02 May 2009

Easter 4 B - The Good Shepherd

St. Luke’s, Burlington

2 May 2009

By Stuart Pike 

How often are you identified with a number?

At the bank you have account numbers, PIN numbers to access your accounts, and credit card numbers.

Revenue Canada knows you by your social insurance number. They’ll never forget that!The hospital identifies you with your OHIP number. The electricity and telephone companies give you a costumer number that is displayed on the top of your bills. On Friday, I wanted to talk to a clerk at the ministry of transport drive test centre to find out if they could help me with a question I had. Just to find out if they could help me, I had to take a number and wait until my number was called. They couldn’t help me.

Isn't it wonderful when someone remembers your name, or when you are known by name rather than by a customer account number? Today it’s not only wonderful, it’s also very unusual. We live in an increasingly impersonal society where we often seem to be only a number. People are desperate to find a community where they will be known by their name.

Today's Gospel reading about the Good Shepherd ‑ give us an image of such a community. We are told about the very personal and intimate relationship that God has with us. Jesus said, "I am the good shepherd. As the Father knows me and I know the Father, in the same way I know my sheep and they know me" (John 10:14). Jesus earlier gives this description of the relationships between the shepherd and the sheep. The sheep hear his voice and he calls his own sheep by name, and he leads them out. When he has brought them out, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him, because they know his voice.

Talking about shepherds who know each sheep individually, even calling them by name, is quite foreign to us today. Most sheep farmers today are not one bit like the shepherds we read about in the Bible. The modern day sheep farmer has his large mob of sheep in a paddock and he occasionally goes out to check if everything is all right. When he wants to shift them he hops on his motorbike and with the help of his dog he drives them to where he wants them to go. They don’t listen for his voice and follow him. He doesn't have names for them all. He doesn’t distinguish between one and another. This is nothing like the picture that Jesus gives, "My sheep listen to my voice; I know them and they follow me" (John 10:27).

A shepherd in ancient times didn't have thousands of sheep to look after. He had a small flock and he knew each sheep individually. As Barbra Brown Taylor has written, “in the Middle East to this day you can sometimes see three or four Bedouin shepherds and their flocks all arrive at a watering hole at about the same time. The sheep quickly mix and mingle together until the three or four individual flocks have disappeared in favor of forming one big mega-flock. But the shepherds don't fret this mix-up. Because when it's time to go, each shepherd gives his own distinctive whistle or sings his own unique little song, and immediately his sheep leave the others behind, form back into their own flock, and follow the shepherd they've come to trust.” 

The image of the good shepherd and the way he lived among his sheep, sleeping among them, walking out in front leading them, feeding them, guiding them over dangerous places to good pastures, being alert for other animals that might threaten the flock, directing and protecting his sheep with his shepherd's staff, knowing each sheep by name, and each sheep responding to the familiar voice. All this gives us the picture of someone with an intense love for their total well‑being at every turn of their life. This is a description of how Jesus feels about each one of us. Big business thinks of us as a number. Jesus knows us by name.

We as the Church need to be able to think less about numbers too, and more about names - about people.

Describing Jesus as a shepherd fills us with feelings of being cared for and loved. We have a picture in our minds of Jesus who will do anything for us to keep us safe and whole, even to the point of giving up his own life.

The picture of the good shepherd reminds us that even though our grip on him might be weak, his hold on us is still firm and strong, no one can snatch us out of his hand. Or as he says: I know my sheep and my sheep know me ‑ just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. The relationship which exists between the Father and Son and Holy Spirit in the mystery we call the Trinity is closer than anything we can imagine. An that is why Jesus call us to be in relationship with others.

The image of the Good Shepherd is one of love, care, protection, intimacy and closeness. This text about the Good Shepherd has implications for us who are followers of Jesus. We are challenged to share his concern for those who are in trouble, for those who suffer injustice, for the sick and for the poor. As his followers, we share the same concerns as he does, and show our love in very practical ways, as Jesus did. It may be inconvenient to offer assistance, it may cost us time, effort and money, but love demands that this be done.

In other words, we need to become shepherds to one another. We are to be shepherds to one another as members of this congregation. We are to be shepherds to one another in our families. Just as Jesus guides and protects his sheep, mothers and fathers guide and protect the lambs he has given to us in our families. Just as Jesus shepherds us with patience and love, we shepherd those whom God has entrusted to us. Just as Jesus, the good shepherd, gives protection and guidance through the ups and downs that life brings so too must we give guidance and help to the lambs God has given.

We don't know what tomorrow will bring, but we do know that we have a loving shepherd who walks with us through thick and thin. And one day when we must walk through the valley of darkness and death he will walk with us and lead us to the glorious new life beyond the grave. Because we have a loving shepherd, goodness and love will follow us all our lives and we will live in the house of the Lord forever.

Let us, as people who follow the good shepherd, celebrate the deep relationship which God  has with each one of us: often at the deepest level of our being, below our own awareness. And let us be a Church which welcomes all people into a community where we are known by name. Amen.