This is now the fourth Sunday of Easter, and this morning the church gives us one of the oldest and most deeply loved images for the meaning of the resurrection story. We call this Good Shepherd Sunday. We all said together the Twenty-third Psalm and heard Jesus in our Gospel lesson say, “I am the good shepherd.” In fact, for the first 600 years of the church’s life, the predominant way of depicting Jesus in Christian art was as the Good Shepherd.
Many of us can’t remember a time when we didn’t know the Twenty-third Psalm. “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters.” I can still remember as a child seeing faded pictures of a blond-headed Jesus on the wall of my Sunday School classroom, shepherd’s crook in hand and beautiful white sheep gathered around him.
But the awkwardness in all this, at least for the preacher, can be that at some level we have to examine the likeness between the congregation and the sheep. I have heard for years that sheep are in fact dirty and fairly stupid, tend to crowd together in panicky herds, and easily fall prey to wolves. But I once read Episcopal priest and writer Barbara Brown Taylor arguing that that has been an unfair description, perpetrated largely by cattle ranchers. In fact, cows are herded from the rear by hooting cowboys cracking whips, but sheep prefer to be led. You push cows, but you lead sheep, and they will not go anywhere that someone else does not go first.
I also learned that sheep become very attached and trusting of their shepherds. A stranger walking through a herd of cattle would create chaos; the shepherd wouldn’t stir a sound among the sheep. Sheep and their shepherd develop a language with each other, and the relationship is exclusive. The sheep know the distinctive sounds and calls the shepherd makes; the shepherd learns to understand all the sheep’s noises.
“I am the good Shepherd,” Jesus says in the passage leading up to what we heard today. “I know my own and my own know me. . . And I lay down my life for the sheep.” What is so hard for us to lay hold of in this privatistic, individualistic, make-it-on-your-own culture of ours, is the possibility that we have a shepherd, one who cares for us, whom we can trust, who calls us each by name, who will make us lie down in green pastures and lead us beside still waters.
And as Jesus says in the Gospel this morning, there are plenty of fake shepherds around. Hirelings, he calls them, who are trying to lead with no care about the sheep’s well-being. That’s what can make it so confusing—the deceptive voices that call us. You know what some of those seductive voices are: “You are what you own,” and so we buy, buy, buy. You are what you look like, which creates vast industries to keep everyone looking young. Wrinkles are becoming an embarrassment, and gyms are filled with body sculptors carving out perfect abs. Or we hear, “You are what your job is and how successful you are.” Or increasingly it is becoming, “You are how smart or athletic your child is.”
But what if our lives really are the way this old, romantic picture describe it. The Easter message is that this Risen Lord who is our Good Shepherd is active and at work shaping and guiding our lives. My guess is that it’s about at this point many of us can start thinking that all of this is just a little naive. Life isn’t like that. Besides how would we even know if we are sheep of this flock? Probably some of us here rule ourselves out of the flock because we assume that must mean we are somehow in constant touch with God. Or that our beliefs are firm and clear that we can always say what we believe and why, and are never embarrassed about it. Or that we Christians every week understand and believe every word of the Creeds, and are living saintly lives when we leave the doors of this church, instead of living with the same combinations of faith and doubt, clarity and ambiguity, happiness and sadness, that everyone does.
But as best I can tell there are no qualifications for being in the flock. No distinction between good sheep and bad sheep, smart ones and dumb ones, nice ones or mean ones. No, all it takes is to be willing to be with the flock, and in the flock, and to listen to the voice of this Shepherd. That’s what brings us here week by week—to listen for a voice from beyond us—a voice from the heart of the universe calling, encouraging, challenging, guiding.
Of course, hearing the voice of this Shepherd can be hard at times. Sometimes it is wonderfully clear and assuring, sometimes it is elusive and even troubling, and sometimes we just can’t hear. But the declaration of this Sunday is that in and through the events of our lives God is calling us. Listen to how that wise writer Henri Nouwen put it.
What if the events of our history are molding us as a sculptor molds his clay, and if it is only in careful obedience to these molding hands that we can discover our real vocation and become mature people? What if all the unexpected interruptions are in fact invitations to give up old-fashioned and outmoded styles of living and are opening up new and unexplored areas of experience? And finally: What if our history does not prove to be a blind impersonal sequence of events over which we have no control, but rather reveals to us a guiding hand pointing to a personal encounter in which all our hopes and aspirations will reach fulfillment: Then our life would indeed be different, because then fate becomes opportunity, wounds a warning, and paralysis an invitation to search for deeper sources of vitality.
What if, in short, the Good Shepherd is calling us and leading us through all the events of our days?
A few weeks ago we heard a real shepherd speaking in this place. We had gathered here for a service called “The Rebirth of New Orleans,” intended to be a time to pray for the city to raise money for the rebuilding effort. This Cathedral was packed that night with a congregation made up largely of African-American worshipers from Washington, New Orleans, and New York. And while there was much that was moving about the night, maybe most unforgettable was when Pastor Dwight Webster came up to speak. He is the pastor of Christian Unity Baptist Church in New Orleans, which lost its entire building in the flood, along with the homes of nearly all the congregation, including Pastor Webster’s own home. So now he spends his days traveling from city to city—Houston to Baton Rouge to Atlanta to Birmingham to care for his flock—like a good shepherd.
As Pastor Webster stepped into the pulpit I expected an immediate rallying cry to get on with the work ahead, and an angry lament for the pain and suffering of his people. Instead he began by saying with warmth and feeling, “I want to say thank you Lord,” he said. ‘The most important thing I have to say tonight is, God is good. God is so good. God is good not some of the time, but all of the time.” In the face of flood and heartbreak and devastating loss, his deepest words were, “I just can’t begin to tell you all the things God has done for me and my people.”
He spoke with passion about the call to rebuild his city, and to do it in ways that honor the poor who have been shamefully ignored there. But what we heard that night was Easter faith—the words of a shepherd that there is a way through the darkness, that when the levees in our lives collapse, and the floodwaters are rising, and what we cherish seems to be destroyed, there is still a Good Shepherd who will lead us home.
“I am the Good Shepherd,” Jesus says. “I know my own and my own know me.” That is the heart of Easter faith—that we are never alone, and that a voice is calling you and me and every human being to find our place together in this flock we call the human race and like Pastor Webster to be healers and builders.
To be able to trust that Good Shepherd can give us tremendous courage. A friend of mine told me about going to the retirement luncheon for the minister at a large church in Dallas, Texas. For all his ministry he had been known as a bold, tough man, willing to stand up for Civil Rights there when almost no other white clergy would.
After many toasts and tributes to his brave ministry, he was asked to say a few words, and when he came to the podium, the Master of Ceremonies asked, “My friend, I just have one question for you. How did you do it? How could you be that bold and brave, how could you time and again go out on a limb by yourself?” He thought about it a minute and then said in the salty language of a Texan, “Well, every time a tough decision came up, I just said to myself, ‘The Lord is my Shepherd. What the hell!’”
That’s what Easter is about, my friends. A Shepherd who calls and invites us into a flock where we are known, loved, and put to work, and where he gives us the courage to follow where he leads.
“I am the Good Shepherd,” Jesus says. “I know my own, and my own know me.”