John 10: 22-30 The Reverend Dr. George Hermanson Easter four, April 21,2013
In works of literature we always have an introduction to the characters, and as we read or watch we get to know them better. This is the case of todays texts - have two main characters - the lamb and the shepherd. First we are introduced to is the lamb. Psalm 23 is told from the viewpoint of the sheep, not the shepherd.
However, the image of us being sheep can be problematic. It can be used to put down those who follow without a thought. It is kind of mindlessness that some critics of religion place on believers. I think most of us are uncomfortable with being thought of as unthinking, sheep like followers. Helpless like sheep. We are not really happy with this sense, for after all do we not have strength and power to deal with the issues of life?
To understand the characters we have to move back in time to see how sheep and shepherds were understood. The lamb was the symbol in the Passover of the liberating acts of God, from slavery to freedom, from no people to a people. It was the risk and venerability of the lamb that the poet was getting at - in the 23th Psalm - it was from the view point of the lamb who now has no fear, for the rod and staff comfort. The shepherd of shepherds cares for me, as the hymn puts it. Now I can face my enemies - external and internal - and overcome in love. It is a realistic understanding that there are wolves who seek the end of the lamb. There is danger out there in the world. The obvious image is the role of the shepherd is keep the wolves at bay - to protect. Comfort.
Yet while we have the image of the shepherd as a protector within the culture of the time,
shepherds were the outcasts of society - like the fishers they were unclean by vocation. The were threatening and not turstworthy. Competing images. Comfort and threat. Unthinking following and being cared for from a place it was not expected.
The writers of the bible play with images because in the tradition there is the whole kingly image of the shepherd. But it is a strange image for a king - the boy shepherd David becomes the king. A reversal of all conventional images of power and prestige. So the image the power of God as that of the shepherd again would be a puzzle - protection that comes from being from persuasion not coercion.
Competing images. Comfort and threat. Unthinking following and being cared for. The good shepherd, the shepherd who guides you through the valley of the shadow of death, evokes a sense of calm and strength. And the lamb was an image of sacrifice, so here is the shepherd who is both lamb and shepherd.
Here the good shepherd is the sign of divinity. The lamb of sacrifice being the force of love that overcomes the threat of Imperial Powers. It turns all images of kingship and power upside down. From the outsider comes redemption. From the edges of experience comes resurrection life. It reinforces the biblical theme that God upsets the notions of respectability. It reinforces the images that the God of love welcomes all who society would call the least.
In the shepherd and the lamb the different parts of experience are brought together. Shepherding in this sense creates us as persons and as communities. The shepherd illuminates the lure of God that unites in beautiful, symmetrical harmony things we often see as unrelated. Our varied, complex pluralistic world, with many different perspective are in the shepherding care of God formed into a complex unity.
It is the lamb of God who experiences our suffering with us and is not overcome. It is the shepherd who walks with us, feels with us, who gives us the strength to be the lamb and shepherd for others.
This is a story of empathy. It is the dual function of God who is both lamb and shepherd. It is a powerful image of the God who protects us and suffers with us. The protection takes place in suffering and we are not stuck there, we are not defined by it, for with support and love we can live with it and through it. With the help of others we can overcome suffering. Together, we can build a new kingdom of love on earth.
The images speak of an inner reality that binds us together. Empathy is the spiritual ability to feel our way into another’s place, to feel our way into another’s person. It is the ability to indwell in the other, and this is the ability to connect. We come to know our selves through our interactions with others.
It is not what we say, look like or believe that is crucial. What is crucial for the common good is how our faith leads to action. It is to be surprised by love.
We need love. We need the unconditional love of persuasive love to get on with the getting on. What we need to do is to recognize it breaking out in the unexpected places.
We know those people, named and not named who can be counted upon to speak justice and compassion to the forces that seek to destroy. We know those who use persuasion to bring hope to chaos. They are the Nelson Mandals, the Martin Luther Kings and those whose name never hit the front page. We have all had a shepherd who revealed to us the persuasive love of God for all of creation. Know what. We too can be that shepherd. Know what. We have been that shepherd who brings healing comfort to those in pain, who feel in our very being the fears of the world and are not undone. We have been those who have kept the wolves of life away. We are called to this vocation.