As a child, Jesus would never have said this about himself: “I am the good shepherd.” Jesus is saying this when he’s in his early 30s. But as a child, Jesus would never have thought of himself as “the good shepherd.” He was not a shepherd: good, bad, or indifferent. At least there’s no record in the scriptures that he ever kept sheep. It would never have occurred to him to think that he was “the good shepherd.” As a child, Jesus would have learned and prayed Psalm 23 in the same way that we have: “The Lord is my shepherd.”[i] The Lord was his shepherd. He would have known Psalm 78, about the good shepherding of God for his people: [The Lord] brought his people out like a flock; he led them like sheep through the wilderness.”[ii] The God whom Jesus called “Lord” was the good shepherd.[iii] In a land where sheep abound – their wool to make blankets and clothing; their meat for the daily diet – metaphors about sheep and shepherds would be in common parlance. In the scriptures, there are more than 300 references to sheep and shepherds. Jesus would have known about sheep, and the Lord being his shepherd, but he was no shepherd.
At a young age, Jesus would also have known that ancient Israel’s kings, beginning with King David, were known as shepherds of the nation. Clearly, Jesus was no such shepherd-king. He certainly did not appear royal. He grew up in Nazareth and the reputation was that nothing good could come out of Nazareth. We are not even sure if Jesus was employed. So what happened? When did Jesus’ sense of identity shift. Why did he come to understand himself as a shepherd, a good shepherd, and identify with the Good Shepherd? Why and how? We know some things for sure, and other influences we can conjecture. Just like for all the rest of us, many things influence us. A whole collage of things form, or deform, or reform the tapestry of our calling in life – our vocation. So it was for Jesus. Something evolved in his identifying with shepherds. What happened?
Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10
Many of you know that I have a special affinity for angels. These mysterious figures show up throughout scripture and fill the depths of my imagination with stories of their continual worship in heaven, especially as described in the Revelation to John. If I had to say there was a runner-up for the affections of my heart, it would probably be shepherds. This is in part because they were the first to hear the news of Jesus’ birth, announced to them by a multitude of angels. The main job of these country-dwellers was for the husbandry and protection of flocks of sheep placed in their care.
When I first began to pray with our Collect for this morning the phrase ‘good shepherd of your people’ caught my attention. I began to think back throughout my life to people who had been shepherds to me, and thank goodness there have been many. I recall the youth program at my elementary school that occurred every summer sponsored by our local Department of Parks and Recreation. While parents were working, neighborhood kids could ride their bike up to the school where young adults employed by the Parks and Rec would be on hand to facilitate games, art, physical fitness, and field trips. Being an only child experiencing the ups and downs of family life that was not always happy, I craved and needed special attention. There were two or three young adults during those summers who recognized that need and would play board games with me when no one else showed any interest. They shepherded me when I, in a way, was a lost sheep, bullied by other kids and isolated because I was not popular. When I received the attention I so desperately needed from these councilors I felt happy, content, and most importantly, safe. Perhaps this is what inspired me to ask my parents one Christmas if I could have an older brother. I wanted someone who cared for me, looked out for me, and who had walked the very path I had walked earlier in his life; someone who could guide, affirm, and encourage me when I felt especially alone and vulnerable. I think this is as true for the 49-year old Jim as it was for the 9-year old Jim.
Throughout the gospels, Jesus uses images and metaphors that would have been familiar to his original audience in describing the kingdom of heaven, his mission, or the nature of God. This particular metaphor of Jesus as the good shepherd would have elicited knowing nods of the head, not only from the shepherds in the crowd, but from everyone present, all of whom would have been familiar with the life of the shepherd.
The problem for us is that, 2000 years, an industrial and technological revolution, and hundreds, if not thousands of stained glass windows and icons later, the image of the good shepherd has lost much of its power. Today when we encounter the image, we see Jesus, with perfectly coifed hair; clothed in gleaming, pure white; holding a fluffy, white lamb in his arms. Gone is any sign that the life of a shepherd was difficult, dangerous, and dirty. In the winter, exposed to the elements for days on end, the life of the shepherd was cold, wet, and miserable. In the summer it was hot, dry, and miserable. Summer and winter, the days would have been long, often lonely, frequently dangerous, and always dirty. If it wasn’t the weather to be contended with, it was boredom and loneliness, on the one hand, and the dangers of predators on the other hand, and always there was the dirt, the muck, the flies, and the smell. And then, there were the sleepless nights and days during lambing season.
Acts 2: 42 – 47
1 Peter 2: 19 – 25
John 10: 1 – 10
Finally the phone call came, and I went down to the post office to pick up my parcel. On this particular day the woman ahead of me in the line was picking up her package of bees. I’d seen them as I came into the post office. They were sitting, by themselves, on the loading dock. The postal workers won’t let them inside the building. They don’t like having to deliver bees, but the postal regulations require them to do so. My package on the other hand was sitting in the corner, near the counter. I knew it was mine because I could hear the goslings inside, honking away.
As incredible as it seems my four goslings had hatched on a Monday. They had been sexed, packed and shipped from Oklahoma before the end of that day, and there I was, picking them up in West Newbury on Wednesday. They came in a box about the size of a clementine orange box with a bit of straw and a heat pad. I put them in the car and drove them home, talking to them the whole way. When I got them home, I carefully opened the box and picked them up one at a time as I gave them something to drink. Having done that I was able to install them in their goose coop.
This evening is the second in our series of sermons on the theme of ‘Salvation Revisited.’ We are exploring the theme of salvation, which is central to the faith of the Church, and to the season of Advent, when we are promised a ‘Savior.’
Next week the theme will be ‘The sacred and Imperishable Proclamation’ and the final week’s theme will be ‘Salvation – from What, to What?’
My theme today is ‘Coming Home.’
When I was a teenager I rarely went to church. I was confirmed at 12, at school. Almost everyone in my class was confirmed – mainly so as not to let the house down! But for me, it was a kind of ‘passing out parade.’ No more church. I was interested in religious ideas, but thought Christianity rather facile. I preferred the more exotic Eastern forms of religious expression – far more interesting ways of trying to make contact with the divine. But one day, in my late teens, on one of my rare visits to church, I heard a Gospel which kind of stopped me in my tracks. It was the Gospel we heard read today: the parable of the Prodigal Son. What really moved me, was this image of the Father. Day after day, his father had been longing for his son – missing him, longing for him to come home. Scanning the horizon. Please, my son, come home. And then, one day, he sees him, way in the distance. He is so overjoyed that he runs – runs out to meet him, and welcome him home.
It’s been a very long week. How many different emotions we have experienced, from the shock and horror of the bombings on Monday, the profound sadness and grief for those who lost their lives or were so terribly injured, to the growing anxiety as the police identified the two suspects, and then the days of tracking them down, culminating in the weird, almost surreal experience of Friday’s lockdown of the city, and the final relief when the second suspect was arrested on Friday night.
You will each have your own thoughts and experiences of Friday: being locked down, unable to go out. What I remember most vividly was having to lock the door of the Chapel. And then all though the day, the Brothers and our guests worshipping here together, with the door locked – and always just audible from outside, the eerie, unsettling sound of sirens.