Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd.” Whenever I hear or read this piece of Scripture, pastel paintings of Jesus all in white with sheep gathered around him, perhaps one resting on his shoulders come to mind. These pictures are intended to invoke feelings of peace, serenity, and gentleness. And yet, the cynical person that I am sees images like this and think “yuck”...that is not my Jesus. You see, my Jesus isn’t well groomed with clean hands and neatly trimmed beard. My Jesus has dirty, callused feet from walking a lot. My Jesus has brown robes that might be frayed at the bottom from wear and tear. My Jesus has dark skin, not just because he’s from the Middle East, but because he’s out in the hot sun everyday. My Jesus has shaggy hair, an unkempt beard, and dirt under his fingernails. He’s not the kind of Jesus that we paint in pastel, pastoral settings. And so for me, when I read or hear that Jesus is the good shepherd, I need him to look like a shepherd.
So now that we’ve got that part cleared up, let’s talk about the sheep and the job of shepherding. Sheep are dirty. They aren’t the white fluffy sweetly baying characters of nativity plays and coloring books. Sheep are dirty. Yes, they are fluffy, but its usually a bit matted with dirt and bugs tangled in their fleece. They eat grass, they walk around a lot, and sometimes, they get lost. This past week I watched the new movie “Exodus” and there is this great scene of 3 sheep wandering up a rocky mountain and Moses trying to get them back together. The terrain is dangerous and eventually Moses falls and hits his head. The sheep were not too concerned about poor unconscious Moses and just kept moving along, ending up who knows where.
The shepherd was often one of the lowest on the economic totem pole of the agrarian society. He too would be dirty, he would walk around a lot, and his companion would perhaps be a dog to help him herd the sheep. He wasn’t the owner of the sheep, but someone hired to herd the sheep, and his primary commitment to the sheep was to make sure they got from point A to point B. An average shepherd might not chase down a wandering sheep in order to keep the rest together. An average shepherd might try to fight off wolves, but if his life was at stake, he’d sacrifice the sheep first. He wasn’t necessarily an important person in the community, but a necessary one.
And yet, here we have Jesus saying that he’s the good shepherd. That he will lay down his life for his sheep. That he will keep the flock together. The he knows his sheep and they know him. So what does all this mean?
Well, if we read the text literally in light of the status of shepherds and sheep in that particular time and place, we might think that Jesus is indeed a good shepherd...not an average one. But really we know that Jesus is talking about those who follow (and will follow) him.
If we look at the life of Jesus and this parable of the good shepherd as a metaphor for his ministry, then we understand that Jesus was explaining what the life of discipleship entailed. There were men who claimed to be the Messiah before, during and after the time of Jesus, but he sets himself apart from those because he deeply cares for his followers, he protects and guides them. He is also setting himself apart from the religious authority that had become corrupt and legalistic, being more concerned with how to do religion “right” instead of finding ways to meet people in their deepest needs and bringing them back when they felt lost. This is what it means to be a good shepherd.
And yes, we are part of the sheepfold. We are messy, dirty, sometimes lost and confused, but if we respond to the voice of Jesus, to the one who loves us, then we won’t wander off too far.
This is how we end up back at those pastel, pastoral images of Jesus...so let’s redirect our thought for a moment.
If we are indeed messy, dirty, lost and confused (again, a metaphor that probably rings true for many of us), if our lives are complicated, our schedules so packed that we don’t know which direction we’re going, or our family systems manipulative, harmful, and sad...Jesus is there. If aging has slowed us down, bent our bodies, and made us stumble...Jesus is there. Jesus is there in the muck and the mire, in the wandering and wondering because he loves us. This is why his feet are callused. This is why his robe is frayed along the bottom and he has dirt under his fingernails. He is in it with us, walking with us, never losing sight of us while we sort out our direction.
Yes, Jesus is the good shepherd.
Let us pray:
Jesus, our friend and shepherd: Guide us in this new day, that we may know God’s desire and direction for our lives. Help us in the work we do and the challenges we face, to live as the beloved of God. And may your Spirit strengthen us as we respond to the hungers and hurts of this world. Amen.
(adapted from Daily Prayer for All Seasons)
The post-resurrection appearance stories are some of my favorite in the gospel narratives because they ask us to think beyond--to think of God in even bigger, more complex, and yet simpler ways. All through the season of Advent and Christmas, the idea that God could be incarnate in human form, in Jesus, doesn’t seem that odd. Somehow, it makes sense--at least to me. But the resurrection is really fascinating, exciting and bewildering...and it makes absolutely no sense at all. And while we often think that the disciples didn’t “get it” because they never seem to recognized Jesus after the resurrection, I’m not sure that I would have recognized him either. That’s what I love about these stories...Jesus gets right in the middle of everyday life not only to “prove” that he’s the risen messiah, but to engage, support, and encourage his disciples to keep moving forward with the message of the Kingdom.
In this short passage from the Gospel of Luke the disciples are transformed from fear and disbelief to empowered. The story says that the disciples were startled and terrified; they thought they were seeing a ghost. Fear is a natural response when your world has been turned upside down. As readers of the post-resurrection appearances, we’ve had several weeks to settle into the story of Jesus being crucified and resurrected, but for the disciples, it’s only been a few days, maybe a little over a week even, and there is still a lot of uncertainty. And in the midst of that fear, disbelief, and uncertainty, Jesus meets them right where they are. How often has Jesus met you right in the midst of your fear and struggle? How often have you had one of those moments when overwhelming peace comes over you in a time of uncertainty? Jesus met the disciples in that room, behind locked doors, just as he meets us when we lock ourselves up and are afraid.
And then the disciples shift from fear to joy...even though there are still questions. As one theologian reflected, the disciples were probably excited, but scratching their heads. And so to offer some clarity and assurance, Jesus opens their minds. By using scripture that they would have all been familiar with, he helps them to open their minds to the endless possibilities of God. Who and what God is is so much bigger than what we could ever imagine, and when we really stretch our imaginations, we come back to the awareness that God loves us, God became one of us, and that God empowers us to continue God’s work in the world. And even in this joyful awareness, we still scratch our heads.
We cannot escape our fears. We may be afraid of simple things like snakes and spiders, or we may have bigger, more immediate fears--the fear of getting older, the fear of losing loved ones, the fear of cancer or other illness, the fear of not having enough to provide for our families and ourselves. These are real and valid fears. And they can hold us captive, behind locked doors. The reality is that we live in very “insecure” times and this can be terrifying.
But what can we do to be released from those fears--acknowledging that they exist, but not being held captive by them? What can we do so that we can move forward in being a witness for the resurrected Christ in our midst?
I’m going to share a story with you that I read just this week when preparing for this question of how to be released from fear. It comes from the commentary, “Feasting on the Word”:
Dorothee Soelle was born in Germany in 1929 and grew up during the years of Hitler and the Nazi regime. As an adult, reflecting on the events of the war and the horrors of the concentration camps, she challenged her readers about their need to feel safe and secure from any threat. In her essay “Peace, Not Security” Solle wrote that “change happens at the level of action that contains risk”.
Think about that for a moment...change happens at the level of action that contains risk. In order to move from a place of fear to a place of empowerment, we have to take a risk...we have to come out of our locked rooms and be willing to have our minds opened and our lives transformed.
One of my favorite authors, Brene Brown, wrote that joy is the opposite of fear. And according to Brown, joy is an expression of faith.
With the appearance of Jesus in that locked room, the disciples moved from a place of fear to a place of empowerment. Their faith was restored and they were joyous. Their minds were opened and the risk that they took was to continue on in the mission of Jesus. As we know from the letters of Paul and the Acts of the Apostles, these same, fearful, confused disciples went out into the world preaching, teaching, baptizing, and healing. These disciples chose peace, not security. And even though it wasn’t always easy, they took the risk from a place of faith.
We all experience fear. It is real and palatable. But we can make a choice to choose peace--shalom--the deep, abiding peace that Jesus gives us--if we allow ourselves to be open to the sometimes unimaginable joy that the resurrected Christ offers.
Let us pray:
I come as myself.
Just as I am.
My feelings, my fears
my joys, my sadnesses.
You see me as I really am
You know me
through and through
You see all
all that I am
or ever have been.
(excerpt from “A Shalom Prayer”: http://www.maranathacommunity.org.uk/shalom.aspx)
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.