Good Shepherd Sunday
April 21, 2013
+ Do you ever notice how we all tend to take for granted certain images we have in the Church? Especially images that have long been used to describe God. I was reminded of this earlier this month.
April 4 was the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King. In preparation for that anniversary, I was reading about how MLK, a few weeks before his death, took a trip to Mexico with Ralph Abernathy. One night, Abernathy woke to find King sitting on the balcony, staring intently at a rock in the ocean. King turned to Abernathy and said, “You know what the rock reminds me? It reminds of ‘Rock of Ages, cleft for me.’”
What I found interesting about that story is that I had not given a second thought to God as the “Rock of Ages” for years. How many times have we heard that hymn without actually thinking about what it means? There are other images as well that we often take for granted.
One of those is one we celebrate today. This morning is popularly known as Good Shepherd Sunday—the Sunday in which we encounter this wonderful reading about Jesus being the Good Shepherd. And here, too, we encounter an image for God that we hear about all the time—at least once a year—without really thinking about.
God as Good Shepherd. It’s a great image for God. In it, we also encounter the compassion of our God. Certainly, for the people of Jesus’ day, this image of the Good Shepherd is probably one of the most perfect images Jesus could have used. They would have understood what a good shepherd was and what a bad shepherd was.
The good shepherd was the shepherd who actually cared for his flock. He looked out for them, he watched them. The Good Shepherd guided the flock and led the flock. He led the flock to a place to eat. It’s a wonderful way to try to describe God’s goodness to us. This image implies that God really—legitimately—cares for us. This is an important aspect of the role of the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd didn’t feed the flock.
Rather the good shepherd led the flock to the choicest green pastures and helped them to feed themselves. In this way, the Good Shepherd is more than just a coddling shepherd. He is not the co-dependent shepherd. The Good Shepherd doesn’t take each sheep individually, pick them up, and hand-feed each one of them.
Rather, he guides and leads the sheep to green pastures and allows them to feed themselves. The Good Shepherd also protects the flock against the many dangers out there. He protects the flock from the wolves, from getting too near cliffs, or holes, or falling into places of water. He cares for the flock. And that’s VERY important. Let’s face it, there are many dangers out there. There are many opportunities for us to trip ourselves, to get lost, to get hurt.
If we follow the Good Shepherd, if we allow ourselves to be led by him, we realize that those pitfalls are difficult, yes, but they don’t defeat us. Of course, the journey isn’t an easy one. We can still get hurt along the way. Bad things can still happen to us. There are predators out there, waiting to hurt us. There are storms brewing in our lives, waiting to rain down upon us.
But, with our eyes on the Shepherd, we know that the bad things that happen to us will not destroy us, because the Shepherd is there, close by, watching out for us—caring for us. We know that in those bad times—those times of darkness when predators close in, when storms rage—he will rescue us. The Good Shepherd knows his flock.
“I know them and they follow me,” Jesus says in today’s Gospel reading.
If one is lost, he knows it is lost and will not rest until it is brought back into the fold. This is the kind of relationship we have with our Good Shepherd. We are know God because God knows us. God knows us and calls us each by our name. The Good Shepherd reminds us that we don’t have some vague, distant God. We don’t have a God who lets us fend for ourselves. We instead have a God who leads us and guides us, a God who knows us each by name, a God who despairs over the loss of even one of the flock. We have a God who knows us and loves and cares for us. All these are important images, vital images to explain the relationship God has with us and we with God.
But the Good Shepherd doesn’t end there. This isn’t just about me as an individual and God. The image of the Good Shepherd must be taken and applied by anyone. Any of us who follow Jesus are called to be good shepherds in turn. We must love and love fully those who around us. We must care for those people who walk this path with us. We must look out for our loved ones and even our enemies, and we must shepherd them in whatever ways we can in our own lives.
Again, this is not easy, especially when it seems we are lost at times, when we are falling into the traps life sets before us, when our alleluias during this Easter season feels cold and lonely. But, that’s the way God works, sometimes. Sometimes, God’s works through our brokenness and helps us to guide others in their brokenness. Sometimes the best Good Shepherd is the one who has known fully what a lost sheep feels like, who knows the coldness and loneliness of being that lost sheep.
So, on this day in which we celebrate the Shepherd who leads and guides, let us not only be led, but let us also lead. On this day that we look to the Shepherd who guides, let us be guided and let us guide others. And let our alleluia on this Good Shepherd Sunday, even if it is a cold and lonely Alleluia, still be an Alleluia nonetheless. Let it be the sound we make, even in the cold and lonely places we sometimes find ourselves in. And let us, in that place, know that, even there, we are still experiencing the amazing glory of God. Amen.