Good is not the same as Gentle

Sermon on John 10:11-18 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Last week I had the enviable opportunity to spend time with our fourth and fifth grade Sunday school class. As is often the case whenever I talk to the youth of this parish, I was struck by their intelligence, sensitivity, and passion for the faith. Moreover, I was deeply impressed with the constructive criticism the students offered, including some carefully considered suggestions about how to improve the sermons here at The Redeemer. In fact, they had a three point plan that they suggested I bring to the next clergy meeting: 1) make sermons shorter, 2) add more humor to the presentation, and 3) be more emotional. On one level, these are the same shopworn suggestions that kids have been making to preachers since time immemorial. Conversations like these are an important part of what it means to be pastor. On a deeper level, however, these suggestions belie one of the fundamental assumptions about our culture: that everything ought to be catered to our individual desires and expectations. This consumerist assumption tends to inform everything that we do: our buying habits, our political participation, even our experience of the divine.

imagesThis morning, we are presented with one of the most well-worn symbols of our faith: Jesus as the Good Shepherd. A favorite of stained glass artists and children’s book illustrators, this image from John’s gospel is ubiquitous in our culture. As a matter of fact, when it is conflated with Luke’s parable of the lost sheep, as it often is, the tenth chapter of John gives us one of the most recognizable pictures of Jesus there is: a meek and mild savior carrying a lamb across his shoulders. For many of us, calling Jesus the Good Shepherd is a way of making him the calming presence in our lives. Even when we feel overwhelmed with the stresses and challenges of the world, we can return to the Good Shepherd, who will lovingly embrace us in his strong and gentle arms. The problem with this popular picture of Jesus the Good Shepherd is that it does not accurately depict the passage we read this morning or the vocation of a shepherd. Indeed, very little about the role of shepherds, good or otherwise, can be considered gentle at all.

In some ways, it’s no surprise that we mishear the shepherd imagery in Scripture. After all, the twenty-third psalm, the ultimate biblical job description for a shepherd, has been a source of great comfort to people of faith for thousands of years. But I think it is helpful to examine the nature of that comfort. The psalmist acknowledges that there will be times when he walks through the valley of the shadow of death, when he will suffer all that flesh is heir too. Yet even in the midst of that, he trusts in the abiding presence of his shepherding Lord. Moreover, the psalmist affirms that he is comforted by God’s rod and staff. In the ancient world, a shepherd carried both small, clublike stick (a rod) for warding off predators and a long, slender staff for directing the sheep away from danger. Occasionally, the staff would be used to yank a sheep from the edge of a cliff or shove her out of the way of an oncoming gullywasher. In other words, the shepherd’s rod and staff were not the gentlest of tools. Nevertheless, they were both designed to protect the sheep, to give them what they needed even when the animals weren’t sure what that was. I suspect that this is the source of the psalmist’s comfort: the recognition that God knows what we need even when we aren’t sure what that might be.

Francisco de Zurbarán_Agnello di Dio_c_ 1635-40_Olio su tela_cm 35,6 x 52,1_The San Diego Museum of Art
Agnus Dei (1640) by Francisco de Zubaran

This is why Jesus identifies himself as the Good Shepherd. Christ’s identity as the Good Shepherd is not an articulation of his gentleness; it is an affirmation that his mission is to give the world something that can only be given by God, something that defies the world’s expectations. Immediately after Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd,” he tells us that “the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” This statement is anything but gentle, but it is consistent with our understanding of who Jesus Christ is: the one who lays down his life in order to pick it up again, the one who gives himself to those who would betray and abandon him. The infidelity of the disciples partially stems from the fact that Jesus frustrated their expectations. The disciples and those who opposed Jesus expected him to overthrow the Roman occupiers, reestablish Israel’s glory days, and put himself at the head of a religious kingdom. As the Good Shepherd, however, Jesus eschews worldly power and becomes instead the Passover lamb, the one who is sacrificed on behalf of his people. As the Good Shepherd, Jesus gives the world not what it expects or desires, but rather what it needs.

Over the past several decades, the Church has found herself in a challenging position. The cultural primacy of the church has eroded as fewer and fewer people feel obligated to attend with any regularity. Some have suggested that reason for this decline that the Church has become irrelevant, that we are no longer in tune with the zeitgeist. Those who have made this diagnosis have a very simple prescription: we should make church participation and the Christian life as easily digestible as possible. We should cater to the tastes and interests of prospective members and “give the people what they want.” Invariably, people will frame this as the “pastoral” approach, with the understanding that “pastoral” means fading as much into the background as possible. But our text this morning reveals that the pastoral vocation, the vocation of a shepherd, is about something very different. If the gospel teaches us anything it is that God our shepherd does not necessarily give us what we want; God gives us what we need. What would it look like if the Church once again recognized that it had something the world needed, even if it didn’t know it yet? What would happen if we recognized that the true pastoral responsibility of every Christian is to recognize and proclaim that the gospel of Jesus Christ has the power to transform lives? The image of Jesus the Good Shepherd invites us to embrace these possibilities as it calls us to follow the one who defies our expectations in order to give us what we need.

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