April 25, 2021 - 4th Sunday of Easter
Everybody needs a shepherd
Those of you who are familiar with art may recall that many Medieval painters, particularly in Germany, painted many depictions of biblical scenes with the curious twist of dressing the biblical characters in the contemporary garb of the Middle Ages. Whether it is the scene in the Bethlehem stable or the one of Christ blessing the little children, you see the characters arrayed not in whatever people actually wore in the Middle East in the first century but the attire of Medieval Europe.
This juxtaposition of the old with the new and the past with the current must have caused some eyebrows to be raised. Can you imagine what many would say today if an artist painted Joseph in a pair of jeans, Mary wearing a Ralph Lauren blouse, or the magi wearing snappy tuxedos? “You should not import the holy, sacred images of Scripture into a contemporary setting,” they might cry. It creates confusion and doesn’t seem to respect the story. But even more importantly, maybe we risk “losing” something of the original by mixing it up with something so contemporary.
In today’s Gospel, we hear the most famous metaphor for Jesus in the Bible: the good shepherd. We have all likely seen one form or another of this particular image depicted countless times in churches, on cards, in artwork, and in other secular places.
Although the world still has shepherds in it, the experience of a shepherd is about as foreign to most of us as being a cowboy in Texas or an indigenous fisherman in Alaska. We know that these people exist, but we don’t have much to do with them and so their jobs and lifestyles don’t figure much into our thoughts on most days. We know far more about lawyers, teachers, doctors, businesspeople, and accountants than we do about shepherds.
And so, though the imagery seems outdated, has society in our world really outgrown the need for someone to love us fiercely and forever the way that only a truly good shepherd can? In our quietude, we yearn for someone stronger and wiser to care for us. Think about how as a child, it felt so good to be tucked into bed without worry about what would happen the next day… even if your parent didn’t know what the next day would bring, you were probably shielded from it. And you certainly weren’t worrying about whether ice would build up under the shingles, the wind would rip the pine tree out of the ground, the bills would get paid, or someone might find that creative accounting on our tax return just a bit TOO creative. No - we children collapsed drowsily into our beds content with the knowledge that someone else was in charge and we happily allowed ourselves to sleep the way only a child can, with no cares to make our minds too busy to sleep.
As adults, we carry that memory in our minds -- and we yearn for something like it again. We actually look for it more now because we know what it is like to live withOUT that security. We know what it’s like to wait for the tests to come back from the doctor. We know what it’s like to watch that deadly storm come closer on the radar screen. We’ve gone through the pain of having to bid our grandparents, parents, and great friends a final goodbye.
And so, has our need for a good shepherd really faded just because our familiarity with shepherds and sheep isn’t as good as it was for the people who first heard these words spoken by Jesus? We still live in a dangerous world with wolves around us. We will never come to a day where we will not need someone who will care for us regardless. We need someone who can see every wolf that runs our way and who will not abandon any of us sheep as insignificant. We need someone with the vision and the wisdom to lead us safely through the landscapes of life in a world which is as bewildering as ours proves to be.
Unless you really think that it is easy to see your way clearly through the multiple ethical quagmires that technology and genetic engineering are creating, then you need to be led around by someone vastly smarter than you. Unless you really think that you on your own can resolve the toughest questions of justice which confront us today, then you need a shepherd you can trust to lead you along toward that better day when justice will roll down like a mighty river and flood every street and back alley of this creation.
So friends, go ahead and clothe Jesus the Good Shepherd with modern clothes, dapper suits, or fancy dresses. But however we choose to update the imagery, we cannot deny that today as much as ever, everybody needs a shepherd.
Let us pray:
Lord Jesus, our Good Shepherd
as a shepherd gathers their flock
so You have gathered us today
drawing us in to the shelter of Your flock
to feed and refresh us.
Some of us come before You rejoicing,
because our path has led us through green pastures
and You have filled our cup of happiness to overflowing.
Some of us come before You battered and bruised by life,
because our path has led us through dark and frightening valleys
and we need to know Your strength restoring our souls.
Some of us, like foolish sheep, come before You ashamed,
because we have wandered astray instead of following You
and now we come to seek for Your forgiveness.
If we have followed the crowd, doing as others did,
forgetting that we are pledged to follow You,
then, Good Shepherd, set us right.
If we have chosen to do what we want
rather than act out of love for others
and have found ourselves in difficulties,
then Good Shepherd set us right.
If we have been so preoccupied with other things
that we have stopped listening to the voice of the Good Shepherd,
then Good Shepherd set us right.
Bring us back from where we have wandered
and set our feet on the path that leads to life.
Speak Your word of pardon, Lord
and remind us that You said:
“I have come to seek and to save that which was lost.”
May each of us know that we matter to You,
however far away we may have strayed.
May we hear Your voice afresh during our service today
and draw closer to You before we leave.
May we entrust the week ahead to You
and have the courage to follow You day by day.
For we pray this in Your name. Amen