Today is Good Shepherd Sunday. And while we get the whole metaphor of Jesus as a shepherd, I wonder if we really get it. I mean seriously, who here as ever met a real live shepherd? Or even seen one? Or know of a friend who has a friend who has a relative who went to school someone who saw one? (Or so you’ve been told, at least.) Whatever the case, I think it’s pretty safe to say that in this day and age, shepherds aren’t as common as they once were.
In case you don’t recognise him, this dog is most commonly known as Sam Sheepdog, of Looney Toon fame. And if by chance you’ve never seen him before, all episodes featuring Sam Sheepdog are basically about him protecting his flock of sheep from this guy:
Believe it or not, that isn’t Wile E Coyote, the guy who is out to get the Roadrunner, but this character’s name is Ralph E Wolf, so no relation (different last names). But the idea with the two of them are basically the same, Ralph E Wolf just wants to break into the sheep pen and eat sheep while using ACME brand tools and dynamite… so much dynamite.
But of course, like his long lost Coyote lookalike, he is never successful. Every plan he has to break into the pen to steal sheep is foiled by our hero, Sam Sheepdog, and something like this usually happens:
And that, right there, has formed my mental image of a shepherd ever since I was a kid. All my thoughts and assumptions about shepherds are filtered through Sam Sheepdog. Sure, it might sound childish and juvenile, but if you don’t really have any other frame of reference for a shepherd, this just becomes natural. And really, if we think about it, isn’t that how we all think a shepherd is like, more or less? At least, isn’t this how we think Jesus probably is and why he’s called the Good Shepherd?
Today’s gospel lesson almost seems to suggest that to be true. Jesus speaks of the thieves who come to steal and to kill and to destroy, but he’ll take care of that. He’ll protect us as sheep in his fold, just like we would imagine Sam Sheepdog protecting his sheep. Then we can feel safe, knowing that we’re behind the security of the strong gate that Jesus also refers to himself as, which keeps us insiders in, and those thieves and outsiders out.
Thinking this, thinking that Jesus as a Good Shepherd whose only goal is to protect his sheep from outsiders and those who wish to do harm, brings us to a frame of mind where we remain careful and alert. Because really, thieves can be a sly and cunning bunch, so we had better be ready. Look at Ralph E Wolf on his quest to get himself in the sheep pen or whatever it’s called, he often uses different and creative plans to get what he wants. Sometimes he would catapult himself in, or dig his way under the gate, or somehow use some paint to magically create a tunnel through solid rock, or even the classic and unoriginal dressing up as sheep in order to sneak in undetected. And we translate that into real life, and we become wary of these sneaking in tactics that people might use to get into the fold that we are in, we start to look out for the ways people use to maliciously gain our trust in order to exploit us, we put up safeguards to protect us from these thieves who clearly only mean us harm. We watch out for false teachers and prophets, we get suspicious of new church members who seem a little too eager to please, we raise our eyebrows and shake our heads at the obviously made up sob stories we hear from people who ask us for a little help.
The thing is, when we think there are thieves out there, then suddenly everyone is potentially a thief, and then perhaps in our heads everyone is guilty until proven innocent. Or in the case of congregational life, everyone is an outsider until proven worthy to be an insider. Everyone has to earn their welcome, work for their spot, properly conform themselves to fit in. Otherwise we would be able to see that wolf in sheep’s clothing a mile away and we will have no qualms in pointing it out.
Perhaps we may have realized that I actually don’t think Jesus as the Good Shepherd is like Sam Sheepdog. I don’t think that Jesus is protecting his flock with bulging and intimidating muscles. I don’t think that Jesus is constantly on vigilant watch against thieves and then beating them into submission. I don’t think that Jesus is separating us on the inside from those on the outside with this high and mighty impenetrable wall. So no, I don’t think that Jesus is like Sam Sheepdog, otherwise there comes a lot of other implications, such as the worry and suspicion and segregation that we just talked about.
So then, if Jesus isn’t like Sam Sheepdog, what is Jesus like? How is Jesus a Good Shepherd to us? How are we brought into his fold and cared for like his sheep? What does Jesus mean by his sheep knowing his voice?
The answer is in the other texts we have today, texts that talk about hospitality, radical welcome, and gracious care for each other in community coupled with unprecedented forgiveness. And I know, that sounds like a lot of stuff we can’t do, but those aren’t the requirements for us to get into this herd of sheep with Jesus as the shepherd, rather, this is what Jesus the Good Shepherd has already done and continues to do for all of us, his sheep. This is the voice of Jesus that we can listen for and follow. This is how we can recognize him leading us, when we see this level of welcome and community around us, and we can trust that it is the very real presence of Jesus in our midst.
Think about it, all around us every day if we take the time to look we see the Spirit of Christ working. We see people acting out of generosity and kindness. We see others offering help and support. We see neighbours jumping into action to meet the needs of the community.
This is Jesus shepherding us, graciously forgiving us and welcoming us into community with each other as the body of Christ. See, Jesus as the Good Shepherd isn’t necessarily keeping us away from harm or punishing those who do wrong to us, but it is teaching us this welcome, this community, this one body and church so we may see how this welcome extends to all people, brings them together, and reveals to all what true peace looks like. So as the 11th chapter of the words of the prophet Isaiah tells us, the wolf shall live with the sheep and the leopard rest with the goat and the child will play with the snake.
We are all welcome. We are all included. We are all invited to the table of God’s never-ending and abundant blessing.
Seeing the difference between Jesus’ brand of shepherding from Sam Sheepdog’s allows us to be open to a different form of community, welcoming not only those who we think are just like us, those who we think are worthy enough to be included, those who we think have righteously earned our trust and thus their place at the table.
But Jesus the Good Shepherd says all are welcome. Jesus our Saviour says you on the inside needn’t be suspicious of others or worried about strangers, because they too are welcome. Jesus the Messiah says you on the outside needn’t break or force your way in, or dress yourself up as a sheep in order to sneak in, for you also are welcome.
This is the promise of our faith. This the basis of who we are as God’s children. This is what we celebrate weekly here at Grace as we gather around the table and are reminded of how a simple meal connects us all together in our humanness, our sinfulness, our forgiven-ness.
This past week a colleague of mind told me about a recent commercial. The way he described it intrigued me and so I looked it up later that day and when I watched it, even though I knew exactly what was going to happen, I was nearly moved to tears. I hear that it is trending so some of you may have seen it already but I want to share it with you now:
That right there is community. That is gracious welcome. That is Christ in the midst of people meeting each other, caring for each other, and breaking bread with each other, as Jesus shepherds us into new life and new heights of relationship and invitation to still waters and green pastures, revealing to us all the peace that surpasses understanding.
So you see, Jesus as a shepherd doesn’t fit our stereotype of a shepherd who works only to draw the line between us and them, insider and outsider, loved and unloved. Rather, Jesus is the Good Shepherd, the one who radically forgives, unabashedly welcomes, and continually leads us into peaceful community and service for others for the sake of a world in need of healing and redemption.
In this season of Easter and new life and resurrection, may we always look for Jesus’ hand at work and listen for Jesus’ voice calling, that we may be changed by the Good Shepherd to inclusion and welcome, knowing that we too are graciously included and endlessly welcomed to the table, into the community, and to journey with each other now and forever. Thanks be to God. Amen.