Sermon at St. John's Church, Lafayette Square, Washington DC
Who calls us by name? Loved ones, friends, co-workers, and probably the receptionist at the doctorâs office. Most of us guard our names from strangers, in the same way that we guard our passports or ID cards. Thereâs an intimacy that comes with being known by name that even the raging extroverts among us donât grant to everyone. Notice how many online comments are made under pseudonyms â those who make attacks or less than kind observations prefer to do it anonymously.
Our culture still maintains some reluctance to address strangers by their first name. To know and use someoneâs name, particularly a first name, is to have some claim on that person, some expectation of intimacy and access. We call people by name at important points in their Christian lives â when theyâre baptized, married, buried, and when we pray for them in specific ways. Some congregations â usually smaller ones â make a point of naming people at communion. Jesus is named at his baptism, when the spirit calls him âmy beloved, in whom I am well pleased.â That language is also the way God addresses us: âyou are my beloved, and in you I am well pleased.â And thatâs the kind of relationship Jesus as shepherd is claiming with his sheep: âMy sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.â
Any kind of leader-follower relationship depends on some degree of knowing and being known, almost always by name. The military formalizes address by title and last name â so do schools and our legislative bodies. Both political campaigns and community organizing depend on knowing the people of a community and their desires. When a leader can speak to the inner hurts, joys, sorrows, or hopes of others, that leader begins to become effective.
We look for different kinds of leaders at different points in our lives. When weâre anxious, we seem to be more interested in an enforcer â a great big bulldog, nipping at heels, to make us or others get in line. That seems to be whatâs pushing a lot of the polarizing political rhetoric these days â life feels much more predictable with stronger immigration enforcement.
In times of despair we tend to look for an all-powerful leader who will magically provide food and drink and peaceful pasture. The many thousands of people stuck in airports in recent days yearned for that sort of help.
At other times, even in the face of significant challenges, we may look for a friend and companion who will walk alongside and share the work of leading â like two climbers who alternate the technical work of leading sections of a climb up an overhanging rock face â or the shared leadership of healthy long-term marriages.
What sort of leader weâre willing to follow â or befriend â has something to do with our current situation in life. Jesus as a good shepherd is supposed to be able to feed, water, and protect his sheep, but that phrase, good shepherd, would have been an oxymoron in Jesusâ day. The reality is that shepherds were scorned losers. They were unclean, both literally and figuratively, and unwelcome in any kind of upstanding citizenâs home or neighborhood.
Think about the cattle ranchers of the old American West, who thought sheepherders were lower than rustlers. They claimed that sheep destroyed the grazing land, and sheepherders frequently turned up dead. A hundred years ago, many Basque immigrants went to the high deserts of the West to herd sheep. Today they come from Peru and other points south. You can see their carvings in the aspen trees of northern Nevada, including the boredom and loneliness they endured for months and years on end.
Thereâs a 40 mile trail in one mountain range, where every time the sheep stopped to graze a shepherd had an opportunity to sharpen his knife and mark his passing â dozens of times, mile after mile, âAntonio Hidalgo, peruano, borreguero, con muchos cojones y poco dinero.â [Antonio Hidalgo, Peruvian, shepherd, with plenty of guts but no cash.]
Shepherds in Jesusâ day were also essentially homeless. They didnât have any permanent place to lay their head at night. They spent their days and nights in the open, rarely bathed, carried sick sheep to safety, and probably dispatched the sickest. One pastor recently shared his opinion that in Jesusâ day, a shepherdâs more likely response to the story of 99 sheep who stuck around and one who strayed would have been to break the neck of the wanderer â too much trouble to pastor that one!
Each morning shepherds had to sort out their sheep and goats from the others who shared the open grazing land, and they had to take on various predators, animal and human. The competing shepherds in common grazing lands had to be able to tell their sheep apart â each shepherd knew the sheep as individuals and had a distinctive call to gather his own; the sheep of that herd knew that call, and followed their own shepherd.
Many of the ancients thought of shepherds as thieves, probably because of confusion among the sheep on those common pastures. Thereâs even a prohibition in Jewish law against buying wool and milk from shepherds, lest one unwittingly receive stolen goods. Shepherds werenât considered reliable as witnesses, and couldnât give testimony. Why would anyone want to follow somebody like that?
This good shepherd Jesus hangs out with anybody and everybody, and joins the outcasts and the forgotten. This isnât sanitary Jesus, robed in Mr. Kleen whites and looking saintly on an old stained glass window. This is Hellâs Angel Jesus on a Harley â rounding up toys for poor kids. This is gang leader Jesus, pushing his homies to fill an old ladyâs grocery cart, and then haul it home for her and put the food away. This is a shepherd like Oscar Romero, challenging the state to remember those who are left out.
This is the kind of shepherd who will go into hell to find Judas, or go looking for sheep hanging on the next cross. This is the kind of friend you want in a hopeless mess, calling your name, âcome on, beloved, this is the way home.â
Shepherds come in surprising guises. The good ones may speak in unfamiliar tongues, but they lead us toward a society marked by welcome for all, where thereâs room at the table for people of every family, language, people, and nation â because itâs Godâs table, not ours. What kind of shepherd pushes hungry sheep away from the grazing?
The shepherd we look to wipes away tears from every eye, finds shelter for all, out of the scorching sun, waters them in the desert at the springs of the water of life, and feeds us on the borderless pasture planted and grown for all of Godâs beloved creatures, not just a privileged few. Thatâs a shepherd worth following.