As a new parent, I struggled during the toddler years – those years when the child is first asserting their will, realizing they want to be in control too. And so, after trying calm coaxing and verbal reasoning, I eventually honed the art of muscling: I realized I was stronger than my toddler, so I could just sweep them up and carry on doing what I knew we needed to do anyway. Sometimes the swooping was playful, swinging the child around or letting them hang upside-down. But more often, it was just a strong, steady sweep – getting us out of the grocery store during a meltdown, getting us out of the house and into the car for an appointment, getting us away from the television. But that kind of parenting only works for so long – approximately as long as you can physically lift a flailing child, which for me, was not that long. That is when parenting gets real.
I have been thinking a lot about the Good Shepherd this week, and the similarities between shepherding and parenting. As children, or more aptly, as sheep, we want a shepherd who will take care of us. The words from today’s psalm and John’s gospel lay out the idealized caregiver: The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want[i]; the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.[ii] When we think about what we want from God, especially after a long year-plus of a pandemic, of political divisiveness, of struggling with the institution of racism, we want a God who will cradle us in, and love and protect us unconditionally. I suspect that is why so many churches have paintings, stained glass windows, and statues of Jesus carrying a perfectly clean, cute little lamb on his shoulder.
I confess, I do not know enough about shepherding, but even from watching the lambs in Colonial Williamsburg, I can assure you, those lambs are not perfectly clean and well-behaved. There is something about our saccharine-filled images of the Good Shepherd that feel unrealistic to me. As much as I want to crawl in the lap of a loving, protective Jesus, something about our images of the Good Shepherd does not quite capture reality. This week, I watched a YouTube video of a man trying to rescue a sheep. There was this long narrow ditch alongside a road, and the sheep’s hind end was hanging out of the ditch. A man, carefully using his strength, managed to grasp the sheep’s legs and pull the sheep free. The freed sheep bounded away from him, bouncing gracefully toward freedom – of course until he bounded back over the ditch toward the other side of the road, jumping head-first, right back into the ditch. In your imagination, you can almost hear the deep, audible sigh of frustration by the man who had just helped him.
I think that is why I like verse 14 of John’s gospel so much, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.” The shepherd knows how to love unconditionally; but the shepherd also knows all our “conditions”: the times when we stubbornly do things our way, the times when we refuse wisdom and jump right back into trouble, the times when we project our anger and frustration on others. And the sheep know the shepherd: the times when the shepherd will try to reason with us instead of muscling us to do the shepherd’s will, the times when the shepherd forgives us when we confess our sins, the times when the shepherd sighs deeply in disappointment at our refusal to lie down in green pastures. There is an intimacy to that relationship, as one scholar describes, a “mutual recognition and a mutual belonging together.”[iii]
Our invitation this week is an invitation into that mutuality and intimacy. The invitation is not an invitation into a snowy-white, paternalistic, cradling love. The invitation is into a messy, complicated, but respectfully intimate relationship where we are known, and we know our shepherd. Through this real, honest, vulnerable place we find strength to then go back out into the world, allowing “the Shepherd’s voice to speak through us as we reach out to the lost and hurting we encounter on the way,”[iv] sharing the love of the risen, shepherding Jesus that has saved us from many a ditch! Amen.
[i] Psalm 23.1
[ii] John 10.11
[iii] Stephen A. Cooper, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 448.
[iv] Nancy R. Blakely, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 452.