'Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”'
--John 10: 11-18
Jesus and his pals at the Chapel of the Good Shepherd at General Seminary
For years when I would hear the story of the Good Shepherd I would immediately think of my chapel at General Seminary—the Chapel of, you guessed it, the Good Shepherd. At the front of the chapel, behind the altar, is a reredos with nine statues—Moses and Elijah on the outside, the four Gospel writers (two on each side), Peter on the left, Paul on the right, and in the middle is Jesus. I called them Jesus and his pals. Jesus stands there, holding a shepherd’s crozier and cradling a little baby lamb in his arms, while the mama sheep looks up from Jesus’ feet. All of the other statues are looking in Jesus’ general direction, but he is focused on that little lamb, holding it to his chest, their eyes meeting. He knows that lamb, knows its story, and has brought it home because, after all, he is the Good Shepherd.
There is a lot of layers to that word shepherd for us Christians. In a great many churches the spiritual leader is called the pastor, another word for a shepherd—except for us Episcopalians, who use the term 'rector', which means 'ruler', but that’s a different sermon! Speaking of us Episcopalians, our very name is connected to the notion of shepherdship. We we get our name from the fact that ‘episcopal’ means ‘bishop,’ and our name reflects the hierarchy of our church, with the bishops being the shepherds for a whole collection of churches, which is why our bishops carry those big shepherd croziers, just like the one Jesus has at my seminary chapel. Oh, and how many rectors and pastors and bishops have you heard refer to their congregation as their flock? Yeah, a bunch.
I find that fascinating, and a little disturbing. For a person in my position to refer to the folks in y’all’s position as “my flock,” is to insinuate that I am somehow the shepherd of this flock. The truth is that no pastor, no rector, no bishop—for that matter—is the shepherd of the flock. That role belongs only to Jesus, who is the described as the Good Shepherd. The Greek word used is kalos, which does not just mean that something is good, but rather that it has a quality about its goodness that makes it lovely, special, even holy. That's the kind of shepherd Jesus is. If anything, the rest of us are the Mediocre Shepherds. We council and we administer sacraments, but we ourselves are flawed. Too often we fall into the trap of trying to be perfect, trying to make everyone happy, trying to impress upon our clergy colleagues that our particular flock is the best, the one that finally figured this Christian thing out, the one that has absolutely no problems whatsoever! And when we try to be perfect, guess what happens, our people try to be perfect. That is a recipe for disaster! The truth is that perfection is not the point of our Christian journey. Discipleship is! A disciple is one who follows, and that is what we are called to be—that’s all of us, you and me both! Furthermore, discipleship begins with the realization that we are, all of us, part of this one great big wonderful flock with this one Good Shepherd, who calls us each by name, who lays down his life for us, and whose love and mercy for us endure forever!
Many nights when we were in seminary my dog Casey and I would go into the Chapel of the Good Shepherd to pray or practice a sermon or to just vent to Jesus. I would look up at that statue and so often wish that I were that lamb. Oh how I wanted to just feel held in Jesus’ arms! How I wanted my Good Shepherd to call me by name. When the tears would start to well up a little in my eyes I could feel the telegraph on my heart: “You are mine, Joe! And I love you!” I was that lamb all along. Even now, as I continue to live into my role as the spiritual leader of a different Good Shepherd, I am reminded from time to time—in quiet prayer, while standing at the altar, or hearing our children and adult choirs sing—that I am still that lamb. I am still held in the arms of my Good Shepherd, and I understand that so much of my call as a priest in his Church is to remind the people I meet that they, too, are that lamb in his arms.
A closeup of Jesus and the lamb at the Chapel of the Good Shepherd.
That includes you, brothers and sisters. You are each the lamb in his arms, and he calls you each by name! As he searched out that little lamb and brought it back home he has searched you out and will continue to bring you home whenever you are lost. He lays down his life for you freely so that you can know what life really looks like, and what’s more, so that you can share the abundance of your life in him with those you meet. He said there were sheep who did not belong to his flock, but that he would bring them also. So much of the pain of this world is the result of the fences and walls that we have erected, keeping others out of our flock. We say that it is in the name of security, bur really it’s a lack of compassion and mercy and love—the very values our Good Shepherd lives out. We see people everyday who are hurting, who are broken, who need a shepherd. Imagine what would happen if we told them they were loved and treated them with that kind of love. Imagine if we told them they were held in the arms of Jesus, that he calls them by name, and that his love has saved them. Imagine if we built bridges instead of walls and invited them into his flock. What kind of flock, what kind of beloved community, might we sheep create in the name of our Shepherd?
I mentioned how I usually think of the chapel at General Seminary whenever I hear the story of the Good Shepherd, but over the last couple years I think of a different statue. It sits in the columbarium of our church here in Asheboro. It is still Jesus the Good Shepherd with his lambs, but there is no crozier or group of pals around him. Instead, Jesus kneels down and meets his lambs where they are. It's super vulnerable, and even a bit jarring to someone who sees it the first time. But this vulnerable posture, I have found, is the very posture with which our shepherd meets us. Perhaps it is there to show his sheep the way that we are to meet with one another.
The Good Shepherd and his lambs in the columbarium of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Asheboro
You know, they say that sheep are pretty dumb animals, so it seems a bit funny that we would use such imagery to describe our lives as people of faith. Yet in spite of their lack of intelligence the sheep listen to and follow their shepherd—they are disciples, if you will—and we are no different. Discipleship does not mean expecting our mediocre shepherds and our church communities to be perfect. We all make dumb decisions sometimes, after all. Discipleship means remembering who we are, and whose we are. Who we are is a part of the flock that is the family of God, and whose we are is Jesus Christ's, and there is nothing in this world that will ever take that away. In spite of the divisions we see, the pain that we inflict on each other, and the bad news that we hear all the time, we will not stop proclaiming the Good News of love and mercy and salvation that belong to all people. For we are all one flock with one Good Shepherd.