Maybe when the people in the pews are compared to sheep on Good Shepherd Sunday, it’s the sheep that should be embarrassed. Don’t worry God still loves you.
My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.
The Fourth Sunday of Easter is, throughout the mainline churches anyway, lovingly referred to as GOOD SHEPHERD SUNDAY. It can be a kind of fun Sunday for many preachers because they get a chance to empty some of their frustrations by standing up in their official pulpits and telling their congregations just how much they resemble sheep, with all their dullness and dumbness and thoughtless bleats. I would always then say, “Of course I’m just kidding.” Besides, in this part of John’s Gospel discourse of the Good Shepherd, Jesus focuses in on a really good quality that sheep possess. Jesus tells us that sheep know the voice of the one who cares for them. He is letting us in on an amazing fact, namely that although sheep and shepherds are not equals, there can still be an intimate relationship between them.
Now, I would really like my readers to think about that last sentence. It’s a sentence that says just about all we need to know about God’s incredibly reckless love for us. Although sheep and shepherds are not equals, there can still be an intimate relationship between them.
In this Gospel of the Good Shepherd, Jesus says that the good shepherd would be willing to die for his sheep. Please note, Jesus did not say that the good shepherd would be willing to die for another shepherd but would be willing to die for his SHEEP! Jesus not only resembles but IS the Good Shepherd.
The Son of God didn’t die on a cross for his equal, Jesus didn’t die for another God, though that would have been amazing enough, but how reckless, how utterly radical, how incredibly outrageous. . . our God is willing to die for his flock! When it comes to love, our God is an extremist! God not only knows his flock intimately, but he knows and identifies with all our humanness, all our weaknesses and all our flaws.
I remember hearing a story once about a young boy who often stopped in front of a pet store to look at the animals. It didn’t matter whether it was kittens or lizards or turtles on display in that window, the lad would stop and stare at them with wide eyes for literally hours. The owner of the store noticed, however, that the boy never came into the store only stared with his nose pressed against the window. On one occasion, there were an abundance of puppies in the window. Again, the boy stopped and stared for a long time, but something was different about this visit. The owner was amazed to see the boy actually enter the store, and he asked to see one of the puppies in particular. As the owner was reaching for this one puppy, he noticed that not only was it the most lethargic one in the litter, but it was the runt of the litter. It even walked with a slight limp.
As he handed the boy the puppy, he said, “You know, this puppy is pretty small for its age, and it walks with a limp. It will probably never be able to run and catch Frisbees and other stuff like a healthier dog would.” The boy just smiled and looked up at the man all the while holding the squirming and crying puppy. “That’s O.K,” he said. “I have a hard time running too, and I think we’ll get along fine.” And as the owner looked down, he saw a steel leg brace peeking out of the boy’s pant leg. The boy and the puppy were indeed a good match.
We and God are a good match precisely because he has known and felt and been encumbered by all the steel braces that slow us down and cause us to limp through life! Jesus Christ suffered through all of those. Good Shepherd Sunday is very incarnational. It’s very much like celebrating a little Christmas right in the middle of the Easter Season.
Can you remember back to those days, back in school, when two captains would choose up sides for kick ball? Do any of you hold on to the experience of being among the last to hear your name called? I remember it only too well. Just once I would have liked to hear my name called early in the choosing, but it never happened.
The hurt ran deep back then. It honestly doesn’t hurt that much anymore. Do you know why? Because my name is called every day now. The Risen Christ calls me even when I’m limping around in the sheepfold. He calls my name and says, just as he did to Peter in last week’s gospel, “Tend my sheep.” The Good shepherd knows me. Now I’m a little slower to catch on than most sheep, but steadily I’m learning to recognize his voice, and when I hear the call it’s a blessing because I don’t feel like an ordinary player. I feel like a captain! Christ has put me in charge of my ministry.
If it seems that I’m groping for the words to describe the ineffable, it’s because I am. I’ve used words like “reckless,” “outrageous,” and “radical” to describe this love of the Good Shepherd. They are the most overtly descriptive words I could summon, and yet even they are hopelessly deficient describers of the God of Love! I’m trying to convey this incredible love to you in such a way that you’ll want to jump up and shout: PRAISE THE LORD! (Any takers?)
Now you would think that it would be easy to focus on something this fantastic, this spectacular, this extraordinary. and yet it is so easy to become distracted and to forget that God loves us THAT much!
Whenever I go to downtown Sacramento, I will frequently stop in at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament for a moment of prayer. I remember one day, not too long ago, I was sitting there praying and what looked like a grandmother and her two granddaughters came in to pray. I was easily distracted by their entrance, and I was amazed at how pious those small girls appeared. They knelt there, one on each side of their grandmother, with their hands folded like little cherubs for about 15 minutes. They were perfectly still and perfectly silent. I thought to myself, how wonderful. These little girls will treasure this moment of quiet prayer for a lifetime, and then the silence was broken when one of the little girls began to whisper to her grandmother. Have you ever noticed that when children try to whisper it’s usually louder than if they were to just talk normally? The little girl whispered, “Grandma, have we prayed long enough; can I have my candy now?”
Can you relate to that little girl? If it isn’t candy, isn’t there usually something that takes our mind away from the phenomenal love of God? You know if you really stop to think about it, it’s the sheep who should be insulted by the comparison that Jesus makes in the parable of the Good Shepherd. Sheep know their master’s voice. Jesus says sheep never ignore the call. I’ve never heard of a sheep killing or lusting with envy or resorting to pettiness or gossiping in the sheep pen.
Good Shepherd Sunday is here to remind us of a love that passes all understanding and defies all logic. It is a love that is not subject to the world’s standards. If I didn’t succeed in this writing, I’m sorry, I just can’t find any more words to describe what is nearly impossible to describe. I can’t paint any better picture of the most awesome entity in all the universe, and in all of eternity. I would just ask that you bear with me and join me in letting this Good Shepherd Sunday serve as a reminder that the God of love put aside his regal robes to take up the cross of degradation and death just for you and me. Let Good Shepherd Sunday serve as a reminder that the God of love put aside his crown of glory for a painful crown of thorns, and he didn’t do it for some noble cause. He did it for stray sheep like you and me. Jesus died even for the likes of Judas, Pilate, and Herod. As one writer put it so aptly, Pilate freed Barabbas, a murderous terrorist, and condemned the innocent Jesus to death, and given the same choice, Jesus would have made the same decision.
This is a love that passes all understanding.