Gospel: John 10:11-18 [Jesus said:] “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. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care 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. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”
I’m a sucker for a good icebreaker game to play with youth. Or even adults. I played this game with some high school kids at a youth ministry event. I randomly picked one kid out of the group of 15, and put the remaining 14 in a circle, holding hands. I told the one kid that his job was to get inside that circle. Ready, set go!
He struggled for a few minutes, while the rest of the 14 held tighter and tighter. Not just holding hands, but linking elbows and linking feet. I stopped them, and we sat down on the ground. I said to the 14 – His job was to get inside that circle. Did I ever tell you what your job was? Blank stares. You just assumed that because you were holding hands in a circle and Cody was trying to get in – that your job was to keep him out!!
Whenever humans find themselves in a group, we label who are insiders and who are outsiders. And we make boundaries, and we make rules about who can be in and who must stay out. We put up walls, real and imaginary… we stand guard against whatever we are afraid of and hope it doesn’t come near. In short, we start trying to play shepherd. We circle the wagons against any perceived threat. And focus on standing firm.
Instead of trusting that the Good Shepherd is gathering sheep from outside this flock – drawing us all together to be one, our fear gets the best of us, and we stop taking care of each other, neighbor and stranger. and start just taking care of ourselves and our stuff.
Like us, The religious leadership of the community in Jesus time were very concerned with who was in and out, clean and unclean. In fact, John 10 comes right on the heels of a conflict with the religious authorities. Jesus heals a man born blind, and the leadership of the religious community see him as a threat. They don’t know where he’s come from and they don’t know what he’s up to. Then accuse him of being born in sin…. And then Jesus basically accuses them of not being able to see what’s in front of their face. They wouldn’t know God’s messiah if he showed up and bit them…. They cannot see the work Jesus is doing as God’s work.
But Jesus starts to mix things up a bit when he talks about the hired hands. Jesus is obviously playing two metaphors off each other, comparing the actions of a good shepherd to the actions and responses of a hired hand. A good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. A good shepherd knows her sheep. A good shepherd’s sheep know her. The hired hand doesn’t own the sheep. They don’t know him and he doesn’t know them. When she sees a wolf coming – she runs for it – because The hired hand’s motivation is not the sheep themselves, they do not care for the sheep, but the job itself, and presumably the paycheck.
Now, I can honestly say that I don’t know any pastor who does it for the paycheck – but checking our motivations is part of any good leaders training and continuous self-reflection. Whether its leadership in politics, local or global. Leadership in schools and academia. Leadership in law enforcement or in religious communities.
And we like sheep, probably know the difference between the good and the bad leaders – but in a pinch, or in a crisis, or when we’re fearful and frightened, any leader is better than no leader. Any plan is better than no plan. Someone to lead us and save us, someone to blame our troubles on, and someone to protect us from whatever our fears end up being.
Throughout the Old Testament, the prophets spoke of bad shepherd. These leaders of the people who had the wrong motivations. Or the wrong strategy. The wrong idea when it came to the purpose of their calling. The prophet Ezekiel speaks for the Lord in chapter 34 – “Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. 4You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.”
Martin Luther’s sermon on the Good Shepherd from 1523, expounds on this point. On how the bad shepherds and the hired hands have abused the people, and convinced the people we must all be strong and healthy and pious Christians in order to be worthy of the shepherd. He writes and preaches: Here you see that Christ’s kingdom is to be concerned about the weak, the sick, the broken, that he may help them. That is, indeed, a comforting declaration. The only trouble is that we do not realize our needs and infirmities. If we realized them, we would soon flee to him. But how did those shepherds act? They ruled with rigor, and applied God’s Law with great severity; and, moreover, they added their own commandments, as they still do, and when these were not fulfilled, they raved and condemned, so that they were driving and driving and exhorting and exacting, continually. That is no proper way to tend and keep souls, says Christ
I’m not a ordained pastor to make money or members. I’m not an ordained pastor to get recognition or respect. I do not shepherd communities and individuals in order to be liked or loved by them, or to have prize winning sheep and and a flock following my every move. I am a pastor because I know that I am a sheep, and depending on the day I am hungry, weak, sick, lost, or injured. A flock Must know first that they are sheep in need of a shepherd. And the pastor must know it all the more deeply.
Because the moment I start thinking that I’m the shepherd. That I have all the answers. That I’m the rescuer, or savior, it’s only a slippery slope to say, I am the way. And that was the fault of both the bad shepherds and the hired hands. When it becomes about the leaders and their motivations and their desires, rather than the needs of the people, according to God’s will. To know Christ as the way, to know God’s will, to know his word, means that the last the lost the least and the lowly are held in esteem – and the hungry are to be given good things. And that’s not just outside the church, but inside the church too. And thenLuther preaches on……- “Let us, therefore, ever be wise and learn to know Christ well, and to know that in his kingdom there are only weak and sickly people, and that it is nothing but a hospital, where the sick and infirm, who need care, are gathered.”
You are not here because you herded yourself down into a church shaped sheep pen in Millville. You are here because Jesus knows his flock, and you have trusted his voice. You are here because the Holy Spirit calls gathers and enlightened all the sheep of the Father. The church is not a social club for sheep who have it all figured out. The church is where the Good Shepherd visibly gathers all sheep, lost and hungry, confused and wounded, to be comforted and fed. And The sheep that don’t belong to this flock? Oh yeah, they’re his too.