Good Shepherds for Each Other

+In the Name of God: who was, and is, and is to come.  Amen

Jesus said, “I am the Good Shepherd.” John 10:11

This past week, one of All Saints’ faithful parishioners stopped by the office with a gift for the church. It’s a beautiful, framed photograph of two panels from a stained-glass window. One of the panels depicts Jesus as a shepherd, holding a shepherd’s crook in one hand while he cradles a lamb in his other hand. The other panel contains a flock of sheep.

If you’ve spent any time in churches with stained glass windows, you have probably seen some version of the window I’ve just described. The Good Shepherd is one of the most popular themes in stained-glass art. It’s easy to understand why. The Bible is full of stories and images of sheep and shepherds, because there were plenty of both in ancient Palestine.  They were so familiar that Biblical writers talked about the relationship between sheep and shepherds in several different ways – in parables, for example, or as the archetype for the relationship between God and God’s people. 

The parable of the lost sheep, the story Jesus tells of a shepherd leaving 99 other sheep while he searches for one sheep who has strayed, comes to mind immediately. “Which of you,” Jesus said, “having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” Jesus says God is like that, searching for anyone who feels estranged or separated from God in any way.

And then there’s the 23rd Psalm, where the shepherd makes us lie down in green pastures, leads us beside still waters, and revives our souls.  No wonder so many of us know the 23rd psalm by heart and can recite it even if we can’t quote any other passage in the Bible at all.

On the Fourth Sunday of Easter this year, and every year, the theme is of God as Shepherd.  We always read the 23rd Psalm, and the Gospel always comes from the 10th chapter of the Gospel according to John where Jesus spends the entire chapter teaching about shepherds and sheep. I can’t count how many Good Shepherd sermons I’ve preached over the 40-plus years I’ve been ordained.  And, like many of you, I’ve been comforted again and again during the difficult times in my own life by Jesus the Good Shepherd who has sought me out.

But Jesus is saying something more to us this morning.  And, if we are to hear the full meaning of this Gospel passage, we need to hear that “something more,” today.

You see, the tenth chapter of John’s Gospel isn’t just about some simple bucolic scene – it isn’t just about a pastoral vista with sheep grazing, and shepherds tending them.  Instead, it is an extended discourse on the whole subject of leadership.  The discourse takes place during an argument between Jesus and those who were in power in Jerusalem.

To understand what Jesus is saying, we need to know something about the Old Testament background to this chapter.  Because it’s this background that lies behind what Jesus is really saying when he says that he is the Good Shepherd. 

The most important background for this chapter of John’s Gospel comes from the prophet Ezekiel.  When Ezekiel talks about shepherds, he uses the word, “shepherd,” as a metaphor for “ruler” – for the kings and the nobles and the high priests of Israel– those who had the power to act and held the responsibility for the welfare of God’s people.

In the 34th chapter of Ezekiel, God denounces the rulers who have not cared for the people of Israel – those he calls “the flock.”  These bad shepherds have plundered the flock. They have neglected the weak, the sick and the straying.  So, Ezekiel hears God saying, the sheep were scattered “because there was no shepherd; and [because they were] scattered [and unprotected], they became food for all the wild animals.”  God says, “my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them.”  It’s a grim vision of what happens to people when leaders are more concerned for themselves than for the well-being of the people they are supposed to care about.

God then goes on, in the passage, to issue a promise to the shepherds and to the flock.  God promises that the flock will be taken away from the wicked shepherds, and that God will become their shepherd instead.  “I shall lead them out of the nations, and gather them from the countries . . . I shall feed them with good pasture . . . I myself shall be the shepherd of my sheep . . . I shall seek the lost.” 

So, a great deal of what Jesus says about shepherding in John’s Gospel reflects these verses from Ezekiel.  When Jesus declares himself to be the Good Shepherd, he is claiming to be more than just a good pastor.  He is claiming to be the Good Leader of his people – the Good King – the Good Shepherd as opposed to all the bad shepherds who take what they want for themselves and leave the flock in shambles.

“You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep,” Ezekiel writes about the bad shepherds of Israel.  “You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost. . . .”  By contrast, Jesus says he is willing to do anything for the welfare of the sheep – even “to lay down his life for [them.]”  The “something more” in today’s Gospel passage is about leadership – and about the stark difference between good leaders and bad leaders.

Some of you may know the name Ron Heifetz.  He is the Founding Director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, and he has authored many books and articles about leadership.  The last chapter of his book, Leadership on the Line, is called “Sacred Heart,” and I want to tell you a story from it.  In the chapter, Heifetz and his co-author, Marty Linsky, talk about a visit Heifetz made to an old English Church on the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish New Year. 

Heifetz and his wife, Sousan, wandered into the church after he had finished a speaking engagement at Oxford, and he sat down in front, a Jew in an Anglican church, facing the cross.  Weeks before, Ron and his wife had attended a Jewish workshop on deep ecumenism where the idea of sacred heart was explained as a reflection of God’s promise not to keep you out of the fire and the water, but to be with you in the fire and the water.

Heifetz looked up at the image of Jesus – this man being tortured for his beliefs – a frightening sight for anyone, but especially for a Jew who was conscious of the history of the persecution of Jews by the followers of Jesus.  He began to wonder what Rosh Hashanah might have been like for Jesus in his own lifetime.  He reports that he said to Jesus, “You were one of our teachers.  Why not keep us company in the New Year?  Nobody else is here to celebrate with us.” 

Ron Heifetz stared at Jesus and meditated.  “Reb Jesus, will you tell me your experience on the cross?  This is Rosh Hashanah, when we contemplate Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Will you please give me a message?” 

After about ten minutes, Heifetz got very excited. He asked Sousan to come with him, taking her out into the churchyard. He asked her to lie down with him beneath an enormous old pine tree and to stretch out her arms spread-eagled. The two of them lay there outstretched for several minutes.  “How do you feel?” Ron asked Sousan.  “Really vulnerable,” she said.  “Me, too,” Ron said, “and that’s the message about the sacred heart – the willingness to feel everything, to feel, as Jesus felt, the gravest doubt, forsaken and betrayed near the moment of death.  “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?”  But in nearly the same instant to feel compassion, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  Heifetz realized that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, remained open. 

This, for Heifetz was the antidote to the cynical, arrogant, and callous leaders that hurt and damage the people they are responsible for leading.  Jesus talked about bad leaders this way: “a hired hand does not care for the sheep. . . . I lay down my life for the sheep.”  True leadership – being a Good Shepherd – is about being vulnerable and giving oneself away. 

You may wonder why all this talk about leadership this morning. And you may even be saying to yourself, “this leadership stuff doesn’t really apply to me. I’m not a leader – at least not in any major way.”

Some members of the All Saints’ community certainly are leaders – in the church and in the wider community. But for everyone else who thinks you aren’t a leader, don’t be so sure.

Whether you consider yourself a leader or not, I want to talk about one way every person at All Saints’ can be a Good Shepherd during these next important weeks and months. What I’m talking about is a key aspect of the culture of this parish church: holding one-on-one meetings with each other. All Saints’ is an effective and powerful congregation because you value and tend relationships. And holding regular, one-on-one meetings is how this happens.

For years, one of the key practices of this church has been holding one-on-one meetings with each other. Some of you at All Saints’ are incredibly good at holding individual meetings to listen to other people, to get to know who other people are. Meeting with another person says to that person: “you have values, ideas, dreams, plans, lessons, insights that are well worth listening to.”   I know it has been hard to have one-on-one meetings during the pandemic, but things are starting to change. Restrictions are lifting. And spring is slowly, reluctantly coming to Chicago.

Yes, the parish directory, planned for publication in June, will help reconnect us, but nothing can take the place of getting to know one another through one-on-one meetings. The time devoted to them is more important than time spent on more conventional church activities. Do not be afraid if this involves new behavior for you. Help and training are available.

To be a follower of the Good Shepherd means to be a Good Shepherd ourselves sometimes. It requires that we keep our arms outstretched and open – that we be vulnerable – full of God’s compassion and love for one other. So, think about someone in this congregation you want to get to know, and then schedule a time to have a one-on-one conversation with them. If you don’t have their contact information, the staff can help with that. This basic, old-fashioned practice is, by far, the most important, effective, and least employed organizational tool used in congregations today. If you meet with another person one-on-one, you’ll be glad you did, and All Saints’ will certainly be stronger because you did.

Amen.