Fourth Sunday of Easter
Every year, employment agencies and worker advocacy groups publish lists of the most dangerous jobs in America. Usually, there is little variation among these lists. At the top are occupations in which people are exposed to some of the harsher, untamed elements of the natural world, like commercial fishermen and loggers, or those who labor in precarious worksites, like roofers and steel-beam construction workers. Using our imaginations, we could probably come up with some other vocations that carry with them the likelihood or inevitability of danger—firefighters, police officers, members of the military. Few people would argue that these are dangerous jobs.
Lately, though, as the COVID-19 crisis has caused us to think about a lot of things differently, I can’t help but be struck by just how dangerous some other jobs have become, jobs that we normally wouldn’t think of as particularly hazardous but which have come to carry an inescapable element of very real danger. Health-care workers, from doctors and nurses to respiratory therapists, pharmacists, chaplains, and various other hospital support staff, have been on the front-lines of this situation. Each day, so many of these brave workers don their masks and gloves and take their health into their own hands, caring for those who are suffering greatly.
But beyond these heroes in the medical profession, we can look to others whose work we so often have taken for granted—grocery store workers dedicated to providing people with the food they need, deliverymen and women who make it possible for people to stay at home and still receive essential items, janitors and custodial staffs committed to keeping environments clean and safe for others. We don’t often think of these jobs as dangerous, but in these times, when we need them most, they certainly can be. We don’t often think of these people as heroic, but our current situation has driven home the point that so often, it’s those we’re most prone to overlook who are the truly essential members of our communities.
We don’t often think of shepherds as those involved in dangerous, essential work. In fact, we don’t usually think about shepherds at all. Most of us, I would dare say, don’t interact with shepherds on a regular basis. Maybe you know someone who has some sheep or goats on some land that they own, a small flock that they raise for fun and for a little spending money. Maybe you’ve been to a sheep-shearing demonstration at a historical site or you’ve driven by a flock grazing on a hillside and been struck by the quaintness of the image, but for the most part, sheep and shepherds are more of an oddity to us than anything. Shepherds make an appearance every year at church nativity plays and Christmas parades, but even then, they’re almost an afterthought. Those of us who have played the part of the shepherds in these productions view it as on par with playing a tree in a school play. The shepherds don’t get any lines. They don’t steal the show. All that’s required is a bathrobe and a willingness to fade into the background as the angels and Mary and Joseph and even the donkeys soak up all the attention.
The gospel reading for this week paints a different picture. One of the most compelling qualities of Jesus’ teaching was the knack he had for bringing into the light those things that were so often overlooked, for investing with kingdom significance those realities that were so often dismissed as unimportant. In the passage that we read from today, from John’s gospel, we find Jesus doing just that. Like so many of the “I am” statements that we find in Jesus’ teaching in this gospel–I am the bread of life; I am the living water; I am the light of the world; I am the true vine–the passage for today, if we extend it into verse 11, takes something easy to overlook, something we’re apt to ignore, and charges it with Kingdom truth. “I am the good shepherd,” Jesus says, reminding us just how essential, and just how dangerous the work of a shepherd can be.
The good shepherd knows his sheep. Unlike the thief, who sneaks into the sheep pen by some back way, who walks among the flock in order to steal and to kill and destroy, the shepherd knows his sheep and he calls them by name. Like any good worker—like the carpenter who knows the cut of wood, and like the farmer who knows a field like the back of his hand, the good shepherd has a familiarity with his flock that is born out of long hours spent attending to their needs, watching over their comings and their goings and learning their habits.
The good shepherd is a constant presence, a faithful presence, in the lives of his sheep. And so they can trust him. They can follow him. He leads them out of the pen and into the pastures where they might find rest and sustenance. Like the image of the shepherd in Psalm 23, we can picture this good shepherd walking with his sheep beside still waters and providing for the needs of those in his care.
The thieves and robbers who walk among the flock, the false gods and false teachers who promise life to the full, who promise to give the sheep what they desire, don’t know the sheep. They don’t care about the sheep, and so in the end they offer nothing but death, destruction, the consequences of trusting in the wrong things and following the wrong things. When Jesus talks about the thieves and robbers in his day, he’s calling on those who hear him not to put their trust in those things that disappoint and deceive, those things that ultimately destroy. And this word from him says the same thing to us. The best thing the sheep can do in the presence of these thieves and robbers is to turn away, even to run away. To draw closer to the shepherd who knows them because he has long watched over them, the shepherd who truly offers life to the full.
But not only does the good shepherd know his sheep’s names. The good shepherd is a good shepherd because he lays down his life for his sheep. We could be forgiven, when picturing the life of a shepherd, as being a serene sort of existence. The language from the Psalms, about still waters and green pastures, can certainly lead us to believe that life, for the shepherd and for the flock is a pristine idyll that unfolds in a bubble of safety and security.
However, that same Psalm talks about walking through the valley of the shadow of death. It talks about preparing a table in the presence of enemies. Just because the sheep are following the shepherd doesn’t mean that the wolves, the lions, the robbers and thieves magically disappear. Sheep are not at the top of the food chain. Sheep are not known for their ability to defend themselves against the myriad of threats that come their way. If we are sheep, and in Jesus’ illustration, that is exactly what we are, we will by nature be open to attacks of all kinds. Temptations to sin. Struggles from within and without. Sickness. Bitterness. Emotional and financial turmoil. Despair. These are the realities that take up residence in the valley of the shadow of death, and we will inevitably, at some point in our lives, have to travel through this valley.
The hired hand, the shepherd not worthy of the title, might be content to let us walk that road alone. But the good shepherd walks with us. The good shepherd faces the enemies that we can’t face on our own. Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, lays down his own life for the sake of the sheep that he loves. He brings salvation to the lost. He brings hope and healing where there is affliction. He brings life to the full where there is death. And he calls us to do the same, to embody the work of the Good Shepherd among our neighbors, our friends, and our enemies. He calls us to lay down our lives for one another, to follow his example and to follow the Spirit’s leading in shepherding others through their struggles. It might not always be glamorous work. It certainly won’t be easy work. It might be dangerous work. But it’s essential work. This laying down of our lives for one another is the work of our God and it’s the work of God’s people.