The Reluctant Sheep

“Shepherd us, O God,
Beyond our wants,
Beyond our fears,
From death—into life. Amen”

Some of you have heard me speak of a young boy named Kal’El. When he was three years old, he began coming to spend a couple of mornings a week with me. We were exploring the world—including through books. While Kal’El has since developed a deep love of reading, back then he was just an active little guy who wasn’t terribly interested in sitting still for much of anything—much less a book.
One day I said to him, “So, Kal’El. Before we have our time on the trampoline this morning, would you rather read The Hungry Caterpillar, Winnie the Pooh, or Where the Sidewalk Ends?
He was putting away his magic-sand castle and was in a really good mood, and a little distracted, he said, “Well, let’s just read them all. You know what I always say: The more the better.”
Trying not to show my surprise, I quickly scooped up the books and when Kal’El saw me do this, a look of panic flashed across his face. Putting up his hand, he said, “No, wait. Actually, I have never said that.”
Like Kal’El, for many of us the idea of some things sound good in theory—but when it comes time to follow-through, putting those ideas into practice, that’s when we start backing up, quickly.
And so it is with our faith. In today’s readings, we hear references to that iconic metaphor: Jesus the Shepherd of God’s people. While “The Lord is my Shepherd” sounds comforting and encouraging, here’s the difficult follow-up: If Jesus is the shepherd, then we must be sheep. And that’s where things start to go south.
There are many negative connotations to being sheep—following blindly, without thought. Herd mentality. Stupidity. And not a lot of us want to be known as “sheep.”
People who have cared for sheep in sanctuaries report that, in fact, while sheep do come when their name is called by someone they trust, still, sheep are very independent, very willful—they can be head strong–and they get jealous of one another.
Maybe Jesus wasn’t so far off the mark after all.
The verses following our lesson today tell us that the Jewish authorities were angered by Jesus’ Good Shepherd discourse—saying “He is demon-possessed and raving mad.”
Which seems to be an over-the-top reaction to the seemingly kindly and pastoral claim—“I am the Good Shepherd.”
But we have to remember the context in which the Jewish people were hearing this claim. In context, “I am the Good Shepherd” is not some innocuous metaphor that Jesus just made up.
In context—what he is saying, what he is telling the people is that He, Jesus, is God. He is repeating the words of God, the Father, as prophesized by Ezekiel.
Looking back, we remember the book of Ezekiel follows the book of Lamentations– things were not going well for Israel during the time of Ezekiel. The Hebrews had been deported, again and Jerusalem had been destroyed. Choosing human kings had not gone particularly well for God’s people. And Ezekiel reports that God said:
“Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel, prophesy and say, Thus says the Lord God: Ho, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep.”
“Thus, says the Lord God, because my sheep have become a prey, food for all the wild beasts. . . Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. I will rescue them. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep . . . I will seek the lost, I will bring back the strayed, I will bind up the crippled and I will feed them with justice.”
So when Jesus shares his mission statement with the people of Israel—saying “I am the Good Shepherd”—immediately, the Jews understand that he is calling himself God. The elders become angry and alarmed by this irreverent young upstart—and begin plotting his demise.
At least some of their anger should be understandable. While being the Good Shepherd is a huge responsibility and not without cost—so is being a sheep.
Our desire to be independent, our wants, our fears often put us at odds with what our Good Shepherd calls us to do.
We are called to love one another. In Ezekiel, God reminds us that we are not diligent about caring about our brethren who are poor.
And most days what I see in my own life and that of others is evidence that we are not doing a very good job of being in relationship with the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed. We are not inviting them to our tables.
We have too many excuses and reasons for not doing the things that God has called us to do.
Recently, I went to Jefferson Elementary School to see the students for the very last time as a representative of the St. James After School Program. After 12 years, it has become impossible to continue the program due to lack of donations and volunteers.
And I have to admit I struggle with two emotions: On one hand I am grateful for the vision of those in the past, the gifts of donors, volunteers, staff and the wonderful board members.
At the same time, I am dealing with some feelings of disappointment—because I remember so clearly the excuses I heard from people for not supporting an outreach that brought children who need us into the walls of this church building.
The ones that made me the saddest were the claims that we should not help these children because their own parents were not doing enough to help them.
This is why direct service to the poor is critical for us. Without being regularly involved in the lives of those who live in poverty—we cannot build relationships with them. We cannot understand their situations. And we cannot grow in understanding our own brokenness and our own complicated and complicit relationship to poverty.
But there is another, even more important reason for doing this work, which those who work in the mission field as teachers, nurses, social workers and volunteers often acknowledge: While we initially think that we are going into this work to give to others—what often happens is that we are the ones who are receiving something wonderful.
As Richard Rohr says, “We are saved by those whom we go to save . . . Suffering for and with the other seems to be the only way we know that our lives are not about us.”
And the very life of the church depends on us caring for the people of God. Are people really interested in coming to a church building only to revel in the physical beauty of its architecture and its music?
What good is any of this if we, as a church body, are not going out into the world to care for the most vulnerable of God’s people, and bringing them here to share the beauty of this space and more importantly, the love that Jesus has modeled for us?
Near the end of the Gospel according to John, Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?” Each time, Peter answers, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus responds, “Feed my lambs. . .Tend my sheep. . . Feed my sheep.”
Nowhere does Jesus say, Feed the ones that are worthy. Tend the ones that are hard workers. Care for the ones that follow the law.
The fact is that none of us is worthy. No one can ever earn God’s love. All of us are completely dependent on God’s mercy and absolute benevolence. So it is necessary that we share that love and mercy without looking for excuses not to.
There are so many needs out there—waiting for our coming. Episcopal Social Services, Episcopal Migration Ministry, St. John’s Sandwich Saturday and Hispanic Ministries, St. Bart’s Clothing Pantry, Good Shepherd’s Laundry of Love.
So here is the question, what will St. James do? We are, after all, a people who believe in resurrection.
We have some very special people rooting for us to find our way: The children of Jefferson sent us their own blessings, Blessings that you can see hanging in the hallway to the Guild Hall.
Maya said, “Thanks for putting up with our craziness. 😊”
Jazmin said, “St. James is awesome. This place makes me feel safe. I love being able to learn here.”
Ricardo said, “You were the best.” And “Plz come eat lunch with me.”
Shaniece said, “Thank you for giving us the best After School Program.”
Jessica said, “St. James rocks. I love you guys.”
These little lambs, are already demonstrating signs of being good shepherds, nurturing and loving, shepherds of God’s people. And, I like to think, the good people of St. James had something to do with that.