The image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is one of the most familiar from Scripture. Countless paintings have been done showing Jesus with innocent-looking sheep. “The Lord is my Shepherd…” may be one of the most quoted in the Bible. I would guess that most of us have a stock image in our memory that comes forward whenever we hear the Good Shepherd mentioned. The problem is that all this familiarity can actually inhibit our understanding of this story…We have heard it so often that whatever we remember about it is just too ingrained in us to allow us to see any other perspective. It is so routine that we may be limiting the range of meanings that we find in this story.
This is a rich text that that reminds us that there are other sheep out there – “not of this flock” – and that ALL are called to be gathered in…We are tempted to hear only the comforting part of this text – Christ takes care of his sheep – US. And there is nothing wrong with that view. However, there is more to this story…John Calvin said that the gospel writer here is referring to the calling of the Gentiles…He may be right in terms of the gospel’s original audience and intent…In the 21st Century, though, we must expand our understanding of this text…We need to re-define who those “other sheep” are in our time…Who are “the others” in our community?
Asking this question forces us to see beyond our walls and try to envision who it is Christ is calling us to welcome into the one flock…How should the affluent church in America define “others” in the world? Who are the others we see on the margins? Do we exclude people who do not agree with us, or worship like us, or dress like us? Is “our flock” just a little too exclusive by Christ’s open and inclusive standards?
There is much debate on this topic that takes us into the touchy subject of denominationalism…Our churches have evolved into institutions defined by doctrines that have little to do with the basic message of Jesus Christ. Each group has its own idea of how best to fulfill God’s plan and each one has some degree of “we’re doing it the right way – God’s way” built in to their structure. The real issue seems to be finding a way to understand that Jesus did not establish a church or a denomination – Jesus came to restore relationship between God and God’s Creation.
Professor Stephen A. Cooper invites us to consider this:
“The world will surely perish if its inhabitants continue to pursue narrow forms of self-definition, identities based on nation, class, race, and gender. The voice of Christ calls out to all the others just as it calls out to us; thus now is the time to examine our attitudes, practices, and behaviors that keep us safe from the concerns and needs of Christ’s other sheep.”
Whenever we isolate ourselves within our own little sheep pen; when we turn away from the world of those “other sheep,” we are the ones who refuse to hear the call that “one flock” is the work of the “One Shepherd.” To be sure – today’s text speaks to us of intimacy and security…there is great comfort in this story. I wonder, though, if part of the comfort comes from being grouped with sheep like us. There is a great deal of risk associated with this idea of “one flock and one shepherd”…It takes us out of our comfort zone…It challenges us to give more and more of ourselves to another person…It begs us to return more of our resources to the God who provides everything for us…It demands that we stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the kinds of people Jesus stood with: The outcasts, the marginalized…Sinners, lepers, women…Samaritans, tax collectors, and worse…But wait, isn’t that really who we are in the first place?
No matter how hard we try to remain isolated, we really do long for community…We may hide by driving into the garage and not coming into the front yard to meet the neighbors. We may build privacy fences around us and stay inside to avoid risking friendship…We may say that we simply are not as social as we once were and that we prefer a quiet evening at home to being out with real people…But the truth is – that’s just a cover-up for our insecurity and distrust that has driven us indoors over the past 30-40 years. By nature, we are created as social beings…We crave intimacy and relationship…We build virtual communities on the Internet and use chat rooms, blogs, and emails to keep us safely connected to people without really becoming part of “their flock”…We substitute electronic relationships for the real relationships that God calls us into. We give of ourselves in stingy bits and pieces so we do not have to risk anything significant. Let’s be careful, avoid being vulnerable, hold back our feelings and thoughts…We are afraid to confront one another; we judge each other without mercy; we hold grudges and set impossibly high standards of behavior – both for ourselves and for others; we are afraid that offering any glimpse into our fragile selves will risk being mocked, exploited, or abused, and so we build walls around our most vulnerable parts. How can any of this lead to any real community, any real relationship, or one flock with One Shepherd?
Jesus comes to us in this text this morning and says two things: Your fears are real – human beings can be cruel and mean-spirited and any relationship is risky. BUT, there is also protection from these risks…The fear and anxiety that comes with building new and risky relationships can be relieved by the one who lays down his life for the sheep…Our constant companion, the one who dies for us.
I pray that we can take a fresh look at this text and discover how we can be more connected to one another, to our church, and to the other sheep who also hear God’s voice…God’s community is open and inclusive…how do we provide a place where everyone can belong? The Pharisees wanted to exclude the man born blind because they said he was being punished for the sins of his parents…Jesus healed and welcomed him anyway. The Samaritans were excluded over issues of Temple practice and social customs…Jesus used the example of one to set the example for all. Over and over the religious leaders found ways to exclude the outcast, the oppressed and the overlooked…Jesus embraced them all. It seems to me that our evangelism is often more exclusionary than Jesus would have us do…Some people are turned off by church efforts that end up being restrictive and oppressive. We must always remember that the gathering of the flock is God’s work and we are called to provide a place where the flock will be welcome. John envisions a community that is open and where diversity is celebrated as a gift from God. There may be many churches that are united by their loyalty to Jesus Christ as the One Shepherd. We can all gather around the table, bringing all of who we are and sharing in the grace and mercy of the one God. We are all sheep among the sheep seeking the voice of the One Good Shepherd. Let us embrace this image in the midst of fear and isolation…the Good Shepherd is seeking the One Flock that will gather into His care. In the name of the God who gathers us in…all of us – all the time…Amen