Flocking to the Shepherd

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Easter 4
April 30, 2023
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: The good shepherd reigns in Christian imagination as the ideal pastor, though pastoral leaders are human, with human frailties. The Good Shepherd offers an opportunity to be in community together, in spite of our differences and divisions.

The image of the good shepherd has a grip on Christian theology. Artistic renderings of a serene, but hardworking shepherd with a docile lamb draped over his shoulders come immediately to mind. The shepherd cares for the sheep, leaving the 99 to find the one lost sheep. The shepherd feeds the sheep, protects the sheep and is even willing to risk his life for the sheep. He leads them beside still waters. He anticipates their every need, and even those they have not thought of yet. He takes them the long way to avoid difficult and dangerous passages. Even when he is exhausted, the shepherd will not rest until he is satisfied that the sheep are safe and well.

This fairy-tale shepherd bears only little resemblance to real shepherds, who are well aware of the dangers of taking care of animals and are daily acquainted with life-and-death choices. Farmers and shepherds are forced to make choices about what is good on the balance, which may in fact require leaving one animal behind for the protection of all the animals. Even the best farmer or shepherd knows that the whole farm, and the well-being of his family, is at risk if he dies trying to do the job. Try as they do, not even the wisest farmer or shepherd can avoid difficult and dangerous situations, or anticipate every need of every animal. They know that animals sometimes become sick, sometimes refuse to do what is best for their own health or well-being, and sometimes animals even die. That is what it means to care for animals. You have to accept life and death.

Still, Christian imagination and piety hold on to this idyllic image of Jesus as the "good shepherd," an impossible standard to which we hold all pastoral leadership. Jesus as the "good shepherd" is what we imagine of pastors and "pastoral care." Caring for a "flock" means working overtime to ensure the safety of each individual person, risking everything to bring the Good News of the gospel to even the lost sheep, lodged in dangerous places.

Real-life pastors

This image comes at odds with the actual humanity of real pastors. Movies such as The Eyes of Tammy Faye show the frailty of the human condition, even in the most successful and famous pastors. The film tells the story of Jim and Tammy Bakker and their rise to tele-evangelist fame. The couple gained notoriety with a children's show on Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network. As their preaching and teaching became more popular, they created their own television network, "PTL (Praise the Lord) Satellite Network," which grew in viewership.

However, throughout the film, which tells a dramatized version of actual events, viewers learn of the shady accounting practices that gave rise to Jim and Tammy's wealth. Ultimately Jim is imprisoned for fraud. The viewer feels pity for Tammy, as she attempts to revive her struggling career and find television gigs.

It is these kinds of stories that make some people skeptical of Christian leaders, and perhaps rightfully so. However, it should come as no surprise that Christian leaders fall victim to the same temptations and human frailties as any kind of leader. Pastors are, after all, human. Pastors are not God, or even some kind of human and divine hybrid. They are people with proclivities for sin just like any other person.

The way and life

Although we have every right to expect that our leaders will not defraud us, we cannot expect them to be replicas of the "good shepherd." In the parable, the good shepherd is not only a pastoral leader, but is also a gate for the sheep. Jesus not only leads the way to life, as a shepherd often does, he is the way to life. He is himself life and the giver of life because Jesus is sent by God and is in fact God. Jesus leads the way to eternal life and even gives up his own life in doing so.

The most any human leader can hope for is to point the way toward the Good Shepherd who leads the way to life and is the way to life. He is both the shepherd and the gate. Using the metaphor of Jesus' parable, any human pastor is also a sheep, perhaps a lead sheep or "chief sheep" who always has an eye on the good shepherd and can pick out the good shepherd among the many others who claim to be shepherds. Even so, pastors need the guidance and leadership of the good shepherd as much as any of the other sheep. They, too, can fall victim to "thieves and bandits" just as easily as other sheep.

False shepherds

Our world is full of people who proclaim that they are the good shepherd. These people can sometimes be difficult to spot, and their rhetoric is often persuasive. Usually there is no ambiguity in what they say. They offer a clear stance on controversial issues, making it very simple to see right from wrong. Topics like gun control, abortion, the death penalty or human sexuality are all solved according to these shepherds. The "right" answers seem so clear, but when put into practice, the issues are thorny and real-life examples do not have such obvious solutions. Our culture and society become divided along these lines, where some are "pro-" and others are "anti-" any given position, giving the sometimes-false impression of a binary choice. Deeper conversations around these topics quickly surface the ambiguities. Even cursory, superficial dialogue will uncover that human lives are difficult, messy and sufficiently unpredictable so as to avoid many simple binary choices.

We are each complicated organisms and the Good Shepherd, who is Jesus, recognizes this. The Good Shepherd opens a gate and offers a pathway out of the binary loop that continues to put us at odds with each other. The Good Shepherd offers a third, alternative way. When we give our divisions a rest long enough to look up and see the Good Shepherd, we suddenly realize that we are all part of the same flock of sheep. At that moment, a gate opens, and it becomes clear that we can all move in the same direction, cross the same threshold, and go to the same places even if we do not agree. A pathway becomes available to another way of being a community, where each life is valued simply because it is lived. The Good Shepherd not only points the way, but is the Way to this kingdom of God, where we are each known by name and valued just as we are.

The kingdom of God

The parable offers a vision for the kind of leadership and community that seem impossible in our world today. The kingdom of God feels like "pie in the sky," especially when allegations of egregious pastoral misconduct are so prevalent. The pain we cause each other cannot be denied. Real and traumatic harm can come at the hands of the people we are encouraged to trust the most. The Good Shepherd acknowledges this, and the church is rife with hurt souls and sinners.

We usher in the kingdom of God when we choose to walk an alternative path, one that offers us redemption, healing and forgiveness. We come closer to experiencing the kingdom of God when we treat each other with respect and acknowledge the immense complexity of each human life, so intricate that only God can truly understand the pain and joy of each individual soul.

The miracle of Easter is that no human law, no human king, not even human justice systems or angry mobs are enough to kill the Spirit of God. Jesus' triumphant return that first Easter morning was proof to all the disciples, past and present, that when we lean deep into divine love, there is no risk too big. Not even death can triumph over God. Imagine, then, what a kingdom full of people who are willing to trust God's love could do. We could risk it all and lay down the swords on which our dichotomous battles balance on the knife's edge, and then we could acknowledge that each of us was born in love, cast in the image of love, and lives on the promise of love from God. What a world it would be.