John 10:11-18 and Psalm 23  Listen!

This is the Good Shepherd

April 26, 2015. The Fourth Sunday of Easter – Good Shepherd Sunday

Roy W. Howard

 The Lord is my shepherd. I don’t think there is a line in scripture that is more-well known than this one. I can’t recall a funeral that I’ve attended or presided over that didn’t include Psalm 23. The Lord is my shepherd. The words themselves have an aura of peace about them. In John’s gospel Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd” and instantly we think of the One who makes me lie down in green pastures, leads me beside still waters and accompanies me whenever I am traveling through the valley of the shadow death.

Metaphors speak of what is and is not to illumine something else. On the one hand Jesus is not literally a shepherd and clearly we are not sheep. Yet, are there not times when “all we like sheep have gone astray” and are in need of One who will guide, guard and protect us from fears that assault us on every side? Have you walked in a valley so covered with shadows that death itself seemed close at hand? And just then and there, the remembrance of the One who walks alongside brought a steadiness of heart not of your own power? Have you ever been beset by fears so fierce that enemies is the most accurate word to describe what is assaulting your heart?

What about the times when feasting on life itself in all its abundance, when your fears – the very enemies of well-being – were banished by the goodness and mercy enfolding you so deeply that it felt as if you would abide in this forever and ever, and all you can do is say thank you? Occasionally life presents itself as sheer blessing, filled with abundance.

The human condition is the something else that the metaphor of sheep and shepherd displays so beautifully. Of course, we are not sheep nor is the Lord a shepherd, literally. But how better to describe what it is for one to trust confidently in our Good Shepherd?

Some of you know that I pastored a congregation in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. I learned a great deal there, including about sheep and those who tend them. And some of you will remember that once in a sermon on this very passage I said what I believed was true: sheep are dumb animals, prone to wander away and generally docile, forgetful creatures. Much like human beings appear to be at times; this seemed an obvious, especially to a Calvinist.

When the service over I got an unexpected earful from an angry member of the congregation who had been tending prize-winning sheep for fifty years. He was offended that I would speak of sheep in such derogatory terms. When I told him that I was repeating what had been told me by another farmer, who was also a member of the congregation. He replied, “Huh! Well, that explains it! He is cattleman who doesn’t know a dang thing about sheep.” Then he said with confidence that sounded like love, “I know my sheep and they know me. They do as I say, because they know who I am.” I realized that moment that he was actually defending his own sheep against the rude accusations of those who didn’t know them, like me. That afternoon I went over to his farm and watched him as he walked among them with joy that I had never seen in this crusty farmer.

I later learned that the difference between cattle rancher and sheep-herders is common. “Cattle ranchers started the rumor that sheep are dumb because sheep don’t act like cows. Cows are herded from the rear with shouts and prods from the cowboys. That doesn’t work with sheep. If you stand behind sheep making noises, they will just run around behind you. They actually prefer to be led. Cows can be pushed; sheep must be led. Sheep will not go anywhere that someone else – their trusted shepherd – does not dare to go first, to show them that everything is all right. Sheep and shepherd develop a bond like no other. They even have a language between them that outsiders are not privy to.”[i]

The relationship between the Good Shepherd and the sheep is so intimate that they share a language between them. They know one another. Where he leads, the sheep will follow because they are confident that he will lead them in paths of righteousness, and never lead them astray. And when they of their own accord wander away into dangerous places, this Good Shepherd, who knows his sheep, relentlessly seek after the lost until all are brought home safely.

Do you hear what the gospel is saying to you? Can you sense the relationship that is being offered? Jesus is the Good Shepherd who loves the sheep even at the cost of his own life. He does not abandon them when bandits appear and thieves come against them. The Good Shepherd even seeks out those who know not yet his voice until they too come safely into his very own fold that spans all time and space.

Jesus is our Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. Even now, he spreads a table before our enemies, banishing our fears, inviting us to feast upon his goodness and mercy all the days of our life.

[i] Nancy Barkley, quoting Barbara Brown Taylor. Feasting on the Word. Year B, Volume 2. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. WJK Press. 2009.