Sunday, May 3, 2009
Good Shepherd Sunday
May 3, 2009
When I was a child, I was, to say the least, a very independently minded child. Even when I was very young, I liked to do things my way. I didn’t like to be told what to do. I hated having to eat what anyone told me to eat, to go where I was told to go, and I wasn’t good at taking orders. I wasn’t spoiled (though my older siblings certainly thought so). I didn’t whine. I didn’t complain. I wasn’t mean or coercive in my independence. I simply didn’t do it. When I joined the Cub Scouts—out of curiosity and the appeal of wearing a uniform than anything else—I didn’t last long. The first order I was given, I refused to do. When I was told that I had to dress a certain way in a talent show, I refused and when I was told that I HAD to do it, I responded by informing my parents that I was dropping out of the Boy Scouts.
That independent streak has been a difficult one on my life, now especially in my life as a priest. The reason I say it is difficult is because sometimes, when one is independent, when one is out on the edges, it can be a dangerous place. We human beings are a social animal, after all. We like to “fit in.” We like to be a part of crowd. And too much independence can be scary because it means we have to rely on our own devices all the time.
In today’s Gospel, we find Jesus saying he is the Good Shepherd. We get a glimpse into the Divine view of God’s relationship with us. This image of Jesus as Good Shepherd is one we all know well. We can probably think of those popular paintings of Jesus lovingly cradling a lamb in his arms. The Good Shepherd is depicted as well in stained glass and statues. It is a popular image because it is an image of God we strive for. We want a God who will hold us in arms of love and protect from danger. And I’m happy that is the image most of us have of Jesus.
“I am the Good Shepherd,” Jesus says and they are the words we long to hear from him. The story we just heard in the Gospel reading, like most of Jesus’ stories, has of course a deeper meaning. When Jesus talks about the good shepherd and the hired hand, the meaning is clear. Livestock in Jesus’ day—much like in our own—were valuable. When the wolves and other predators came about, the flock needed a wise, caring and strong shepherd to defend them.
The Good Shepherd was the one who, when those wolves started lurking too close for comfort in the dark, never left even one of the flock to be taken. The Good Shepherd tried to save each and every single one of them. He even looked after that one independent sheep who strayed away from the rest of the herd and lived out on the edges. The good shepherd cared for the flock. He loved them. He even went one step further. When the predators came near, the Shepherd put himself between the predator and the sheep, thus endangering himself. He was willing to lay down his life to protect even the smallest of the sheep.
The hired hand, on the other hand, was weak and lazy. He didn’t care for the flock. In fact he didn’t feel anything for the flock. It was just another job for him. For the hired hand, the flock were just mindless dumb animals. When the wolves started howling, so what if that independent sheep got caught.
See the difference? Our God is a God who will not let one of us be lost—no matter how weak or slow we might be. Our God is willing to step between us and those dark forces that come into our lives. Our God even looks out for those of who are independent and who walk the edges of this life. And even more than that, our God is willing to die for us. Our God is truly Jesus the Good Shepherd.
Over the years, I have encountered many people—whether parishioners or students or people spiritually journeying toward God—who have not always had such comforting images of God in their lives. Some people have images of a God who is stern and mean and judgmental. Their vision of God is of a despot who is off in some far-off heaven, watching every little thing we do, waiting for us to trip up or fail in some way so we can be punished. In many ways, some of us who have experienced God in this way, find ourselves rebelling against that image of God. And we should. That is not the God we believe in as Christians. That is not the God we want to follow. That is not the God who even allows us to be independent and even rebellious, while still loving us and protecting us.
So, I am thankful for a Sunday like today in which we can celebrate and reestablish the relationship we have with a loving and compassionate God—a God who comes to us as a kind and caring Shepherd of us. Every so often in the Church calendar, this Sunday falls on Mother’s Day. Not so this year, but I think Good Shepherd Sunday and Mother’s Day work well together. After all, mothering is very much like shepherding and vice versa. It takes a lot of love and specialized care to be a good mother. It takes concentrated care, to be downright honest about it. And a mother’s love is something everyone can relate to—whether or not we received that love from our mothers. Some people who were not cared for by their mothers more likely than not long for that love.
I think people who have grown up with an image of a vindictive God, also long for that deep, abiding and shepherding love. Although most of us think of it as modern theology, there is actually a long tradition in the Church of looking to Jesus as Mother. Anselm of Canterbury wrote: "Jesus, as a mother you gather your people to you; you are gentle with us as a mother with her children."
I love that image of Jesus as Mother—as radical as it might seem to our way of thinking. The great mystic Julian of Norwich writes of Jesus: "Jesus is our true mother, the protector of the love which knows no end...In nature, Jesus is our true mother by our first creation, and in grace by taking our created nature. All the love of offering and sacrifice of beloved motherhood are in Christ our Beloved." And the reason I think these images of Jesus as Shepherd and Jesus as mother tie so well into each other is the statement Jesus makes that really sticks with me.
“I know my flock and my flock know me.”
Jesus our God knows us. Each and every one of us. Even those independent ones of us who are out there on the edges of life. Jesus even knows that we are out there and is watching out for us too. And we know God in the Person of Jesus. When we look into the face of our Good Shepherd, we see the Face of our God—the Face of someone who loves and cares for us and knows us like a mother.
But I think Jesus is calling all of us to something more than just meets the eye in this morning’s Gospel. Jesus is not simply saying that we are sheep to be shepherded. I think Jesus is also calling us to be good shepherds in our own lives as well. And this is not only a message for those of us who are ordained to be shepherds. We are all called to be shepherds. Certainly we are shepherds to someone. Whether we are mother, or father or teacher or older sibling, we all have plenty of opportunities to be shepherds of those entrusted to us.
Jesus sets quite an example for us. The Good Shepherd not only protects the flock. The Good Shepherd is even willing to lay down his life for the flock. Few of us are willing to go that far, but when worse comes to worse, we might surprise ourselves. We might actually be willing to protect someone with our very lives.
So, throughout this coming week and next Sunday—on Mother’s Day—remember what God in Jesus has done for you. Remember how Jesus, like a mother, had guided you, protected you and continues to loves you. Remember how Jesus has done what the Good Shepherd is expected to do. He laid down his life to protect you from those predators roaming in the dark seeking to do you harm. Remember how Jesus knows you—knows the real you—the one no one else knows. And remember how—in your life you are called to be a good shepherd to those entrusted to you as well.
Fear not when the wolves in your life began howling. Do not be afraid when the darkness closes in on you. You are taken care of by the one who knows you and the one you know. You, like the lamb in popular art, are cradled in the arms of Jesus the Good Shepherd. He is holding you to him and, in that safe place, no danger can ever come too close again.