The Good Shepherd

The Lectionary – the texts for Sunday worship revolves on a three-year cycle. This may suggest a tedious repetitiveness. For instance, every three years the gospel reading for the fourth Sunday after Easter is always the good shepherd passages from John 10. It’s always tempting for the preacher to recycle the sermon preached three, or six, or even nine, years ago. After all, what new insights can be shared that have not been shared before?

The texts may repeat, but each repetition is read – and more importantly – heard within a new context. 2021 is not 2018, nor is it 2015. Changing context brings a dynamic quality of the unexpected to the reading of familiar texts. Words matter. But it’s context that makes them so.

The historical themes of human folly repeat, but they repeat in new contexts. So much of our recent experience of populist authoritarianism forged in the heat of the cultural grievances that accompany the transition between the collapse of the old order and the arrival of the new– is historically familiar because as Mark Twain wryly observed, history does not [exactly] repeat itself, but it [certainly] rhymes.

Coming out of the Trump presidency we continue to live through the repetition of history’s dark old themes of race and religion expressed in the grasping for simplistic and caustic authoritarian responses in the face of complex social change. History rhymes in our current period. Context changes everything! Even the old rhymes and familiar topes now sounding into a new context of global environmental catastrophe.

Our world – the earth our island home – is shifting on its axis. The earth shifting on its axis is not a metaphor, though it is also this. Our planet is now literally shifting on its axis as the effects of human induced glacier and polar ice melt is literally shifting the geographical magnetic points of axis – generally known as the north and south poles.

Damian Carrington, the Guardian’s environment editor, wrote this past week of the marked shifts in the Earth’s axis of rotation – a process first noticed in the 1990’s and now rapidly accelerating.

The geographic north and south poles are points at which the axis of rotation intersect the surface of the earth. But these points of intersection are not fixed and changes in the earth’s mass resulting from the redistribution of water in the oceans is causing the axis points to shift.

Increasingly dire consequences – if you forgive the pun – will increasingly flow. The currents that stabilize climate are changing because of both ice melt and the pumping of stored land water which eventually flows into the increasing rise of the oceans. These changes – now irrefutably the consequence of human induced global warming – are having – and will continue to have – multiple knock-on effects.

The recent flurry of international efforts – thankfully ones in which the US has retaken a leadership role – only underscore what climate science has been telling us about the dire impact human induced climate change is now having on the very rotation of the planet.

Texts may be unchanging, but the contexts in which they are read and heard are not. Words may matter, yet it’s the constantly changing contexts into which they sound – that makes them so.

Hearing the words in John 10 in 2021 – we find Jesus speaking about himself as the good shepherd. Amidst the environmental catastrophe now threatening a future of global extinction – how does the good shepherd text now sound to us?

In the 1st– century context the shepherd metaphor carried a particular significance that in the 21st– century context is easily missed.

Jesus said I am the good shepherd. .… I know my own and they know me. …. And I lay down my life for the sheep.

The following comparisons make my point.

As we ate and looked, almost spellbound, the silent hillsides around us were in a moment filled with sounds and life. The shepherds led their flocks forth from the gates of the city. They were in full view and we watched and listened to them with no little interest. Thousands of sheep and goats were there in dense, confused masses. The shepherds stood together until all came out. Then they separated, each shepherd taking a different path, and uttering, as he advanced, a shrill, peculiar call. The sheep heard them. At first the masses swayed and moved as if shaken with some internal convulsion; then points struck out in the direction taken by the shepherds; these became longer and longer, until the confused masses were resolved into long, living streams, flowing after their leaders. Such a sight was not new to me, still it had lost none of its interest. It was, perhaps, one of the most vivid illustrations which human eyes could witness of that beautiful discourse of our Savior recorded by John. Cited by B.W. Johnson in his commentary The People’s New Testament, 1891)

Reminiscent of the way birds swarm – wheeling and turning – forming intricate patterns before re-swarming and moving across the sky as one – I watched as down in the valley the placidly grazing sheep began to race here and there – scattering before reforming into a flock moving first this way then that and eventually as on flock up moving up the hill side. I heard their panicked sound as they rushed over the brow of the hill – chased by the incessant barking of the shepherd’s dogs –who like the sheep wheeled and turned in response to his shrill whistles – wheeling around to drive the bleating stragglers back into the flock before diving among them -nipping at their heels in order to drive the sheep forward in response to the shepherds’ commands. The shepherd moved towards the sheep pen gate – opening it so that his dogs could drive the panicked and complaining sheep through the narrow opening into the corralled space of the fenced off holding paddock. With the sheep safely inside, the shepherd mounted his ATV and calling his dogs to follow as he headed off into the dusk. As night settled, the sounds of aggrieved panic among the sheep subsided – as with darkness falling, they settled down for the night.

Jesus said I am the good shepherd. .… I know my own and they know me. …. And I lay down my life for the sheep.

In the 1st– century context the shepherd metaphor carried a particular significance that we are likely to miss because of the changed sheep husbandry practices of the 21st– century context. The point of the comparison is not to suggest that modern shepherding practices in highly mechanized farming economies should revert to ancient Middle Eastern practice. The point is to reconnect with the spiritual message of Jesus’ shepherd metaphor – that is to connect with the spiritual purpose for which he employs it.

The good shepherd offers us timely images. The first is of the shepherd who calls the sheep to follow him – because like the suckling human infant who instinctively recognizes the mother’s voice – his sheep intimately know and trust his voice. The second metaphor is of sheep being driven forward panicked by fear. The sheep in the modern context know nothing of the shepherd’s voice. If they hear his voice amidst the cacophony of whistled commands and incessant dog bark – it’s the voice of impatiently shouted commands addressed not to them, but to the dogs herding them.

Jesus said I am the good shepherd. .… I know my own and they know me. …. And I lay down my life for the sheep.

Which metaphor will speak to our experience of God?

Jesus uses the good shepherd metaphor to communicate the intimate nature of relationship with God. The essence of this relationship lies in being attuned to the sound of God’s voice guiding us amidst the challenges we face. The voice we can trust – helping us to distinguish in these challenges the new opportunities that will lead us into a future that is more than a mindless, fear driven repetition of our past.

Recognition means to be able to distinguish the siren voices of the choices born of fear; simplistic short-sighted solutions resulting in the exercise of crude power; siren voices that have never led us anywhere good before. Recognition means the capacity to listen for the timeless sound of God’s voice calling to us through the ancient texts of our scriptures as they sound into new contexts. We learn to tune in – and with trust to follow the familiar voice that God uses to call us to our vocation as Christians in the world.

Jesus said I am the good shepherd. .… I know my own and they know me. …. And I lay down my life for the sheep.

Nothing has changed. It’s still as true now as it was when Jesus first uttered this teaching.

Jesus offered these words to his followers in anticipation of the chaos and collapse that was coming. Through his death and resurrection – the willingness of the good shepherd to lay down his life for his sheep – God opened a new chapter in the story of salvation. Our lives unfold – equipped for God’s purpose -shaped by this story of the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep.

Although we know its ending, this story is not yet over. We continue to live into its truth that through the good shepherds willingness to lay down his life for his sheep a new future is opened up for us.

The followers of Jesus made it through. Trusting to the sound of God’s voice guiding us to better choices – in the knowledge that through the good shepherd’s willingness to ultimately pay down his life for his sheep – we become the good shepherd husbanding the process of God’s good repair.

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