“For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.”
So Peter tells us in today’s reading. We have many lovely images of Jesus as a shepherd. North American Lutherans seem to be particularly fond of this image. We named a lot of our churches “Good Shepherd” or “Shepherd of the Lakes.” It’s common in paintings and stained glass. And this image mostly comes from the passages we hear on this fourth Sunday of Easter, sometimes called “Good Shepherd Sunday.”
But to make any sense of the image of Christ as a shepherd, we need to think first about what it means that humans are sheep in this analogy. So a few relevant details about sheep:
Sheep are social animals. They move in flocks at the leading of a dominant member or a shepherd.
Sheep are prey animals. A predator will try to cut one or more off from the group to chase it down.
Sheep are destructive if not properly managed. They graze more deeply than cattle and can strip pastures bare if they don’t move around enough.
Sheep are, last but hardly least, very useful animals. They are used for meat, milk, and wool. One of the turning points in human history was the replacement of humans with sheep in big parts of the English countryside, because sheep were more profitable than people. Sheep are not pets, and herding them is work, not a charming hobby.
All of this is true of humans as well. We are reasonably smart but also leadable. We are social beings, relying on each other every hour of every day. We don’t have predators in the usual sense but we are vulnerable, especially if we’re alone. We, too, can be very destructive if we’re not careful. And we too are useful to the world. Especially if we have a job or raise children.
You put this all together and you get a picture of an animal that needs solidarity and needs protection.
This should feel very timely.
Last week the federal government announced plans to force meat packing facilities to remain open during the outbreak. Many plants had outbreaks, leaving hundreds sick and at least 20 dead. This forced some plants to close. Under the new orders, governors and local officials would be prevented from closing plants for the safety of the workers and the communities they live in. And they would prevent workers who get sick, or the families of workers who die, from suing the plants for negligence.
These people--meat packers--are useful people. Their work keeps their neighbors fed. Their work provides a market for the farmer’s chickens, hogs, and cattle.
And like anyone else they are vulnerable. Especially when they are cut off from the herd and forced to make their own plans for survival.
If anything good can come from a disaster like the one we’re living through, it’s the recognition that any of us can get cut off from the herd.
Any of us can lose a job in a massive downturn.
Any of us can get sick in a pandemic.
Any of us can be forced to take unsafe risks because our livelihood depends on it and no one is looking out for us.
It’s tragic and ironic that so many of the jobs we deem “essential” in a crisis are paid so little and exposed to such great risks. People whose welfare is very easily ignored most of the time get noticed when it suddenly becomes clear that we need their work in order to eat (grocery store employees are another group who has sickened and died in disproportionate numbers).
And so in these times we recognize that we need solidarity with each other. We can’t live without it. And we need protection.
So when we hear Jesus talk about himself as a shepherd, we should hear that this is not a romantic lifestyle but hard work. Unsentimental work. In the Old Testament and throughout the ancient Near East we hear rulers or religious leaders compared to shepherds of the people. A good shepherd may lose a sheep, but a good shepherd does not sacrifice a sheep. A good shepherd does not scatter the sheep or turn them against each other.
Jesus does not force anyone to suffer so that another benefits. Jesus suffers once for all humanity.
Jesus does not force one to go alone and face the consequences, but Jesus goes alone on our behalf to conquer sin and death for us.
Jesus embraces each sheep and the whole flock at once. In the flock there are no rivals for safety and protection. There are none who risk while others are protected. There are none who must work while others enjoy the fruit of their labor. There is only the one flock bound together in love.
That is the power of this image and this Sunday. At least for me. Nine years ago on this Sunday, we were taking care of two little boys, in addition to our own firstborn and our regular foster child. They needed a place to stay for ten days while their new foster family was out of town.
They were sweet boys who’d had a hard life. We had some major struggles keeping them well. One had stomach problems, the other had respiratory problems. And I went to church to fill in for a colleague. I was exhausted physically and emotionally. When I came in, the choir was practicing the version of the 23rd psalm I’m going to sing for you in a minute. I just stopped and listened to that choir. I thought about those boys, who needed us in that moment as powerfully as anyone ever needs someone. Boys we didn’t know ten days before, but needed us to go the distance for them.
It made me think of how Jesus goes the distance for us and does not choose to lose any of us.
We, his sheep, hear his voice. And we speak his voice forth to the world. As he protects us, so we are commanded to protect each other. So we look for the places where people are being told to risk and to suffer on behalf of others, without adequate protection or compensation, and we say No. Hear God’s No.
And we look for the places where people are protecting and providing for each other--the food banks that sprang up, the meal distributions at schools, the people making masks for those who need them urgently--and we say Yes. And we hear God’s Yes. Amen.