The Good Shepherd ... a stained glass window in Saint Mark’s Church, Armagh (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Sunday 11 May 2014,
The Fourth Sunday of Easter,
10.30 a.m., The Parish Eucharist,
Zion Parish Church, Rathgar, Dublin.
Readings: Acts 2: 42-47; Psalm 23; I Peter 2: 19-25; John 10: 1-10.
May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
When I was a child on my grandmother’s farm, all the summer days, it now seems, were filled with sunshine, and there was endless time to go fishing in the brooks, and walking through the meadows.
But there were two tasks I hated.
One was trying to milk the cows: the adults seemed to think it was funny in some way that only adults understood to send us out to herd the cattle in at evening time for milking.
Inevitably, I ended up covered in something more odious than milk – and never even liked the smell of milk anyway.
The other task was one that came around, it seemed, every time I was around – the great sheep dip.
My city friends and cousins joked at the time about television ads about liver fluke and sheep dipping. But I knew all about it – and it was no joking matter.
Oh sheep are easy to call together, that was not the problem. And no, I did not have to milk them.
But, oh, the smell of the sheep dip! – now that smell was only surpassed by the smells I associate with milking the cows.
It was pungent … and there was always some fresh-faced younger uncle who thought it funny, seeing my face, to ensure that I ended up in the dipping area too.
So, to get to the point, when Jesus says he is the Good Shepherd and the Gate for the sheep, let me assure you he has no romantic city delusions.
I imagine that the Good Shepherd is one of the most popular images for stained glass windows in the parish churches throughout the Church of Ireland. But look at how we portray him!
He’s dressed in dry-cleaned or laundered and pressed red and white clothes, when everyone knows that it is impractical for any shepherd to dress like this.
He has cuddly, white lamb draped around his shoulders, when any shepherd knows that a lamb that needs to be rescued is only that is likely to be covered in briars and brambles, cut and dirty, lost and bewildered and frightened.
We are just back after a long weekend on Achill Island. At this time of the year, we have moved beyond lambing time, and the little ones are beginning to grow although still suckling.
Many years ago, I remember hearing about a man who died when he climbed down a cliff face in search of sheep that had strayed. He lost his footing and fell to the sea below.
It was a risky undertaking, and he paid the price. And someone commented on the low price sheep were fetching marts at the time. The lost sheep worked their way back up the cliff face, in any case, but they were not worth it.
Shepherding has seldom been a good career move. It’s not on the list of most guidance teachers or careers advisers.
That’s why the Christmas story is so shocking to those who first heard about it.
Saint Luke tells us the Good News of Christ’s birth is first brought to poor shepherds on the hillside, in the middle of the night, in the middle of winter (Luke 2: 8-20). Sheep were cheap meat, and the shepherds were easy prey – to wolves, to hyenas, to thieves and to sheep rustlers.
Sheep provided wool, meat, milk, cheese and yoghurt. Yet, shepherds were cheap to hire, and they did a lowly job. They were exposed to unprotected heat in the day, and to the bitter cold at night.
Christ is humbling himself when he calls himself the Good Shepherd.
One of the Bible studies prepared for the Church of Ireland for Lent this year reminded us of Saint Matthew’s comment on Christ’s shepherd-like compassion for the people:
“Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:35 ff).
It was an image that recalled the vision of the Old Testament prophets Ezekiel, who compared the well-off politicians and rulers of the day with negligent, impoverished shepherds: “My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them” (Ezekiel 34: 6).
And Ezekiel, of course, is reminding the people that they too were once like lost sheep. They had wandered like lost sheep in the wilderness.
Everyone expected the Messiah to be a king, but kings were not good role models.
No-one expected the Messiah to be a shepherd, and so it is shocking when the shepherd boy David is chosen to be king, and shocking when Jesus compares himself not with kings but with shepherds.
This is costly leadership. This is leadership that allows itself to be vulnerable, to be a potentially victimised.
When Christ becomes the good shepherd, he becomes vulnerable and compassionate, and he expresses his compassion for the lost sheep in going to meet them where they are, in their towns and villages, teaching them, bringing them the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness.
Yes, the one who is hailed by Saint John the Baptist as the Lamb of God (John 1: 35), becomes the Good Shepherd. And the God Shepherd becomes the Lamb of God.
Christ calls us to turn our values upside down, not for the fun of it, but out of compassion for the vulnerable and the lost, those who have fallen by the wayside, those everyone else thinks are not worth the risk of going after.
Who are the lost sheep for you this morning?
Who do you think Christ is foolhardy in going after?
Will we follow him to find them?
Will they be welcome back in through the gate?
And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ ποιμὴν ὁ καλός
whose Son Jesus Christ is the resurrection and the life:
Raise us, who trust in him,
from the death of sin to the life of righteousness,
that we may seek those things which are above,
where he reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
Post Communion Prayer:
you gave your Son Jesus Christ to be the good shepherd,
and in his love for us to lay down his life and rise again.
Keep us always under his protection,
and give us grace to follow in his steps;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin. This sermon was preached at the Parish Eucharist in Zion Parish Church, Rathgar, Dublin, on Sunday 11 May 2014.