Sermon text: John 10: 11-18
I consider myself to be a good swimmer. I am comfortable in the water. I learned to swim when I was very young, I spent many a summer day in pools and oceans, I did some competitive swimming in my youth, and twice I passed lifeguard certification tests. I love the water.
And yet, despite my confidence and love for aquatic situations, I always appreciate swimming under the watchful eye of a lifeguard, especially when I am at the beach. The ocean is simply too unpredictable and water can be too unforgiving. I’ve heard more than enough firsthand accounts of riptides carrying people out to sea and other bizarre swimming stories that nearly ended in disaster, so I like the assurance of a lifeguard. I’m not saying accidents can’t happen when they’re on duty, but it’s nice to know that a trained pair of eyes are watching out for me and my fellow swimmers. In some ways they are the shepherds of the sea.
There’s no substitute to the feeling of being watched over by someone who cares for you. A parent brooding over a sickbed, a crossing guard ferrying children across the street, a nurse bringing ice chips and a warm blanket, or a lifeguard scanning the water. These people may not be able to save us from all harm, but they will do their best to protect us and watch over us.
I am the good shepherd. Jesus assures his followers that he loves and watches over his people, that he will look after their needs, protect them, guide them, and lay down his life for them. He is caring, selfless, unflinching, committed. Jesus will stop at nothing to promote the good of his flock.
That’s why the image of the good shepherd has always been so captivating and calming. The Good Shepherd is even one of the earliest images the church, found painted in ancient Christian churches and catacombs. It’s why Psalm 23 still resonates with us, because we still stride through the valley of the shadow of death and we take comfort that Jesus accompanies us. The idea of a loving, protecting, guiding, and providing God is an idea that we can all agree with. That image of God brings safety, security, and peace of mind.
Jesus also makes this statement in direct contrast to the shepherds of his day that were considered anything but good. We’re not talking about literal shepherds, but the people of power. The Ancient Near East commonly used shepherding as a metaphor to refer to their kings and emperors who were given divine authority to lead and care for their subjects and lands. There was a long list of Herods and Caesars and proclaimed King of Kings who cared more for themselves than the lives of their people. And that is the precise place where we enter the gospel text on this Good Shepherd Sunday.
What does life feel like when the shepherds, the leaders and institutions we elect and trust, fail to oversee our common good? What happens when our shepherds turn out to be hired hands? I think we have witnessed that their absence begets distress.
Jesus has one goal, to unite his diverse folds as a united flock. That is his grand vision and we have done our best to frustrate his designs. The flocks are scattered, they are divided and running wild. We lack the calming effects of shepherds who will gather us together and promote our collective livelihoods. By now you know the litany of woes and laments, they still require naming.
There is division and mistrust with our political shepherds. Both parties claim to work for the public interest and are guilty of sowing seeds of discord and division. We cling to the notion that no good can come from a politician who operates on the differing side of the aisle and we do not trust the whole system to work for the common good. Even though we proudly boast that our system of government is the best option, we are quite jaded about our expectations from these shepherds.
There is division and mistrust with our shepherds of jurisprudence. This was on display this week as the Derek Chauvin case reached a verdict. We’ve constructed false dichotomies between race and law enforcement, people of color fear for their safety and have sleepless nights over the wellbeing of their children, officers of the law fear for their safety too, law enforcement itself has become a polarized political football, body cameras show gruesome events and we’ve witnessed far too many fatalities, and we watch as talking heads turn a murder trial into circus entertainment.
When it comes to George Floyd and Derek Chauvin the sobering truth is this: A man is dead. Another will spend the majority of the remainder of this life behind bars, and the only reason anything happened was because bystanders caught it on video. This guilty verdict wasn’t just for the defendant, or the system, it was for us all. We need a better way, one of both accountability and justice. We need our shepherds to fix this.
There is division and mistrust with race, gender, public health, education, science class, firearms, country of origin, creed, sexual preference, age…we need shepherds who will care for us. Life is far too toxic when the shepherds are gone or when they show that they are only hired hands.
And so, in times of pandemic, in times of gridlocked and embarrassing politics, in times of violence, calls for change and justice and equity, and cries of lament, we turn again to the one shepherd who will not disappoint: Jesus Christ. Despite all the head scratching circumstances that we are witnessing we believe that Jesus, the one who laid down his life for us and then took it up again, has the ability to walk beside us and lift us up as we struggle to make sense of this baffling world. It is through the perfect love of Jesus that all of our fears will be driven away. And even though his power cannot keep us perfectly safe from the contemporary valleys of death, it does grant us security. The constant watchfulness of Jesus does not waiver.
The lifeguard cannot guarantee that we will never swallow water or get a cramp while swimming, but they are committed to jumping in after us when we need assistance. The divine care of Christ is always scanning for our wellbeing, and when the waters begin to crest over our heads we have confidence that the Good Shepherd’s hook will always yank us to safety. AMEN