“The word of the LORD came to me: Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them– to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them.”
Have you heard of the book The 48 Laws of Power? It is really quite fascinating, a kind of historical study on how to get your way. Among the 48 laws are: ‘Get others to do the work for you, but always take the credit,’ ‘Learn to keep people dependent on you,’ ‘Use selective honesty and generosity to disarm your victim,’ and ‘Keep others in suspended terror: cultivate an air of unpredictability.’
Today has become known as ‘Good Shepherd Sunday,’ because we focus on Christ our Good Shepherd. I wonder if you can detect the contrast in our world’s way of leading and Christ’s; strike terror, or be a good shepherd?
Jesus used this image of a good shepherd to describe himself. A shepherd was and is no easy vocation. In the first century, a shepherd had many things to be wary of in watching and protecting sheep. First, there was the desert. We often think of green pastures and cool water when we think of a shepherd’s environment and that is definitely where the shepherd would lead his flock. But you have to understand that just over the Mt. of Olives, a 45 minute walk from Jerusalem, begins a 1000 mile stretch of desert across the Jordan River, into the eastern plateaus, and on through modern day Saudi Arabia and Iraq. There were areas of refreshment to be sure. But they were few and far between. The shepherd had to deal with many dangers and physical challenges that accompanied him in the desert.
It was winter when Jesus was speaking here in John 10 and during the cool winter months, sheep were kept in a pen at night. The pen was usually surrounded by a stone wall, which had briers on top of it, kind of like a barbed wire protection.
In the desert, the shepherd had to watch out for thieves and wolves. A thief would jump into the sheep pen and steal sheep for financial gain and the wolf, well the wolf was there for bar-b-q lamb chops.
In the desert, the shepherd even had to worry about his own workers. The hirelings, or helpers who were paid a wage, would take off at any and all signs of danger where as the shepherd would stand his ground at any cost. The hirelings were only in it for the cash.
How would a shepherd keep the flock safe? A four or five foot wooden staff that served chiefly as a defense weapon. Shepherds were also skilled with a sling and stones. When the flock was attacked, a ‘good’ shepherd will never throw a lamb to the attacking animals in order to save the flock. He tried to find a sheep pen, or a cave, and then stood between the flock and danger.” Often the shepherd would sleep at the entrance of the sheep pen and act literally as the pen’s gate.
Jesus’ words in John take place at the ‘Feast of Dedication’ also known as Hanukkah, commemorating Judas Maccabeus rededication of the Temple after reclaiming it from the Greeks, who had offered a pig to Zeus inside it. It was a time when the people remembered the significance of the Temple and the shepherds and priests who led worship there.
The ministry that Jesus was claiming for himself was that he was and is the Good Shepherd. He is the gate–that is the way, and he is the shepherd himself. He literally threw himself to the wolves to be killed on our behalf–to save us in every sense. Jesus was contrasting himself to the wolves, the false christs and false prophets, many of whom exist today. We are to learn to hear his voice above others. Often shepherds in Palestine would name each and every sheep, and the sheep knew when he was calling and when he was not. The shepherd would even sing to his sheep so that his voice would always be familiar. You know he knows each and every one of us by name and that we must learn to hear his voice. All this imagery perhaps we know well.
What John the evangelist and Jesus do, though, is throw us a curve ball. You have to be familiar with the whole book to know what I mean. Someone read for me John 21:15-19. Readers of John’s gospel would see what Jesus is doing here. This is a post-resurrection scene. Not only is he restoring Peter after Peter’s denial of Jesus, Jesus is doing something pretty crazy. He is leaving the shepherding to Peter. He is giving Peter the staff to feed, protect and care for the flock of Christ.
It may shock you to know that I really have no problem saying that Peter was given the mantle of Christ’s authority and given primacy as chief of the apostles. I also have no problem saying that the Pope of Rome represents Peter’s spiritual authority. Pretty Catholic eh?
But I also believe that authority that Jesus gave to Peter, the staff of the Good Shepherd, was given to all the apostles. In the Anglican Tradition we value apostolic succession–that the apostles literally laid hands on their successors all the way down to our bishops priests and deacons of our day. This is why our bishops carry staffs. They are supposed to be guardians of the sheep and the faith and to protect and pass on the message of the gospels.
Peter the first bishop of Rome wrote 2 letters that bear his name. What did the first bishop of Rome tell his readers? That the Church itself is a royal priesthood and a holy nation. This was one of Luther’s axes to grind in the Protestant Reformation. All Christians, he said, carried the mantle of priesthood in the world and in the Church. Guess what? John Paul II himself said, about 15 years ago, that Luther was right. This is not to diminish apostolic succession, but it is to enhance the priesthood of all believers.
Why do I say all this in a sermon about the Good Shepherd? Because my calling is to carry that mantle of priesthood in this place. It is my vocation and calling to protect and love you and to be a guardian and preserver of the faith.
But guess what? You who are baptized in an apostolic way (that is simply in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit), you all share in Christ’s eternal priesthood. We are all shepherds like Christ. We are all to be protectors of the sheep and guardians of the faith. The message to Peter to ‘Feed my Lambs’ applies not only to the apostles or the clergy, it applies to all of us. Everything that Jesus is as a shepherd is what we are called to be to one another and to the world. Did you know that St. Anthony the Great, St. John Climacus and St. Benedict were never ordained? The charge to ‘Feed my Lambs’ applies to all of us. That may sound different to you, but it is what the calling of all of us in this place is.
What does that mean for us? What does that mean to be a shepherd in the Church and the world?
Look at the image that Jesus talks about–protecting and laying down his life for his sheep. This is something he did. He stood between evil and us and died for our salvation. While a hireling may sacrifice a sheep to save his skin, Jesus spared nothing to save our skin. This is love of the radical sort. This is a love that loves whether the other deserves it or not, like we talked about on Maundy Thursday when Jesus washed the feet of the disciples who abandoned him in the time of need. This is love of the most radical sort.
What would it look like for us to love like this? What would it be like to be in an environment where we give up our lives for each other? Where the staff of Christ is carried in love by all of us?
The monks of the desert in the early centuries of the church were elder-focused. That is, the spiritual father or mother were those who were filled with the Holy Spirit and who carried the wisdom of love and prayer to their spiritual children. These spiritual fathers and mothers were the centers of the monastic communities. What was amazing about this desert spirituality was that these fathers and mothers loved their disciples so much that they would intercede to God on their behalf. For example, St. Symeon said to one of his disciples, ‘I will die if God overlooks you [my child]. I will hand myself over to the eternal fire in your place if God deserts you.’
That sounds funny to us, but Paul said something similar in Romans 9–he said he would rather be accursed, that is ‘eternally condemned’ for his own people than to have them perish. And don’t forget the story of Moses. After Moses brought the 10 Commandments down from Mt. Sinai, the people were doing what? Worshiping the golden calf! Needless to say the Lord was angry. The first 2 commandments were violated while the ink was still wet! The Lord was ready to bring judgment. But what does Moses say to the Lord? “Oh, these people have committed a great sin, and have made for themselves a god of gold! Yet now, if you will forgive their sin—but if not, I pray, blot me out of the book which you have written.”
What is the point here? These words represent a love that is so radical that is willing to take punishment for someone else’s sin. A love that not only overlooks the other’s sin, but takes responsibility for it!!
Do we not live in a culture of blame? Whenever there are tragedies like we witnessed a couple of weeks ago, someone always wants to find blame. Perhaps that’s human nature, but what happens when we want to bring the culture of blame into our church, into our marriages, into our families?
We are called to a higher love. We are called to carry the staff of Christ into our relationships. We are to love not only the undeserving among us, but we are to love so deeply that we would take punishment in their place!
This is a tall order. What would it look like if we could pull it off? Here are a couple of small examples.
I believe that healing is one of our vocations as a parish–the healing of Jesus through worship and prayer. Healing that comes in a variety of ways in and through Jesus. One of the reasons why we emphasize healing is because we’ve been beat up so much. But listen to this wonderful quote from Fr. John Chryssavgis, “Healing comes only when one learns to love and to be loved, when one is willing to bear the burdens of others and assume responsibility for them.”
Healing comes “when one is willing to bear the burdens of others and assume responsibility for them.” What an amazing statement! We are called to something radically different. Radical love like our Good Shepherd.
What about church-goers? In churches (and ours is no exception) I would say it is the tendency to think only of our own interests and our own areas of ministry. We have a myopic view of what church life should be. Since we don’t have children, we don’t think about the children. Since we are not elderly, we don’t think of the elderly. So and so should do that! Such and such is not my problem! What is on our own plate is so much that we won’t go beyond it. This is a very typical challenge for churches.
The challenge for us is to see this parish as the Lord’s. It is not mine it is not yours–it is ours led by the Lord. Therefore, we must see each ministry in the church and each person as something or someone we are all responsible for. We are to love whether the love is deserved or returned.
The more we can move in this direction as a parish, the closer we can get to the radical call of Christ to love as he loved. The more we are willing to take responsibility, not just for our own needs, but for those of others, the greater this place will be. And, that healing of Christ that we long for will be more and more of a reality.
Here’s my challenge. Here’s the ideal: To be like the Good Shepherd.
To lay down your life for these your brothers and sisters in this place. To love so much that we take responsibility for others. We can talk about loving the world ‘out there,’ which is another sermon, but we are called to be good shepherd’s here and love one another radically.
One last challenge. If we are to be like the Good Shepherd, then we will also feel a responsibility for the world around us. We will also have a sense of mission for the gospel to reach the world. We have some great outreach opportunities that our parish is a part of to do some of that mission work and there are new ones brought to our attention all the time.
One of those is developing a very close relationship to the Sudanese Anglicans here in Denver. I have grown close to the priest of the Sudanese priest whose congregation meets at the Cathedral. His name is Fr. Anderia Arok and he is now in the Sudan checking up on his mother and other family members. This relationship could be an opportunity for us to be involved in a local mission here and to also be involved in what is happening in the Sudan even now.
We need to hear God’s voice for these kinds of opportunity. As rough of times as we have had in our church, we have walked through adversity and now it is time to look outside of ourselves and look seriously at what impact Epiphany can have. Continue to hear the shepherds voice!
Follow the Good Shepherd. Hear his voice. Carry his cross, but also his staff, and love. Listen to that quote again:
“Healing comes only when one learns to love and to be loved, when one is willing to bear the burdens of others and assume responsibility for them.”