Today Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd, and first did so to a people familiar with sheep and shepherds. And assuming none of us are, I’d like to begin by acknowledging that however comfortable you and I are with this parable of following a good shepherd, it isn’t a sweet parable. 

It isn’t about abiding in vague sweet-grassy meadows. 

It’s a message of hope, yes, but not a sentimental hope.

For starters, we’re the sheep in this parable, numbered among those the wolves run off with or among those the hired hands abandon. Any child reading this would know it for a scary story. 

Like all parables, the hope it offers means to challenge the way you live, and means also to nourish you, and thereby nourish your relationship with God and with other people. In fact, I would say this parable is, fundamentally, about relationships, about turning the herd of all people toward God.

I think here of a roadside mystery some of you may have seen: a whole herd of cows standing in a field all facing the same direction, their faces to the wind, looking an awful lot like a cow regatta, as if all the cows in all the world momentarily stopped cowing around and became aware of something beyond them. 

That’s the kind of orientation the Good Shepherd is after as the starting place for everything that follows: the awareness of your life enfolded in something beyond you. 

I think, too, of what Keith Ellison said last week in the immediate wake of a jury holding Derek Chauvin accountable for the murder of George Floyd. Remembering how that fatal day unfolded, Ellison recalled, “A man from the neighborhood just walking to get a drink. A child going to buy a snack with her cousin. An off-duty firefighter on her way to a community garden. Brave young women – teenagers – who pressed record on their cellphones.”

Each of them stopped what they were doing, and turned toward the hope of mercy. On their way to ordinary things, they stopped and folded their lives into the life and death of George Floyd, into the hope for mercy and justice. 

Professor Werner Jeanrond, a German Catholic theologian, has it God calls us “into a four-fold network of relationship” with God, with other human beings, with the whole of Creation, and with our own developing selves. [

I sense something of that enfolded life alive in the sheepfold of the Good Shepherd.  If you’ll notice, within it are other human beings: other sheep, if you will, some who belong to the fold, some who don’t, but all of concern to the Shepherd.

Also within it is your relationship to God: the Good Shepherd made known to you in the life of Jesus, along with your relationship to all God made, including the world you live in: the fields and waters that nourish you, the animals you love or depend on, and, finally, your relationship to your own developing self: the particular ewe or ram that you happen to be, here among other sheep, all of us sometimes lost, sometimes found. 

And all of that to say, you’re never just one sheep. Your life is folded into, bound up with, and nurtured by God, by other people, by all creation, and by your very selves.  

Christian hope is realized and nurtured within that fold: the holy fold of God, Others, Creation, our own selves – within the fold of all life. 

What gets in the way is wanting that fold to be full of sweet grass, the sort we might all like to think of as our own backyard. What gets in the way is limiting God’s concern, and God’s love, to our own fears and worries or to our own feeble capacities or incapacities to love as God loves.

And keep in mind: Christian Hope is not the same thing as optimism. 

The hired hand runs away when things fall apart. He does not stop and turn toward the hope of mercy. But the Good Shepherd lays down his life for you, and knows every one of us by name. That is the source of our hope: God’s abiding presence.

In the words of the Professor, hope comes from putting your “trust in God and in God’s promises, whereas optimism springs from [trusting your own position, your own power, your own goals, your own potential, your own predictions.]“ [2]

And the Church is not exempt here. Too, often, we also imagine we live by goals and numbers, by survival programs and projects, by predictions of failure or success — and forget we’re here primarily to follow the Good Shepherd and to share his love. 

And while optimism isn’t a bad thing (in and of itself), it has a way of falling apart when our plans fall apart. It isn’t reliable. And yet, truth be told, very often, it’s only when things fall apart, you and I come to rely on this thing we call hope.

And here it’s worth returning to the 23rdPsalm– a psalm read every year on this day, a psalm that begins, “The Lord is my shepherd” – that psalm finds the Lord your shepherd looking after you, making you to lie down in green pastures, leading you beside the still waters. 

It’s God’s provision the Psalmist names, but then suddenly you come to the valley of the shadow of death, and then and only then, in fear and trembling, does the Psalmist have you stop and turn: not away, but toward God, addressing God, as if face to face, saying, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for Thou – Thou – art with me.”

God isn’t named nor known as Thou until that startling moment alongside the valley of the shadow of death. 

And if you and I will remember that sudden turn toward Thou: toward the presence of God – surely then, surely then, “goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our life.”

Like many of you, I find great consolation in reciting those words, particularly at funerals where they often show up to be said by a crowd of people from all over, people who stop the clock for a moment to name something important: the fact that God is with us, the first witness of all we love, all we suffer, and all we do or fail to do.

God is good. And God is merciful.

And the Lord our shepherd, whose goodness and mercy follow us all our days, calls each of you this day to share in his goodness and mercy not only at the grave, but in the way you live now: with God, with others, with all creation, with your own selves.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.

__________________

 [1] Werner G. Jeanrond, Reasons to Hope, (London, UK: T & T Clark, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020), 128. 

[2] Ibid, 5.

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