Not a Good Shepherd Sermon
A sermon on Luke 10:1-10
[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Dylann Hendricks | 딜란 on Unsplash.]
So, today is Good Shepherd Sunday… and I feel like I should have a different response to that designation than I actually have.
As a poet myself, on this final day of National Poetry Month, I feel like I SHOULD be all about a Sunday that revolves around a metaphor!
There’s so much potential to really dive into imagery.
And there’s so much great music that lets our souls sing about being shepherded.
And I feel like this should be really fun, and inspiring, and calling out all my creativity.
But… the thing I love about metaphors, and poetry, and the more creative ways of exploring spirituality… is the opportunity to ground insights and meaning in FAMILIAR images and ideas… things that help us to connect the deep truths of our faith to experiences that reside in our daily lives.
And shepherds just are not part of our daily lives.
Sure, they are ubiquitous in church – one or my earliest faith memories is the illustration of the Good Shepherd in my Precious Moments children’s Bible – but we don’t encounter shepherds outside of church.
Shepherding images don’t help us to make connections or ground us in the ways that the promises of faith can take root in our actual lived experience.
That pastel Precious Moments shepherd nuzzling his baby face into a fluffy white lamb is not an image in which I can recognize either myself or my Jesus.
All of which leaves me feeling a bit… meh… about our metaphor-heavy gospel reading today.
Thankfully, there are wonderful Bible scholars who write commentaries and make podcasts to help me in my sermon preparation, and the Sermon Brainwave podcast this week reminded me that I was never intended to read today’s gospel reading all on its metaphorical lonesome.
That’s because the Gospel of John has a very intentionally paired structure in the way it tells the story of Jesus: first you get a “sign” (the story of one of Jesus’s miracles), then you get a “discourse” (an extended section of teaching, that is meant to explain the sign, and for which the sign acts as an illustration).
What we read today, and indeed all of John chapter 10 is from one of the discourses, which means that we need to connect it back to the sign to get the full picture.
Fortuitously, we read chapter 9 back in Lent.
It’s a miracle story in which Jesus gives sight to a man who had been born blind, and in doing so he kicks off a controversy because he performed the healing by making mud with his spit to put onto the man’s eyes and the legalists in the local faith community considered that an act of working on the Sabbath.
So, they question the man, and his parents, in an effort to discredit Jesus’s act of power. The faith leaders end up throwing the man out of the congregation because he won’t call his healer a sinner.
When this happens, Jesus finds the man again and asks him “Do you believe in the Son of Man”? The man asks Jesus “tell me who he is so that I may believe,” to which Jesus responds, “You have seen him; in fact, he is the one speaking with you.”
This is very definitely NOT a story about sheep or shepherds.
Which might cause us to wonder why this sign gets connected to the “Good Shepherd” Discourse.
OR it might cause us to conclude that the important thing in the “Good Shepherd” Discourse is not actually the shepherd metaphor.
Shepherds were just a handy image for Jesus to use, given his contemporaneous audience for whom sheep and shepherds were familiar elements of daily life.
But for us, the important thing is that Jesus is talking about who we do and do not recognize as a source of guidance.
The conflict in chapter 9 is about authority (who gets to guide our actions), but that conflict gets played out in questions about what is seen, and heard, and recognized.
The man born blind would seem to be at a disadvantage since he cannot see the path at his feet… but he knows how to listen.
Jesus spreads mud on his eyes and sends him to wash, and the man follows where Jesus’s voice sends him.
As a result, he recognizes Jesus as the one sent from God when everyone else is too blinded by what they think they know to do their own listening or seeing.
That is the set-up for Jesus’ teaching about the sheep… who hear the shepherd’s voice, and who follow him because they know his voice.
I may not have any real-life reference points for sheep and shepherds, but listening to a trusted voice… that’s a metaphor that DOES have meaning for me.
On a literal level I can connect it to a teenage camp counsellor experience of doing a trust walk… being blindfolded so that I had to listen to the voice of a partner guiding me through a maze with just her words.
Or there are the memories of nights when I have felt helpless and alone, trapped in my depression, when the voice of friend on the other end of the phone gave me the hope I needed to hang on.
Or there are the times I am spiraling, or frustrated, or caught in unhealthy patterns and a loved one, or a counsellor, or a church member, has said the words that remind me who I am and what I value.
Being able to hear the voice of love and truth has been incredibly important to me in my life, more times than I can count.
And with those associations in my metaphor bank… I can embrace a new perspective on what it means for Jesus to be the “shepherd,” the guide, whose voice I hear, the voice that leads me where I need to go.
When I think of that trust walk, I am reminded that listening to the voice of my Guide means I don’t always have to see twenty steps ahead and rely on my own navigational ability.
Sometimes I need to know my own limits and lean into trust in the Guide who can see much more clearly than I can.
When I think of those late night phone calls, I am reminded that sometimes what I need is not directions on which way to turn, but reassurance that I am not alone and defenseless.
And when I’m in that emotional space, my Guide’s voice calls me into the sheltering gate, where I can be safe to break down because my protection and care is assured.
When I think of the voices calling me out of my spiraling patterns, I remember that I am deeply known.
My Guide calls me by my name: God will never lead me in a path that compromises who I am, or makes me choose between obedience and integrity. I am not just some anonymous member of a flock. God calls me as a unique individual, known and equipped for the path ahead of me.
I may not see myself in the metaphor of a sheep, and I may not intuitively resonate with the promise that Jesus is my Shepherd… but I do know what a difference it makes to have a Guide… a Guide whose voice I recognize… a Guide I trust… hopefully more than I trust my fallible self.
There’s one other way that the metaphor of the guiding voice can possibly call to us in a way that Shepherd imagery probably does not:
In all of the memories that this metaphor evoked for me in my life, there were actual voices that I listened to… the voices of other people.
In each of those experience God’s voice has been present too, but God has this beautiful habit of collaborating with humanity.
And that’s why this wandering sermon, that’s not about Shepherding metaphors, and IS about a healing story we read six weeks ago, is also a sermon that links into our Easter theme about witness.
Because this sermon is MY witness.
It’s a confession of the religious language that doesn’t work for me.
And it’s a bit of a nerdy sidebar about the way scripture works and the kind of word play that I love to explore.
It is a vulnerable glimpse into some of the moments I have most needed God’s love and nurture.
And a reminder that THIS is exactly how God guides us... through each other’s voices… through the willingness to share about how WE have heard God’s voice so that other people might hear it too.
So, whether you actually really love Good Shepherd language or not, I hope you’ll open your ears to hear the Shepherd’s voice calling your name today…
And that, when you do, you’ll share that story so that someone else can hear God’s voice too.
Thanks be to God.