Each time we come to the “Good Shepherd” story, the images from our formation classes come to mind. So, today I bring them forward, inviting your child or inner child to interact more than you normally would for a sermon. (Actually, starting next month, we’ll be adding a children’s sermon to our services on the first Sundays.)
(Godly Play stories are set up in front of the altar rails.) There are a couple of different stories focusing on the Good Shepherd in our Godly Play curriculum. One focuses on the shepherd knowing the sheep by name and the sheep following the shepherd all the way to green pastures, where a table emerges and everyone from across the globe gather in world communion, circling round with the sheep. Our path as sheep is intentional and slow, each sheep getting the attention of the storyteller to follow the shepherd. Maybe the storyteller and the children name the sheep so that the shepherd can offer encouragement. As we wonder what their names might be, maybe their names are like ours, and the Good Shepherd calls us each by name, affectionately. We are glad to share this Good Shepherd with others, celebrating the diversity of the community gathering, sharing in what is offered to us by a shepherd, who is now the priest celebrating Holy Eucharist, offering the Sacrament to all, as Jesus, the Good Shepherd, continues to know us, feed us, love, and encourage us.
Lest you think we sugar-coat the story, we don’t. Consider what he heard in today’s gospel lesson. We have a story for that, too.
Yes, we have the Good Shepherd and the sheep. Who else do we have? The hired hand, yes. We know that he’s not a shepherd by vocation: the hired hand doesn’t own the sheep, doesn’t particularly care about their well-being. We see this play out when who else arrives on the scene? The wolf! Yes, it’s a scary wolf. We understand the food chain, that the wolf is a predator of sheep, and left only to the hired hand, the sheep are scattered, if not snatched by the wolf. The sheep are vulnerable. There are dangers in their lives–dark valleys, steep mountains, hunger (their own and others’)–for which, thankfully, the Good Shepherd provides guidance and direction, if not outright protection.
Because ultimately, the Good Shepherd would stay with the sheep, protecting them, even to lay down his own life for them, so powerful is his love and commitment. And the whole world is encompassed in this flock of the good shepherd, all of Creation. Basking in this love, sharing this story with the children, we could wonder together about all the things we notice, ask questions, and point out the obvious and the not-so-obvious.
As I was doing my own wondering, the phrase
“All we like sheep have gone astray”
came to mind. Of course I looked it up to see where it comes from, and it comes from Isaiah (53:6, to be exact), part of the suffering servant pericope (section). While I have to jog my memory around the Isaiah verses, these would be familiar to our faithful Jewish ancestors. They would know the story of one despised and rejected, oppressed and afflicted, and see the parallels between the rejection and torment the pharisees and elders are giving Jesus, especially as he’s drawing closer to the end of his earthly life. The same suffering servant also becomes the lamb led to slaughter, giving Jesus a subtle way of foreshadowing what is to come.
The sheep that go astray turn to their own way, but “the righteous one, (the) servant,” “(bears) the sin of many, and (makes) intercession for the transgressors” (Isa 53:11-12). Whatever we who go astray do, wherever we go, we are not without the Good Shepherd, ready and willing to shower us in redemptive love.
This understanding of the universal salvation of Christ available to all is one of the many things I love about The Episcopal Church. Whoever we are, wherever we are in our journey of faith, if we feel or hear the call of the Good Shepherd, we are welcome at the table, we are invited into communion, demonstrated through our baptism/confirmation/reception. We have already been saved by Jesus Christ, but do we choose to follow Him?
Does that mean that others who do not follow Jesus Christ are going to eternal damnation? That is not our place of judgment. How God calls and speaks to others has got to be as varied as our native tongues and cultures. The love and acts of God exceed our understanding. As Christians in the Episcopal tradition, our salvation through Christ does not mean that we disregard our neighbors. With love and respect, we can share the Good News of the Good Shepherd with them, and then we can listen to see if God speaks to them differently, has offered revelations that resonate in their heart and soul. To me, the diversity of the experiences of God only magnify my awe and appreciation, my humility and compassion.
God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, the good shepherd. How faithful are we in following the one who leads and guides us, who loves us and cares for us, who has power to love or leave us but chooses to lay down his life for us? We start by listening and paying attention with the expectation that as beloveds, we are known and called. It’s up to us whether or not we follow, but nothing we do excludes us from God’s love. It’s always up to us whether or not we enter into the relationship, to love and to care and to do the work we’re given to do.