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A Story about a Shepherd or the Sheep?: The Fourth Sunday of Easter

Sunday, May 3, 2020
Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10

A little under twenty years ago made my first visit to Holy Cross Priory, a small monastery in Toronto. It was the beginning of what has become a long and meaningful connection, and it was exactly what I needed at that time. On my first morning there I was a bit nervous, so — just to be safe — I read a little passage of scripture before joining the community in prayer. You know, in case there was a skill-testing question or something. (There wasn’t.) So, after my little reading I went downstairs and said mattins with them, which was shortly followed by the Eucharist. No, there wasn’t a skill-testing (or piety-testing) question, but something — two things — remarkable happened:

Firstly, the scripture passage that I had randomly flipped to on my own ended up being part of one of the readings that was offered in our corporate worship that morning. Wow!

Second, another one of the readings I heard in that little living room chapel that morning was from the First Letter of Peter, culminating with “For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.”

Again, WOW. The scripture gave voice to my needs and my hopes, and it revealed what would be a reality. That I had found a spiritual home in that place, as part of that community. Ever since then that portion of that epistle has been important to me. That image of Jesus as the Shepherd of my soul, keeping me from straying too far off the path has often snapped me back to where I need to be. Some of your Bibles might have the translation “bishop” of your souls. Bishops, similar to shepherds, have a ministry of oversight over a flock. Those of us who make vows of obedience to our bishops (to whomever occupies that office in our diocese) are thankful for bishops we can trust. I’m thankful for the ministry of our Bishop Todd, who has conveyed calmness, wisdom, and a down-to-earth approachability during the difficult month and a half of quarantine. And he’s done all this while being brand new to the position!

So that image of the Great Shepherd can resonate with us. Like all symbols, it has power: the power to enliven our imaginations. At the same time, however, I wonder if the symbol of the shepherd might sometimes have trouble landing with us. It’s far removed from most of our experience. We’re not particularly dependent on shepherds (or sheep) in the same way as ancient near-Eastern society. It’s also a symbol that has lost some potency due to its ubiquity among kitschy devotional pieces of art. We’re so used to it, but the version we’re used to rarely does justice to the danger of the predators that threatened sheep pens, nor the smell of the manure.

What can we do with today’s readings, today’s images? And what do they have to say to us in our own context?

Today I’m struck by some tension in the readings. Not a negative tension, but a creative one. Again, going to that reading from First Peter, I can’t help but primarily read it from an individual standpoint, based on that story I began with. The Good Shepherd tends to us as individuals, carrying us across his neck, as in so many of those well-worn images. (The original intention of the letter, however, was almost surely not individualistic, but to provide solace and direction to a community facing challenges in its society.)

Then we move to the reading from the Acts of the Apostles, which describes the early Church as really walking the walk: being immersed in the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, and practices, not to mention the radical generosity of sharing possessions, and selling possessions to provide for those in need. It’s a passage that has inspired monastic communities and, more locally, organizations like The Working Centre. So that reading, to me, speaks to groups. Or to flocks, we might say today. A flock that takes care of itself. Families are formed around the daily meal, and this early Christian community shows that they have an expansive definition of family. Another powerful image for us today, and certainly a challenge to live up to. It is possible (perhaps likely) that the author is presenting an especially rosy picture of the Church here, but still, ideals are to be worked toward rather than dismissed.

And then with the gospel we come to another tight-knit community: the sheep in the sheepfold that are protected by the Shepherd. At first glance it seems to come from the same place as that Acts reading: a group that is united and at peace. BUT, let’s look more closely at the reading. The sheep don’t actually get a mention (directly) until a few verses in. There’s a whole host of characters that seem to get more attention early on. Verse 1: the thieves/bandits. Verse 2: the shepherd. Verse 3: the gatekeeper and the shepherd again, and then, at the end of the verse, finally, the sheep.

So this leads me to ask: is this a story about sheep (like the Acts reading), or about the shepherd? I’m going to lean toward the shepherd, which makes sense, given that today is often called Good Shepherd Sunday. This is important, because the images of uniform and obedient sheep enclosed in a single pen can lead to an unhealthy feeling of “us versus them,” the ones that are ‘in’ and the sad/evil/unlucky others cast off into the outer darkness. (One of the other gospel books makes use of this, in the judgement parable we often refer to as The Sheep and the Goats.)

So, as we work to exercise our minds and our hearts with this allegory — an allegory that the narrator tells us the disciples had trouble understanding — a corrective to our human tendency to judge and divide, and so often measure our best (our ideals) against other groups’ worst, is to read this parable as primarily about JESUS, and his love, his compassion, his leadership, and his guidance, rather than being about our quiet, docile perfection. No, this image as Jesus as the Great Shepherd should make it clear that, even if we’re the ones in the pen, the shepherd is nonetheless stepping in a lot of OUR crap. And willingly doing so.

Now, if my hypothesis here is correct, that the parable is primarily about Jesus — which is to say, God — and not about us, that does not necessarily let us off the hook. Nope, it doesn’t. I’m reading a book called The Bible Makes Sense by Walter Brueggemann, and he puts our situation thus: being a people in covenant with God (such as the Jews with the Abrahamic covenant, and Christians with the new covenant, through his blood), our life isn’t just about surviving, or hedonistically enjoying ourselves, or just scraping by. No, as people in relationship with God, to be created is “a call to be in a continuing relation with the caller.”* To mould that into our shepherd/sheep metaphor, to be a sheep in the great story of the Good Shepherd, is to be called into relationship with the Shepherd. So it’s a story about a shepherd, but you can’t be a shepherd without sheep.

What’s important is that this story not play into that “us versus them” mindset I mentioned above. (Jesus, a few lines after today’s reading, will refer to “sheep who do not belong to this flock.”) It’s not about being self-satisfied in our highly-fenced pen. If we look closely at the story, we’ll see that it’s not so much a story about being locked in the pen, but about being guided OUT of it, by the shepherd we can trust. And leaving the security of the pen, we need to know that we’re in the hands of a shepherd we can trust. “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them OUT. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” The righteous shepherd, the leader, the guide, doesn’t put his sheep in a situation that he wouldn’t willingly endure himself. And so the wood of the sheep pen transforms in our minds to the wood of the Cross. And symbols, being dynamic and messy, change. Jesus the Shepherd is also Jesus the Lamb, sacrificed for us. And we, the sheep, are likewise called to follow the lead of the shepherd, and become shepherds ourselves. Led out from the confines of our pen and into the world, we’re called to lead lives that reflect our experience of love, compassion, and peacemaking that we’ve come to know in Jesus.

All of these symbols today — sheep, shepherd, bread, signs and wonders, sin, suffering cross — all of these symbols we perceive and understand because we’re ‘insiders.’ We’re in the pen. Being people formed by the fellowship, teaching, and practices of the Church, we can appreciate the layers of depth that all of these symbols represent. (All words and images are symbols; I’m not using “symbolic” in some liberal sense.) Being a sheep in the fenced-in pen is important. It’s where we’re fed, taught, and grow to maturity. But the abundance we experience there, thanks to the goodness of our Shepherd, isn’t for us to greedily store away. No, the shepherd leads the sheep out. The First Letter of Peter makes us aware to the unfair suffering that we (and others) will inevitably face. But it also reminds us that our shepherd suffered first, putting himself in the place of his sheep. And this is his story, not ours. The paradox, however, is that we’re invited to see ourselves in this story, so that we move from being bystanders to characters, from sheep to shepherds, and from being separated to set free.

There can be danger in this, and there will be times when we find ourselves lost in a dark wood (or valley of the shadow of death). But our time in the sheepfold has helped us learn the Shepherd’s voice. Whenever we find ourselves in that forest, maybe this saying can return to our minds: “You were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.” Amen.

© 2020 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter

* Walter Brueggemann, The Bible Makes Sense (Cincinnati: Franciscan Media, 2003), 13.