This sermon was given by Kellogg Fellow Greg Johnston at our service of Holy Eucharist on Sunday, April 26, 2015. The readings for the day can be found here.
This Sunday is, for whatever reason, a day I look forward to more than almost any other Sunday in our church year. Something about the imagery of shepherds and sheep is incredibly attractive. Normally, I’d hesitate to project this onto anyone else, but then I read the following story, from a man who lives in the English Lake District:
I'm not really an “early-adopter.” In fact, I'm the exact opposite. I'm a Luddite and a shepherd. Our shepherding work in the English Lake District is all about continuity and being part of a living cultural tradition that stretches back into the depths of time. Our work is often little changed from the way things were done when the Vikings first settled these valleys. Even our dialect is peppered with Norse words…I am, in short, about as unlikely to get excited by something like Twitter as anyone alive….So I was a little behind the curve on getting an iPhone, and accepted it reluctantly as a free “upgrade” when my perfectly fine old mobile died after years of good service…Whatever I wanted to happen, I suddenly had a camera and Twitter app in my pocket whilst I worked. And though it took me a while to realize it, I had the tools to connect to thousands of people around the world. I could now defend the old in my own quirky and probably misguided way. I first tweeted as an experiment in whether anyone might be interested (some friends told me it would be popular and I thought they were crazy). I’d just helped a ewe to lamb on a snowy morning and took a quick photo of the newborn lambs and posted it on Twitter. By nightfall we had something like 200 followers. My wife heard the phone pinging, “What the freaking [heck!] is going on with your phone?”
What is it with us about sheep and shepherds? How on earth has self-proclaimed Luddite and late adopter @herdyshepherd1 ended up with 59,400 Twitter followers in the last three years? Why do so many of our grandparents have framed needlepoint versions of Psalm 23 posted on their walls? Why on earth is this my favorite Sunday?
I think there are a few reasons. For starters: Sheep are really cute. You don’t get 60,000 followers on Twitter by tweeting pictures of an ugly animal. Nobody makes stuffed animals of the naked mole rat and gives them to their children. As anyone who’s ever hugged a sheep when it’s about to be shorn—in other words, Alice—will tell you, a sheep is about a foot and a half of soft, springy wool on either side of a one-foot torso. There is no “Bah, bah, black bull.” This is, of course, the way people sometimes experience this Good Shepherd Sunday: a day of cozy and comforting barnyard imagery. It is. And it’s a beautiful thing. But it’s not the only thing about these texts. It’s not the only reason we should love them.
Another part of Herdy Shepherd’s popularity, at least the way he tells it, is that sheep imagery lets us participate in an ancient part of our life and our culture from which almost all of us are completely disconnected. And the metaphor of sheep and shepherds really is ancient.
Shepherd imagery was as pervasive in the ancient Mediterranean as, well, being a shepherd. We particularly see the image of the king as a shepherd. We know this, of course, from the story of King David, the shepherd boy who defeats Goliath and later “shepherds” the people of Israel to unity and greatness. But it’s everywhere. Homer’s Iliad has about a dozen references to kings “shepherding” their people, and the first recorded references to kings as shepherds are about as old as the first recorded writings we have of any kind, some Akkadian tablets from around 2500 BC. The Israelites, of course, placed God as a higher shepherd, above any human king: “The Lord” in “The Lord is my shepherd” is a conventional way of translating the Hebrew name of God, YHWH, which Jews don’t traditionally pronounce. “YHWH is my shepherd,” not the King. God or a king in this role is someone who guides and leads the people, correcting them when they stray but also comforting and tending to them when they are wounded. And so we apply this name to other sorts of leaders who do the same thing: “pastor,” you may know, is just the Latin word for “shepherd.”
There’s a certain sense of comfort and security in seeing a leader as a shepherd. It means there’s someone greater and wiser than myself who is guiding our whole flock and caring for us. The best leader, one can easily imagine, is just like a shepherd: she wants the best for the sheep, and she knows better than they do what’s good for them. She can lead them and guide them, and is able to comfort and tend to them in ways they cannot comfort and tend to themselves or one another, even if they cannot understand or even sense the care being given to them.
For me, ultimately, I think the reason this is my favorite Sunday is pretty simple. Look at the icon of the Good Shepherd that I put on the front of the bulletin. This is the only icon I own myself. It’s associated with the Parable of the Lost Sheep, which we find in Matthew and Luke: “Which one of you,” says Jesus, “having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’” (Luke 15:4–6 NRSV)
Look into the eyes of that sheep. I don’t know how well it came out in print, but that sheep is pooped. That sheep is beat. That sheep has wandered far away from its flock, and it is lonely and it is tired and it is scared. And that shepherd comes and picks it up and bears it like it’s no burden at all. I’ve felt like that sheep. I suspect many of you have felt like that sheep. And the notion that Jesus is a shepherd who will come and bear that exhaustion and that pain, a shepherd on whose shoulders I can rest, has been an immense comfort to me.
I think sometimes some of us are so accustomed to biblical imagery that we need to be reminded to look at it with fresh eyes. I want to make two points about God, our Good Shepherd.
First: The Lord our Shepherd is one who makes us lie down in green pastures, and leads us beside still waters. What better God for Harvard? I know it’s a busy time, and I know you’re busy people. But as a friend and shepherd’s deputy I have a request for you: some time during reading period, or on the last day of class, or after your last exam, on a beautiful spring day when the sun is there to drive out all darkness go down to the still waters of the Charles River, lie down in that green grass beside it. Take a friend or two or a picnic or a book, something to eat and something to drink, and restore your soul. And if anyone asks you why, just tell them: God is making you do it. As an alumnus of this wonderful, venerable institution I can say to you that three of my five best memories of Harvard consist of doing exactly that, sitting by the river and resting. Thanks be to God.
My second point: Jesus doesn’t just say he’s a shepherd. He says he’s The Good Shepherd. And what does that mean? The good shepherd, he says, lays down his life for his sheep. The hired hand sees the wolf coming and runs away, saving himself and sacrificing the sheep. But the good shepherd lays down his life defending them. The good shepherd leaves behind the ninety-nine in the wilderness to go after the one who has wandered. The good shepherd lays out a delectable spread for the sheep, even though enemies all around are coming to beat the sheep up and steal its lunch money. Think about that. Think about it not as a metaphor, not as something you might have heard since you were a little kid in Sunday School, but really think about it.
I joked at our Bible Study on Tuesday that I don’t know where Jesus learned shepherding, but it sure wasn’t at Harvard Shepherding School. I mean, what kind of ridiculous business plan is that? What principle of animal husbandry says, “Yep, if wolves come, you just, uh, die. Yep, lay down your life for the sheep.” Sheep are sheep. People are people. Shepherding is a livelihood. If the owner of the sheep can’t fight off the wolves, he should run away and save himself! It’s unfortunate. It’s a mishap. It might even count as a calamity. But it’s not worth dying for. You can buy more sheep! And you sure shouldn’t risk 99 percent of you wealth in sheep to go find one that’s gone astray. This, I have to think, is ironic advice to people who are very familiar with the reality of what it means to be a good shepherd in this world. It doesn’t make sense! It doesn’t make any sense at all.
And that is the Good News. Sheep are sheep. People are people. God is God. Humans are humans. The shepherd is incomparably more valuable than the sheep, and yet he lays down his life to defend them. This is not a decision driven by economic calculation. This is a decision of love.
God loves you. God is unreasonably, outrageously, irrationally in love with you.
Year after year our lectionary cycle pops out two stories in the Easter Season: Doubting Thomas and the Good Shepherd. And why not? Aren’t those at the heart of the Christian faith? Despite all our failings, all our doubts, all our inadequacies, all our meanness and wrongdoing, all our woundedness and brokenness, all our inability in our sheep-sized brains to understand God’s vast love, in the midst of and because of all these things God loves us. In the words of my friend Brother Curtis Almquist, “God loves you. God wants to spend eternity with you. You make God’s day.”
What makes that one sheep so important that the shepherd should leave behind the ninety-nine others to go and save it? What makes that one flock so valuable that the shepherd should lay down his life to defend it? What makes that sheep worthy of a table prepared in the presence of its enemies, of a cup that overfloweth and spills wine out onto the ground? What makes the sheep worthy of the shepherd’s irrational, superabundant love?
Absolutely nothing. There is nothing in the world you could ever do that would earn the right to such love. And so there is nothing in the world that you ever need to do to earn that love. God is going to love you beyond your ability to comprehend it, “for,” as the hymn goes, “the love of God is wider than the measure of the mind.” And we are worthy of that love, each and every one of us.
All the rest of Christian thought, I think, is just a series of footnotes to that. All the rest of theology, Christology, and eschatology; of ecclesiology, missiology, and homiletic anesthesiology, is a catalog of different responses to the question "God is love; What are you going do about it?" God is foolishly in love with you. What are you going to do about it? God loves you. And the person next to you. And the wolves, and the thieves, and the enemies. The martyrs and their murderers alike. That doesn’t mean God doesn’t want them to change; God wants all of us to change, to grow into God’s vision for us. But like a faithful parent God loves us, each and every one, in the midst of it. What are you going to do about it? Can you give yourself the permission to be loved and to love yourself? To love your neighbor as yourself? To love your enemies, internal and external, as yourself?
As many or maybe all of you know, my time as part of this community is finally, belatedly coming to an end. This is sort of my farewell sermon for the year. In August, Alice and I will be moving to New Haven and I’ll be starting at Yale Divinity School. Six years into what I thought would be a four-year Harvard affiliation, I’m finally moving on. I’m very excited about this, and I’m very sad to be leaving this place, this community, and all of you. I’ve known some of you for three years and more. I’ve known some of you for not even nine months. This year feels like it’s flown by, and yet it feels like I’ve known some of you for a long, long time.
We are unlike an ordinary parish community, where people might stay for decades, even their whole lives, where they might raise children and grandchildren together. Each one of us at some point will graduate and will leave this community behind. And that’s a good thing. Although parting is difficult, it’s a part of what we all do here. We are all sheep that “do not belong to this fold.” Our Shepherd will call us away to other flocks, and yet one day we will be brought together again,
“So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” Amen.