I was here at Christ Church for about a month and a half when I decided it would be a good idea to talk about sheep. I pointed out a few fast facts about sheep and shepherds, went on for a few minutes about how no one really tends to sheep any more, and then in my infinite wisdom, I asked what I thought was a rhetoric question, asking who here actually thinks about the daily care and feeding of sheep. Well, much to my dismay, Ed Ackerman raised his hand and said, “I do.” Thanks again Ed, thanks again for blowing that sermon.
In that sermon ten months ago, I chose an inopportune time to talk about sheep, but even as I stood up there wondering how many sheep facts I had gotten wrong, I knew that I was standing before a forgiving crowd. As we heard from St. John this morning, Jesus had no such luxury, no such comfort; what we heard Jesus say this morning about sheep and shepherds was delivered to a mixed audience, and at least half of that audience was more than willing to just kill Him on the spot.
And Jesus had been in such a situation before. A couple days before Jesus spoke the words we just heard about Him being the Good Shepherd, His own people attempted to stone Him to death when He told the Jews, “Very truly I tell you, before Abraham was, I AM.” Jesus kept doing stuff like that, claiming to be God at the worst possible times, making what has come to be known as the “I AM” statements. I AM the resurrection and the life, I AM the way, the truth and the life, I AM the light of the world, I AM the Good Shepherd, seven I AM statements in all, all of them reflecting the Holy Name given to Moses in the burning bush. Jesus knew His crowd better than I did ten months ago, but still He spoke, still He spoke the truth.
I am the Good Shepherd, said Jesus, to an already angry crowd. Jesus had went from angering a crowd by claiming to be eternal, by saying that just as Abraham was, I AM, to healing a man born blind on the Sabbath, a big no-no. That man was dragged before the Pharisees, dragged in front of the court, and that man told them what he knew to be true, that he was born blind, and that a man named Jesus had healed him. His parents were brought in as witnesses, they showed their fear of the Pharisees by throwing the burden of proof onto their son, but the man born blind not only kept telling the Pharisees the truth about being healed, he actually went as far as to chastise the Pharisees for not believing in Jesus. It was into this angry crowd, into this volatile situation, into this mob of the powerful, that Jesus dared to tread.
And so we find that our Gospel lesson today is not a standalone statement, not a random saying of Jesus, but an answer to a question, and answer to a challenge made by the Jewish ruling class. It is an answer the Pharisees did not wish to hear, it’s an answer the average shepherd didn’t want to hear. For Jesus to say that He is the Good Shepherd means that they, the Pharisees, are not good shepherds; Jesus had not only declared Himself the Good Shepherd, he openly indicted His accusers as well. The bar to being a good shepherd is set high: the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, the good shepherd sees the wolf coming and does not run away, the good shepherd actually owns the sheep. The good shepherd knows his sheep and the his sheep know him. As Barbra Brown Taylor pointed out once, in the Middle East to this day you can sometimes see three or four Bedouin shepherds and their flocks all arrive at a watering hole at about the same time. The sheep quickly mix and mingle together until the three or four individual flocks have disappeared in favor of forming one big mega-flock. But the shepherds don’t fret this mix-up. Because when it’s time to go, each shepherd gives his own distinctive whistle or sings his own unique little song, and immediately his sheep leave the others behind, form back into their own flock, and follow the shepherd they’ve come to trust. Trust, knowledge, courage, ownership, love, even daring: these make up the attributes of the Good Shepherd, and there is only One who can get the job done.
We know that Jesus is that One, that one Good Shepherd. We look to that image of Jesus in our stained glass here, and I can think of, just off the top of my head, around a dozen parishes, including my childhood parish and the chapel at my seminary which have Good Shepherd images as the backdrop to their altars. The image of the Good Shepherd is one of the comforting images of Jesus, at least for us, even if it was less than comforting to those Jews and Pharisees who first received it. The fact that Jesus is a good shepherd, the Good Shepherd, is a comforting one, yes, but that He is our Shepherd challenges us as well. That challenge is to acknowledge that if Jesus is the Shepherd, that we are the sheep, and that we need to be led. Jesus didn’t say that He was the Good Cowboy, because He knew that we are not to be compared to cattle, which need to be driven from behind, the way you see it being done in those old Western movies, cowboys on horses galloping behind the herd, jeering and hooting at the cows to keep them moving in the direction they need to go. Jesus compared us rather to sheep, because sheep prefer to be led, to follow someone whom they know cares for them, will protect them, will feed and water them, a shepherd who knows them better than they know themselves, a shepherd who will give them what they need in due season.
Jesus is that Good Shepherd, we are the sheep, but we need to consent to being led. The author Gary Wills, with whom I disagree on almost everything, did say one smart thing. He said that if you go into any bookstore, you will find dozens if not hundreds of books on leadership, but zero books on followership. In a time when we are actually encouraged to look only to ourselves to determine the way in which we are to go, to “control our destinies,” to do things our own way, we lose sight of what it means to be led. In a time when we are actually encouraged to interpret Scripture on our own, to ditch the Church Fathers in favor of personal experience, to make faith something private and personal rather than public and communal, we lose sight of that Good Shepherd. We are encouraged to go our own way, only to find that the farther we travel down our own path, the more difficult it becomes to hear the voice of Jesus.
So keep listening. Listen for the voice of Jesus our Good Shepherd, listen for Him in Scripture and in prayer, in the Divine Liturgy and in the lives of the Saints; listen for the voice of Jesus and then let Him be your Shepherd, knowing that He who laid down His life for us leads us still, that He whose goodness faileth never, He who who feeds us with His own Body and Blood, He will lead us with rejoicing to our true home.