Every year, on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, also affectionately called Good Shepherd Sunday, we read from the 10thchapter of the gospel of John. Now we are all quite familiar with references to Jesus as the Good Shepherd in Christian music and art. We cannot even read Psalm 23 without thinking of Jesus, probably because no one else but he has ever called himself the Good Shepherd, although the psalm is attributed to King David, and would have been composed at least 1000 years before Jesus was born.
Now I can’t speak for other pastors and preachers, but Good Shepherd Sunday puts me in an awkward spot a little. Yes, Jesus alone is the Good Shepherd. But my official title is “pastor,” another word for shepherd. And Jesus set the bar rather high. “A good shepherd,” he says, “lays down his life for the sheep.” We only read 8 verses, yet he manages to mention it 5 times. So okay, he did lay down his life for his sheep. No one disputes that. Along with his passion and resurrection, Jesus’ laying down of his life is the very foundation of our Christian faith. No one is likely to get anywhere near the kind of shepherd Jesus was. I’m sure we don’t realistically expect anyone to. And personally I don’t look forward to ever laying my life down for anyone. I’m not saying I absolutely won’t, if I had to. So at best I am a surrogate, a standby, what Jesus refers to as a hired hand. I am also well aware that the sheep I have been called to shepherd are not mine, nor can I swear I would not run if a wolf showed up, literally or otherwise.
But I believe I can be somewhat useful. I have managed to keep you all coming to church most weekends, or at least I haven’t run you off … yet, although I’m sure I’ve disappointed some people through the past 12 years. Maybe I could have been nicer. Maybe I could have been more patient and kind. Maybe I should have returned emails and phone calls in a more timely fashion. I probably could have been less critical or snarky. I could have said something someone didn’t agree with. Or I could be doing things quite differently from someone’s favorite priest. Maybe I wasn’t willing to accommodate someone’s peculiar request. Maybe they were afraid to ask. Maybe someone didn’t particularly care for my pastoring style. Maybe some people will never tell me any of that to my face. And now I’ll stop whining.
But I know I can’t very well talk about Jesus the Good Shepherd without perhaps drawing a little attention to those things I am not, nor will ever be, nor can ever be. So instead we should refer to the fundamental truth that Jesus alone is the Good Shepherd, and we are all of us sheep of his flock, you and I, that we might focus on what we need to make happen to best reflect Jesus the Good Shepherd as a community of believers to everyone we encounter. Now I will be the first to admit that I am, as Jesus said, a hired hand. I am aware that people will have expectations of their pastors, some legitimate, some unrealistic. But we all know this is more than just a job. I apologize that I am not Jesus. Actually, I do not apologize for being me. I have some skills, some flexibility, and a willingness to learn. And I also have my flaws, my blindness, my personality quirks. But you knew that going in. And if you didn’t, spoiler alert.
Jesus is our Good Shepherd. And through the ages, he has sent us pastors and leaders after his own heart, some more than others, to extend his merciful love toward all; to express his care for the sheep of his flock; to keep us safe from danger and harm; to seek out the poor, the hungry, the lost, the vulnerable, the broken; and to keep us united in the bond of charity and peace. There have been occasions of challenge and struggle, when those, to whom was given care of God’s flock, have done grave harm instead. Some of them have behaved selfishly, more like arrogant and overbearing despots and tyrants rather than shepherds. And God will hold them accountable.
But we have a responsibility as well, as the sheep of God’s flock, to look out for one another, and to be shepherds in some form to one another. The image of shepherd and flock is just that, an image. At some point, it will not be enough. Jesus uses it to reflect the culture and time he lived in. But the image ultimately speaks about God’s immeasurable longing to draw us to himself. In the second reading from the first letter of John, the apostle reminds us that we are God’s children, but not because of anything we have done. It is all the Father’s doing, calling us his children, in very much the same way he calls Jesus his beloved Son. Typically, children do not choose their parents. They can, but after the fact. Sheep do not choose their shepherd. But once that choice is made, it creates a bond that cannot be taken lightly. My sister became a grandmother just recently. And I will never grasp the depth of her joy and love and longing for that little girl. I am sure those of you who are grandparents know that it is not the same as being a parent. I’m sure it cannot be the same. And despite the rights and obligations the bond we have with our children and grandchildren imposes on us, there is so much more that we will never be able to wrap our heads around or articulate. “We are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed.” The apostle is telling us that there’s more to our relationship with God than we can ever hope or imagine. “We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”
Even well-defined roles in human relationships have their limits. Most recently, it was brought to my attention that no one typically refers to a contract when things are going well. When God made a covenant with Israel, God would call his people to task when they strayed through the prophets. God would point out that he remains faithful even if he had every right to walk away. So Jesus reminds us of God’ covenant when he refers to himself as the Good Shepherd, which he defines in terms we can understand, and which he then surpasses in ways that blow our minds. But just as he invites us to consider in some of his other teachings, we can also hear him tell us here. He told a parable about a servant whose master forgave him a huge debt he would never have been able to repay. Then he instructed his listeners to forgive one another from the heart, or his Father in heaven will not forgive them. After he washed the feet of his apostles at the last supper, he instructed them to wash each other’s feet. Jesus alone is our Good Shepherd. But he tells us that we are shepherds to one another as well. We need to be watchful for the dangers to the flock. And we are responsible for nurturing and nourishing each other. The hired hand might be useful on occasion. But his flaws and quirks and weaknesses should not in any way diminish our love and care for one another. Jesus the Good Shepherd is our model above all. No one else will come close.
Rolo B Castillo © 2018