One of my good friends is enamored with the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. She can describe the chapel of the Good Shepherd at the National Cathedral in minute, passionate detail. In her office are images of Christ the Good Shepherd. I suspect that if you asked her who Jesus is to her, she would say he is the Good Shepherd. And she would not be alone. The verses of John immediately before the text we heard today about Jesus being the Good Shepherd is a favorite when planning funerals. The 23rd Psalm, which says “The Lord is my Shepherd,” is perhaps the most well-know scripture passage of all time – known even by people who have not attended church in ages. The passage from John we hear today talks about the intimacy between Jesus and Jesus’ followers being like sheep who know their shepherd’s voice. The fourth Sunday of Easter is even called “Good Shepherd Sunday,” in the liturgical year. We probably should have all worn those awesome sheep hats the Praise Band wears during the Epiphany pageant to show our sheep solidarity.
Despite all that – despite the familiarity, the wide-spread popularity, and the commitment of an entire day in the church calendar to shepherd imagery – I must confess something I have told very few people in life: I do not really like the imagery of Christ as the Good Shepherd. Now I know some of you may be shocked – how can a priest not like one of the most popular biblical metaphors? Some of you may be perplexed – what’s not to like about the image of a good shepherd? Some of you may be downright offended – how can I not relate to the metaphor that has sustained you countless times?
Let me break my dislike down for us. I do not like the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd primarily because I do not like the idea of being sheep. Now I know we have the Fiber Festival coming up this weekend, and I like wool as much as anybody, but sheep are not the brightest animals. They are easily spooked, they tend to be a little clueless, they seem to lack individual intelligence, and they make a horrible bleating noise that sounds nothing like the “baa” of nursery rhymes. Sheep are easily corralled – dogs are used to herd them in simply by nudging them all back together. That rod and staff the 23rd Psalm talks about is used to physically push and prod sheep into uniformity. And let’s not forget they are notorious for getting lost. I mean, of all images to conjure up and celebrate on a given Sunday, we get to be sheep?!?
But as you and I both know, the things that make us the most uncomfortable are usually the things that are the most true. Take for example the question and request of Jesus by those gathered around him in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. They say to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus responds, “I have told you, and you do not believe.” I cannot count the number of times we have asked Jesus this same question. Sometimes the question is the exact same question as the one the people of faith ask today – are you the Messiah? Can we believe in you? Should we believe in you? For anyone who has struggled with their faith – worried like those gathered at the tomb whether any of this Jesus stuff is true – the question and request today are not unfamiliar. But we often ask this question in other ways. As one writer confesses, there are countless times that we petition God with, “‘If you are.’ If you are good. If you are powerful. If you are loving. If you are real. If you are the Messiah, then stop talking in riddles. Stop hiding when I long for your presence. Stop awakening in me holy hungers you won’t satisfy. Show up, speak plainly, act decisively. Take this world of swirling, dubious gray, and turn it black and white, once and for all.”[i] To all those questions, to all those longings, the response from Jesus to us is the same response of Jesus to the people of faith in our scripture lesson: I have, but you do not believe.
Now here is where the text gets even more uncomfortable. Jesus’ full words are, “I have told you, and you do not believe…because you do not belong to my sheep.” Now there are all kinds of awful things that have been said historically about this text – the supersessionism of Christians over Jews, predestination, you name it![ii] But I do not think Jesus was trying to exclude one group, or say, only one group will ever belong and everyone else is out. I think what Jesus is trying to do is challenge people like me who do not like the idea of being sheep. Jesus is saying today – I know you do not like being sheep, I know you do not like submitting control to me, I know that you do not like admitting that you do not have things all figured out. When Jesus says, you do not believe because you do not belong to my sheep, I think Jesus is saying, we do not belong because we are unwilling to belong. In other words, we do not belong not because Jesus excludes – we do not belong because we actively fight belonging. And because we fight belonging, we also struggle with believing.
One of my favorite church welcome videos features a series of concerns that often keep people away from church: feeling like they do not lead lives that are good enough, worrying about unfamiliar or even weird cultural practices that might be uncomfortable, concern they might not fit in because of what they wear, or a sense that they could never belong to a group that has shown a history of hypocrisy. To each concern, the church-goers have response. Not sure what to wear? Wear clothes. Not sure your past sins will make you worthy? We all have pasts that make us unworthy. Worried about secret handshakes or stiff worship? You’ll just find love and affirmation here. Know the church is full of hypocrites? Aren’t we all hypocrites? What I love about the video is that belonging is more natural that belonging seems – and the more you spend time belonging, the more you realize your belonging helps you believe. Belief does not come first. It cannot come first. Belonging comes first.
Author Debie Thomas says knowing belonging comes first is where our hope is today. “According to this text, whatever belief I arrive at in this life will not come from the ups and downs of my own emotional life. It will not come from a creed, a doctrine, or a cleverly worded sermon. Rather it will come from the daily, hourly business of belonging to Jesus’s flock — of walking in the footsteps of the Shepherd, living in the company of fellow sheep, and listening in real time for the voice of the one whose classroom is rocky hills, hidden pastures, and deeply shadowed valleys. If I won’t follow him into those layered places — places of both tranquility and treachery, trust and doubt — I will never belong to him at all.”[iii]
For the longest time, I have resisted the metaphor of Jesus as our Good Shepherd because I did not like what being a sheep implied about my character and intellect. But what I forgot in my resistance is that there are a whole lot of sheep around when I simply consent to belong. Bumping into fellow sheep reminds me that I have companions along the journey who are also sometimes resistant to the guidance of Christ. Bumping into fellow sheep reminds me that I am not alone in the things of life and faith I do not understand. Bumping into fellow sheep reminds me going solo often leads to peril. Bumping into fellow sheep really is not all that bad. Not only do we have a shepherd who loves us unconditionally and irrationally, we also have a community where all our weakness, foibles, and sins are held in common, and forgiven.
Our invitation is to remember what John is actually saying today in his gospel. As one scholar reminds us, “God is the one who initiates a relationship to us. God seeks us out long before we seek God. Christ makes us his sheep; we do not make him our shepherd.”[iv] That is why we have long said as a people of faith, “The Lord is my shepherd…He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside still waters.” I mean, if you want to keep fighting the invitation to belong, by all means. Lord knows, I have tried that route. But on this Good Shepherd Sunday, your invitation is to consider another way: to lean into the sheep all around you today, to trust that the Shepherd actually is good; and to know that wherever you are in your belief journey, belonging is the easiest step to get you there. Amen.
[i] Debie Thomas, “Tell Us Plainly,” May 5, 2019, as found at https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2201 on May 8, 2019.
[ii] Thomas H. Troeger, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 447.
[iv] Troeger, 449.