I was talking with some friends about my childhood neighborhood and upbringing.
We were one of the post WWII, pre-planned communities. We had city parks within
blocks of our homes in all directions. Our houses had front porches instead of
back decks, and the neighbors watched over all of us kids, coming and going, all
day long. We were protected, and our neighbors were our shepherds. They taught
us to respect ourselves and to respect others. They kept us
safe. They were very good shepherds.
images of their faces come to mind as I think about today’s Gospel Lesson,
where Jesus says of himself, “I am the good shepherd.” Now I don’t have direct experience
shepherding any real sheep; 2 dogs and a cat keep me busy enough. But over the centuries, this image of Jesus as the
good shepherd and his followers as sheep has been very appealing to the church.
Notice that even Jesus is not directly referring to himself as a keeper
of sheep; rather he is tapping into the image used by the Hebrew people to
refer to their kings, priests and prophets of Israel. These people were
seen as having been made responsible by God to take care of the people, God’s
flock. And as many of them failed, the Hebrew Scriptures are filled with
tales of bad kings and false prophets.
Jesus calls himself the “Good Shepherd,” he is contrasting himself with all
those previous leaders who had been poor and incomplete shepherds, no better
than hired hands really. By contrast, Jesus identifies himself as the
good shepherd, the one truly ready to “lay down his life” for the good of the sheep.
Of course, that is what Jesus eventually did upon the cross, and it was that
act of laying down his life for the sheep, all God’s people; which are, after
all, all people from every time and every place–that created the new community,
the new flock, that we call the church. In this new flock, we are all
both shepherd and sheep–called of God to care for each other and for the world.
Regardless of our neighborhoods and varying circumstance and situations in
the voter’s meeting next week, Ann and I will jump in my truck, load the puppies
and head down to Las Cruces, NM. It’s actually an interesting area, although we
have no desire to live there. The church building from my previous call is adjacent
to the “Bataan Memorial Highway”, commemorating the death march from WWII. It
goes through WSMR. Cruces is a community with many veterans, government
employee, as well as New Mexico State University; its constituency is very
similar to Manhattan. It’s very historic from the days of Spanish explorers to wagon
trains settling the west. The work at WSMR changed the world in WWII. So bear
with me today as I use a WWII story as an analogy to the Good Shepherd.
Yancey in his book “Rumors of Another World”, which has since been retitled as
“A Skeptic’s Guide to Faith,” tells the story-behind the story-of the movie,
“The Bridge Over the River Kwai.” It’s from the book written by Ernest Gordon,
titled “The Miracle on the River Kwai.”
It’s about Scottish soldiers in WWII, forced by their captors to build a
jungle railroad. The soldiers had degenerated to a level of barbarity, of
animalistic behavior toward one other just to survive. Yancy summarizes it this
afternoon, a shovel was missing. The officer in charge became
enraged. He demanded that the missing shovel be produced, or else.
When nobody in the squad budged, the officer took out his gun and shouted “All
Kill. All Kill” all of them, there, on the spot. Then, finally, one man
stepped forward. The officer put away his gun, picked up a rifle, and
beat the man to death. When it was over. The survivors picked up the bloody
corpse and carried it with them to do a second tool count. No shovel was
missing. There had been a miscount at the first tool check.
dead man was innocent. He had voluntarily died to spare the others.
What was it Jesus said, “the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep?”
not the end of the story. The fact that someone had died to save them
worked a profound change on the prisoners. As one of them said, “we
wanted to be worthy of the sacrifice.” Rather than compete with one other in
order to live, the prisoners began to treat one another as brothers, looking
out for and taking care of each other.
the victorious allies swept in and liberated the prison camp, the Japanese
guards were terrified. They fully expected to die, to be executed on the
spot. Their former prisoners, now little more than skeletons, lined up in
front of the guards and began to shout. “No more hate. No more
killing. What we need now is forgiveness.” The Japanese guards were
stunned, and broke down weeping.”
death had transformative power. The death of an anonymous prisoner
transformed the POWs from isolated and competing individuals into a community
who cared about and for one another. The sheep became shepherds to one
one man’s sacrificial death also transformed the way the prisoners saw their
captors. When the war was over, they chose to treat their oppressors as
lost sheep–not as ravenous wolves. They saw them as the “sheep not from
this flock,” that Jesus spoke of and decided to forgive them and love them. It
seems unimaginable to me; but that is the very nature of God’s grace. How we
live our lives sends a message to the world. When Martin Luther said that the
church is a "priesthood of believers," he didn't mean that we are all
pastors; he meant that we all carry Christ into the world in our words and in
have an opportunity to open ourselves up to the transforming power of the gift
of new life, letting our lives be changed by the Risen Christ living in us and
in this community. Just as Ernest Gordon experienced the transformation
of the soldiers as a group, he too was individually transformed. After WWII he
went to seminary, became a Presbyterian pastor; and went on to be the Dean of
the Chapel at Princeton University. We are called to continue the work of the
good shepherd, caring for one another, loving each other, dying a little for
each other, opening doors and tearing down barriers, bringing everyone into the
sheepfold, into God’s beloved flock—individually and collectively. AMEN!