We are in Eastertide, the season of Easter that extends until the Feast of Pentecost, this year on May 20. Our lectionary readings over this season have a certain trajectory. The past three Sundays, we have heard stories of encounters with the Risen Christ. With today’s gospel, we are moving in a different direction as our readings seem to explore what it means to be beloved community living in the presence of the Risen Christ.
This Sunday is informally known as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” Each year in the lectionary cycle, the gospel reading is taken from John 10, which contains Jesus’ discourse or sermon on the image of the good shepherd, sheep, and the gate of the sheepfold. Each year, the psalm appointed for the day is Psalm 23—The Lord is my Shepherd.
Each year, as I prepare to preach on this Sunday, I confront the same fundamental conflict or problem. On the one hand, there is the power and appeal of imagery that has persisted in the Christian imagination for two thousand years: the Good Shepherd. There is the familiarity of Psalm 23, one of the first portions of scripture I ever memorized, and I can probably still recite it using the language of the authorized, King James version.
On the other hand, I always find myself fighting against that imagery. There’s the individualistic, sugar-coated piety of the ubiquitous, kitschy paintings of Jesus in a white robe, surrounded by white lambs, and blond-haired blue-eyed, smiling children. There’s the paternalism and infantilization of laypeople as sheep, and clergy as shepherds or pastors. There’s the not-so-subtle seduction of a simpler, less-complicated, pre-industrial world, where we can escape the complexities, ambiguities, and challenges of contemporary life and rest in the comfort of green pastures and still waters.
As appealing and comforting this imagery is, I also find it deeply problematic, and its very familiarity can make finding a preaching word difficult.
Our reading comes half-way through the chapter, so Jesus has been using the imagery of the good shepherd, sheep, the sheepfold and gate at great length already. It’s also helpful to remember that the whole of this discourse comes immediately after the long story of Jesus healing the man born blind, a story in which there is conflict between Jesus, the blind man, and the Pharisees, a story also in which the blind man comes to know Jesus through the sound of his voice.
In our passage, Jesus begins with the statement, “I am the Good Shepherd.” He contrasts the behavior and character of the shepherd with the hired hand and we are likely to think of the adjective “good” in light of that, contrasting the “good shepherd” with the “bad” hired hand. But in this instance, the underlying Greek word has a slightly different connotation. We could translate it as noble, or ideal or model shepherd—in fact the contrast might better be understood as being between honor and shame, than between good and bad, or good and evil.
Does that matter? Well, it might, if we think about what Jesus is saying as a description of the ideal shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep—and immediately we’re put in mind of the cross, and of Jesus’ words to his disciples at the last supper: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (jn 15:13), a theme repeated in the lesson from I John that we heard this morning.
In fact, both this aspect of the ideal shepherd, that he lays down his life for his sheep, and the second aspect emphasized in today’s gospel, that the shepherd knows his sheep by name—are obvious to us readers of John’ gospel, approaching this passage after cross and resurrection. For we have seen the true, the model shepherd in action, laying down his life for his friends, for us, on the cross, and calling his own by their name, as he called Mary Magdalene in the garden and in that moment, she knew her Lord.
In other words, in the Gospel of John, we are not only given Jesus’ words about the character and behavior of the good shepherd, John also provides us with the paradigmatic example of the Good Shepherd, Jesus himself, the one who laid down his life for his friends; the one who knew his friends by name.
But there is also a challenge here. While the image of the Good Shepherd seems to invite us into a place of comfort, peace, and security, sheep under the protective care of the shepherd, within the walls of an enclosure, the image itself, as well as Jesus’ words, encourage us to think differently. The reading from I John seems almost to be a commentary on Jesus’ words here. The writer seems to say to us, yes, Jesus did lay down his life for us, but in response we are to lay down our lives for others. There’s no security blanket here, no protective wall, only the example of Jesus calling us out into the world, calling us to love others in the same way, and with the same consequences as he did.
On top of that, continuing the imagery, the walls within which the Good Shepherd gathers the flock are not closed off from the world. Though he may know us, and his own, by name, Jesus is also calling others into relationship. “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.”
This statement offers an important corrective to other tendencies in scripture, and our own proclivities to remain within the familiar and the comfortable. We like the security and comfort of the Good Shepherd. We want to be nurtured and protected, but Jesus is also prodding us outward, into those difficult encounters with the strange, the other, the uncomfortable.
Think about all those places we go where we want safety, security, comfort. Church, yes, where we don’t want to deal with hard issues, or difficult people, or strangers. But apparently also, for many of us, encountering people unlike ourselves creates fear. Think about walking up State Street and dealing with panhandlers; or the horrific story that went viral this week about the African-American men who were arrested in a Philadelphia Starbucks, simply because they were waiting for someone and didn’t purchase anything. We want all of the spaces in which we work, and play, and live safe—and we bring down the full power of a militarized police to make sure that all of those spaces are comfortable for us.
But what would it be like if we opened up our hearts, our selves, our communities, our congregation, to the challenging and unsettling encounter with the stranger, the outcast, the other? What if we allowed those encounters to take place, not on our terms, but on their terms. I was deeply moved by another story I read this week, one that came across the Episcopal News Service, about churches that had made the commitment not to call the police when confronted with difficult or challenging people or situations. The reasoning goes that too often such incidents escalate quickly, that mental illness, homelessness, and other behaviors or conditions are criminalized, that an encounter of the police with people, especially people of color, too often end in violence and arrest, as we saw in Philadelphia, and as we indeed see on the streets of Madison as well.
That’s one way that the words of this gospel reading take us out of still waters and green pastures, out of the protective enclosure, and into the world, the valley of the shadow of death. Jesus reminds us that his call goes out into the world, to others, that he offers relationship, abundant life to people who make us uncomfortable and unsettle our assumptions. He laid down his life for them as well.
He calls us, too, not only to be sheep, but also to be shepherds, to lay down our lives for others, to invite others into relationship with him. As a congregation, we are having conversations in a number of venues, among a number of groups, about our outreach into the community, about building relationships with our neighbors. As those conversations take place, and as we strategize next steps, I hope that we will take seriously Jesus’ example. As he laid down his life for his friends, may we be challenged to offer ourselves in similar ways, sharing our love and our faith. May we invite others into relationship with Jesus. May our community increasingly reflect and embody the diversity in our city and may our invitation to others be an invitation to us as well, an invitation to grow, and to change, and to experience more fully the abundant life that is relationship in and with Jesus Christ.