The Fourth Sunday of Easter
John 10:11 -- 18
Fred and Barney
I grew up in the suburbs, in a community outside of lower Manhattan. There were no sheep in our neighborhood in fact there were no farms. In Southern New Jersey there were farms the grew wonderful corn and tomatoes, in fact some might be amused to know that the slogan on New Jersey's license plate has been, "the Garden State." Amused because so many of us who live in this fine country have only had the experience of New Jersey which can be found along the New Jersey Turnpike and the Garden State Parkway. Our Lord grew up in a completely different kind of culture than is found in northern or southern New Jersey. His was more of an agrarian society, shepherds were a part of his experience as he grew up. Perhaps there were times in his youth when he was sent out to watch the flock, having to protect it from the beasts of the night. We really don't know if Jesus ever did the work of an actual shepherd yet there's no doubt he heard the stories of King David in his youth and learned how he protected his flock driving off Lions with his sling.
In the late 1980s I purchased a home in Orchard Park, New York. It used to be a rather large farm but at the time when we purchased it is only retained a little over two acres. The house was built in 1813 and next to it was a gentle stream. Most of the land was in the backyard, the property was in the shape of a triangle with only a small portion touching the road in front. The previous owners had dug a hole in the back yard and filled it with water so they could keep some ducks. The pond was stagnant as there was no source of fresh water except what little water could be pumped from the stream that ran by the House. We decided that we would test our hand at raising livestock, though I must admit a good deal of my motivation for having sheep in the backyard was to avoid having to mow the lawn. It just made sense to me to have animals to munch on the grass to their nourishment rather than having me spend most of my weekend tending the rather large lawn. We put a fence up around the pond and eventually purchased two sheep who we named Fred and Barney. We must've been influenced by the Flintstones.
The children would go out and enjoy the sheep from time to time, but mostly Fred and Barney were on their own. We soon discovered that they possessed a rather unpleasant scent and were quite dirty. We were obviously not prepared to be shepherds certainly not very good shepherds. The dramatic event happened a few months after we had the sheep. One afternoon when I was inside the house I began to hear unusual bleatings from the two of them. I could hear that they were screaming in the backyard. I went outside to discover that two large dogs had been attacking the sheep. They had managed to get over the fence and they had Barney and Fred in their jaws. It was a gruesome sight and very upsetting. One of the dogs was an Alaskan Husky and the other a Malamud. These dogs were clearly hungry and violent. I went into the house and retrieved my shotgun, held the dogs at bay while Betsy got a hold of the local sheriff to come take the dogs away. Had I wanted to I could have exacted vengeance upon those animals and shot them. I did not feel like a very good Shepherd. My sheep were injured, the metaphorical wolf was successful in his attack. The sheriff eventually did arrive and at the same time the owners of the dogs arrived as well. I think they were somewhat horrified to see me holding a gun on them as they now cowered in one corner of the pen. Even though I had the right to shoot them had I wanted to, they had left the sheep after I scared them away and I saw no use in putting them to death even though their attack brought death to both Fred and Barney. The owners told me the dogs had escaped a few days before and I think they must have been listening to the police scanner when they heard the reports of the dogs having attacked the sheep and the address where this all took place. The owners did make restitution to me for the cost of the sheep but the trauma of losing them could never be covered.
Jesus is the good Shepherd not only does he know us each by name but he knows everything about us and he still tends to us. Jesus is the good Shepherd who knows our strengths and our weaknesses. He knows our good habits and our bad ones. He knows you and he knows me. He knows when we are on a diet and sneak food in the middle of the night. He knows when we want to escape responsibility and blame others for our mistakes. He knows when we want to hide from him and from one another. He knows our need to be loved and understood and at times protected. Jesus knows that for each of us there will be times of ups and downs; he understands and knows of the peculiar nature of each of our personalities; Jesus knows our struggles and our fears. Jesus knows when the wolf is at our door. Jesus is the good Shepherd who is willing to die for the sheep, but not only was he willing to die for the sheep, for you and for me he really did die at the cross where he overcame the greatest foe -- death itself.
The image of the good Shepherd may be the most popular image in Christian art. It has certainly been an image that we have seen and has been portrayed over centuries of Christian tradition. In the time of Jesus the Shepherd did not hold a prominent position, in fact it was a lowly position in the hierarchical working world of our Lord's Day. Christian tradition has understood the role of the Shepherd as something and someone to be valued. Over time the role of the Shepherd became equated with qualities and values which were held in high esteem. The Shepherd would need to exercise leadership, leading the flock to safety and leading to flock to nourishment. The Shepherd would need to exercise courage, protecting the flock at times from the overwhelming violence of nature found in predatory animals, unexpected storms and even in the hardships of twisted ankles and accidents. The Shepherd would need to exercise strength, strength to endure the rugged wilderness into which he would take the sheep, strength to endure the loneliness that leadership would often bring him, strength to endure the hardships of a nomadic life and strength to assist the vulnerable sheep whenever there was a need. The Shepherd would also need to exercise tenacity. He must be focused, alert and ready at any moment to protect the sheep from any challenge at any time.
Perhaps at times Christian tradition has forgotten these qualities of the Shepherd focusing instead on values such as gentleness. Often Jesus is portrayed with a lamb upon his shoulders, a gentle Jesus carrying a vulnerable creature. We also may associate the Shepherd's work with dependability, seeing the Shepherd as one who is always there, rain or shine, night or day always available always dependable even more so than US postal workers.. And of course the Shepherd can be associated with one who is given trust. Though the Shepherd likely does not own the flock which he tends he is trusted with care of the flock, trusted to do whatever it takes to keep the flock safe from the dangers which surround it. The shepherd is trusted to bring the flock home when the season of grazing is over.
It may be good for us to merge the sweeter images of gentleness, dependability and trust with the more realistic images of strength and courage and leadership. To only focus on the gentleness of our Lord is to make our Lord a Sunday school Jesus, one who is sweet without strength, one who is tender without tenacity.
The Gospel texts points to the difference between the hired man and a good Shepherd. The hired man is there on a temporary basis and to receive some monetary gain. The hired man is not invested in the sheep and likely doesn't have a relationship with the sheep except for his own self-interest. The hired man cares about himself not the sheep while the owner personally cares about each member of the flock. The owner is willing to risk his own life for the sheep he serves and in our Lord's case the owner gives his own life for the sheep he loves.
The hired hand runs from the wolf while the good Shepherd stays to defend the flock. Who is the wolf? Ultimately the wolf is the devil and all of the tools of the devil that come to steal life. The wolf is the one whose intention is to kill and to destroy. Our Lord's death upon the cross was not only so we would have a way to heaven, his sacrifice is for more than that. Our Lord's willingness to lay down his life for us provides us with protection and freedom today. Our Lord came to give us life, abundant life all the days of our life. The wolf is the one who attacks us and who seeks to steal our joy. The wolf is the one who would seek to make our lives so focused on ourselves and our own problems that all we notice are our problems while missing the abundance that is present in our Lord at all times and in all places and in every moment. The wolf desires to fill us with fears and worries causing us to complain and to gossip and to experience a sickness of soul that comes with these behaviors.
We may think that it's our job to fight the wolf. We may think that it's up to us to overcome our fears and worries all by ourselves. But I suspect most of us have discovered that the more we have tried to stop feelings like anger or fear or worry the more we think about them and the worse they get. The sheep were never supposed to fight the wolf, their job was to run away from the wolf, to run to the Shepherd and ask for help. Jesus is here as our good Shepherd. He is here in his sacramental presence. He is here in the Gospel, the good news. He is here in the fellowship we share with one another and our job whenever we face a wolf in our lives is to run to Jesus. Let us run to our Lord today from whatever circumstances may be binding us and causing us to live in fear or worry or with a complaining and critical spirit. Let us run to Jesus today and give thanks for he knows us each deeply and fully and by name.
Our Lord wants us to do more than run to him he wants us to share in his ministry of shepherding. As we find strength in running to Jesus, as we receive the grace that he is always more ready to give them we to receive, we will discover that we are strengthened to shepherd others with his love working through us. Some of us may be called to shepherd our youth. I was never an outstanding basketball player but I really enjoy basketball and when the opportunity presented itself for me to assist a coach who was having problems with his schedule I jumped at the opportunity. In a small way by being present as an assistant coach and by caring for those seventh and eighth grade girls who were part of the team, I was able to be a shepherd and share in Christ's shepherding ministry. There was one moment when one of the girls seemed to be overcome by inner fears and anxieties. I took her aside during practice along with her mother who was also present and prayed with her, I know that prayer made a difference, not that the prayer was so powerful, what I know was that the love of Christ was in me for that child. Both mother and child felt cared for. There are opportunities all around us to share in the shepherding ministry of our Lord, we simply need to open our eyes wide enough to see them.
Some of us are called to shepherd adults. Sometimes particularly difficult experiences that we may have faced like a death, a divorce, alcoholism in the family or other challenging circumstances may give us a special sensitivity to those whom we see around us struggling with similar concerns. Others of us may be gifted in teaching and will have the opportunity to nurture others in the understanding of the Scriptures. Shepherding comes in all sizes, shapes and forms. And as long as we find ourselves running to Jesus to be shepherded by him we will also find ourselves equipped by him and ready to reach out to others.
On this day let us pause for a moment to express our gratitude to our Lord Jesus Christ who is the good Shepherd. And let us pray that the example he gives us in laying down his life for us will strengthen us to give to others who are in need of his grace and shepherding love.