The Holy Gospel According to St. John, the 10th Chapter
Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.
I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”
As a pastor I’ve been called many things. A few I can mention in church. Pastor is common. Father, I don't mind and one guy in Colorado always called me Reverend, which made me feel like a televangelist, but he meant well. Many of the other things I’ve been called I can’t mention in church, but one thing I get called every once in a while is a shepherd. They say I am the shepherd and the people in the church are my flock. Now, you all might be sheep, but I’m no shepherd. Sheepdog maybe... a fuzzy, sometimes excitable, sheepdog who loves naps and dinner time like any other dog... maybe. A mutt who loves his Master and loves his Master’s sheep, maybe... but ya’ll are the SHEPHERD’S sheep... not mine.
Thankfully, all of us... dog and sheep alike... have a deeply, powerfully loving, committed master… The Good Shepherd... Jesus. When we listen, the flock, dog and Good Shepherd all move together as a unit. We’re a community... bound together. It’s a good image for us... like sheep, we humans weren’t created to go it alone. We were created to live together... because together is where we thrive and together is how we are safe when the nights get cold and the wolves start to prowl. As a flock bound together and cared for by the Good Shepherd we have life! Scattered, going it alone, running off in different directions... we’re not a flock... we’re wolf food.
But even though we KNOW our shepherd is the Good Shepherd and the Good Shepherd will do anything and everything for us... even lay down his life... deep down, we still would really like to at least know where we’re being led, wouldn’t we? It’s funny when you think about it... a bunch of sheep and a drooling mutt wanting the Shepherd to consult with US about his plans for the flock!
The truth is, we really don’t have a say in which way we’re going. Neither Sheep nor Dog has a vote for what comes next in this life. When we’re honest, we know we’re not in control... but we still don’t really like it, do we? We don’t like being out of control. After all, there’s some dangerous and scary territory out there! We’d like to know what’s coming around the bend. What about wolves? What about shadowy valleys? We really ARE, just the sheep and a dog, but deep down we still want to say to the Good Shepherd, “Are you sure that’s the best way? Is that really a greener pasture? Do you know how fast we’re eating through the grass? That water doesn’t look all that still over there, shouldn’t we stay here?”
The promise from the Good Shepherd is, that as we walk along the pathways of this life, both through green pastures and even through the valley of the shadow of death, the Good Shepherd is always with us. Calling us, coaxing us, sometimes poking us with his staff or maybe sending a sheepdog to nip a sheep in the rear! But the truth in all of this is that when we are with the Good Shepherd, even in the worst of all of life’s possible valleys, the WORST valley we could ever possibly walk through is ONLY the valley of the SHADOW of death. There is no Valley of Death. Death is gone; the Good Shepherd would not lead sheep or dog to a place where death still resides! Plus, THERE IS NO PLACE WHERE DEATH STILL RESIDES! The path may be unknown to us, the Good Shepherd may not be consulting sheep nor dog on the best way forward, the way may look very different and scary, it may feel cold and sometimes the shadows in the valley can block the warmth of the Sun for what seems like far too long, but the truth is that death is no more! The Sun is risen!
This particular dog and these two particular flocks... we’ve been led by the Good Shepherd to come together. That seems to be one of the Good Shepherd’s goals... to bring sheep together... to create one flock. But now that we’re together, we’ve found ourselves in some territory we never saw coming... territory we’ve never been in before and we worry about what’s out there. What’s going to happen next? What’s the Good Shepherd planning? Where are we going? We worry if German Merino Sheep, Swedish Gute Sheep and Norwegian Dala Sheep can really get along with British Shetland and Black Welsh Sheep, all in the same flock? We worry about what other sheep this Good Shepherd might be planning to bring into our flock! But you know what? For a bunch of sheep and a drooling mutt, we sure do worry a lot, don’t we?
It’s true. We do live in interesting times. The Church is changing. Not just ours, but all of Christianity and we live in a part of the country that is on the leading edge of that change. Some call that a tragedy. Others call it an opportunity, but no matter what we call it, we all want to know who’s going to bring order to this chaos. The vestry? The council? A Bishop? Two Bishops!? You? Me? Hey, we’re all just a bunch of sheep and a dog! What do we know!?
The truth is, not one of us can control what happens next. What we CAN DO is trust that the Good Shepherd is leading us to a place where souls are restored, heads are anointed with oil and cups run over. We can remember that when the sheep and the dog focus on the Good Shepherd, storms are calmed, our hunger is fed, our wounds are healed, and we find ourselves led on right pathways to green pastures, beside still waters and we have LIFE.
It’s a frightening thing to give up trying to be in control, but the Good Shepherd loves us... loves us to death... loves us to death and back again... and plus, he’s got a really big stick! Like it or not, we don’t get to choose where we are being led. What we can choose is how we will follow and the way we follow matters! The way we follow matters, because there are other sheep out there who are looking at us to see what kind of Shepherd we follow. How we follow is a window through which others are looking to see God. The better we are able to follow that Good Shepherd... the more trusting of the Good Shepherd we can be, the better others will be able to see that this is a flock which isn’t just cared for by any old shepherd, but this flock and dog belong to the Good Shepherd and here in this fold, there is always love and compassion, abundance and joy, safety and room for any sheep out there who are in need of a fold. Amen.