Psalm 23; 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.” No equivocation. No qualifiers. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The good shepherd, in contrast to the hired hand, never abandons the flock entrusted to him. The good shepherd knows the sheep and the sheep know him. The good shepherd described in Ezekiel searches for the sheep, rescues them, gathers them, feeds them, binds up the wounded, strengthens the weak ones. The good shepherd Jesus makes explicit that the flock will expand and the sheep yet to come will be incorporated, fully, into the flock. No sheep will be left vulnerable to the wolves, uncared for or abandoned.
The image of the good shepherd tending to the one beloved flock, so valued and valuable that the shepherd will stop at nothing to keep them gathered and safe, calls forth a longing in me that feels almost primal, mostly subconscious, but unmistakable when I read this passage from John or hear aloud the 23rdPsalm. I shall not want. Rest will be granted. Fear will be jettisoned for deep contentment. Every threat met with protection giving way to a sense of deep peace.
I long for the good shepherd and I yearn to be part one flock, especially in this season of deep cultural divides. I left a meeting this week weary of acrimony. The group gathered consists of people of faith. People of faith and of good will. People of faith and of good will who are committed to working for justice, inclusion, the one beloved flock. And yet, even there, division bordering at times on disdain could not be avoided. Mostly we are polite, civil and gentle with one another. Sometimes the center won’t hold, however, and frustration mounts and voices grow loud and shrill. The issues raised with the raised voices need to be stated, and even when the truth is spoken in love it is very hard to hear. Some in the group tire of talking and call for action. Others fear acting without conversation that leads to consensus will result in more fault lines and less community. More than a few have left the group, not out of malice, but, I think, out of conflict fatigue. If, even in a group of good-willed, faithful folks arguments abound, is it even possible for us to be one flock? Why exert energy trying?
The reality is this: staying at the table is hard. Even if the table is in the presence of friends. At least in the presence of our enemies we know with whom we are supposed to disagree. After meetings like the one I attended this week I cannot help but wonder if the wounded to whom the shepherd tends were hurt by a fellow member of the flock. Sometimes the sheep have wolves’ clothing and commensurate characteristics. Sometimes even with the best of intentions we hurt those most in need of care and comfort.
The flock doesn’t need protection only from wolves coming from the outside, but also from the other sheep within the pen. Does the good shepherd not only stave off wolves but mitigate between competing, ornery, petty, fallible, limited, sheep? The comforting word in these shepherd texts is one of absence. Nowhere does it say that the sheep are well behaved or wise or worthy of the shepherd’s sacrifice. In fact, Scripture reveals, as does experience, that those in the flock are prone to wander, greedy, ungrateful and unlikely to learn from their mistakes. The good shepherd lays his life down for them anyway. No equivocations. No qualifiers. The shepherd binds up wounds, inflicted by wolf, flock-mate, circumstances and self alike. That promise keeps me at the table.
The resolute, reliable, compassionate good shepherd keeps me at the table, the table that I did not set. The table with guests I did not invite. The table laden with overflowing cups I did not fill. The table where the Shepherd gives his body and blood for sinners. The table where Judas sat beside Jesus and Peter did, too. The table where I have denied the Host and betrayed him time and time again. The table where the weary gather to lay their burden down for a while. The table where conversation leads to my knowing the ones around it no less than Jesus knows me and them. The table where knowing one another can’t help but move us to act, maybe even to the point of laying down our lives for the very ones who sometimes make us want to push back our chairs in anger and bolt. The table where, no doubt, others have struggled to keep company with me as well.
The good shepherd doesn’t abandon the sheep. The good shepherd is always expanding the flock. The good shepherd seeks the lost, lonely, frightened, injured, the baffled, bewildered and shocked. The good shepherd feeds, binds, strengthens. The good shepherd doesn’t assess the sheep’s worthiness, but sees each one’s God-given belovedness no matter how they obscure that image in themselves or others. The good shepherd sets the table, hosts the dinner and provides the meal. That’s what keeps me at the banquet, even when I know I am not worthy and I wish the shepherd would banish me so that I would no longer yearn for each of us to be more like the divine image buried deep within.
Leaving the table is so much easier. Feed me to the wolves and let me lament my abandonment. Let everyone fend for themselves so that we don’t have the responsibility to care for each other. Instead the good shepherd refuses to give up on me, on you, on the flock. That truth compels me to remember how important this God-put-together community is. So important that Jesus lays down his life for its sake. That reality won’t allow me to walk away or allow others to leave so easily.
This week someone I know, of good will, with a great heart, was deeply hurt by the very person he was striving to help. The wounded, lost sheep he had sought lashed out in fear, frustration, anger. Isn’t that what wounded sheep do? As he recalled the events he was despondent, weary, ready to abandon the sheep and the flock with which he has been entrusted. But after some reflection, some rest, some green pastures in which to lie down, he resolved to stay, at the table, with the flock, despite the enemies, the wolves, the valleys, the frustrations, the fear and hurt that inevitably come with living in a community of the wounded, which is all communities. He resolved to stay because he is a follower of the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep, not because they are worthy, but because they are his and he knows them, and he loves them anyway.
The Good Shepherd who doesn’t abandon us strengthens us to not abandon others. The Good Shepherd who give us rest, feeds us and eats with us, binds up our wounds so that we can bind the wounds of others with understanding, empathy and compassion. The Good Shepherd doesn’t give up on us and that means, on our good days, we don’t give up on each other. And on those days when we simply can’t stay a minute longer, when we storm away from the table and say we will never return, that same Good Shepherd goes and seeks us out, gives us rest, and brings us home again.
- What are the contrasts between the good shepherd and the hired hand? Look at other biblical passages about the good shepherd and note what makes for a good shepherd. For example, Ezekiel 34:11-16, 23.
- Psalm 23 is one of the most familiar and beloved portions of Scripture. What memories and feelings does it evoke for you?
- Jesus says that there are more sheep that he will bring to the flock and that the flock will be one. How do we demonstrate that oneness? (Or not.)
- Have you ever been so frustrated or disillusioned with a community that you left? Is leaving sometimes a faithful choice?
- 1 John says that given that Jesus laid down his life for us, we should do likewise. Do we?
- How do we, as 1 John admonished, “love in truth and action”?
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