Milborne St Andrew
Sunday 22nd April 2018
Acts 4.5-12; John 10.11-18
Jesus said: I am the good shepherd.
What, I wonder, does it mean to be a good shepherd?
I was talking to a friend on Friday, and she told me about her friend’s pet dog. The dog, a collie, had been brought up on a farm and trained as a sheep dog.
This was absolutely fine, and he was quite effective in his work. He did a lovely job in gathering up the sheep and guiding them into the right field, ensuring that none of them escaped before they were gated in.
The only problem was he also liked to herd up people. One day, they had some friends dog-sitting for them. He was very friendly when they arrived and welcomed them enthusiastically.
The only problem was once they were in the house he wouldn’t let them out again. The dog-sitters spent a long time trying to go out.
Whatever they attempted, it seemed that the collie was cleverer and could predict what they were going to do. In the end one of them escaped through a window and managed to then let the others out from the outside.
Round them up, get them in and don’t let them out again – perhaps I should try that on a Sunday morning to increase our congregation size!
The passage that we heard from John’s Gospel comes immediately after an altercation between Jesus and certain Pharisees, following his healing of a blind man. The problem in the Pharisees’ eyes is that Jesus has healed the man on the Sabbath day, a day when no work should have been done.
It might be that, if we look at the differences between the Pharisees’ attitude towards the healing of the blind man and that of Jesus we will discover something about what it means to be a good shepherd.
The idea that the religious leaders were the shepherds of God’s people had a long history going back to the prophets; it’s an idea that appears in Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Zechariah, where we see the prophets calling the leaders of Israel back to their responsibilities to God’s people.
The use of the shepherd imagery in this particular conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees needs to be seen with that Old Testament context behind it.
So let’s look at the differing attitudes to the man born blind.
The Pharisees are focused on the rules and regulations. This man has been healed on the sabbath. That’s broken the law.
Therefore he and the one who healed him should be cast out from the religious community, the body of pure people who followed the Law.
Their attitude is one of judgement. What they are saying is that it would have been better for the man to have remained blind and not broken the rules. Here is a classic example of someone who hasn’t followed the law and is therefore not worthy of being part of their community. They have seen a problem.
Jesus, however, approaches the man with love. He sees a man suffering from blindness and longs to bring him freedom from his disability. He doesn’t cast the man off but welcomes him and ministers to him. He sees there is a need and with compassion he meets it. He sees the man as a human being first and foremost and not some little difficulty that needs solving by throwing him out.
The Pharisees’ way is very neat and tidy. It’s easy to live by a set of rules which divide people to those who are in and those who are out.
With a strict set of rules, everyone can know what is expected of them and stick to them.
But life is not always as clear cut as a set of rules. We know that life gets messy. We only have to watch children growing up to know that there is a certain part of growing up that is about pushing boundaries and seeing how far they can go.
We know that however hard we try relationships do break down, that people do get sick, that we don’t always get it right. Even Teresa May confessed to running through cornfields when she was a child!
No – we all make mistakes and get things wrong. For the Pharisees and those with their attitude that means that in the end nobody is OK, because nobody can keep the rules all the time.
Now the thing about the Pharisees is that they had control. They interpreted what was and what wasn’t OK.
We know Jesus labelled them hypocrites, because they bothered about little tiny things while actually losing sight of why the laws were in place.
Their focus had shifted from loving and following God to loving and following rules and regulations, which may have had their origins in their relationship with God but had become distorted and were being used as a tool of unjust power.
Jesus, however, starts from an entirely different place. He sees not first and foremost a transgressor who has broken the law but a beloved human being in need. His initial response is one of love and tenderness. He draws the man to himself. He sees the man as a valuable person, someone who needs to be approached with love and compassion not judgement and exclusion.
The two attitudes of Jesus and Pharisees can be contrasted by asking ourselves a question: is it better to stand before God without blemish or to stand before God open to receive love?
In many ways that is a false question because we know none of us can be without blemish, and that’s the problem with the view of the Pharisees – their standards are unattainable, no one can ever fully meet them.
Jesus too has very high standards – not about how much spice we tithe or how many times we say certain prayers, but in the way that we should live. The standards of Jesus are, like the Pharisees, unattainable – which of us ever manages to put God and others as the first two priorities in our lives all the time?
But unlike the Pharisees, the approach of Jesus is not exclusion when we get it wrong, but arms outstretched to welcome us home. All Jesus wants is for us to realise that we have got it wrong and to receive his love so we can start again. Love and forgiveness, inclusion and healing, a place for all who wish to be part of his flock.
What does it mean to be a good shepherd?
It means to be someone who approaches each member of the flock as a unique and valued lamb.
It means to put the welfare of the sheep before the rules.
It means to have the wellbeing of the sheep as the prime motivation for service.
It means to provide protection and healing, food and water, a place for all to graze.
It means holding together the flock in unity, striving to ensure that any who stray are brought back together.
It means knowing one’s flock intimately.
All we like sheep have gone astray. I think sheep are probably easier to deal with than human beings, even when they do go off and do their own thing. Over time they learn their shepherd’s voice, they learn the places where they graze, they have boundaries in place, they allow the shepherd to provide for them
We human beings – we like to do our own thing without recourse to the shepherd. We like to go our own way. We like to push at the boundaries God has given us for healthy and good living, for strong communities, for looking after the world.
We’ve all seen the parent in the supermarket tearing their hair out because their child just will not behave or the dog owner calling and calling the recalcitrant puppy away from the excitement of the scent. Perhaps we have been one of those parents or dog-owner. We know the heartache it causes when what we put in place for the good of the child or dog is pushed against and rejected.
Do we ever see ourselves like that when think of our relationship with God? I don’t want to anthropomorphise and limit God, but I wonder if we can picture for a moment what God must feel like when the world does its own thing. Can we imagine God tearing hair out because of frustration with us, calling us back home but like the wilful child we refuse to listen? I wonder.
We have a good shepherd of love and compassion and care. What sort of sheep are we willing to be? Those who hear his voice and follow or those who decide to go their own way and do their own thing. It’s our choice.
But the one thing we can be sure of is that whichever we choose, when we turn to face our shepherd we will meet only love and compassion.