"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

The Good Shepherd: Easter 4

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The Good Shepherd – John 10:11-18; 1 John 3:16-24

We’re here at what is called ‘Good Shepherd’ Sunday, so named for our Gospel passage today. It’s a day all about sheep, that is, about all of us…I invite you to ‘get woolly’ as we consider Our Lord’s words this day.

This extended passage is important to take in context, and in this case the context begins back with the beginning of the 9th chapter of John’s Gospel. Jesus has just healed a man born blind, and is asked by his disciples if the man had been born blind because of his sin, or because of the sin of his parents. Jesus instead contradicts the disciples and says something quite remarkable: “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (John 9)

Jesus then mixes spit with water, anoints the man’s eyes and tells him to go off and wash in a pool. The man regains his sight, and the remainder of the 9th chapter is a narrative concerning the man’s miraculous healing eventually resulting in the formerly blind man being cast out of the community. It ends with a dialogue between the Pharisees and Jesus. Jesus said, “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.” 40 Some of the Pharisees near him heard these things, and said to him, “Are we also blind?” 41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.”

What follows in the 10th chapter is this parabolic discourse about sheep, wolves and the Good Shepherd. The context is important because this is an extended episode of teaching about the mission of Jesus as contrasted with the rest of the world. This narrative is a bold proclamation of the who of Jesus: as the Good Shepherd he comes to lay down his life for the sheep. He is, in other words, the key by which the reconciling judgement of God works, the crucifixion being God’s last word on the subject of sin (Capon, 374). This is good news. Our problem is that when we hear this shepherding narrative, we miss some of what it has to say, because of our tendency to always rewrite challenging Scripture into safe messages of peace and tranquility.

Let’s talk about middle-eastern sheep and shepherding a bit. Jesus speaks of calling his sheep out of the sheepfold. In this part of the world, flocks would be led into the fold for the night after a day of grazing. The fold was usually surrounded by a wall of stones or thorny branches, and would have a particular door to enter and exit. Several flocks would be led into the fold at day’s end, so that it would be easier to protect the flock against robbers, thieves and wild animals. The shepherds would sleep near the doorway, so that anyone wanting to get at the sheep would have to first get past the shepherd. So the sheepfold is a place of refuge and safety, a place of community where you are surrounded by other sheep. A place where you can rest for the night, safe in the knowledge that your flock will be protected, not just by the shepherd, but also by the high stone walls that surround your resting place. A little bit like the place we’re in right now.

Now, with that image of safety in your mind, realize that the point of this shepherding narrative is to describe the process of being led out of the sheepfold. In the 4th verse we hear that, “When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.” The verb here used for ‘bought out’ is the same one used to describe what Jesus does when he casts out a demon elsewhere in the Gospels. Jesus comes as the Good Shepherd to literally ‘cast out’ his flock from the place of safety. The point of the Good Shepherd’s arrival is not to keep us safe in the sheepfold, but rather to be with us as he leads us out of the fold and into the almost always risky wilderness…a place full of robbers and thieves, wild animals and those who would seek to attack the flock and scatter them. The coming of the saviour is not to bring us enhanced safety, like a new car with eleven air bags and ballistic pre-tensioners on all seat belts, but rather to ensure us that we will have someone with us always as we journey through this broken world.

There’s a danger in reading this passage as one of safety in the sheep fold, because our experience of this world tells us that it is not a safe place. We in the first world have it better than most, and our standard of living allows us to dwell ignorant and happy inside our inviolable strongholds of employment, health, warm homes and ample food and entertainment. If you instead read the passage from the perspective of say, a family who just experienced a severe earthquake in Nepal, this might result in a much deeper and visceral understanding of what it means to have this Good Shepherd.

One of the world’s questions to Christians is often phrased this way…where is your Good Shepherd in the face of, say, 700 boat people fleeing poverty in Africa for the European continent who end up drowning when their small boat overturns and there is no one to rescue them? Where is the good shepherd in the face of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions? Where is the good shepherd when a man chooses to kill his ex-wife and all of his step children? The questions all start with a false premise – that any real God worth his salt would first come to remove from us all the things that detract from our happiness, and second would come to remove all the things that make us suffer. God’s coming is not about our happiness – but rather about abundant life…a hard message to hear.

The earthquake in Nepal reminded me of a story I had read about an earthquake in southern Italy in the early 1980’s. A reporter and cameraman hiked over the destroyed road to get into this area, where almost 3,000 had been killed while asleep when their stone homes collapsed, just before Christmas. People were sleeping in the open, the living among the dead. The reporter arrived on Christmas Eve to witness an incredible sight, “a group of people in a sort of procession. The cameramen couldn’t focus for crying. Coming along the road was a young woman dressed as Mary with child, and a man dressed as St. Joseph beside her, going from house to house, begging for a room for the night—the Italian version of our nativity tableaus. Homeless men and women, some of whom had lost everything, walking with the homeless Christ!”

The reporter is left with a sudden realization. Jesus does not come to earth as the Son of God to take away our troubles and suffering, but rather has redeemed those sufferings by coming to share in them to the fullest. The reason there is one flock, and one shepherd is not because Jesus as magician comes to change the world to something safe, but rather because by coming and laying down his life willingly, all this world becomes redeemed. All things bend to God’s will, and so now even the most horrific situation we are faced with in our lives may be met with the words of Job: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” So, the coming of the Good Shepherd casts all of we sheep out of the safety of the sheepfold into the wilderness, where He goes before us, and we follow because we recognize his voice.

We’re all different types of sheep in that flock, some are soft white lambs, running and chasing each other and still a little wobbly on their new-found legs. Some are young ewes and rams just finding their place in the flock. Some have coats of darker wool and spend most of their time on the edges of the flock, in the risky area near the wolves but still willing to venture out further. Some are the mature sheep who have seen it all and act as kind of guides for the flock. This has little to do with our age in years, but rather with where we happen to be in our spiritual journeys…even those of fourscore years can still be lambs…and most of us, myself included, cycle between being lambs and old, wise sheep in God’s flock. I would suggest we again become a lamb anytime we’re in a situation where we know not what to do…and then we look to the sheep who have already been there for help. It is this relationship, between the lambs and the sheep and the role of the Good Shepherd, which defines the Christian community.

Now, along comes the shepherd. He’s something like us but also different. Older sheep know from experience that he comes and rescues us when we get lost, and that he defends us when the wolves draw near. Our path to safety from times of confusion and danger is to follow the one voice of the shepherd. Those who are new to the flock, or for those who feel like they’ve lost their way, don’t necessarily automatically recognize the shepherd as one who helps. These lambs need the guidance of the older sheep.

Life is grand for we lambs. The grass is green and lush and there is a stream of cold, clear water. The Shepherd is caring for us and we go about our lamb’s work and play happy and content. In fact, most of the time we think little about the Shepherd for when our bellies are full of grass and our thirst relieved we’re content to stretch back on the grass and to just enjoy the sun. But one day we start to notice that the grass is getting dry and brittle and it hurts when we chew. The stream runs slower and the water has become muddy. The sun bears down brightly and we’re always too warm. The shepherd moves around the flock and starts us all moving away from our favoured grazing pasture and for many of we lambs, moving us away from the only place we have ever known. Some of us will leave quite reluctantly and the occasional poke from the shepherd’s staff is needed to keep us moving along at a smart pace (you can never forget that the crosier, the shepherd’s staff that is the mark of a bishop’s office, has a hook for pulling in at one end and a pointy end for poking or pushing away).

It’s not a very nice time as the flock starts to move away. The shepherd, who always seemed so nice, now keeps pushing you along. This road is dusty and there is little food along the way. As you leave the pasture far behind the road becomes steeper as the flock starts to move through a high mountain pass. The going is really tough and you’re feeling so exhausted you just have to lie down for a moment. When you do, the Shepherd comes over and gives you a poke with his staff, so you reluctantly get up again and carry on your way. This is no fun at all but you manage to keep moving. The way is even steeper now and it is getting cold. The flock is pushed together and you’re being bumped and jostled by many others. You decide finally to stop trying as you cannot see any use in going on…the way just gets steeper and the future ahead of you is bleak, cold and without food or water. There is no hope, no sense in trying to continue the journey and so you stop and lie down to await death from whatever wolf happens by.

This time one of the older sheep come over to talk to you. “Little lamb”, the wise ewe says, “I know it is hard to believe but you need to trust in the shepherd. I know something you don’t, for I’ve been this way before. At the end of this long and painful journey there is lush green pasture with cool, clear water. The road there will become even more challenging before we arrive but the destination is worth the trip. Trust in the shepherd, little lamb, trust in the shepherd.” And with that the wise ewe gives you a nudge to get you back on your feet.

Trust in the shepherd – it seems like the easiest thing in the world to say but we all know that it is one of the hardest things to do. What makes it a little easier are the wise ewes and rams around us…and we all play both roles at different times in our lives. Just coming up out of a difficult experience and entering the lush pasture we can play the role of the wise ewe for those who are earlier on the journey who are still wondering where this road is leading them, to use our experience of what we’ve been through to say…trust in the shepherd, little lamb.

Now this picture also brings up a rather thorny question about the shepherd. If the shepherd really loves us so much, and is willing to die for us, why on God’s green earth does he keep poking us with his staff? Why are we continually pushed to undertake journeys that we’re not prepared for, and to deal with tragedies that seem overwhelming? The answer should be clear from this sheep’s-eye view of the shepherd: sometimes (or most of the time) we don’t understand what is happening to us. Oh, we can see that the pasture is getting brown and dry but the best we can do is say to each other, “boy, the grass sure is dry this year!”. It is only the shepherd, with his view of yesterday, today and tomorrow that can understand what is coming and when we need to undertake a challenging journey to find the next pasture.

Trust in the shepherd, little lamb. So I say to each of us, and especially to myself, that as we individually and as a community enter times when we’re unsure and not possessing the strength to go on, trust in the shepherd, little lamb. Jesus is leading us each onwards and is leading this community onwards to the lush pasture that has been prepared for us, lush pasture that sometimes requires us to scale the cold, lonely mountain pass before we reach it. As we struggle up those heights, the Good Shepherd is there with us: trust in the shepherd, little lamb.

May God guide us all onwards, comforting when comfort is needed and poking when pokes are needed, bringing us the wisdom of those who have already walked this path and teaching us that one thought: trust in the shepherd, little lamb. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.


This lamb/sheep story was first told to me by a priest friend in Winnipeg in 2002 or so. It was a story he had heard from an older priest in a challenging moment of ministry. We Christians are really people of the narrative, and so I continue that tradition by passing the story along.

This prayer, sometimes called the “Prayer of Oscar Romero” was part of my inspiration:

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.

The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent
enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of
saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.

No prayer fully expresses our faith.

No confession brings perfection.

No pastoral visit brings wholeness.

No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.

No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.

We plant the seeds that one day will grow.

We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.

This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an
opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master
builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.

Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw

*This prayer was composed by Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw, drafted for a homily by Card. John Dearden in Nov. 1979 for a celebration of departed priests. As a reflection on the anniversary of the martyrdom of Bishop Romero, Bishop Untener included in a reflection book a passage titled “The mystery of the Romero Prayer.” The mystery is that the words of the prayer are attributed to Oscar Romero, but they were never spoken by him.

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Written by sameo416

April 25, 2015 at 5:58 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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