By Russell Levenson, Jr.
There was a young man who greatly admired the work of one of his mentors at the office. He went to him and asked, “How did you get to be so successful?” The older man smiled and said, “I have made a lot of good decisions.” “And how did you know to make ‘good’ decisions?,” the younger man asked. “I have had a lot of experience,” the older man said. “Well, sir, how did you get that experience?” The older fella dropped his head, and smiled — “I made a lot of bad decisions.”
This is true of much of life. Much of our lives can be categorized by a series of “good” decisions and “bad ones.” And if we are fortunate, we choose to learn from the bad ones. No matter how good our intentions are, we may still make wrong decisions. And we can either learn from them and grow to live a fruitful and full life, or not learn from them and live a life of chaos and confusion.
That is, in part, what we are taught in the Gospel lesson. Here, we find, that portion of John’s Gospel in which Jesus describes Himself as “the Good Shepherd.”
I suspect most of you listening today know little about being a shepherd or sheep herding. I have seen what appear to be sheep on some of my drives outside the greater Houston area, but I doubt that any of us spend much time with sheep or shepherds.
Thus, it might be helpful to know that in Jesus’ day, when a shepherd traveled, among his equipment was included a “staff.” It was a short stick, often with little nails in the end. It was used to poke and prod the little behind of the sheep to point them in the right direction. He also carried a “rod,” which was a curved stick, often to the point of a crook, with which he pulled sheep back into line. And thus it was a constant process of “pushing” and “pulling” that finally brought a relationship between shepherd and sheep that in then end, protected the sheep. It was this ongoing process of “learning,” (often the hard way!), that sheep learned, “the path of righteousness,” so to speak.
And so, Jesus tells his hearers that he is “the Good Shepherd.” What does he mean? What might it look like to live as the sheep of the Good Shepherd? Well, let me suggest a few things.
First, Jesus tells us “I am the Good Shepherd… The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.” In Greek, there were two words used for “good.” One was agathos, which meant simply “good” in the sense of faithful and efficient. The person who was a worker that exhibited “agathos,” got his job done at the end of the day. You could count on him.
But Jesus, here, uses the word kalos for “good,” which meant more than doing one’s job well. It implied a sense of loving, self-sacrifice to it; it meant one was willing to do more than expected.
We all know what we mean when we say “the doctor,” versus “the good doctor.” When we speak of our doctor, we may say she gave me the medication I needed and made me feel better. But when we speak of the “good doctor,” we mean that one who you can actually call in the middle of the night, who may very well still make house calls, who listens to us, who cares – who goes beyond the required duties.
Jesus is the “good,” the “kalos,” Shepherd. He goes beyond what is expected, in fact, he lays down His life. What does that mean? Literally that Jesus was the sacrifice for our sins. If we do not get this about Christianity, we fail to get one of its most important teachings — that Jesus was the Lamb of God sacrificed to take away the sin of the whole world.
The gift of this “Shepherd’s” giving of his life for our sins is at the very heart of our Christian story. You cannot sacrifice for your own sins; you cannot work your way out of them; you cannot be good enough. All of us “sin and fall short of the glory of God;” and God knows that, and thus he gives us a place to take our sin — one place and that place is The cross of Christ.
Shortly before her death in 1988, the well known atheist and secular humanist, Marghanita Laski said in an interview with the BBC, “The one thing I envy about you Christians is that you have a place to take your sin. Where do I take mine?”
Jesus is the Good Shepherd who lays down His life and thus we have a place, “one place,” to take our sins. And so the Good Shepherd pushes and pulls with the hope that we will find that one place for divine mercy, forgiveness and new life.
The second implication of Jesus’ ‘shepherding’ is that it offers us “one family.” Jesus speaks of his intimate relationship both to his sheep and to his Father. He says, “ I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father…”
With apologies to some of my Christian friends of other denominations, I still encounter from time to time Christians who believe “their” Church is ‘really’ the only one true Church; and all others fall short or fall outside the true teachings of Christianity.
When Jerome translated the Latin vulgate Bible, he made an error when he translated Jesus words to mean there would be “one fold;” implying one exclusive community.
Instead, the actual translation is there would be “one flock,” and that one flock was made up of anyone who called upon the Good Shepherd Jesus.
Edgerton Young was one of the first missionaries to the Native Americans in the Saskatchewan area. Like many missionaries, he used the technique of going to the leader of the tribe, often the chief, and beginning by teaching the Lord’s Prayer.
One day as he was doing this, he wrote in his memoirs that the chief stopped him and said, “You speak of your God as a ‘Father?’” Young replied, “Yes. He gave us life, he created us and gave birth to all creation. He is our heavenly Parent.”
The chief replied, “I have never thought of God in that way. I have certainly seen him in creation; in nature, the sunrise, the birds of the air, but I have never thought of the Divine Spirit in that personal way as if one would have a relationship to him!” Edgerton was excited that the chief was beginning to grasp Christianity. The chief then said, “And you said, ‘Our Father,’ meaning he is both your Father and mine?” “Yes,” Young replied. The chief then smiled and said, “That means that you and I are brothers!” “Exactly!” Young replied.
If we know that we are called to that kind of relationship both with God and one another; that we are called to be brothers and sisters; does it not take away, in the words of Jane Austin, all the pride and prejudice.
If I know that you are my sibling in God, then it removes all the barriers that we put between us; whether that be color of skin, nationality, earning power, denomination, whatever; and we begin to live as God wants us to live; as one family. And so the good Shepherd pushes and pulls with the hope that we will find our one family.
Thirdly, Jesus suggest there is more to the Good Shepherd than simply offering us “one place” to put our sin, and “one family” to which we belong… but he also speaks of “others” out there who do not know the whole story, other sheep who need to hear his voice — and thus he reminds us of the “one mission” of this forgiven flock – to work with him to reconcile all humans to God and one another.
We are not the United Way, The Red Cross or Amnesty International; we have a unique message and that message is the saving power of the Good Shepherd who offers us a personal relationship with Christ. And Jesus calls us to have that mission as “the” mission of our lives.
I have been fortunate to travel to the UK a few times, and we love to visit the ancient, and mysterious, Stonehenge. If you have been there, you will know that one of the things you can see in the surrounding fields are groups of sheep who have various colors painted on their rumps. Some have blue marks, some green, some bright pink. Because sheep tend to wander to and fro, their owners “mark them,” so that if they become mixed among one another, their owner knows to which sheep is his or hers. They were known by their “color.”
We are too. Our lives are characterized, are known, by the direction they are going. And what more noble direction than seeking to spend your life reconciling people to God and one another?
I have spent a great deal of time in intensive care units over the years and one thing I have learned is that those are very holy places. The man with black skin cares just as much for his wife as the man with white skin. The woman in poverty cares just as much for the health of her child as the woman of wealth. When the doctor comes in with good news, all rejoice. When the news is not so good, all grieve. The barriers come down when there is “intensive care.”
The “mission” of the Christian is to live a life of “intensive care,” for one another. And so the Good Shepherd pushes and pulls with the hope that we will find our mission to serve others with the love of Chrsit, and to lead those who know him not into his loving arms. So, the Good Shepherd offers us one place to put our sin; one family and one mission, but here we also see one more thing and that is one hope.
Frankly, I do not know what people do who do not believe in God. Either all of this is true; or it is not. And yet, I cannot believe that. I see too much of God all around — in creation, in relationships, everywhere. There was a little child who knelt down for prayer and said, “Dear God, bless mommy and daddy; sister and brother; and God, if it’s not too much trouble, take care of yourself, because if anything happens to you, we’re all sunk!”
But that’s true! If there is no God, then we are all sunk. But our faith says there is, and so we are not! We do have a place to take our sin; we do have a family, and we do have a mission and we do have hope! But in order to get there, we must allow ourselves to be pushed and pulled; to enter that relationship between Shepherd and sheep. That may seem restraining; we may not want to give ourselves over to God; but then what is our other option?
As I have said before, early in my ministry I was serving as an associate at St. Luke’s in Birmingham, Alabama. Every year, somehow, a family of birds found their way into the nave ceiling and every year we watched as their reproductive cycle was lived out. Despite our attempts to remove the birds, somehow, every year, they still found their way back in, and sometimes, even on Sunday morning, we were able to witness as momma bird pushed her babies out of the nest so that they could try their wings.
On one morning, during the rector’s sermon, one bird was making his way up and down the nave. It was quite distracting, and I, being an dutiful associate, knew it was my task to do something about this. I watched and thought as the bird flew all the way from the organ loft to the altar flowers. I got up and tried to catch the bird, to no avail. He flew out and back to the rear of the nave. Again, all of this continued during the rector’s sermon.
I decided to open the sacristy door and a nearby window with the hope that this rather stupid bird might see the open window and fly its way to freedom. It flew back down the distance of the nave and into the flowers again. My plan was working! I got up and shooed it toward the sacristy and open window. I watched as he flew right into the sacristy wall, hit it and fell into a trash can.
I walked back there and looked down at that poor pitiful bird. I reached down and gently squeezed him in my hands, took it to the window and opened my hands so that he could fly free.
It may seem that sometimes what God is suggesting to us in Christ is constraining. We may not want his hands about us; we may not want his “push” and “pull,” and yet that is what he is saying we all really need in order to get those things we really want. David wrote beautifully of the hands of God arouned us – “Thy rod… and thy staff… they comfort me…” They guide me to the one place to take my sin; they guide me to my one family; they guide me to the one mission of God’s children; and they guide me to one hope – indeed, thy rod and thy staff – will – if we let them, leave us to the ‘paths of righteousness…’ – a right relationship with God and one another.
It can all be found in the push, pull… push, pull of the Good Shepherd… That’s what it means to live like his sheep. Not a bad trade for grace, and mercy, and freedom, and life eternal.
The Rev. Dr. Russell Levenson, Jr. is rector of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston.