Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
May 7, 2017
The Fourth Sunday of Easter – Year A
1 Peter 2:19-25
Thieves and bandits; gates; gatekeepers; and shepherds—who can blame those Galilean fishermen and Jesus’ early disciples for their failure to understand his “figure of speech” in this morning’s Gospel according to Saint John? If it was difficult to grasp in Jesus’ world, where sheepherding in rural Galilee and the hill country around Jerusalem is still a common sight, how much more confusing must it be for ninety per-cent of the world’s population who, like us, dwell in cities? And while I don’t profess to have any first-hand experience in the matter, I have learned several things about sheep and sheepherding that are important for grasping Jesus’ message in this morning’s Gospel—then and now.
It’s no accident that sheep are so often compared with folks on the spiritual journey because sheep really do have a propensity to wander off on their own. Contrary to the stereotype, sheep don’t naturally move as a docile herd. Left to their own instincts, they really do go astray. They do, however, both know and respond to their shepherd’s voice, which his principal means of keeping the flock together and finding his lost sheep when they do wander away. And, strictly speaking, sheep don’t “follow” their shepherd, who, once out of the gate, ordinarily leads his flock from behind. It’s his voice, and not his person, that keeps the flock together and guides it—along with his staff—in “right paths.” You can still see this to this very day in the Holy Land. And in a rural economy of poverty and barter such as Jesus’, sheep were both extremely valuable and very susceptible to animal predators and human theft.
Shepherds themselves suffered from a poor reputation among their settled agrarian neighbors in Jesus’ world. They spent long periods away from home and family searching for good pasture, and they got into every sort of trouble imaginable on these excursions, including what we would politely characterize as “sexual misconduct” today. Settled village folk were never happy to hear that shepherds were coming into town because it usually meant all manner of trouble and mischief. This is one reason for the ironic and startling news in Saint Luke’s Gospel that shepherds, of all people, were the first to hear the angelic message concerning the birth of the Messiah. In Jesus’ world “good” and “shepherd” was, too often, an oxymoron!
So, with all of this in mind, Jesus’ claim to be an honorable and noble shepherd in this morning’s Gospel would have struck his disciples as odd and, quite possibly, as amusing, which my well account for their failure to “understand what he was saying to them.” Because, let’s face it, the comparison itself in today’s Gospel is very clear; what is not so clear is that this rabbi from Nazareth would make such a comparison at all. In Jesus’ world, there was a very fine line between thieves, bandits, and shepherds. It would have required real integrity, vigilance, and concern for the equal value of every one of his sheep—character traits not ordinarily associated with shepherds—for a “good shepherd” to rise to that task. And if a truly “good shepherd” is to succeed in protecting his sheep from thieves and predators, the sheep themselves must cooperate by attending exclusively to the shepherd’s voice—and only his voice—as their only sure protection. It’s their one defense against mortal danger from “the thief [who] comes only to steal and kill and destroy.” And it’s also their only guarantee of finding verdant pasture where “they may have life, and have it abundantly.” So Jesus, who is indeed the “Good Shepherd” of his sheep, claims metaphorically to be both the protecting gate and the noble shepherd of his flock in his explanation. “All who came before me”—and today we might add “after me”—“are thieves and bandits, but the sheep did not listen to them.”
Well, I don’t mean to be impertinent, but I must beg to disagree here with Jesus. We who know the end of the story also know—unlike Jesus and the disciples in this early exchange from Saint John’s Gospel—that there are plenty of both high and low estate who most decidedly did not then, and do not now, hear Jesus’ clear voice summoning them to “abundant life” and the “kingdom of God.” In our “culture of death,” and with the “globalization of indifference,” those who “follow a stranger” are the norm rather than the exception. The siren song of our consumer culture is almost irresistible in a world where money is god and the market is king. And those of us with children, and those who work with young people, know only too well that the voice of “the stranger” in so many alluring guises is a constant temptation to young and old alike.
So, what are we to do on this “Good Shepherd” Sunday in Eastertide? How do we, as followers of the risen Christ, go against the grain of our materialist and positivist post-modern culture by accepting God’s guidance and listening for the voice of Jesus Christ, the “Good Shepherd”?
I suggest two fundamental things that I know from personal experience are much easier said than done. First, we can all take to heart the plea of this morning’s collect and truly make it our own in our life of prayer: “O God, whose son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads” (BCP)—no easy task in our culture of so-called rugged individualists. In truth, the prospect of following anyone anywhere is practically anathema for our increasingly libertarian politics. It’s not easy for us, in our individual pride and collective imperial hubris, to surrender our little autonomy projects for real freedom, which is always inseparable from love and the truth. If Aristotle and, after him, Saint Thomas Aquinas were correct when they wrote that “true happiness is both knowing the truth and possessing the freedom to pursue it,” then we Americans especially will need a very big re-think of the inalienable right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Second, we Christians must demand both civic leaders and pastors whose voices ring with love and the truth, and whose agendas are worthy of our allegiance. In a society in which disinformation and “alternate facts” are becoming the norm, no wonder both adults and young people are so cynical today about rational authority. Look at the sorry exemplars of “leadership” we have among our political elites and, even, within the Church, the “household of God.” How many unfulfilled promises and betrayals of trust can we withstand before we completely despair of finding leadership worthy of that name? Small wonder that we are scattered “like sheep without a shepherd” in Jesus’ words! And how far have we drifted in our liberal “market economy” from the early Church’s vision of the commonwealth and the common good described so lyrically in this morning’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” What would the early followers of Jesus Christ think about a society such as ours that continues to regard food, clothing, shelter, education, and health-care not as basic human rights and entitlements fundamental to the social contract, but as privileges? How would they view the historic and growing inequality between the “haves” and the “have-nots” in our nation and in the world? What would they say about an economy whose guiding principle is “I’ve got mine, now you go out there and get yours”? Perhaps a people with such low expectations and such a flagrant disregard for justice do, in fact, get the leaders they deserve.
And yet, there is another way, and we have it embodied and fully realized in Jesus Christ, the “Good Shepherd.” The risen Christ, who is “the author, the pioneer, and exemplar of our faith,” according to Saint Paul, still summons us to heed his voice in the wilderness of this world and this passing life. He still calls each of us by name in Holy Baptism to the vocation and the abundance of his risen life: still completely human and entirely at one with God. Saint Irenaeus was right when he wrote that “the glory of God is a human person fully alive in Christ” because, when “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.” (Psalm 23) Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” This is the nobility, integrity, and leadership that we are summoned to emulate and on which we can always count. According to Jesus, the truly “Good Shepherd,” the hallmarks of greatness in the “kingdom of God” are humility, service, and suffering love, not hubris, saber-rattling, and the selfish pursuit of health, happiness, and prosperity. Jesus Christ is our “Good Shepherd” who has called each of us by name in Holy Baptism. In the words of the psalmist, “we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand/Oh, that today you would hearken to his voice.”