It’s one of our most beloved biblical images: the shepherd.
As in, “The Lord is my shepherd,” echoing from the psalmist.
As in, “A certain shepherd left 99 to find the 1 lost sheep and bring it home,” as the story goes.
As in, “I am the Good Shepherd,” as Jesus says in John chapter 10.
But our passage this morning is not only about what it means to be a shepherd. It’s also about what it means to be a sheep. As Jesus says in verse 27: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”
The story is told that years ago Richard Burton, the great Welsh actor, was visiting his childhood home and was given a grand reception by the church of his youth. Amidst the pageantry, his old pastor asked him if he could recite the Shepherd Psalm, Psalm 23, which this pastor had taught Burton in his Sunday School class. The actor paused for a moment, and then said, “I will, on one condition — that after I have recited it, you, my pastor and teacher will do the same.” “Well,” the retired pastor said, “I am not an actor, but, if you want me to, I will.”
Impressively the actor began the Psalm. His voice and intonation were perfect. He held his audience spellbound, and, as he finished, a great burst of applause broke from the audience. As it died away, the old pastor rose, standing from his chair and steadying himself he began to recite the same Psalm. His voice was fragile and quiet, even shivering at times. But, when he finished, there was not a dry eye in the room. No applause, only silence.
Richard Burton rose and his voice quivered as he said, ‘”Ladies and gentlemen, I reached your eyes and ears, but my old pastor has reached your hearts. The difference is just this: I know the Psalm, but he knows the Shepherd.” (1)
Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.” The sheep are the ones who know the shepherd. Specifically, in our text from John, Jesus says the sheep are the ones who recognize the voice of the shepherd — the ones who amidst all other voices and calls only follow the voice of their shepherd.
In church tradition, this Sunday is known as “Good Shepherd Sunday,” and it finds Jesus in the midst of an extended speech on his identity as Good Shepherd throughout John chapter 10, as he describes how he seeks, he enfolds, he keeps, he guards against the wolves and other forces that come to destroy, and he even lays down his life for the sheep. Earlier in the chapter he describes how he calls his sheep by name; they know his voice and turn to follow. And in verse 10, he tells us the reason for it all: “I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly.” More than day-to-day survival, the shepherd wants the sheep to live. And Jesus not only wants us to live, but to live with abundance known through following him.
We’ve seen this abundant life in John. In fact, we see it in the miraculous sign that precedes Jesus’ teaching on the Good Shepherd. In John, Jesus’ miracles are called “signs,” and they are followed by a teaching about what the sign shows of his identity. For example, when Jesus feeds thousands with loaves and fish, the people try to make sense of it all, so Jesus declares the meaning: “I am the Bread of Life… those who come to me will never be hungry.”
This same pattern — teaching following sign — occurs here, as his statement, “I am the Good Shepherd” in Chapter 10 is a direct reference to a sign that occurs in Chapter 9. You might remember it. There’s a man blind from birth, whom Jesus passes one day. Jesus spits on the ground, makes mud in the dust, then pastes it on the eyes of this man. He tells him to go and wash it off and then Jesus, hands still smeared with dirt, departs. When the man returns he can see.
Well, people don’t know what to make of such astounding, life-altering grace in abundance — we never know what to make of that, it seems. So they start asking questions. The man’s explanations don’t satisfy, so they drive him out, leaving him a lost sheep once more. And that’s when Jesus does what he always seems to do. He knows his sheep, so Jesus goes to find him. And when he speaks, do you remember what happens? The man’s head turns. The man hears his voice, you see. This man who had never before seen Jesus’ face clearly, recognizes Jesus’ voice. His sheep know him.
The call for us is to listen just as intently, with heightened senses and urgent need; to be the ones who know who the Shepherd is and what the Shepherd sounds like. Jesus tells us what to listen for.
He knows us. And it’s not a distant commitment. He lives right alongside of us. Far from the pastures and still waters we might picture, shepherds had a hard life, facing all of the hardships their sheep faced, only not merely as one of the flock, but as the one responsible for the lot. They were just as vulnerable, just as isolated, just as weary as any of their sheep, if not more so. This is precisely the life that Jesus lives with us, and for us. Jesus journeys with the most vulnerable, and takes on all of their vulnerability. He knows them, even by name. “Lazarus” he calls out in the gospel of John, calling him out from his tomb. “Mary,” he whispers later in the garden of resurrection. “Thomas,” he says still later as he comes back for him, “Put your hand here and believe.” He knows us all, and he always comes to find us. He loves us, and guards us, and unlike others who might flea or abandon, Jesus promises “I lay down my life for the sheep.”
III. Maybe that’s why when Jesus is asked by the crowds at the start of our passage to tell them plainly if he is the Messiah, he tells them that he is a Shepherd. What could be more saving than such gentle, intimate, inclusive love?
Anne Lamott is a beloved writer for many of us, whose first best-seller, Operating Instructions, tells about her experiences parenting a first child. Her son, Sam, is 29 yrs old now, but when he was two she had taken him to Lake Tahoe, where they stayed in a condominium by the lake. There are a lot of gambling establishments, so all the rooms come with light-blocking blinds so you can gamble all night and sleep all day.
One day Anne had drawn the shades and Sam to sleep in his Pack ’n Play in the darkened bedroom and gone to work writing in the next room. A few moments later she heard her baby knocking on the door from inside. She got up to put him back to bed and then — every parent’s nightmare — she found the door locked. Somehow young Sam had managed to push the lock button on the doorknob. He was calling, “Mommy, Mommy,” and she was saying, “Just jiggle the doorknob, honey, push the button again.” Of course, he couldn’t even see the doorknob in the darkened room. When it became clear to him that his mother couldn’t open the door, panic set in. She could hear him sobbing. She did everything she could think of: trying the door, calling the rental agency, leaving frantic messages, running back to comfort her son there in the dark, locked room, where he was terrified.
Finally she did the only thing she could think of, which was to lie down and press her face against the door so he could hear her, and then slide her fingers under the door where there were a few centimeters of space to he could touch her. She told him over and over to do the same: to bend over and find her fingers. And somehow he did and he quieted down. They stayed like that for what seemed like a long time, until help came, him holding her fingers in the dark, feeling her presence, her care, her love, listening to her voice saying his name. (2)
We sheep are the ones who have heard it and felt it. We are the ones who have known what it is to be like that two-year-old in the dark, two fingers beneath the door, and to find that God is the mother, present always, reaching for us, calling for us through Christ our Shepherd. That’s why Jesus takes this moment of all moments in the Gospel of John, at the end of our passage, to introduce a core theological claim of the Gospel: the unity between Jesus and God. “The Father and I are one.” Not only is Jesus like a Shepherd, but since God is like Jesus, God is like a Shepherd, too. Don’t miss how dramatic this claim turns out to be: this intimacy and kindness and caring and closeness is the very nature of God. God enters into covenants with people, becomes intimately involved in human history and human lives, caring so deeply that God becomes heartbroken when we stray. God is so involved that even in the valley of the shadow of death, the Lord our shepherd is with us. The sheep are the ones who know this more than anyone — who have heard this voice, and experienced what happens when we do.
Jean Vanier lived a life following the whispers of the Good Shepherd. Vanier was the founder of the L’Arche communities — a network of over 130 homes throughout the world where people with intellectual disabilities live lives of sacred dignity and meaning. Vanier died this past week at the age of 90, but not before leaving a clear model of one who has known the shepherding love of God. He once suggested that the definitive characteristic of a leader should be that she or he is gentle. Vanier himself modeled this, speaking softly and carefully. He was a humble man, known for wearing the same windbreaker and blue shirt nearly every day. Such gentleness and humility led him to start the L’Arche movement in the small village of Trosly-Breuil in France in 1964, when he and two severely mentally disabled friends, Rafael and Philippe, simply moved in to share their lives together. “Mostly they talked to me,” Vanier said of these friends and the thousands of others who stayed at the homes he founded. “They asked, ‘Would you be my friend? Would you visit me again?’” (3)
Reflecting once on the Good Shepherd, Vanier said this:
To become a good shepherd is to come out of the shell of selfishness
in order to be attentive to those for whom we are responsible
so as to reveal to them their fundamental beauty and value
and help them to grow and become fully alive. (4)
You see what happens. When you know the Good Shepherd’s voice, somewhere along the way, sheep become shepherds, too, so much so that if we read ahead in the Gospel of John, we find Jesus visiting with the disciples after his resurrection and then turning to Simon Peter and asking, “Do you love me?” Peter is baffled at the question, “Of course I do,” to which Jesus replies, “If you love me, then feed my lambs. Be a shepherd.”
It makes me wonder: instead of the shepherd leaving the 99 to search for the 1, what would happen if the 99 followed out behind him and started searching themselves?
Ruth Coker Burks was one who lived such a life. When Ruth was a child, her mother and her uncle had one of those big family blowups — so big, in fact, that her mother wanted to make sure the uncle’s branch of the family would never lie in the same red dirt hilltop in Arkansas as the rest of the family. So she quietly bought up every available grave space in the family cemetery — all 262 plots! Ruth and her mother often visited the cemetery when Burks was a child, and her mother would gesture at her field of vengeance and sarcastically remark, “Well, all of this will be yours someday, Ruth!”
Ruth reflected, “I always wondered what I was going to do with a cemetery. But, then who knew… who knew there would be a time when people didn’t want to bury their children?”
Ruth is referencing a time in the 1980s amidst the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. It was 1984 and she was 25 and a young mother when she went to University Hospital in Little Rock, Ark to help care for a friend who had cancer. Her friend eventually went through five surgeries, so she spent a lot of time that year parked in hospitals. That’s where she was the day she noticed the door, one with “a big red bag” over it. It was a patient’s room. “I would watch the nurses draw straws to see who would go in and check on him. It’d be: ‘Best two out of three,’ and then they’d say, ‘Can we draw again?’”
Burks eventually disregarded the warnings on the red door and the protests of the nurses and one day snuck into the room. In the bed was a fragile young man, wasted away to less than 100 pounds. He told her he wanted to see his mother before he died. Ruth did what she could to find his mother, to call her and tell her of his wishes, but she wouldn’t come. So Ruth returned, and she sat with him through the last hours of his life. When he died, his family refused to claim his remains — “He’s not ours,” they said. And that’s when Ruth remembered that she owned a cemetery — “All of this will be yours one day, Ruth!”
This inaugurated her life’s work, caring for hundreds of people and advocating for thousands more, mostly gay men who had been abandoned by their families in the 1980s. She buried more than three dozen of them herself in her family cemetery. She’d dig the holes herself, and then when she couldn’t get a priest or a preacher to come and say even a few words, she’d bury the cremains and have a do-it-yourself funeral.
It all began in that hospital room. Ruth says she believes she was led there by God. Standing in that hallway, she says it was like she heard a voice calling her there. That first day, when she returned to that young man’s room, knowing his own mother had abandoned him, she was surprised when the young man said, “Oh, momma. I knew you’d come” as he lifted his hand. “What was I going to do?” Ruth reflects, “So I took his hand. I said, ‘I’m here, honey. I’m here.’” (5)
Where others saw someone lost, or wandering, or cast out, Ruth saw someone who belonged in the fold as much as any other.
Where others saw the red Arkansas clay of a family cemetery, Ruth saw green pastures and still waters.
Her work was profound. Dramatic. Historic. But we might just say that she knew what any of us can know: she knew the Shepherd.
- Source Unknown
- Anne Lamott, Operating Instructions, p. 219-221
- Jason Byasee, “Jean Vanier, Gentleness and Power” (Faith & Leadership, January 13, 2009)
- Jean Vanier, Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus, p. 189
- David Koon, “The Woman Who Cared for Hundreds of Abandoned Gay Men Dying of AIDS” (PLUS, July 9, 2018). Thanks to Dear Friend, Rev. Courtney Allen, for making me aware of this story.