I can’t say I don’t know real live shepherds. I do. I have a friend who grew up on a ranch in Montana raising sheep. I have a colleague right now at the School of Theology and Ministry who lives and works with a flock of sheep on Whidbey Island and commutes to her church in Seattle’s University District. But I must confess, the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd seems remote from my real life experience and a bit inaccessible.
Oh, I know the shepherd was a central figure for the Hebrew people. Their great forefathers were all shepherds: Abraham, Moses, David. And even though by Jesus’ time the economic base of society had shifted from herding to settled agriculture, the Scriptures called upon religious and political leaders to be good shepherds who cared for the people, especially the weak and the poor. The prophets denounced kings and priests who failed to do so.
Still, my adult, urban, 21st century imagination needs help this Sunday. Maybe yours does too.
So, consider a lesson from the Godly Play curriculum of children’s religious formation called “The Parable of the Good Shepherd.” It’s the first in a series of a dozen parable lessons and establishes the pattern for all the others. Unlike lessons on the Sower and the Leaven and the Mustard Seed, the Good Shepherd weaves together themes from a number of different scripture texts: the 23rd Psalm; the parable of the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine to search for the one lost sheep in the gospels of Matthew and Luke; and the “I AM the Good Shepherd” discourse of Jesus in John 10. Jerome Berryman, creator of the Godly Play curriculum, developed this lesson while ministering to children with cancer in a Houston hospital.
Like all the parable lessons, “The Parable of the Good Shepherd” comes in a golden box – like a present, a valuable gift, but with a closed lid that may at first keep the child from entering. Inside this particular golden box is a large piece of green cloth – suggesting a field of grass. There is a smaller blue piece of cloth for water. Three dark shapes for a dangerous place. Many thin brown strips of felt that become the sheepfold. And simple cut out drawings of four or five sheep, the Good Shepherd, an ordinary shepherd – the hired hand of our gospel reading, and a wolf. The adult teacher tells the following brief story and ends with a series of wondering questions for the children to engage. (Jerome W. Berryman, The Complete Guide to Godly Play: 20 Presentations for Winter, volume 3, Morehouse Education Resources, 2011, pages 82-86.)
There was once someone who said such amazing things and did such wonderful things that people followed him.
They couldn’t help it. They wanted to know who he was, so they just had to ask him.
Once when they asked him who he was, he said “I am the Good Shepherd.”
“I know each one of the sheep by name. When I take them from the sheepfold they follow me. I walk in front of the sheep to show them the way.
“I show them the way to the good grass...and I show them the way to the cool, still, fresh water.
“When there are places of danger…I show them how to go through.
“I count each one as the sheep goes inside.
“If one of the sheep is missing I would go anywhere to look for the lost sheep…in the grass, by the water, even in places of danger.
“And when the lost sheep is found I would put it on my back, even if it is heavy, and carry it back safely to the sheepfold.
“When all the sheep are safe inside, I am so happy that I can’t be happy just by myself, so I invite all of my friends and we have a great feast.”
This is the ordinary shepherd. When the ordinary shepherd takes the sheep from the sheepfold, he does not always show the way.
The sheep wander.
When the wolf comes, the ordinary shepherd runs away…but the Good Shepherd stays between the wolf and the sheep and would even give his life for the sheep…so they can come back safely to the sheepfold.
That’s the story. And here are the questions – posed first, remember, to children with cancer.
Now, I wonder if the sheep have names?
I wonder if the sheep are happy inside this place? I wonder where this place could really be? I wonder if you have ever come close to such a place?
I wonder if you have ever found the good grass? I wonder if you have ever had the cool, clear, fresh water touch you? I wonder if you ever had to go through a place of danger?I wonder how you got through?
I wonder if you have ever been lost? I wonder if you have ever been found? I wonder if the Good Shepherd has ever called your name?
I wonder where this whole place could really be?
To these wonderful questions, I want to add a few more this morning. Here’s why. A student of mine – a good and conscientious student – came to class on Thursday and began a rather important presentation by saying something like: You know, in my typical overachieving way, I had this presentation done a week ago. And then I led a retreat on the topic of rest that surfaced disturbing questions about why some of us Christians might do social justice work – out of care for others; really? Or to try and earn a feeling of worthiness for God’s love? And then I struggled to prepare for the last of my ordination exams, the exam on theology I had been putting off. And then for the first time I had to file a mandatory report of suspected child abuse.
As a result, my student went on to say, she tore up that first presentation and started all over again at the last minute. But the trio of events tore open a place for her to discern and articulate a new theology of God’s providence. God has a contingency for every event, my student said. Not God causes or even God allows all events, but God has a contingency for every event, a loving response, one that beckons resurrection – however mysteriously and tentatively.
Maybe like my student, you have had a week or a month or a year that has torn things open. I know my engagement with Jesus the Good Shepherd has been torn open by another African-American man killed in police custody; hundreds and hundreds of refugees drowned in the Mediterranean; thousands of Nepalese buried by an earthquake; and the untimely death on Friday of yet another vital woman in this parish, our dear sister Vicki Banik.
So I wonder when we have played the role of the ordinary shepherd, not caring for the sheep, not showing the way, running away when the wolf comes?
Beyond places of danger, I wonder about places of vulnerability, places of loss, places where life gets torn open. How do we go through those places?
And I wonder if we hear the Good Shepherd calling us each by name this morning?