This Sunday is often know as Good Shepherd Sunday, since every year we have a gospel reading about Jesus, the Good Shepherd. In our service we reflected on what it really means to be his sheep.
Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.
It’s no great secret that I am a great Star Trek Fan. And the crew of the Enterprise regularly found new worlds and civilizations, and then need to find out more about them before making first contact.
What if we were on the receiving end of that? What if intelligent beings from another planet were to discover earth? I’m sure one of the first things they would want to do is find out something about us. And one way of doing that might be to have a look at what programmes we watch on television – what are the things that we are interested in and want to watch on TV. Well, as they study our television schedules they might be forgiven for concluding that we are obsessed with two things.
The first thing these imaginary aliens might conclude we are obsessed with may well be where we live. From Location, Location, Location to A Place in the Sun; or from Escape to the Country to Fantasy Homes in the City, and seemingly endless more variations on the same themes, it might appear that we’re always looking for somewhere new and better to live.
And the second thing that these aliens might conclude we are obsessed with? Food, of course! Cooking programmes are among the most watched on television. Whether it’s The Great British Bake-off or MasterChef; or programmes fronted by Gordon Ramsay, Jamie Oliver or The Hairy Bikers, we appear to be obsessed with food.
Those aliens, looking at what we watch on television, would find seemingly endless programmes about where we live and what we eat, and how we can make both better.
Which brings me to today’s gospel reading and those so familiar words of Jesus: I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd who looks after the sheep, keeps them well fed and securely housed in the sheepfold. It’s one of the most well-known sayings of Jesus and one of the most comforting.
Now, I wouldn’t mind taking a bet with each of you that when you hear those words, “I am the good shepherd,” most of you immediately conjure a picture up in your mind of Jesus standing either cuddling a fluffy white lamb, or with a lamb around his shoulders. A nice picture of a lamb being cared for by Jesus. And that’s an image that goes right back to the early days of Christianity. There are pictures of Jesus as a shepherd carrying a lamb on his shoulders in the catacombs in Rome. But I want you to put that image right out of your minds. Because the reality of being cared for by a shepherd is not what you think when you see that traditional picture in your minds.
Let’s think for a moment about the shepherd. Look at any society and you’ll find groups of people doing particular and essential jobs that the rest of that society look down upon. We all do it – we make jokes about them, laugh at them. And sometimes even, necessary though the job may be, there are professions that attract downright hostility.
In first century Palestine there were two groups that were deeply despised and attracted downright hostility. One was tax-collectors – so not much has changed over two thousand years! Then it was because tax-collectors worked on behalf of the Romans – they were collaborators – and they also creamed a little off the top for themselves. The other group was shepherds! For most people in first-century Palestine, shepherds were despised and regarded with suspicion more than perhaps any other group. Just as some groups today on the margins of society are feared because they are all cast as thieves or hooligans or drunks, however much they don’t deserve such condemnation, so first-century shepherds were considered to be on the margins of society.
Some were hired hands who deliberately allowed their sheep to graze on other people’s land and stole wool, milk and lambs from the flock, so all shepherds tended to be cast as villains. Also, because of the nature of their work, shepherds weren’t able to fulfil their Sabbath duties and attend synagogue, so they were seen as irreligious and lawbreakers. They were widely believed to be untrustworthy even though they were indispensable to society, for everyone needed the by-products from the sheep – wool and meat and so on. People hated shepherds even though they couldn’t manage without them. Everyone looked down upon them.
How typical of Jesus to use the image of someone despised by polite society and turn that image on its head – take the image of the despised shepherd and use it of himself. And not only that – he describes himself as the trustworthy shepherd who is prepared to lay down his life in order to save the sheep. People would have laughed – they knew shepherds weren’t trustworthy and they certainly wouldn’t die for their sheep – what nonsense!
But, says Jesus, that is exactly what I am – a shepherd. And he shows how as a shepherd he protects and cares for the sheep in his charge – you and me. He will allow no-one – not thieves, not the wolves who commonly preyed on sheep – to snatch his sheep away. For being a sheep at the time of Jesus was risky – there were always thieves about who would look for an easy opportunity to do a bit of sheep-rustling and the danger from wolves was always present. Jesus knows that life is full of dangers and temptations. And he promises that he will always protect us and that no-one will ever snatch us from his hand. We though, on our part, need to hear his voice and follow him.
And that brings me to my most important point this morning – what it means to follow the shepherd, to be homed and fed by him.
Being sheep in first century Palestine was not some kind of ideal existence where they lived in a nice sheep-fold and the shepherd brought them all the food they needed. The sheep-fold was certainly the place where at night you slept and the shepherd kept the sheep secure by lying down to sleep across the gap in the wall of the sheepfold, making himself the gate.
But come daytime and the sheep had to leave the security of the sheepfold because the food was to be found out in the pastures. So off the shepherd would go, at the front of the flock, leading the sheep to where food could be found. Leading the sheep out into the dangerous countryside where there might be wolves or other dangers. Because if the sheep didn’t go out and leave the security of the sheepfold behind, if the sheep decided to be lazy and wait for food to be brought to them, then they would starve.
And that’s a powerful lesson for those of us who follow Jesus.
We need to look to Jesus, the good shepherd, to care for us. But in order to allow him to do that we must follow him. We cannot just sit by and wait for him to do all the work. Jesus said that his sheep follow the shepherd, not that the shepherd would wait upon them hand and foot.
We started by thinking about our apparent obsession with TV programmes about nice homes and good food. Jesus, our shepherd, is not there to provide us as his sheep with the comfort of good shelter and fine food. Rather, as our shepherd he leads us out of our comfort zone.
And we need to be prepared to follow Jesus wherever he leads, trusting that he knows what he is doing, that he knows where we need to go. We need to be prepared to go out into the world, leaving the security of our walls behind us. And we’re not always very good at that. We like the security of being inside the church and staying within the walls that help us feel safe – not the physical stone walls that we see around us, but the spiritual walls that we put up around us.
But if we are to allow Jesus to feed us and help us grow strong, then we must follow our shepherd out into the wild and dangerous places of the world, for that is where true sustenance is to be found. We must go out into our communities, we must take risks, knowing that we are following the shepherd who will keep us safe as he leads us.
For that is the Easter message that we find in the Scriptures. As we have heard over the past two weeks the disciples were not allowed to stay within the security of the locked upper room, but were sent out into the world by Jesus. So too, he leads us out into our world to do his will. For only by doing so can we ever expect to prosper and flourish as his flock.