Hero the Dog. You can read more about him and his story by clicking here.
Today’s sermon on the Good Shepherd starts with a different kind of shepherd: a German shepherd. The dog breed, I mean.
The story begins down in south Georgia, where there’s a woman named Shannon.
One day, Shannon got into a fight with her husband. As many of us have been known to do after an argument with someone we love, she got into her car and went for a drive to cool off.
The roads in rural areas, as you know from living here, can be curvy and dangerous. Suddenly, Shannon didn’t navigate one of those curves correctly. Her car fishtailed into the woods, and Shannon was thrown into the backseat, with her body hanging halfway in, and halfway out of the car. She and her car were entirely out of sight of the road.
This story should end tragically. But it doesn’t. Shannon passed out, and when she woke up, she knew she wasn’t alone.
She says, “I don’t know when I came to, but when I did come to, I felt his huge presence. I could feel his breath. The dog — I don’t know how he came across me, but I thank God that he did.”
The dog, whom she’d never seen before, was a shepherd mix.
Welcome to Good Shepherd Sunday.
The dog pulled her free of the car, but he didn’t stop there — he pulled her more than 100 feet to the road. He kept tugging and tugging: Shannon says, “He wouldn’t give up. He had more of a will for life than I did.”
I should confess for those of you who don’t already know, I’m the proud owner of a sheepdog myself, and I can tell you: they’re stubborn. Once they set their minds to something, they don’t give up, whether it’s saving a human life or trying to get the tennis ball out from under the couch.
Eventually, stubbornly, the dog dragged Shannon to the road, where passers by saw her and stopped to help. She told them what had happened and asked them to call her husband. Then, she passed out again. When she woke up, she was in the hospital. There, she learned that she had a brain bleed. If the dog had not found her, the ER doc told her, she would almost certainly have died.
No one knew where the dog had come from or if it had had any previous training. For all anyone knew, he was a stray.
Today, the shepherd mix works as a search and rescue dog. They named him Hero.
“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me…. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”
Shepherds are stubborn.
Today’s the middle point of Easter. Three Sundays of Easter behind us with three more ahead. We call this middle Sunday “Good Shepherd Sunday,” and we always read from John 10, where Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and Psalm 23, where the God of Israel is a shepherd.
Here we stop and we sing songs about sheep and shepherds, and all I can ever think of is my own sheepdog and how he’s taught me to be a better pastor and taught me about the stubbornly loving presence of God.
Those of you who have or have ever known sheep dogs know: they don’t ever give up. They stay right next to you, whatever you’re going through, and they stay until you’re okay. And if there’s a task to be accomplished, they’ll focus until it’s done.
This is important to remember when thinking of God as a shepherd, because a lot of the time, we worry that God has left us. Some of us worry that God has left those we love who seem to have walked away from church. We worry that they won’t know God. Listen to Jesus today: “No one will snatch them out of my hand.”
As Lutherans, we believe that Christ the Good Shepherd is not unlike Hero the dog: God does not give up, in this life or the next. God, like Hero, has more of a will for life than we do. It is God who finds us, not the other way around.
Lutheran theology holds that we can’t, won’t, won’t ever, make our way to God. It doesn’t matter how good we are or how many things we do right. If we could make our way to God, we’d spend all our time patting ourselves on the back.
Instead, we believe that God comes to us and makes us new, and then makes us new again, over and over. Theologically speaking, we call this death and resurrection.
I get it. We expect to earn it and “do right.” We expect that others have to earn it too, and if they don’t draw near in very specific ways, we fear that they won’t know God. Friends, this sentiment comes from a loving place, but it is not Lutheran.
Hear the Good News: like Hero the dog, God seeks us, finds us, and stubbornly does not fail us, in this life or the next.
The Good Shepherd finds the sheep, and no one snatches them out of his hand.
Shepherds, like I said, are stubborn.
Earlier in John 10, Jesus will say, “I have other sheep that are not of this pasture. I must bring them also” (John 10:16). We do God, ourselves, and others a disservice when we limit what God can do, whom God can reach, and when and where God can reach them.
Last week, the world lost Rachel Held Evans, whose book Searching for Sunday our council read last year. She died of a sudden illness after being put into a medically induced coma on Good Friday.
She was 37.
Rachel was a voice for those of us who aren’t “normal” church people — namely, recovering evangelicals, millennials, LGBTQ+ folks, and others that don’t quite fit in with the average church crowd. When Rachel fell ill, the hashtag #PrayForRHE began trending, but when she died, that hashtag turned to a different one: #BecauseofRHE.
A friend of mine, Lance Presley, a Methodist pastor in Mississippi, connected this to the Acts reading for today. In it, a woman named Tabitha has died. Peter visits after her death and finds the widows gathered around, showing the garments that Tabitha made for them while she was alive.
I didn’t notice it until Lance pointed it out that this is what we who loved Rachel’s work were doing with #BecauseofRHE. We were showing what she had done for us, what she had made for us, while she was alive.
There are people who love Rachel’s work who have never set foot in a church and never will. But through Rachel, the Shepherd came to them and found them. Shepherds are stubborn. They keep tugging and tugging — they never give up.
Rachel called the church to stop trying to “be cool” and “reach millennials” and instead to be unapologetically who it is: a place of death and resurrection, of confession and baptism, of ritual and love and welcome. A place not tailored to the young or desperately trying to be “relevant” for those who may never come, but a church made for everyone who comes in the doors. A place that has had this whole death and resurrection thing down for about 2,000 years now.
Of the church, Rachel Held Evans wrote: “Baptism reminds us that there’s no ladder of holiness to climb, no self-improvement plan to follow. It’s just death and resurrection, over and over again, day after day, as God reaches down into our deepest graves and with the same power that raised Jesus from the dead wrests us from our pride, our apathy, our fear, our prejudice, our anger, our hurt, and our despair.”
This is the garment that Rachel Held Evans wove for so many of us, and it is the one we wear today: this articulation of the Good News that the Gospel is a story about God finding us, not the other way around.
Beloved, do not worry about who will and won’t know God. Do not worry that God will not find you. God is like a shepherd, both a human one and a canine one: born and bred to stubbornly seek you out and find you and pull you out of whatever trouble you find yourself in. You will never be snatched out of God’s hand, and neither will those you love.
But let us, the church, continue to do what Rachel tried her whole life to do: to tell the truth about death and resurrection, and about a stubborn God who tugs and tugs and never lets go.
Death and resurrection means that the worst thing is never the last thing. That there is hope. That no matter how bad things look, there is a table of plenty spread for us, and that Good Shepherd is leading us, sometimes dragging us, towards it. May we continue to stubbornly drag and be dragged towards that future, towards hope, towards help.
And in that, may we all be, well, heroes. Amen.