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September 24, 2017

“A Leader with Shear Love”

By Rev. Katrina Pekich-Bundy

Isaiah 40.11-15

John 10.11-18

September 24, 2017

                Jesus is the Good Shepherd. We hear this statement in John, the most poetic, metaphorical, and obscure of the Gospels. In John Jesus never just says exactly what he means. Sometimes reading John is like asking an existentialist for directions – don’t expect a road map, because instead you’ll hear a twenty minute pontification about the purpose and meaning of roads. We know Jesus is not a literal shepherd, but what does this mean?

            While John is known for some pretty outrageous and unique metaphors, and this one is pretty ewe-mungous, this one is not uncommon in the Bible. God refers to people as sheep and God as Shepherd many times in scripture. This was used often because many people were shepherds in the time Jesus lived. If we were to try to shift this metaphor into our own time, it might be something like, “I am the Good CEO,” or “I am the Good Night Shift Manager.”

            Putting the word “good” before shepherd means there are also bad shepherds. There are shepherds that do not care for their flock. Jesus defines a good shepherd as one that “lays down his life” for the rest of the sheep. Some shepherds are willing to do this. How many people would do that for another human being? Let alone some animals like sheep? He also references hired hands. They aren’t meant to be like shepherds. They do not have the same connection to the sheep and do not work with them as extensively as a shepherd. The shepherds know the sheep, as God knows us. God has created us, formed us from dust, and knew us before we could form words. God knows if we are the kind of sheep that will wander away from the flock and become trapped, or if we are the kind of sheep that will turn away when the shepherd calls. If we are prone to wander, God knows we’ll be heading for the wolf den. Yet, this dutiful, compassionate shepherd loves us and follows us and brings us back into the fold.

            After Jesus tells us that he is the Good Shepherd, and we envision him as a caretaker of those of us who consider ourselves part of the flock, we hear some new information – which may be shocking for some. There are other sheep. Our flock isn’t exclusive. We aren’t the only ones. For some Christians, this might make them ballistic. Why would Jesus hide the other sheep? Why aren’t we mixed together? Does Jesus like those sheep better than us? Who are these sheep? Maybe they are Muslims and Jews – children of Abraham. This is not to say that Jews and Muslims must believe in Jesus as Messiah, but they certainly recognize him as a prophetic figure. Maybe this other flock is one that God keeps separate because we’re not ready to be one. Maybe our idea of religion and unity is too small and we can’t conceive of it yet.

Maybe they’re other Christians. Maybe they’re Pagans. We don’t know. For some this might be like finding out about a relative you didn’t know about – what are they like? Are we going to be a big family? Yes – we will be, as God will unite us. We are to be one flock. Every time we take communion we ask to be united in Christ. We are united with flocks across the world. What if we were united even beyond Christianity, and were united with all humanity? What would that look like? Maybe we could be more productive in advancing peace in the world. Maybe we could begin to curb hunger and thirst in the world, narrowing in on the issues of poverty and homelessness, and work together for a common goal rather than dividing over differences. A Shepherd brings the flock together and keeps watch. Sheep don’t argue over whose coat is fluffier or which way is the right way – they follow the shepherd. Sometimes they wander away, but usually it is of their own distraction and not because they dislike the other sheep.

Being called a sheep isn’t the best metaphor. Let’s remember that this is just a metaphor and that it only extends so far – so don’t read too much into it. What we should know, though, is that we should keep our eye on the Shepherd – the One who unites us and protects us, and tries to show us the right way.

There is another shepherd passage in Isaiah. God feeds the flock like a shepherd, carries the lambs in God’s arms, and gently leads us. God is the Shepherd compassionate enough to care for us, and strong enough to carry us and make sure we are safe from wolves.

This is not just about Shepherds, but about leaders. Often leaders in ancient Israel, specifically kings, were called shepherds.[1] The rulers were meant to be this vision of a compassionate and strong shepherd, guiding the nation. Yet, as we know, human leaders fall short. Human leaders are idealized and cannot live up to the bar we set for them, even on the best of days. Only God can be the Good Shepherd. Therefore, a comparison is being made, that God is not only a Shepherd, but also a leader – a ruler of all nations – uniting us together and guiding us.

The Israelites, in exile in the time of this passage, were losing hope.[2] Where was God? Why were they not in their homeland? The prophet writing reassures them that God is there to guide them, like a shepherd – like a ruler who actually knows how to rule. After a time of wandering and feeling lost, God has not lost sight of them. God is better than any human leader – any ruler. God sees the full picture of humanity. Even the best of leaders with the best of intentions cannot always see all people and the impact being made. Even the best of leaders cannot know how the world will be affected by all decisions – even if they seem like the best decision.

As we read this passage, we might be quick to think of bad leaders – people who make bad political decisions; people who bully others in politics; people who make decisions for themselves and not for others. But, instead, I want you to think of a good leader. This week I came across a story about Mayor Derrick Ford Freeman. He is the mayor of Port Arthur, Texas. Port Arthur was flooded after Hurricane Harvey, not necessarily because of the hurricane, but because governmental leaders made the decision – for right or for wrong – to open the levees and allow some of the water from the Gulf to be released into the rest of Texas so Houston wouldn’t be completely wiped out by the hurricane. The idea was that Port Arthur would experience some flooding, but eventually the sump pumps would kick in and spit the water back out to the Gulf. Except the pumps failed, and Port Arthur was flooded worse than imagined.

Mayor Freeman has spent endless hours working to be with the people or Port Arthur. He is lobbying politicians for assistance, listening to people who have lost their homes and belongings, and passing out aid to those in need. He also had major damage to his own home. I might also mention that being mayor in Port Arthur is a part time gig – he isn’t meant to spend all his waking hours doing this – but he is, because he cares for the people of Port Arthur.[3] He is making a difference. Now, imagine God as a leader – a Shepherd – who is even more than this. If human leadership is a mere drop in the bucket compared to God’s, can you fathom just how much God loves us? Can you imagine how God is compassionately running around with us, crying with us, trying to provide for those in devastation, and lobbying for us in the world, even more so than a human mayor? It might be difficult to fathom – but that is who God is – a Mayor, a President, a Ruler, a Shepherd who cares for us deeper than we can imagine.

God our Shepherd loves us and cherishes us – and all people – and we united as God’s people to follow that Shepherd, wherever God may take us. Amen.

 

[1] R. Coggins, “Isaiah” in The Oxford Bible Commentary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 466.

[2] Thomas L. Leclerc, YHWH is Exalted in Justice (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 95.

[3] Rick Rojas, “His home flooded, the Port Arthur Mayor Puts His City First” New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/17/us/harvey-port-arthur-mayor.html?mcubz=0