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd who gathers the scattered sheep of a divided church, a divided world, and feeds them the justice for which they hunger. If we are to imitate the One who is the Model Shepherd, then we, too, must love God and neighbor with the same sacrificial love that Christ embodies; and that, not only in our private, intimate relationships, but in the ordering of our public and communal life as well. The good news is that in Christ we have a shepherd who loved us enough even to die for us, whose care embraces us especially when we are weak, sick, injured, and lost. But the good news is also that we have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ in us, so that we may share in Christ’s ministry of sacrificial love reconciling the sheep of every fold, every nation, language, and people.
As we prepare to welcome the Rt. Rev. Marc Andrus as our new bishop, chief pastor and shepherd, we can rejoice that his ministry has been one patterned after that of the Model Shepherd. It is to such an understanding of the bishop as shepherd that we must hold him accountable. It is to such a pattern of life that he must hold us accountable as well. Bishop Marc is called to be an icon of the kind of shepherd ministry in which we all share. Together, we must all strive to be good shepherds for the sake of a suffering world.
As Bishop Marc said in his remarks to the electing convention yesterday,
We must all understand, and here I address the diocese of California and those listening from elsewhere, that your vote today remains a vote for inclusion and communion – of gay and lesbian people in their full lives as single or partnered people, of women, of all ethnic minorities, and all people. My commitment to Jesus Christ’s own mission of inclusion is resolute . . .
I take this election to be an expression of our common desire to be part of the whole, the Communion and the world, in what may be a new way. We will work together in the listening process, lending the unique voice of the Bay Area Episcopalians to this great conversation and working to end global human suffering.
Finally, let me say that being nourished as a bishop by the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama, fed by the historic and living witness of so many heroes of the struggle for human rights, whose words and deeds of compassion and justice have inspired and sustained me, I say to you the words of a west coast hero – “In the cause of peace, we cannot be sprinters, we must be long distance runners.”
All we like sheep have gone astray – true enough. But sheep we must remain no longer, for the Good Shepherd who became a sacrificial lamb for our sake, now raises us up into the life of the risen Christ so that we, too, might be Good Shepherds. As we feast on the justice that God offers us in the Eucharist today, may we in turn be Good Shepherds who share it with all those who are weak, sick, injured, and scattered in our fold and in every fold. Amen.