The imagery from scripture today is so powerful that the fourth Sunday in Easter – in all three years of the lectionary cycle – is unofficially called “Good Shepherd Sunday.” The metaphor of God as our shepherd is strong in the church; most of us know the image from the twenty-third psalm we heard (sang) today, “The Lord is my Shepherd.” Jesus refers to himself as the shepherd in John’s gospel three times in chapter ten alone, including in today’s text. The Good Shepherd text from John is often read at funerals. The Good Shepherd lesson in Godly Play is one of the most popular – and likely what our children are hearing today in Children’s Chapel. Even the National Cathedral has a Good Shepherd Chapel. The carving of Jesus holding a sheep in the Chapel is so beloved the hands and arms of Jesus are a different color stone because so many people have laid their hands on the statue as part of their private devotions in the Chapel.[i]
Countless artists have rendered paintings, sculpture, and stained glass of Jesus with a lamb over his shoulder or cradled in his arms. But the vulnerability of the sheep Jesus holds makes me uncomfortable, not comforted. I know this confession says WAY more about me and my extreme desire for independence and control. Lord knows we all have seasons in life when we need to be scooped up by the shepherd – the last two years of pandemic and national turmoil being a classic example. But I would much rather be a shepherd for others than to be shepherded.
I think that is why I liked last week’s gospel so much. Over the charcoal fire, Jesus offered Peter reconciliation asking him three times whether Peter loved Jesus, and then telling Peter to feed his sheep. As we talked about last week, Jesus told Peter he would have to reimagine discipleship, and become the I AM, the good shepherd, for Jesus in the world when Jesus could no longer play that role. As much as we independently minded disciples might prefer this commission, feeling a sense of empowerment over vulnerability, this new role will not be easy. Anyone who has raised a child or watched a child grow over time knows there’s a point in their development where we can no longer scoop them up when they are in the middle of a meltdown. No longer able to physically overpower them (or throw them over your shoulder like those beautiful paintings show Jesus doing), we must find other ways to get through the meltdown to the other side of wholeness.
That is why I am so grateful for our story from the Acts of the Apostles today. If we Jesus is inviting us to be the good shepherd in his stead, and if that does not mean literally wrestling sheep (or toddlers…or people who act like toddlers), what does being shepherds mean? Peter shows us through his encounter with Dorcas, also known as Tabitha – depending on whether you were using the Greek or Aramaic of her name.[ii] The reading from Acts tells us Tabitha is a disciple of Jesus – in fact, she is the only woman in scripture to be labeled a disciple.[iii] We are also told she devotes her life to good works and acts of charity. Her shepherding discipleship is so powerful that when she dies, disciples send for Peter and tell him to come at once. Widows – the most vulnerable of society – regale Peter with stories of Tabitha’s faithful leadership, showing him the garments Tabitha had made for them – garments they are literally wearing today! Peter, understanding that Joppa needed Tabitha’s ministry a bit longer, raises her from the dead so that she can continue her work of shepherding a little longer.[iv]
Now I know some of you may be thinking, “I don’t want to do so good of a job of discipleship that I can’t be left to die in peace when my time comes!” Fortunately, most of us will not be that good! But what our scripture lessons today are inviting us to do is to consider where the world’s (or even our immediate community’s) greatest needs and our greatest gifts intersect – and then how can we use that intersection to be Christ’s disciple, or shepherd, for those around us. How can James City County or even how can Hickory Neck, use our help to show the love of Jesus to a world that would really rather not be scooped up in loving arms? The work is not likely to be glamourous – manhandling sheep and making clothes for those who need them is not glamourous work. But shepherding done well is the kind of work that builds up others, that makes them so whole and full of love they are willing to testify to that love – and hopefully become shepherds themselves. Being a shepherd is not about control or power, but instead about mutual journey and care. If that statue in the National Cathedral is any evidence, we all long for loving shepherds in our lives. Our invitation this week is to see how God can use us to walk through the valley of the shadow of death with others and help them, and consequently ourselves, find refreshment. Amen.
[i] As explained by the Rev. Patrick Keyser in the Cathedral’s video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=263&v=ERQAL9j6xvQ&feature=emb_logo, April 29, 2020.
[ii] Robert Wall, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 429.
[iii] Wall, 429.
[iv] Stephen D. Jones, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 431.