April 25, 2021

A shepherd’s love

Passage: Acts 4:5–12, 1 John 3:16–24, John 10:11–18

I have been accused that my sermons sometimes are too much about love. And it is probably a fair accusation. It is what I think God is all about, and what Jesus came to teach us and show us. It for me is what the cross and resurrection are all about.

But I do want to make this point. This is God’s love we are talking about… and not just human love.

All of us have warm and fuzzy images about love, about the best kind of love. The love I have for my three granddaughters right now is wonderful because there are lots of hugs and kisses, and they are healthy and beautiful and smart, and they love their Nunna and Grandad, and the love for them is just one of the most beautiful feelings I have. It is amazing.

And most of us remember falling in love and the best feelings and wonderful moments of happiness with romantic and sexual love. It too is pretty awesome.

But Jesus’ love is different. It isn’t just love when things are good, and when things are wonderful and when you are being loved back and when it is your family and friends who love you.

With Jesus is it love for everyone, for drug addicts, pushers, prostitutes, mafia, terrorists, people who don’t wear masks, corrupt politicians, atheists, drunks, people of every religion, criminals, people who start wars, who beat their spouses and children, and every other person you were brought up to avoid ,and of whom you were told, they were going to hell.

Imagine your buddy calls you up one day and says: hey, you want to see some real love in action…

“Sure” you say.

And your buddy takes you to a public execution. And they are executing an innocent man. Everyone knows he is innocent. He has been tortured. And before he dies, he says to the officials, indeed to the whole system: “I forgive you.”

That is love. That is unconditional love, and unconditional love is dangerous and messy and dirty and hard to watch and hard to do. It got somebody called Jesus, killed.

A lot of us, myself included, just dabble in real love. We maybe get our toes wet, or sometimes if we are brave, we take our socks and shoes off and walk in real love up to our ankles... but very few of us immerse ourselves in real love.

Most of us participate a lot in love for people who love us back, it is much harder and messier and more complicated to love those who do not love us back.

But I am guessing, most of us have struggled, and dabbled our toes in that kind of love, sometimes loving, and sometimes wanting to withdraw love.

There are people listening and watching today who had a parent who was abusive and unkind, and they have struggled to love a parent who didn’t deserve that love. It is hard to love someone who should have been a shepherd to you, and instead beat you, or shamed you, or ignored you, or bullied you.

There are people listening and watching today who have a child who is more or less grown up, who has turned their back on his or her parents. There is an empty hole and an aching in the heart of a parent who child has gone prodigal, and the parent is wanting them to return to sanity and to relationship and to love. And it is hard to love a prodigal when they turn their back on you.

There are families who are listening and watching today who have had the struggle of loving an alcoholic or a drug addict, with their lies, their excuses, their thefts, their broken promises, their relapses. Many of the people on the street who are homeless, that come to the door of the church, have addiction problems and they have burned every bridge, and then some, with families and friends. It is hard to love an addict, who will say they love you and then betray that love the next moment for a fix.

And maybe I am being too hard on you, who know what it is like to unconditionally love someone who is hurting you. Maybe there are a lot more people than we know, who have immersed themselves in unconditional love for someone who hurts them.

Maybe we just don’t tell those stories and share those stories in the church. Maybe we could or should be a safer place for people to tell their stories.

But when I think of the Good Shepherd, I am thinking of that kind of dangerous, messy, difficult and demanding love.

It seems to me in the church, we have kind of domesticated the image of the Good Shepherd.  Most of us who grew up in the church are familiar with some painting or other of the good shepherd, where the beautiful looking Jesus is holding a lamb, and the lamb looks like it has just been to the spa and been nicely groomed.

The Lord is my Shepherd is one of the most familiar psalms, indeed one of the most loved passages of scripture in the world. And The Lord’s my Shepherd sung to the tune Crimond is one of the best known hymns in the world. I believe West Bromich Albion Football Club in England uses “The Lord’s my shepherd” as its Football anthem.

My point is that the image of Jesus, the good shepherd is more like a Hallmark card with wonderful warm fuzzy feelings, than with the jarring, messy, even dangerous and disturbing image that I think Jesus was portraying to his disciples, to the Pharisees and to the crowds.

Let me set the context for Jesus little sermon on the Good Shepherd.

I am reading beginning at the end of Chapter 9 of John’s gospel and the first verse of Chapter 10.

39 Jesus said, “I came to this world to judge, so that the blind should see and those who see should become blind.”

40 Some Pharisees who were there with him heard him say this and asked him, “Surely you don't mean that we are blind, too?”

41 Jesus answered, “If you were blind, then you would not be guilty; but since you claim that you can see, this means that you are still guilty.”

10 Jesus said, “I am telling you the truth: the man who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in some other way, is a thief and a robber.

When you read the bible, you see that chapter 9 ends the story about the man born blind. And chapter 10 starts with the Good Shepherd sermon, but if you read it as John the gospel writer wrote it, without chapter and verse notations, you see that it seamlessly flows together.

The Pharisees are upset with Jesus that he accuses them of blindness and Jesus goes right on to talk more about that blindness by basically accusing them of being the thieves and robbers who go after the sheep by not going through the gate of love, which is Jesus himself. It flows naturally and is connected.

You probably didn’t know this but it wasn’t until 1500 years after the gospels were written that verses numbers and chapters were added to the New Testament. They are helpful to find your place, but they were a little bit arbitrary, and sometimes, as is the case here in John’s gospel in chapter 9 and 10, the chapters break the flow of what is supposed to be connected.

The conflict with the Pharisees and their blindness is one long story with the Good Shepherd passage, for it too is also about the Pharisees and their bad leadership as shepherds of the people.

So, the Good Shepherd passage which most of us have been brought up to understand primarily as a comfort passage producing warm feelings in us, was initially a jarring, disturbing sermon to those who first heard it and read it.

And it was disturbing in more ways than one. It is true that Israel had a long history of shepherding. While we here in the Canadian prairies are used to cattle, much more than sheep, sheep were a pretty useful and rugged creature.

Sheep have a wide range of uses. They are valuable for meat, for wool, for skin, and one can use their manure for fertilizer. You can consume sheep milk, and sheep can be used as pack animals.

They eat a wide range of plants including weeds, and do well in arid and semi-arid countries and can graze land that is not suitable to raise crops.

They are flock animals and their instincts to stay in herds makes them easier to move around in flocks than certain other animals. With their wool they are less prone to extreme weather conditions.

And there were lots of sheep in Israel. Some of the most famous Hebrews had their roots in sheep. Moses when he ran away from Egypt ended up as a shepherd for years, and it was while he was shepherding his flock that God called to him from a burning bush.

King David, was a shepherd as a boy, where he developed his ability to use a sling to protect the sheep from predators, boasting that he killed both bears and  lions.

The idea of a King being a good shepherd of the people was in the imagination of the Israelites and thus by extension, the Lord could be a good shepherd, as we see in Psalm 23.

However, Ezekiel suggests that the ancient leaders of Israel became greedy self-serving shepherds of the people, and that really the only shepherd you could trust was God. In Ezekiel 34 we read: “You are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture, and I am your God.”

But, by the time Jesus came along, while shepherds and shepherding was part of their important heritage, shepherding itself was a dirty, dangerous, lonely and poorly paid position.

Most of the flocks now were owned by the mega-rich who didn’t look after them. Most of the shepherds were hired hands.

The religious requirements of the Jews for cleanliness before worship meant that dirty shepherds were largely unfit for worship.

When I was a child in England, the conventional wisdom was that if you were in trouble, you dropped out and went and joined the French Foreign Legion. Supposedly it was a kind of job where they didn’t ask a lot of questions, as long as you were willing to fight. And when you joined you were given a false name, to protect your anonymity.

But in Jesus’ day, I think that if you got into trouble and wanted to escape you became a shepherd.

You went out into the country with a bunch of sheep. It was hard and dirty and dangerous and lonely, and a lot of shepherds were considered low-lifes. Uneducated, crude, dirty, not that pious, dubious backgrounds...

In Jesus’ day shepherds were about as low as you went for a Jew. Just above those unclean Gentiles.

So, for Jesus to call himself a shepherd, to liken himself to a shepherd, was disturbing and different and jarring and off-putting.

It means that God’s anointed comes not from the pure, the holy, the religious and the blessed, but from the unclean, the criminal, the outcast and the forsaken.

And then Jesus uses this image of good shepherd to contrast himself with supposedly bad shepherds or with thieves and robbers, or with hired hands who do not care for the sheep.

And that is jarring too, as Jesus basically calls the leaders of the Jews, especially the religious leaders, thieves, robbers…

… people who don’t use the gate of love, people who are only hired hands, in it for a buck, but who don’t care about the sheep. People who will run away at the sign of a wolf or trouble, and will let the sheep die.

People who raise the sheep only to sacrifice them for their own ends.

Jesus was really stirring up the people and making them think as he disturbed their reality.

What really counts he said is love and care for the sheep. What really counts is unconditional love, that the shepherd would give his life for the sheep, even though the sheep don’t always deserve love.

Jesus says he is the good shepherd, but many people would have thought of him as the stupid shepherd.

Shepherds don’t give their lives for sheep.

I thought about this passage of scripture when I heard on the news a couple of weeks ago when a 55-year-old man fell through the ice here in Edmonton and drowned rescuing a dog.

My heart goes out to the family for their loss. And as a dog lover my heart goes out to a man who risked his life to save a dog, but I wouldn’t want my family to risk their lives for a dog. We would choose to save the person over the dog.

But the analogy is a little bit the same. Shepherds would not give their lives for a sheep.

It would have been a jarring image for them to think that a person would give their life for a sheep.

But that is the nature of the metaphor. It isn’t a cuddly metaphor.

It is a metaphor about the extent God would go to save you.

It is like a human giving his life for a dumb old sheep.

It is like a man going out on the ice of the North Saskatchewan and giving his life to save a dog.

It is outrageous and preposterous grace.  But just see how far God would go for you.

And this shepherd cares so much that it doesn’t matter who the sheep are.

The good sheep, the bad sheep, the black sheep, the white sheep, the old sheep, the young sheep, the ewes and the rams….

This shepherd cares for them, knows them, give his life for them.

John says this in his first letter: 16 We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.

John invites to go more than ankle deep and plunge into the crazy unconditional love thing, where we love people no matter what, and practice outrageous and preposterous grace.

John invites us to be shepherds with Jesus.

It is easier to be a hired hand. It is easier to do things for others when there is some reward, some personal gain.

I scratch the sheep’s back if the sheep scratches mine, of if the sheep crosses my palm with silver, you know what I am saying…

And many of our interactions, even our loving interactions have this sense that we are getting as much as we are giving…

But to be a shepherd in the sense that Jesus is a shepherd.

That is hard.

And Jesus even goes on to say something else outrageous.

I have sheep that are not of this fold.

I have sheep that are not Presbyterian.

I have sheep that are not Christian.

I have sheep that are not heterosexual.

I have sheep that don’t identify with a particular gender.

I have sheep that have no home and live on the streets.

I have sheep that are a different skin colour, and sheep who are a different culture, and sheep who are a different religion, and sheep who have no religion, and sheep who have no money, and sheep who have done really bad things, and sheep who nobody wants, and sheep who are in jail, and sheep who should be in jail.

Loving is hard and messy and demanding.

Jesus has a lot of criticism for those leaders who do not go in by the gate.

That gate is Jesus. That gate is love. For Jesus is love come to life.

The problem with those leaders is that they do not truly love the sheep.

They use the sheep, the hit the sheep, they abuse the sheep, they tax the sheep, and they get rich off the sheep.

They even sacrifice the sheep to God, thinking that sheep’s blood makes them good with God.

God doesn’t need the blood of sheep, or bulls or anything else.

God proved that on the cross. You can kill me and I still love you.

And it brings me back to something really tough.

How do we change the system where those who are supposed to shepherd the people have hurt the people?

How do we change a racist and discriminatory society where a human shepherd, who is supposed to protect and serve, puts his knee on the neck of a human sheep and squeezes the life out of him, because the colour of his skin is different, or because he is poor, or because he is different, or just because?

And I say this cautiously and hesitantly, being a white male, and I guess a white shepherd, but how do we love those who put their knees on the necks of the sheep?

It seems to me that the sheep who are lost are not just the oppressed and the hungry and those who suffer injustice…

… but also the ones who oppress, the ones who practice violence, the ones who exclude, the ones who hurt the sheep, the ones in power who like the system the way it is.

How to love them, forgive them, transform them, resurrect them from their deathly ways…?

How to bring them back into the fold so that the fold is a place of justice and love for all?

I believe there are no easy answers, no quick fixes, no sure-fired success methods. It certainly is not by letting people get away with injustice.

But I think the answer has something to do with truth, and sharing our personal stories and truly listening to one another and to each other’s pain, and practicing justice as well as practicing care; and all with unconditional love.

The strange thing is, that when I look at my life, sometimes I have been a good sheep and sometimes a bad sheep. Sometimes have been a sheep that wandered away. Sometimes I have been a thief and a robber. Sometimes I have been a bad shepherd. Sometimes I have been a wolf and sometimes I have been a lamb. And sometimes even, I have been a good shepherd.

And through it all Jesus has loved me, understood me, cared for me, forgiven me, and never given up on me. That is the kind of shepherd I would like to be.