So the passage we hear from the Gospel of John this morning turns out to be a meditation on the death and resurrection of Jesus.

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1 The Good Shepherd My family lived in a house on my grandfather s farm. My grandfather raised sheep. Many a morning I would awaken to the bleating of sheep in the field. Every spring we would go through the ritual of babies being born and sheep being sheared. Sheep were relatively easy to care for. Mostly they followed. Today in our scripture readings we shared perhaps the most familiar passage of scripture there is the 23 rd Psalm. The familiar words have given comfort to many through the years. Our gospel reading from the book of John supports the image of Jesus as the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. Again, words of comfort to our ears. But these were not always words of comfort. Jesus proclaims himself the good shepherd one who knows his flock and cares for them. He goes on to distinguish himself from the hired hand who sees the world coming and leaves the sheep and runs away and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. Who are the hired hands? Who is the wolf? John s audience would not have needed to ponder long over this metaphor. According to popular legend, Rome was founded by the twins Romulus and Remus. The twins were supposed to have been drowned in their infancy, but were discovered on the river bank by a wolf that nursed them and saved their lives so that they could found Rome. The symbol of the city of Rome is a she-wolf.

2 If the she wolf is the Roman Empire, who are these hired hands? They would be the Jerusalem temple state that established a ruling priestly aristocracy that owed their position to the imperial regime. The hired hands in this passage from John represent those Jewish leaders, particularly the chief priests, who identified themselves with the Roman occupation. Jesus knew both what he was doing and the dangers of what he was doing in confronting the organized violence of the hired hands and the wolves. In light of this political-religiouseconomic context, Jesus deliberate words about choosing when and where he will lay down and take up his life dispel any doubt that he was a clueless victim or an innocent victim. As we hear Jesus voice saying I am the good shepherd, during this Easter season, these are words of comfort and assurance to his followers throughout the ages who gird themselves for ministry that confronts dominating power by building human dignity and community in God s name. As the early Christians tried to make sense of the why of Jesus life, his terrible death, and his glorious resurrection, they used many images to describe the one whose love was so great that he laid down his life for them. The image of the good shepherd is much loved in traditional Christianity. Those of you brought up in church will surely have seen a painting of Jesus holding a baby lamb. There is a sweet innocence surrounding this image of Jesus. This stands in stark contrast to the context in which this passage stands. We know there was confrontation with authorities and danger in the air.

3 Immediately before describing the hired hand who quickly abandons his charges (it s just a job after all) Jesus speaks of thieves, bandits, strangers and wolves and the violence those images convey. What strikes us most powerfully is the close relationship between the shepherd who knows the sheep and is known by the sheep. The image of the good shepherd offering his life for the sheep helped the early Christians to understand who Jesus is was. So the passage we hear from the Gospel of John this morning turns out to be a meditation on the death and resurrection of Jesus. First, Jesus as the good shepherd is contrasted with the hired hand, who has no notion of putting his life at risk for the flock. What distinguishes the behavior of the shepherd from that of the hired hand is his care for the sheep. They belong to him. Tending the flock is not just a job to keep groceries on the table it is his reason for being and his reason for dying. There is a sense on intimacy in Jesus words, I know my own and my own know me. An intimate relation binds together shepherd and sheep. That means there are no strangers in the flock, none who should feel that he or she is unrecognized. But more than just recognition, the knowing includes a deep involvement in the life of the other. It is something we crave in this world where many of us live apart from our families and hardly know our neighbors. We seek that deep sense of caring and commitment in our faith communities.

4 Such an image can set up a kind of exclusivism a kind of coziness that has turned inward. But what saves us from this kind of exclusivism is that there is always room to receive and accept new persons into this community. Economist E.F. Schumacher told a story about an old shepherd who said, Don t count the sheep, he said, or else they won t thrive. He meant by this that counting the sheep turned each live, unique animal into an abstraction, a symbol of a sheep, each one like the next one. In this way one would being to lose sight of them as individuals. One would fail to notice whether they looked healthy, acted normal, and in general were becoming their best sheep selves. My grandfather s sheep had names and different personalities. You could get to know their individual traits by being with them and watching them day by day. Likewise we are known by name to God as we are known by name to each other. So our scripture today really has a double edged meaning, Sometimes our own life issues are so overwhelming that we just need that sense of comfort that comes from the words. We don t care about the context in which they were spoken. We just want to soak in the comfort that comes from the words. At other times in our lives we are called to model the good shepherd in our lives and in our communities. Part of our Christian call is to be willing to stand between the

5 hatemongers and the powerless. We must love and sacrifice, protect the weak, the isolated, the stranger and the alien. What about the bullies we encounter: Who stands up to them? What abut the teaser? The namecaller? The gossip? The Racist? The bigot? The verbal abuser? The violent partner? The gay-basher? Who will stand between? Perhaps your passions are inflamed to stand with the powerless. Perhaps you are like the little girl who began to recite the 23 rd Psalm with the words, The Lord is my Shepherd, that s all I need. The beauty of the scriptures is that they have many layers and levels of meaning. Today the image of the Good Shepherd may mean something entirely different from what it meant at different times in your life. So today I invite you to take from the scripture the meaning that fits you in your current life circumstances. Let the Good Shepherd be part of your life. Let the Good Shepherd give you both comfort and courage. Amen.

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