The Rev. George Detweiler
The Fourth Sunday of Easter is always Good Shepherd Sunday. There is an incongruity about it in the modern world. Do any of you have sheep, or did any of you grow up around them? One hundred years ago there were sheep in the meadow across the street, but not anymore.
I have lots of experience with cows and chickens, some with dogs, more than I want with cats, but none with sheep. I have never seen a shepherd. I have seen sheep dogs out west, but no shepherds.
But this image remains popular: Jesus, as the Risen Lord, is the shepherd who leads and cares for us, who are like sheep. Psalm 23 is the most frequently used scripture for funerals.
I am not certain why the image remains popular. Is it that famous Sunday School painting of a white Jesus walking among a flock of sheep, or the popularity of Psalm 23, or the related hymns, or all of that? Aside from our ignorance of sheep and shepherds, there is the continuing interest in shepherding under a different name: leadership. There are countless books on leadership. I get invitations to leadership seminars and webinars all the time. I don’t remember ever getting an invitation to a seminar on following.
This tells us something about the church and the world around us. There is interest in leadership–shepherding–in both, but we have a different understanding of what makes a shepherd: if you want to be a shepherd, you have to suffer and die and be raised in three days. Otherwise, we are sheep. That’s the best we can hope for. We have some sheepdogs to keep us together, but we are following the one shepherd.
I think that the popularity of the shepherd imagery has something to do with our need to be led and cared for. We don’t come to worship to lead but to be refreshed: to relax, to listen, to pray, to dwell in God’s presence, to be restored to communion with the father of the Good Shepherd. We don’t want to be “on our toes”, but on our knees–humbled, open before God, ready to be led, to receive the love and guidance God gives.
This is how the Eucharistic meal can be considered a meal. It is a tiny bit of flour and water and barely a sip of wine. But its reception enacts our openness to God and to being led by the One who is shepherd because he laid down his life for the sheep. It is about God in Christ, not us; about God reaching out to us in Christ who invites us to do this to remember him and to follow him.
Psalm 23 uses the image of the shepherd as one of comfort and sustenance, satisfying our need, but making clear that we are sheep and not the shepherd. God not only provides for rest and water, but cares for us in the face of evil and enemies, bringing us into his eternal presence.
Joseph Sittler, one of Life Magazine’s 12 Great Preachers of the 1950s, wrote about this psalm near the end of his long life:
Take Psalm 23–who would think one would find anything new there? I was sitting in church and I heard the reader say, ‘Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil…’ Look at that phrase. You walk through the valley of the shadow of death–not the valley of death. The valley of death is constituted by the moment of death itself, but for all of life one walks through a valley over which the shadow of death moves. One moves toward death. … We move every day toward the moment when we shall not move at all. The whole of life is a valley under the shadow of death, and the only way to celebrate the gravity of life is to know that.
The Good Shepherd leads us through life, through the valley of the shadow of death and death itself. Our shepherd is the one who suffered and died and was raised in three days. That’s why Jesus Christ can be with us and care for us in the face of death too.
We can follow him, rely on him, relax in his presence. Because he is the one who suffered, died, and God raised after three days, he is the one who gives us resurrection and eternal life. That’s why we can be his sheep, his followers.