A Sermon preached on April 25, 2021 by Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Open your Bible to John chapter ten. Today’s scripture is sandwiched between two extended stories on either side of it. In chapter nine, we find a hapless man Jesus cured of blindness; in the midst of his excitement of being able to see again, he is harangued by the Jerusalem religious leadership for healing on the Sabbath. In chapter eleven we have Jesus experiencing the death of his best friend Lazarus who he then raises from the dead. Tucked in between these two amazing stories is a conversation Jesus is having with the newly healed formerly blind man and the other disciples. A smattering of religious rule-keeper and enforcers were there, too. Let’s pick up in the conversation with verse 11. Hear the Word of the Lord!
11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”
Today the Church throughout the world celebrates what it called Good Shepherd Sunday. Every year on the fourth Sunday following Easter, the Church catholic pulls aside to remind itself not only the glories of Easter but it also remembers the character and type of God who would dare to be born among mortals, live among them, and then die for them in order to bridge the insurmountable distance between heaven and Earth to bring the two sides together.
Who was gathered together this conversation? On one hand, there were the religiously serious who felt that there is a God “out there” but this God was a fickle, demanding God that smote you if you did not tow the right religious line and do the right thing. On the other hand, there were those philosopher types who believed God wound up the universe like a giant clock, got the whole thing ticking away and then sat back to watch human history unfold. These two types of spiritual outlooks are alive and well today, too. Added to these two views are those who have no spiritual worldview at all and do not believe God even exists! All of these folks were alive and well during Jesus’ day as well.
Good Shepherd Sunday is the reminder that all three of these of outlooks on spiritual things exist in the world this very moment and Good Shepherd Sunday is the corrective lens through we which we are invited to look and see a gracious fourth alternative of God: God as Good Shepherd. Instead of believing there is no such thing as God, or if you do then that God is an angry smiter or is a disinterested grandparent, Good Shepherd Sunday reminds us of a fourth way to experience God and relate with the world.
Now for those who are like me and grew up in the suburbs of a large city, we may not be too familiar with the pastoral imagery Jesus is outlining. I am more aware of the rhythms of the city than I am of the pastoral rhythms of farm life. So I need a little help in understanding God as Good Shepherd.
The first thing I note is that we are to be grateful that Jesus did not say he was the Good Border Collie. I love border collies, mind you. They are wickedly smart, highly energetic and love to herd up the sheep. Did I mention they have these beautiful piercing blue eyes as well? They look right into your soul. The deal is, however, these dogs are bred to herd up the sheep. These never-tiring dogs will run circle after circle after circle around the sheep to keep them together. The sheep, who do not see very well, experience this forty-pound furry tornado that just nips at your hindquarters if you straggle outside the herd too far. The border collie isn’t all that interested in the sheep per se other than they need to be herded and kept together at all costs. Border collies do what they do very efficiently out of instinct. It’s not that they really care for the sheep; the sheep exist only to be herded.
The second thing to note is that if we are honest, we all have experienced or know about pastors or churches who think Jesus said he was the Good Border Collie. You know, these pastors, churches and Christians don’t really act like they care for the sheep at all but run frenetic circles around the people nipping at them to behave and act like a certain type of Christian. Border Collies will totally exhaust you if you do not keep them busy. They want to enforce order and keep the sheep in line and are unyielding in that effort. Border Collie pastors, Christians and churches generate a fear-based devotion on behalf of the sheep as opposed to relationship-based ones.
No, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.” Psalm 23 and John 10 gives us an idea of the Good Shepherd’s job description. The shepherd leads the sheep to come to quiet places to rest and replenish with cool grass and fresh water. The shepherd has a vested interest in the sheep and will go out of their way to defend those sheep from predators or thieves, even risking their lives to do so.
Pastor/Professor/Author Barbara Brown Taylor shares the story of a friend of hers who grew up on a sheep ranch out west. She asked her friend, “Are sheep really as dumb as people say they are?” Her friend laughed and told her the whole dumb-sheep myth was started by cattle ranchers. The cattle ranchers portrayed the sheep as dumb because they did not behave like the rancher’s cattle behaved. Taylor shares it this way: Cows are herded from the rear with shouts and prods from the cowboys. But that does not work with sheep. If you stand behind sheep making noises, they will just run around behind you. They actually prefer to be led. Cows can be pushed; sheep must be led. Sheep will not go anywhere that someone else—their trusted shepherd—does not go first, to show them that everything is all right. Taylor goes on to say, “Sheep seem to consider their shepherds part of the family, and the relationship that grows up between the two is quite exclusive. They develop a language of their own that outsiders are not privy to.”
There is that word again: relationship. The Good Shepherd nurtures a relationship with the sheep. The Shepherd will go and scratch and rub the sheep. He or she will clean their eyes if they develop a bunch of gunk in them. They will shear the sheep so that their wool doesn’t become too heavy and hinder their ability to live vitally. The shepherd talks with and interacts with the sheep in order to foster familiarity with them. With that familiarity comes trust in the relationship so that when the shepherd speaks and calls to the sheep, they trust the voice that is calling out to them.
My friends, still yourself this moment. Ask yourself, “Does God even exist?”
Ask yourself, “Is the God I envision an angry, wrathful, vengeful God jotting down all the strikes against me to settle some future spiritual score?”
Ask yourself, “Is God just sitting back watching my life simply unfold into the chaotic swirl of a post-COVID world?”
Jesus reminds us to pause and listen for the Shepherd’s voice. He’s calling your name. He’s vested in you and will die for you. He will feed you, clothe you, refresh you and comfort you. The Good Shepherd will do it for you even if you are not paying attention to him because he loves you. Oh my fellow sweet, smelly sheep, if we would just be quiet and listen for the Shepherd’s voice we could hear him calling our very own name right now. Shh…listen! Amen.
© 2021 Patrick H. Wrisley, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, 401 SE 15th Avenue, Fort Lauderdale, FL. 33301. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission. All rights reserved.
 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
 Barbara Brown Taylor from her sermon, “The Voice of the Shepherd.” Cited at Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Feasting on the Word: Year B volume) by David L. Bartlett, Barbara Brown Taylor https://a.co/hWtTf1g.