Easter 4: The Good Shepherd is Fierce

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Diego, Pastor Anna’s ridiculously photogenic (sheep)dog.

John 10:1-10

Because I was on vacation this past week, my sermon is, admittedly, recycled — I first preached this to my congregation in Montgomery, Alabama, in 2012, during my second full year as their pastor. You all might remember even better than they that it was in the spring of 2012 that the Boston marathon bombing happened and it was, for me, only one of many times that I’ve had to rethink what to preach based on what has happened in the world. Since you all had quite a closer perspective on those events because most of you were only 90 minutes down the interstate at the time, I thought this might be interesting for you to hear.

And also, in light of the events swirling today — possible nuclear war, immigration, terror, fear, health care, Russia, tax plans, and so on, and on, and on — I thought this was a good message to recycle for Good Shepherd Sunday, as we figure out what the heck is happening in our world and what our role is in it as Christian people.

———

I was working on our Wednesday night Bible study on Monday morning when it happened. My friend Katie in Seattle, whose husband Nathan I have run everything from 5Ks to half marathons with for years, sent me a text message. “Turn on the news,” she said. “Two bombs have gone off at the Boston Marathon.”

I immediately found it online. Two bombs had gone off in Boston only a few minutes before. There was no word yet on how many people were injured. There was definitely no word on who could have been responsible. There was only chaos as we all tried to figure out who was hurt, where the bombs had been, and why.

After finding out that every friend I had in Boston who’d be likely to be watching the marathon was safe, my mind spun a thousand directions. Bombs at a marathon? Marathons and road races have become a big part of my life in recent years, and as the pictures flowed in, I saw a familiar scene — a finish line, with runners crossing. The finishers’ chute, which belongs only to those who have run the race and endured. I saw the cheering crowds, the mile markers. But these photos were tainted with something horribly unfamiliar. Beyond the runners, beside the finish line, in the middle of the crowd, a wall of flame. An explosion. The photo that sticks in my mind the most was taken just at the moment the first bomb went off. No one had even had time to react yet to the horror that was unfolding. 

In the hours and days that have followed, my Facebook feed and other sources have filled up with calls to prayer for Boston. Over and over, I saw it, and little else: “Pray for Boston.” But something didn’t quite sit right with me about that. Not necessarily the call to prayer itself, but the fact that that was the only thing I was hearing.
Finally, I saw a post that put into words what had been bothering me so much.

A clergywoman in Boston posted:

“You know what phrase I’m getting tired of hearing? ‘We offer our prayers for Boston.’ There’s nothing at all wrong with the phrase, I’m just tired of needing to hear it so frequently. ‘Our hearts go out to the…’ ‘We are saddened and angered to…”

As she said, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with offering our prayers. When we feel so helpless, that’s often the only thing that we feel that we can do. And connecting with God, asking God to offer comfort, is one of the most powerful things that we can do. We have done it today. I hope that we continue to do so in the coming weeks. But as this Boston clergywoman went on to point out, that’s not all we can do, or should do.

She says, “Just this: religious leaders have a lot to say about the culture of violence. We can’t speak powerfully if we look like a bunch of harmless frumps. It’s so easy to ignore earnest, drab little people [only] spouting bromides about peace, love and understanding. I want you to be fierce. I want you to be compelling. I want you to sound powerful, look powerful and be powerful…. America needs your strong voice, your passion, your intensity. If you’re going to pray for us, and I know you will, also send out something as tough as we are.”

(A note: that was one of my first impressions of New Englanders as the strong, pragmatic, and boldly courageous people I have come to know you to be.)
It is true — our culture is steeped in violence. Violent video games, violent movies, violent music. Over and over again we see violence, everywhere we look we see violence. We don’t have much regard for human life and the truth is, we hardly ever really have in history. This isn’t a generational problem, but a human one. Only the mediums through which violent images are transported ever really changes.

Today’s reading is where Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd. All the hymns we’ll sing today are among my nerdy favorites. For the occasions when I manage to get sentimental, they make me all teary: “The King of Love my Shepherd is, whose goodness faileth never / I never lack if I am his, and he is mine forever.”

Those words have always felt like a big and much-needed hug. The words of today’s text, too, tend to make us feel loved and safe, for obvious reasons. We live in a crazy world. Lord knows, we need hugs from God these days.

But this week I heard something else. After seeing the photos of the bombing and reading the news stories and then reading that Boston pastor’s blog post, I read this text in a different way. I thought about how shepherds are gentle with the sheep, but also fiercely protective. Any shepherd who is all gentle, meek and mild, is going to end up wolf bait. (ooh ha ha.) And the text itself talks a lot about the gate, the thief, the need for the shepherd to be protective as well as gentle. 

And now we come to my yearly confession, happening every fourth Sunday of Easter: I don’t particularly like to think of pastors as shepherds. The biblical witness primarily describes God as the Shepherd, not any person. And who do we pastors think we are? Jesus? We’re human, while the rest of you are smelly sheep? If that were the case, I would be offended on your behalf.

No. I like a different image for the pastor.

A mentor of mine years ago gave me a metaphor that I still hold to.

She likes to think of it this way: that pastors are not the shepherds so much as the sheepdogs. The sheepdogs are set apart from the sheep to lead them the way that the shepherd wants. They lead them according to his voice. They watch over the sheep and guard them from all the same predators that the shepherd looks out for. Sheepdogs are no better than the sheep; all are the shepherd’s creatures.

This image is one reason that I love border collies so much. It’s one reason that I got Diego.

For those of you that I’ve managed not to tell yet, my dog Diego is part border collie. He’s black and white, with a border collie’s trademark white stripe between his eyes. His eyes are light brown and compelling. Border collies are unique sheepdogs because they direct the sheep not by nipping at or barking at them, but they direct them with their eyes. They are also incredibly smart, though sometimes Diego, well… as my friend Samuel says, he could stand to be more smart and less clever. Diego and I have a lot in common.

There’s something else. Diego and I often go running together, as border collies also have an untold amount of energy. Several times, I have passed figures on the street that Diego thought were threatening. Even when there was no reason that was discernible to me, he would let out a low, defensive growl as we passed. He’s also often done this to people in my life (my apologies if he’s done this to you). He’s also done it to big dogs who’ve gotten too close to me.

Curious and wondering why my dog would growl at random people, I looked it up. It turns out that border collies are fiercely protective of what they deem theirs. I think that makes them the perfect metaphor for what a pastor should be, and more broadly, what any Christian person should be. Nurturing, loving, offering direction at the call of the shepherd, and fiercely protective.

File this under “What my dog has taught me about ministry.”

I don’t find these fierce Christian voices in many places.

When I do, I find that they’re more offensive than defensive. I find that they are more about beating people over the head with the Bible than bringing the Gospel, which we often forget is supposed to be good news. I often find that pastors who speak out aren’t fighting for their congregations or for the least of these, they’re attacking people. And that’s another thing that Diego has taught me about ministry: he’s also taught me how not to do it. Often, pastors and other Christians growl and bark at the wrong people. They attack people who aren’t actually a threat.

You’ll notice that Jesus talks about “laying down his life for the sheep.” He talks about how no one will take his life from him, but he will lay it down and pick it back up again. He’s defending the sheep, not trying to see wolves all around him. He is in control, he lays down his life and takes it back up again. Any good sheep or sheepdog who trusts the shepherd has no reason to be defensive.

Yes, pastors, and Christians of all stripes, should be fierce. Secure in the shepherd’s care, we should be brave, ready to speak, ready to act, at the direction of the Shepherd.

Yes, Christians should be fierce. We should offer our prayers, and then we should go out into the world to speak. To speak, to yell, to scream out against the things that harm the sheep: a culture of fear. A culture of violence. A lack of regard for the humanity and dignity of each person. As Thomas Merton said, “We must guard the image of [humanity], for it is the image of God.”

One of my favorite lines in the Gospel of John is right before the crucifixion: When Jesus is about to give himself up, when he is resolved to lay down his life for the sheep, he says “The ruler of this world is driven out.”

Jesus lays down his life for the sheep, and darkness flees. Jesus lays down his life for the sheep, and Satan gets out of town. Jesus lays down his life for the sheep, and the sheep are protected, saved from the powers of darkness.

Jesus has given us an example: to lay down our lives for the sheep. To speak, no matter what the cost. To feed and protect the sheep. To be God’s protective love to the world.

When I heard the news of the events in Boston, I was upset. But I was also angry. I wanted to offer more than my prayers. Too often, we offer our prayers, post something on Facebook, and move on with our lives, content to be powerless to change anything.

Listen: none of these problems can or will be solved in Congress. No President, and no party, will do it for us. We have to do much more than change security regulations or immigration laws to prevent bombings like this. We have to change hearts. We have to fiercely guard the image of God, and be brave, because the road of nonviolence is, ironically, the scariest. It is easier to hide behind a veneer of strength than to follow Jesus’ way.

The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The Good Shepherd gives everything. The sheep (and the sheepdogs) follow the shepherd to the end. There is no room for safety in the Christian religion.

We follow knowing that Jesus saves us. We follow knowing that the ruler of this world has been driven out. We follow in security and calm confidence, trusting that the Shepherd is in control.

So what shall we do in the face of so much upheaval?
Bottom line: the Good Shepherd, who is in control, loves you fiercely. Therefore, be fierce, as the Good Shepherd is fierce. Amen.

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