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EASTER SHEPHERDING

A Sermon preached by the Rev. Michael Anderson Bullock

2024.0421.B.Good Shepherd

[Acts 4:5-12; 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18]


The Fourth Sunday in the Season of Easter – today -- contains the alluring title of “Good Shepherd Sunday”.  The imagery, the tone, the feel, the music of this day all have the capacity to connect with the deepest parts of who and what we are.  Why, why is this?  Within each of us, what is it that resonates with such tenderness and yearning about the presence of the “Good Shepherd”?  I think the answer is “belonging” – our need to belong, to be connected to life.


I did a brief word search on “shepherd” and “shepherding” and found these synonyms, which may begin to account for the emotional potency of this day and its focus.  Here are some other words I found: mentor/mentoring; marshaling; guider; director; steerer; escort; steward.  From this perspective, two Easter questions emerge.  One is: how does Jesus embody these shepherding qualities?  The other is: what does it mean that we call Jesus the “Good Shepherd”?  


I find it instructive to realize that the descriptor “good” in this title is not really a moral term, although it is quite clear that Jesus was morally “good”, that is, he did no evil; that he did nothing to distract anyone from God and the God-life..  But having said this, I believe it is more clarifying to know that another meaning to this descriptor “good” is “beautifully attractive”.  This leads to other questions.  What is it about Jesus, our “Good Shepherd”, that is “beautifully attractive”?  What does this “beauty” have to do with our need to belong?  Answering these questions opens up the important insights into what it means that Jesus is our “Good Shepherd” and the reason this day pulls so much on our hearts.


“Beautifully attractive”.  By ancient, biblical accounts what Jesus looked like is never broached.  That Jesus was a “handsome devil” – or not – never comes into play.  The quality of good looks is never mentioned with respect to Jesus in any of the gospel accounts, whereas (for instance and according to the passage in 1 Samuel 16:12) the young shepherd and future king of Israel, David, is clearly described in terms of his ruddy (that is, healthy) complexion and beautiful (read, “bedroom”) eyes.  And when the Prophet Isaiah points to the enigmatic “suffering servant” (the figure who foretells what Jesus fulfills), his description of what he looks like is almost as mysterious as is his identity.  Nonetheless, Isaiah famously says this about him: “…he had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.”1


Contrary to too many modern pictures of Jesus, where his natural Semitic looks get transformed into Arian familiarities, the “beauty” that resides in Jesus’ “goodness” stems not from any centerfold qualities but from the more significant impact of his presence and his actions.  Together, his presence and the nature of his shepherding form an unsurpassed and life-shaping “beauty”.  And it is in this deep sense that the image of Jesus as the “Good Shepherd” rings the truest.  His beauty, his attractiveness emanates from his embodying the very life and love of God.


In the tenth chapter of John’s gospel, we are given three insights into what a “true” and “good” shepherd is and the reason Jesus’ shepherding is so compelling.  In all three descriptions (ones by the way that Jesus himself provides) one quality stands above all others.  And that is the connection – the connection between the shepherd and his sheep.  It is that connection as the “Good Shepherd” that illustrates Jesus’ own life and mission – a mission that was fulfilled on the cross and vindicated by his resurrection.  These are events that reveal a most beautiful meaning: namely, that Jesus would rather die than break Communion with the Father; that Jesus would rather die than abandon his sheep.  This, I suggest, is the essence of Jesus’ “goodness”, the nature of his “attractive beauty”.  In his uniquely manifested shepherding, Jesus demonstrates the “good” and “beautiful” news that nothing can ever separate us from his love, which is the love of God, a love that says we belong.  


In this regard, I am taken by the Collect of the Day’s petition about how we might respond to our “Good Shepherd”.  In that collecting prayer’s supplication, we ask that we “hear” the Shepherd’s voice and when we do that we may “know” the beautiful One who calls each of us by name, and, thereby, “follow” where our Shepherd leads.  Hearing.  Knowing.  Following.  I find that this is how you and I can have Easter life; and I have a story to tell that illustrates (I think beautifully) the reality of our “Good Shepherd” and the life he shares.


It is a story I have told before – here and at other places; but as with any good story, it deserves to be retold and reshared because its truth is life-giving.  It is a story I was told four decades ago by the only shepherd of sheep that I have ever known.  He and I met as fellow faculty members at a boarding school.  I was cutting my teeth in that place, while he was already a famous character in his own right: the author of a published story that was made into the movie, “Sounder”; and a faculty character who taught first year schoolboys how to be away from home and how to study systematically.  William Armstrong was infamous among his students for reading to them in class, holding the text in one hand while doing pull-ups with the other!  Needless to say, his way of teaching, as memorable as it still is to his now elderly students, is not easily reproduced.  


So it was that one early morning, my boss (the School’s Chaplain) and I sat at a small wooden table in the dining hall’s kitchen.  Mr. Armstrong was already seated by himself, sipping his coffee and salting his scrambled eggs.  He cheerfully invited both of us to join him, which we did.  Soon we were engaged in faculty chit-chat, catching up on the latest school scuttlebutt, when Mr. Armstrong wistfully related something that had happened to him recently.


He told us that the previous Sunday afternoon, he went to fetch an old, retired shepherd for a drive in the country.  The old shepherd was a shepherding acquaintance of his, who had been forced to retire from his sheep tending because he had lost his eyesight.  Blindness forced him to sell his flock to a neighboring operation that was about an hour’s drive from the school.  As an act of compassion and kindness, Mr. Armstrong wanted to get the old shepherd out and about on a mid-spring’s afternoon, but it wasn’t simply for a drive in the country.  Mr. Armstrong had a deeper motive, one he intended to spring on his blind colleague in due time.


So, off the two men went; and sure enough the fresh air and the warm sun did its restorative wonders for them both.  And after a good drive, Mr. Armstrong pulled his car to the side of the road, parked it off the pavement, and turned the engine off.  The old, blind shepherd remained quiet, not asking for any explanation.  Equally silent, Mr. Armstrong opened his driver’s side door, moved quickly around the front of the car, opened the passenger door, and assisted his companion from the car.  Still calm, the old, blind shepherd seemed to understand that the two men were to get out of the car; and at the gentle guidance of Mr. Armstrong’s hands, the blind man moved to feel with his own hands a wooden fence railing.  Seeing that his passenger was safely in place, Mr. Armstrong released his hands and let the old, blind shepherd absorb the moment.


The truth is that the old shepherd knew where he was almost before the car stopped.  And now that he was anchored to the wooden fence’s top rail, the smell of green grass, the sound of the wind wafting through the trees, and -- most of all – the faint, distant sound of bleating sheep came across the pasturing meadow.  The old, blind shepherd knew where he was all right; and the look on his unseeing face told Mr. Armstrong that his secret plan had begun well.  For he had driven the blind shepherd to the farm that had purchased his old flock.  And now, Mr. Armstrong waited for his plan to be fulfilled.


Time passed in rich silence, when without any warning and at the top of his lungs, the old shepherd blurted out: “Nanny, nanny, nanny!”  The sound thundered up the green pasture hill to where, about a hundred yards away, Mr. Armstrong could see the small, white heads of grazing sheep.  The blind shepherd, knowing full-well where he was, just had to yell out his shepherd’s call to the  sheep.  But to both men’s dejection, nothing happened.  The distant sheep did not flinch but kept on grazing contentedly.  “Uh oh,” Mr. Armstrong thought to himself.  


And then it happened again: “Nanny, nanny, nanny!”  The old, blind shepherd yelled with a force that surpassed his first cry but produced the same, disappointing results.  Nothing but the wind stirred.  The sheep kept on grazing without so much as a curious pause.  Mr. Armstrong began to feel a dismal failure.  He hadn’t intended this trip to be anything but an experience of reunion for an isolated, blind shepherd; but now the event threatened to be an instance of unintended cruelty, a bitter experience of what no longer was.  Resigned to cutting the painful loss, Mr. Armstrong made a movement toward the old man to guide him back to the car.  The bitterness of knowing that it would be a long, ignominious drive home welled up in his chest.  What could Mr. Armstrong say to make amends?


Before that threatening thought could begin to fade away, Mr. Armstrong’s focus was wrenched back to the fence rail, where for an unannounced third time, the blind shepherd bellowed: “Nanny, nanny, nanny!”  Mr. Armstrong began to melt for the shame he felt for causing his friend such disappointment, when from the corner of his eye, he saw a few sheep’s heads turn toward the sound.  Then a few more did the same; and slowly, a small group of five or six sheep haltingly made their way to the fence.  


Mr. Armstrong, a shepherd himself, recognized that these were the last sheep remaining from the blind shepherd’s flock; and even after all the time of separation, they heard their shepherd’s call and came to him.  Hearing them, the old, sightless man knelt down and, placing his arms through the fence’s railing, caressed and nuzzled the heads of his remaining flock.  They had heard his call, and the sheep still knew him as their shepherd.  As evidenced by the gathering at the fence, they were glad to be in their shepherd’s presence again.


“Jesus said, ‘I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…I am the good shepherd.  I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.”


Hear.  Know.  Follow.  I love my flock, too.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

 

1.   Isaiah 53:2b

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