What a comforting image, Jesus the Good Shepherd carrying a little lamb in his arms. Awwww. It reminds us of scenes like we had today, where Elliot was held in arms and marked as God’s own forever. (And we say to ourselves, that was me once!) We cling to that “safe in the arms” image when we are faced with monsters or are carrying heavy burdens or are unsure we can go one more step alone. We are that sheep, that little lamb, and Jesus, Thank God, is the Good Shepherd taking care of the flock.
And so, when I came to this passage on the Good Shepherd from the gospel of John, I got a jolt. Jesus seems to spend a lot of time talking to us, not about being good sheep: about not getting lost, about following along, about making sure we eat the green pastures and drink the still waters… Jesus, in fact, spends his time not talking about the sheep, but the aspects of good shepherding.
A good shepherd is not like a hired hand, Jesus says, who at the first sign of danger heads for the hills. No, a good shepherd truly cares for the sheep. A good shepherd, like Jesus, the Good Shepherd. So why is Jesus talking so much about what makes a good shepherd? It seems a little egotistical. And then I get this nagging suspicion that maybe Jesus doesn’t think we are the dumb sheep who have no responsibility whatsoever, other than to look cute in Jesus’ arms. What if Jesus is asking us to be shepherds?
My mind jumps to one of the resurrection stories in the gospel of John where Jesus shows up on the shore of the Sea of Tibereas as Simon Peter, Thomas, Nathaniel, James and John, and two other disciples are returning from fishing. It gives us a glimpse of what the disciples were doing after that amazing day, when Mary said she had seen Jesus, and Peter and John had run to see the empty tomb. It gives us a glimpse of what they were doing after Jesus appeared to them behind closed doors, and said, “Peace to you.” It gives us a glimpse of what they were doing after a week of Thomas (who hadn’t been at the first appearance) saying he would not believe until he saw and then Jesus showing up again to show Thomas his hands and his feet.
And what was it the disciples were doing? Were they running around the countryside telling people about Jesus? No. In the gospel of John, they had gone back to their “old” life. They were fishing.
And Jesus shows up. And in a very cathartic story where Peter gets to talk to the one who he betrayed—Jesus asks if Peter loves him, and Peter says, again and again, “You know I love you. You KNOW I do, Lord.” And the reply tells us much. It isn’t, “I forgive you.” It isn’t, “All is forgotten.” And it isn’t, “Fish to your heart’s content.”
Jesus says, “Feed my lambs; Tend my sheep; Feed my sheep.”
So what might it mean to be asked to be a shepherd like Jesus? What better way to chronicle what it means to be a shepherd than to remember the beloved words of the 23rd Psalm—a poem about God as a shepherd. “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” The psalm is a beautiful image of how God cares for us, restores us, leads us, accompanies us, feeds us. It ends with those uplifting words, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord, forever.”
“God’s goodness and mercy following us,” like a little sheep might follow a beloved shepherd. Wait, that’s not quite right. God doesn’t follow after us, picking up all the stuff we’ve dropped. God doesn’t follow after us, begging to be let in on the fun. God doesn’t follow after us, like an enthusiastic puppy, just waiting for our next command.
So what does it mean that “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me”? And here we have to admit that we are not reading this in the original language. Radaph is the Hebrew word we have translated as “follow.” Except that radaph almost never means to follow. It has a much more aggressive meaning—to pursue, to chase, to hunt down. Like when the Israelites crossed over the Red Sea, the Egyptians radaphed —“pursued them with chariots and horsemen.” Or when the Israelites defied the Lord and went into the hill country, it says ‘the Amorites came out against you and radaphed you,’ “chased you as bees do.”
So really, that final thought of the 23rd Psalm has nothing to do with the alluring image of God’s love as a bright spot wafting along, showering us with its golden aura. No,
Surely goodness and mercy shall pursue me…
Surely goodness and mercy shall chase me…
Surely goodness and mercy shall hunt me down…
God’s goodness and mercy is not some happy little bright cloud floating along behind us--this is an intense shepherd here—chasing, hunting, pursuing, even persecuting, to get to the shepherd’s goal.
Think of the shepherd leaving the 99 and going to look for the 1.
Think of the shepherd having more than one fold, but able to bring all together under that shepherd’s leadership.
Think of Jesus looking Peter right in the eye, and instead of saying, “Yeah, I know you love me. I know you made a mistake. I knew you were going to do it anyway. No harm/no foul.” Think of Jesus instead saying, “If you want to know what I want from you—Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.”
In other words, stop doing what you were doing when I found you--fishing in the sea of Galilee, and start doing what I trained you to do, Fish for people. Stop trying to pretend that you can go back to life “as it was” and start living a life that shows you know you are pursued, hunted, chased, by the Good Shepherd, the Goodness and mercy of God.
That’s the kind of shepherd Jesus wants us to be.
--Jesus doesn’t want us to shirk our responsibility and play at being dumb sheep.
--Jesus doesn’t want us to just become a hired hand, someone who can easily get away from the “cares” of this world.
--We are to become more like the One who so cares for others that we are willing to face down the scary wolf prowling around!
--We are to become more like the One who tirelessly, relentlessly, pursues, chases, and hunts down, those who are in need of God’s care.
There are times when we need to remember we are always in God’s Arms. We are safe, and from that safety we can do things that we dare not do otherwise, like walk through shadowed valleys on purpose, or be aware of when the cups of others are not overflowing even if ours are!
Today is a day to remember our own baptism—even as we coo over Elliot’s. Today is a day to take a look at our own lives and ask ourselves—What has our baptism, our becoming one of God’s own, our meeting Jesus meant to us? Have we returned to our “same old, same old” lives? Are we back to fishing?
Or have we found our own way to feed the lambs, and tend the sheep, feed the sheep we encounter? Have we stepped up to be shepherds instead of hired hands? Have we been filled with the awesome awareness of being pursued, chased, hunted, by the love of God:
that insists on being shared,
that is irritated by all the wrong in the world,
that gladly invites each and every one to lace up their shoes and join the grueling, exhausting, up-and-down race after that elusive finish line, the Kingdom, “the house of the Lord”.
May goodness and mercy Radaph you and me—all the days of our lives, as we live out our calling as God’s beloved children. May it be so.