Why do Anglicans love Good Shepherd Sunday so much?
Everybody I know in our church seems to have some affection for this image celebrated in the middle of the Easter season….
When I ask myself why I love the Good Shepherd, I realized that this is the only Sunday that refers to animals – sheep in this case. And I love animals. There’s no “Dog Sunday” or “Cat Sunday” - although Mary does seem to exalt the feline when she sings “Magnificat….” (Sorry, I couldn’t resist that one.) There is a sweetness in our relationships with our animal friends. It’s just love. The shepherd loves the sheep, and the sheep love the shepherd.
Most of us today are not intimately familiar with sheep, or shepherds. But we know from scripture that the sheep knew the sound of the shepherd’s voice. They trusted that voice, and followed where he led. These days, we long for that kind of love and trust, because the world seems so often deceitful and threatening. Whom can we really trust these days? It may be simple and sweet with our animals, but it’s not so simple with other humans.
John’s Gospel goes on to say that Jesus is the good shepherd who “lays down his life for his sheep.” Now, I’ve been told that when nightfall came, ancient shepherds would corral their flocks into an enclosure, and then lie down himself across the gate of the sheepfold, to keep his sheep in, and keep them safe. He lays down his life for the sheep. Jesus took this further, when he was willing to go to his death, rather than compromise his teaching about God’s love for us.
This idea of complete devotion - “laying down one’s life” – is fascinating to most of us, I think…and also terrifying. We are drawn to the idea of passionate loyalty to a person or a cause - it may even sound romantic! - but such commitment is also scary. A few of us may actually be asked to put our physical lives on the line for others: soldiers, firefighters, even teachers caught in a school shooting.
Most of us never face that literal test of love and devotion. But we can still be called to lay down our lives in other ways, through the work we do, the relationships we commit to. When we offer ourselves as a shepherd to another person - a mentor, a support - we’re taking a risk. A true shepherd does not stand aloof and bark orders at the one he befriends. A true shepherd takes off his armor and shares himself deeply with his friend. He becomes truly vulnerable to hurt or even betrayal.
I think parents learn this with our children – shepherding isn’t always easy! Teachers and coaches often become very invested in their students, helping them work toward their goals, giving far more than the required time and energy, sharing their students’ disappointment when they stumble or fail. I’m deeply grateful for the teachers our son Colin has had in his young career playing the organ. It’s a highly competitive field, and they have given personal support when he has suffered setbacks.
As a preacher and pastor, I think of a special kind of shepherding: shepherding people in their faith, helping them find a sense of connection with God, a language to speak of God, a sense of vocation – that is, God’s call to ministry and service in the world. A few weeks ago, our guest preacher Tricia Lyons reminded us that faith is not really taught, it is caught. And it has to be caught from somebody who has faith, and is willing to share it: willing to talk about it, practice it in various ways, reflect on life’s ups and downs in the context of a relationship with God.
This kind of shepherding is tricky these days. Religion is kind of out of fashion. Many people are suspicious of institutions. The only way I know to counteract that is one-on-one: offering myself as a gentle shepherd, sharing a bit of my own story of faith, and listening well to the story of the other person. It’s not about spouting doctrines. It’s not about threatening eternal damnation, or questioning the status of someone’s soul. It’s more about listening, and sharing my own life – laying down my life – in front of another person, so that we might find a path to walk together, with God. I wonder, if we Christians learned to do this better, how our communities might grow and blossom?
What has always intrigued me about this passage is the strange ending sentence: “I have other sheep not of this fold. I must bring them also…so there will be one flock, one shepherd.” I’m not sure anybody really knows who Jesus was talking about here – these “other sheep not of this fold.” But this strange saying reminds me that my view of Christ’s flock is only a partial view. Jesus’ reach is much larger than I can imagine – many others fall into his saving embrace…maybe, in the end, all humanity. I do hope so. As a lovely hymn puts it: “The love of God is broader than the measure of the mind….” I love that vision Jesus puts before us: in the end, there will be one flock, and one shepherd.
So, if we love this image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, how will we practice it in our lives? If we have had good shepherds in our own life, we’ll give thanks for all that they have given us. And then we’ll go forth and find ways to shepherd others, give our lives to guide and help those who are walking with us. We can find the words to share our own story of faith in God, with all our doubts and uncertainties, and walk beside folks who are seeking a path. We can take the risk of love, following the one Good Shepherd who inspires us: Jesus himself. AMEN.