The Heart of the Shepherd
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Fourth Sunday of Easter (Good Shepherd Sunday)
23 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
3he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
4Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff —
they comfort me.
5You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.
I John 3:16-24
16We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us — and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 17How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?
18Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. 19And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him 20whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; 22and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.
23And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. 24All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.
11“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away — and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”
Being a city girl, I don’t know a whole lot about sheep. Which is why Good Shepherd Sunday in the lectionary makes me feel a little at sea, or out to pasture, as it were. So I called a local expert on Friday to talk about the life of a shepherd, thinking that some first hand information would help me to get my head around the image of Jesus as shepherd. Erik lives down the street from us, and he and his mother have sheep, turkeys, chickens, and an enormous garden that is presided over by a huge, antlered moose skull dressed up in scarecrow clothes. Their sheep are beautiful, sweet, fluffy, and known to escape on occasion to roam the neighborhood. Thinking of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, I asked Erik if he loved his sheep. “Oh yes!” he said. “When I go to feed them, I’ll squat down to pet them and they all run up and snuggle up and smell my face.” The sheep are as friendly as dogs. Erik insists that the sheep are much more personable than the chickens, who function as more of an aloof group. But the sheep have distinct personalities and Erik, the shepherd, knows them each by name.
Erik will graduate in a few weeks with a degree in Environmental Science and Policy from Plymouth State University. He’s a peace loving, rock climbing, environment-advocating, outdoorsy man of his times. Read: he’s a pretty awesome shepherd. When I asked Erik what he has learned about himself from keeping sheep he thought about it for a few minutes then said: “Well, being a college guy, it’s a different experience having something being dependent on you.” Erik insists that sheep are capable animals who know how to take care of themselves. But when they are penned in, especially during the long New Hampshire winters, they are dependent on a provider for food, water, and sometimes medicine in order to stay alive. Unlike many of his college peers, Erik made a commitment to care for and nurture his sheep, to be available to them no matter what. He even chose to raise sheep as a part of his commitment to live locally, support the wellbeing of the local environment and as part of his intentional decision to travel less.
Last summer, when Erik was running lab tests at the Hubbard Brook Research Forest, he got a call from his mom, who was also at work. She said a neighbor had called to say that the sheep had escaped and were wandering in the road and having a good time grazing in other people’s yards. Erik ran out of the lab, drove 40 minutes home, corralled and re-penned the sheep, and raced back to work. He laughed when he said: “I don’t know too many college kids who would be doing that.” Erik is a good shepherd, who has organized his life around taking care of and protecting his sheep, even when that may not be terribly convenient for him.
So my limited and very local research on the goodness of shepherds has given me a picture of someone who makes a commitment to care, and knows it will demand something of him.
A good shepherd puts the welfare of the sheep above his own needs at times. According to the biblical image of Jesus as shepherd, the good shepherd is even willing to die for his sheep.
Now, this is where definition of “good” shepherd starts to break down for me. I even asked Erik, in a set up question sort of way, “Does it sound kind of silly to you to think that a shepherd who dies for his sheep is a good shepherd,” I asked. “I mean, how can a dead shepherd help care for his sheep?” He conceded my point.
David Lose, preaching professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN, picks up this gnarly theological issue, Jesus dying for his sheep — the theological question most often interpreted as substitutionary atonement, Jesus dying for his sheep — in his blog post on this passage.
Dr. Lose writes: “But why? Why does Jesus the good shepherd lay down his life? To tell us that we are, in fact, enough. Jesus, especially in John's gospel, doesn't die in order to make some kind of payment to God or to satisfy God's wrath or to pay the penalty for sin. Jesus,” Dr. Lose insists “in John's Gospel, is the Revealer, the One who comes to make the invisible God visible and the unapproachable God accessible. Jesus comes to reveal that God loves the whole world, no exceptions. Jesus comes, that is, to tell us that we are already beloved, that we are enough, that we need no shoes or book or car or reputation or lover or high status job or big bank account or list of achievements or anything else to be deserving of God's love. That — God's unconditional and unending love — we've already got.”1
The author of the gospel of John sounds this insistent note throughout his gospel: Jesus came to express God’s profound, unbelievable, crazy-over-the-top love for us. Not to ward off God’s wrath by paying a penalty, but by living alongside us in a way that connects us most deeply to God, through the heart of a shepherd who loves us. The gospel of John is all about God loving humanity, “for God so loved the world” being the centerpiece of John’s writing.
Most of us find this radical news hard to believe, accept, or take into our innermost sense of ourselves. Which is why the biblical narrative has to find so many ways to tell us this truth over and over.
In some ways, the epistle of I John is a variation on a theme. If John’s gospel is all about revealing God’s love to us, then I John is about elaborating on that truth. There’s one line in the I John passage read today that just jumps out at me: “And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before God, whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and God knows everything.”
Whenever our hearts condemn us. When do our hearts condemn us? We condemn ourselves all the time. I’m not talking about guilt here, when our heart or conscience lets us know that we have done something wrong, something we rightly feel badly about. But I’m talking about shame, when our hearts tell us that we are wrong, when our hearts have turned on us in self-hatred, where we have internalized the homophobia or racism or sexism or any ism that erases the knowledge that we are created lovingly in the image of God. Annie Lamott says that there are certain parts of her mind (or heart) that are like a bad neighborhood, where it’s not safe to go there alone, especially at 3:00 in the morning.2 The epistle of John says that even there, where our hearts condemn us, God will not let go of us, that the loving shepherd is greater than our broken hearts. Who is the good shepherd? The God who ceaselessly comes to find us when we have forgotten to whom we belong or where we are going.
Perhaps you heard the story yesterday on NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday about Michael Morton. He was released from prison in Texas about six months ago after serving 25 years of a life sentence in prison for murdering his wife, a murder he didn’t commit. One of the shocking things about this case was that the state had withheld evidence from the judge and the defense attorney. And when that evidence finally came to light and was submitted to DNA testing, Morton was proved innocent. Morton describes an experience he had about 14 years into his prison sentence. When his son Eric, who stopped visiting his father when he was 12, turned 18 he wrote his father and told him he had changed his last name. Morton said he was in absolute despair and in a deep depression cried out to God. There was no response for several weeks. And then one night, he describes an experience of listening to a classical music station on the radio when a harp began to play. He says “. . . all of a sudden, in that dark prison cell in the middle of the night I was bathed in this bright golden light — it was the weirdest, most unusual thing I’ve ever experienced in my life — I was warm, thrilled, ecstatic, calm, and at peace — more than anything else, I felt this limitless compassion aimed right at me — a mother’s unconditional love magnified a million times — it was love — it was going to be OK — I knew it was the presence of God.”3 It would be 11 more years until he would be proven innocent, but Morton had an experience of the love of God that sustained him. “Even when your heart condemns you,” John writes “God is greater than your heart.” The heart of the Shepherd is the one who loves us no matter what, and the Shepherd will come to find us when we are lost and in despair, the one who loves us beyond comprehension. The Good Shepherd saves us when we most need saving.
And from this day forward, every time I drive by Erik’s house, where the sheep graze under the watchful eye of the moose skull scarecrow, I will think of someone else who is watching over them, someone who is watching over us all. As I drive past Erik the good shepherd’s house, I will forever be reminded of Erik dropping everything and jumping in his car, racing home to find the lost sheep, to bring them back safely into the fold. As I drive past and catch out of the corner of my eye the sheep safely grazing, I think of God dropping everything and racing to find us, when our hearts have condemned us so terribly that we can not find out way back to the center, where we are met and held and embraced by the relentless love of God. And as I glance into my rear view mirror as I drive on I will see not sheep on the side of Erik’s lawn but men and women and children who raise up their eyes to see the shepherd coming toward them, endlessly coming to find them, being folded into those arms of love where even our own hearts can no longer condemn us. That is what I will see. Thanks be to God. AMEN.
1David Lose on The Working Preacher Blog.
2Anne Lamott. Operating Instructions.
3Wade Goodwyn. “Free After 25 Years: A Tale of Murder and Injustice,” NPR Weekend Edition Saturday, April 28, 2012. This story was told in a side bar in this story on their web site.