Well you learn something new every day. At least it seems I do. After 30-plus years in ministry and probably hundreds of times reading the Good Shepherd passages in John’s gospel, I learned something new. Maybe you already knew this, especially those of you who’ve been part of the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd for a long time. The thing I learned was that the image of Jesus as a shepherd was one of the most popular images in the early Christian church. Oh sure, I knew about the fish symbol in the catacombs, so it’s not surprising that there would be other symbols as well. But when I read recently that the figure of the shepherd was much more prevalent than the cross in early Christian art, I was skeptical.
As were Rebecca Ann Parker and Rita Kashima Brock, authors of Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire. In response to their exploration of early Christian art, they wrote: “It took Jesus a thousand years to die. Images of his corpse did not appear in churches until the tenth century. Why not? This question set us off on a five-year pilgrimage that led to this book. Initially, we didn’t believe it could be true. Surely the art historians were wrong. The crucified Christ was too important to Western Christianity. How could it be that images of Jesus’s suffering and death were absent from early churches? We had to see for ourselves and consider what this might mean.
“In 2002, we traveled to the Mediterranean in search of the dead body of Jesus. We began in Rome, descending from the blaze of the summer sun into the catacombs where underground tunnels and tombs are carved into soft tufa rock. The earliest surviving Christian art is painted onto the plaster-lined walls of tombs or carved onto marble sarcophagi as memorials to the interred.
“In the cool, dimly lit caverns, we saw a variety of biblical images. Many of them suggested rescue from danger. Abraham and Isaac stood side by side in prayer with a ram bound next to them. Jonah, the recalcitrant prophet who was swallowed and coughed up by a sea monster, reclined peacefully beneath the shade of a vine. Daniel stood alive and well between two pacified lions. Other images suggested baptism and healing, such as the Samaritan woman drawing water from a well, John the Baptist dousing Jesus, depicted as a child, and Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Jesus also appeared as a shepherd carrying a lamb on his shoulders like Orpheus. We could not find a dead Jesus, not even one. It was just as the angel had said to the women looking for Jesus at his tomb, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here.’”
So it seems that it’s true. And so, on this fourth Sunday in the Easter season, we’re switching gears. If you recall, the gospel readings for the first three weeks were resurrection appearance stories: Jesus in the locked room, on the road to Emmaus, at the lakeshore eating breakfast with the disciples. But now, in these next four weeks we’ll be leaning more into how Jesus teaches us to live in the Oneness of God, living into resurrection life.
And so we have the Good Shepherd. People utterly unfamiliar with Christianity, with church symbolism might wonder ‘why a shepherd?’ They might ask (when they get to visit our church in person): “Why does your church have a stained glass window of a guy surrounded by sheep?” Of course, you’d know to direct them to John’s gospel and to all the places in the Old Testament referred to shepherds. But relating it to today? I mean, who here has ever even seen a shepherd?
I’m pretty sure that for most followers of Jesus the image still works. Even though we’re not sheep herders, we get the idea. We long for and pray for and give thanks for the care that we receive as the sheep of Jesus’ pasture.
Jesus the Good Shepherd is indeed a comforting figure. But perhaps we urbanized non-sheepherders need to be reminded that shepherding was (and I suppose still is) a dangerous job. The shadow of death (as the psalm puts it) hovers just beyond the frame of the pastoral scene in our beautiful window.
Or as Pr. Bill Wylie-Kellermann said: “If today’s gospel calls up for you images of a familiar stained-glass window, the good shepherd with a lamb cuddled over the shoulder, then it’s probably best to envision it with a brick being thrown through.” Yikes!
“The tension of this reading is between the . . . the tenderness of love for the flock and the predatory violence of the beast. The stillness of waters and the rushing of the wolves.”
You know, the role of pastors is modeled on this shepherd. But the fact is that the job description according to Jesus is not only to love, nourish, comfort, stand by, and lead – but to be willing to die for the flock. That should give pause to many seminary applicants, although it’s not in any ordination or installation service I know of.
And I admit that this passage gave me pause this week. The combined effect of the revelation (at least to me) of the plethora of shepherd imagery in early Christian art, the mental picture of a brick crashing through the stained glass, and the enigmatic statement by Jesus about having other flocks caused me to look again at Jesus the Good Shepherd. And the question that kept popping into my mind during the week was: whose shepherd is this?
Of course, Jesus is my Good Shepherd. And of course yours. I imagine any Christian would make that claim. But then, as I recall the shepherd’s presence with those facing the threat of violence or death, I can’t help connecting it in recent weeks with the trial of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd. No matter how many times we see the video of those 9.29 minutes and hear the agonizing testimony of witnesses, there is no way to blunt its dreadfulness. And then, two weeks into the trial, 20-year-old Daunte Wright was fatally shot. And ten 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant. And then 13-year-old Adam Toledo. And on and on it goes. The shadow of death hovers not far from the frames of our communal life.
We know that the Jesus story entered history in a time of oppression, injustice, violence, and death. Jesus’ teachings tell us that those ways of being in the world are not God’s ways. The resurrection story tells us that those death-dealing ways do not have the last word. Today I see Jesus the Good Shepherd standing with George, Daunte, Ma’Khia, and Adam and all the others in their moments of crucifixion and welcoming them into the open arms of Paradise. I also see Derek Chauvin, Kimberly Potter, Nicholas Reardon, and Eric Stillman – all officers caught up in a death-dealing system and suffering the consequences. All of them, all of us sheep of one flock.
The image of the Good Shepherd as the gentle Jesus with a lamb cuddled over his shoulders is shattered as we see the one willing to lay down his life for the sheep, who identifies with the least and the lost, who suffers for their sake – and then who pushes us out of our comfort zones as we seek to be Christ now in the world, to overturn systems of oppression, to reform institutions, to advocate for the least of these. It can be overwhelming to even know where to begin.
I’m in a group that has been working on implementation of the ELCA social statement “Faith, Sexism, and Justice.” We’ve become more and more convinced of the intersecting issues of sexism and racism and all isms that privilege one group over another. Everyone in the group right now is white and there’s a lot of discussion about how to be good allies, how to recognize and get beyond our own prejudices, defensiveness, and just plain ignorance.
One thing we agreed to do, as a very tiny first step was to read a book together. We chose A Womanist Midrash by Wil Gafney. I’ve known about womanist theology for a long time. I knew it began as a corrective to feminist theology that has been criticized as addressing only the experience of white women, while womanist theology is grounded in the experience and perspectives of Black women, particularly African-American women. It’s a small step outside the comfort zone, but a needful one as we navigate these difficult times.
I’ve been doing some thinking about the name of our church. There is some confusion about whether we’re Good Shepherd Lutheran Church or the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd. Does it matter, I wondered. Maybe not, except as a legal matter. But it seems to me that there is something about saying that we are the church of the Good Shepherd that conveys something important. We are the church that belongs to the Good Shepherd. We enjoy the benefits of comfort, compassion, and life-giving care. We are the sheep of his pasture.
We are also the church that carries on the work of the Good Shepherd. Now what does that mean? Remember that the job description according to Jesus is to love, nourish, comfort, stand by, lead – and be willing to give one’s life for the flock. I have to say that I am both comforted and challenged by Jesus’ statement, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.” Wait. Who are these other sheep? We know from the gospels that the Jewish messiah, would also embrace Gentiles. After the resurrection, Jesus says, “I will draw all people to myself.” And here he echoes the same theme: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.” These other sheep are is not specified; that’s the shepherd’s business, not ours. The practical effect of this inclusive statement is that we can trust that there is no one outside of the care, comfort, and compassion of Jesus.
The challenge is that no one is outside of our care, comfort, and compassion. As followers of Jesus and sheep of the Good Shepherd we have our work cut out for us. And as I’ve learned from being part of the social statement group, the labor is not just the external activities we do out in the world. There is a lot of internal work. In order to be truly comforting, compassionate, and caring we must know ourselves. No matter how progressive, liberal, open-minded you may think you are, you carry within you life experiences, family history, cultural identity, and learnings that may or may not be correct about another person or group of people. This isn’t an accusation or indictment against you or me; it’s just a fact about each and every one of us. And step one is acknowledging it.
Step two is listening to the stories of those who are different from you, truly listening even if you feel defensive, asking questions, being genuinely curious about someone’s experience of the world.
Step three is becoming an advocate. Become educated about others. Don’t make assumptions. Don’t expect them to do the work for you. Learn about micro-aggressions, what makes a joke racist, sexist, or homophobic. Be open to learning, even when you feel resistant. Don’t take it personally when you’re corrected.
Step five is being humble and courageous. I was once a facilitator for a church exchange program in which mostly white suburban congregations were paired up with mostly African-American ones. This was in Buffalo, NY, where most of the old mainline churches had long ago fled the inner city. As some of us gathered in front of the Black church where we would meet one another, the pastor of the suburban congregation pointed to the cornerstone of the old brick church: Emmaus Lutheran Church 1919. Already we had something in common. Later, a member of the suburban congregation expressed the fear that he’d had in agreeing to the gathering. He was afraid, he said, of unwittingly saying something offensive. I noted that it had taken courage to show up and humility to confess that we often don’t know what we don’t know, but we are open to learn.
It seems to me that being the Church of the Good Shepherd in this time is a call to break through an image that is only the comforting, personal Savior who cares passionately about each one of us – although that indeed is one very important aspect of that image. But when we break it open, we find that we have not subtracted any care for ourselves but have added all the other sheep of all the other flocks. Nothing can take away the love we have in Christ Jesus; that love can only be multiplied.
I wish we could be in our sanctuary today, with all this attention on the Good Shepherd. More than that, though, I long for the time when we can be together, when we can reach out in more tangible ways to our neighbors, to other communities, other churches, other traditions. I’m looking forward to finally being able to get to know the people of Good Shepherd Chinese Church. And while I’m sure the virtual interfaith iftar next week will be lovely, it can’t replace the relationship-building we can do in person.
But the time will come. We will gather back under the ever-watchful eye of our Good Shepherd. Perhaps we will come back with a new way of gazing at the beautiful colors and light streaming into our sanctuary. It will be glorious to bask in that light. It will also be a challenge – to ask ourselves: Whose shepherd is this? Who are the sheep that Jesus is calling us to tend to?
As we switch gears now, mid-Easter season, to a mode of going out into the world to bring hope and healing, what better icon to send us on our way, to guide us on our way, to comfort us in the hard times, to challenge us when we become complacent, to inspire us to love, to nourish, to comfort, to stand by, to lead – and to give the very life of this congregation for the sake of those Jesus loves.
Christ the Good Shepherd.
Jesus said: “I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd would die for the sheep. The hired hand, who is neither shepherd nor owner of the sheep, catches sight of the wolf coming and runs away, leaving the sheep to be scattered or snatched by the wolf. That’s because the hired hand works only for pay and has no concern for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my sheep and my sheep know me. In the same way Abba God knows me and I know God—and for these sheep I will lay down my life. I have other sheep that don’t belong to this fold—I must lead them too, and they will hear my voice. And then there will be one flock, one shepherd. This is why Abba God loves me—because I lay down my life, only to take it up again. No one takes my life from me; I lay it down freely. I have the power to lay it down, and I have the power to take it up again. This command I received from my Abba.”