"The Importance of a Good Shepherd"

4 Easter.B.24
John 10:11-18
The Rev. Melanie McCarley

Imagine that it is the early reaches of dawn and you get up to get a drink of water or go to the bathroom and look out your window and there, in your yard, and in the street, and in your neighbor’s yards, is a massive flock of sheep. Like, 1,300 sheep. And, let’s face it, the sheep—they’re not particularly quiet. They are noisy, trampling flowerbeds and running around—being a general nuisance.

That’s the sight that greeted the people of Huesca, Spain at around 4:30 in the morning, a few years ago. According to city authorities, the police were alerted to the presence of the extremely large flock attempting to negotiate the streets in the center of Huesca by a local resident who dialed Spain’s emergency number.

The culprit of this chaos—a dozing shepherd, who was meant to be keeping the animals in check outside the environs of the city until 7 a.m. when he was due to guide the sheep northwards through Huesca towards Pyrenean uplands where the flocks were to graze during the hot summer months.

The police eventually found the shepherd, who was still peacefully slumbering—unaware of the chaos in the city. Hardly a model of a good shepherd—that person (and I’m certain the sheep would agree) was baaaaaad!

In the Gospel lesson for today, Jesus says: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away – and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. …I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, …and I lay down my life for the sheep.”

Here are some things to know about sheep. Not only can sheep recognize up to 50 other sheep faces and remember them for 2 years, but they can also recognize human faces. When sheep experience stress or isolation, they show signs of depression similar to those that humans show by hanging their heads and avoiding positive actions. Like various other species, including humans, sheep make different vocalizations to communicate different emotions. They also display and recognize emotion by facial expressions. Sheep have impressive memory and recognition skills. They build friendships, stick up for one another in fights, and feel sad when their friends are gone. Sheep can differentiate facial expressions and prefer a smile to a frown—oh, and they tend to wander…and get lost. With a decided lack of defensive skills when faced with a wolf—they need a protector. Put simply, in order to thrive, sheep need their shepherds. In particular, Good Shepherds, who don’t fall asleep on the job. This is true of sheep. And it is true of ourselves as well.

So, how do we differentiate between a hired hand and a Good Shepherd? For the truth is we live in a world filled with people searching for saviors—or, at the very least people who we think can make our lives better. It’s an election year, and folks are searching for political saviors who promise to save us from our economic and social fears. Others are looking for relationship gurus and social media influencers who will save us by keeping us on-trend and up-to-date, fixing whatever mental, social or physical problems that are besetting us, offering us a tantalizing picture of what we think our lives should look like. We sheep are hot on the trail of anyone offering the next miracle drug, diet, or procedure that will save our youth, our vitality, our physical appearance or fill in the blank for the list goes on. Too often, our world is controlled and defined by a social media diet of whatever we choose to “like” or “follow” on our computer screen.

Perhaps it would behoove us to ask ourselves—what the goal of the influencer or marketer of goods and services truly is—because too often what is being offered is not for the ultimate good of the sheep, but for the benefit of purveyors or sellers of whatever happens to be for sale.

Which brings us to one of the questions found in the Baptismal Examination—“Do you promise to follow and obey Jesus as your Lord?” In other words, “Will you, forsaking all others, make Jesus your Good Shepherd?”

So, let’s take a look at what makes Jesus “Good”. Jesus is the model of the good shepherd because he is willing to die for his sheep—all of them. What’s more, the Good Shepherd not only knows his work—he knows his sheep, by name. In other words, he is intimately acquainted with each and every one of them as individuals. He is with his followers so much that they recognize the sound of his voice. Just a few verses before this reading, Jesus says: “I am the gate for the sheep.” referencing a sheep pen. The shepherd—a good shepherd, laying down to sleep, does so in front of the opening to the pen to protect the sheep. That Shepherd is the first, the last and the only defense of the animals in his or her care. If a wolf comes a-roaming, it encounters the shepherd first—and hopefully last. Boil it all down, and what we find is that a Good Shepherd loves the sheep and brings them to abundant life. Jesus finds us, knows us, loves us and redeems us. That is a Good Shepherd.

This morning we have the particular joy of welcoming into our fold, another lamb. Her name is Heather Elder Brownlee, daughter of William and Catherine. Today, on her behalf, they will answer the question: “Do you promise to follow and obey Jesus as your Lord?” Their task, and the task of her Godparents, as well as all of us gathered here, is to teach Heather what it means not only to follow Jesus as her Great Good Shepherd, but what it means to be part of this particular flock as well—what it means to belong. For that is another important aspect of being a sheep, isn’t it. Solitary sheep are an anomaly—they don’t thrive in the wild. In order to flourish sheep need others around them. Our task, then, is to model for Heather what it means to follow Jesus. We are to teach her how to listen for the Good Shepherd’s voice, and to distinguish it from that of the hired hand. Our task is to show her the joy of what it means to follow Jesus—even as we walk through the desolate places of our lives, confident that He is looking over us. Our joy is to come to know Heather as a member of this church of St. Paul’s, and to share with her our talents and, in turn, discover what gifts God has given her for use in this world. Our hope is that not only she, but all people, will come to know the love that the Good Shepherd has for the world “So that there will be one flock, one Shepherd.” In the name of our Great Good Shepherd Jesus, the risen Christ. Amen.