Acts 9:36-43, Psalm 23, Revelation 7:9-17, John 10:22-30
Good Shepherd, preached by Rev. Peter Courtney
He was close to invisible most of the time. Richard was supposed to teach theology; instead he hid out in his apartment and drank. He was enabled in all this by an absent administration, a faculty which was 50% alcoholic and numerous student friends, paramours and hangers on who pretended to take care of him.
He did come to teach a class from time to time. He did a Glen Beck impression by drawing circles and arrows on the blackboard over and over again. The circles on the board mirrored his lecture which went around in circles. Out of this Hieronamos Bosch morass Richard would say with all of his waning force, “Don’t become hucksters.”
We knew what he meant. Don’t sell out. Don’t allow the power of the Gospel to be watered down into convenient, cute, effete religious trinkets. Tell the truth. Don’t bring contempt on the theological enterprise. Don’t be wimps. In a word: Be good shepherds.
Jesus tells us in the scripture today from John 10 that he is a good shepherd. His hearers knew that a “good shepherd” is an oxymoron. There is no such thing. You can be “good” or a “shepherd” but not both. Shepherds were always bad; good for kicking around, abusing, mistrusting and firing.
So there is plenty of irony in this statement. Jesus chooses be somebody and do something well that no one else wants to be or do.
All shepherds are hirelings. Shepherds were people paid a pittance to take out the trash, to teach children, care for the sick, pastor congregations. There was no career path except death and no advancement opportunities. A Chief shepherd was in charge of a bunch of unemployable layabouts. Worse, the chief shepherd was caught between his useless employees and an irascible management. Most people when given a choice turned down the chief shepherd job.
Jesus knows his sheep and calls them by name. He really knows them. He knows they are lost, silly, easily distracted and valuable to the owner.
Debby and I saw the perfect shepherd in Queenstown, NZ a couple years ago. Her name was Val. She was a border collie. Her zeal for the sheep was so huge she had to be tied up or she would herd sheep 25 hours a day and literally run herself to death. “Best dog I ever saw,” said her droll owner.
Val was living out her breeding and DNA. She knew nothing else, just sheep. A couple of whistles and a wave and she ran up a 1,000 foot hill and 45 seconds later came back driving some sheep only she knew were there. It was a real tour de force. She was a shepherd; she was no hireling but a true amateur.
Most people who do ministry do it because they can’tnot do it. It is part of their DNA. Like Val they have a passion for ministry, for shepherding. They know of no other way to be and do. Their life is one of service and compassion. They are not hirelings, but good shepherds.
Good shepherds run the same risk as Val the sheepdog. They risk of burning out; they live in peril of having nothing left for self at the end of the day; they end up spent, empty and useless to themselves and others.
I am convinced this is not what Jesus wants for Val or for us. Jesus is the good shepherd. He lays down his life so that we do not have to. Jesus lays down his life so that we can pick ours up. In the power of the risen and ascended Christ we pick up our lives and walk as light in the midst of darkness. We will not find our way if we have succumbed to guilt or compulsion or even our own DNA and lay our life down.
Our God is one of life and light; not of darkness and death. Jesus who is our life, lights our way as we become Good Shepherds ourselves. If we are spending our spiritual and physical capital in a frenetic race to be good shepherds and end up effete, tired, worn out, cynical, angry, we have lost the race.
Our first task is to shepherd ourselves. This we do by defining ourselves for ourselves. If we don’t decide who we are, someone else will be happy to try. When we define ourselves others will try to change the definition. They will say we are not good shepherds; they will call us names, just as Jesus said they would. We use the power of his resurrection to be good shepherds. We maintain our identity against the principalities and powers of culture, of local coercion, of insularity, bigotry and other’s self-interest. We will be called selfish and full of ourselves. Then we will know that we are good shepherds indeed. We have found our home and have taken ourselves there. The one who brings us home, is Jesus.