Today is the fourth Sunday of Easter, a day that is also popularly referred to as “Good Shepherd Sunday” because the gospel on the fourth Sunday of Easter is always one of the Good Shepherd passages from the gospel of John. It’s a time when, year after year, we take one of Jesus’ most remembered and revered symbols of himself and try to make sense of it in our day and time.
In the passage we hear today, he distinguishes between the shepherd and the hired hand. He does this because the shepherd was the person who actually owned the sheep, and he would often hire people to watch the sheep as they grazed the remote mountainsides and valleys. These hired hands were literally paid to live with the sheep through the cold of winter and the heat of summer. They were out there in the wind and in the rain. They were paid to contend with dangerous wild animals and even more dangerous human beings who might try to steal from the flock. The sheep were a business venture for the shepherd so when the hired hands were untrustworthy or unscrupulous, the shepherd’s investment was endangered.
What Jesus was trying to communicate to his listeners back in first century Palestine and what he wants you and me to understand in twenty-first century America is that he is the shepherd not some hired hand. He wants us to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God sends us an invested, courageous, tenacious shepherd who will not cut and run when things get difficult, a shepherd who will not desert us when danger threatens.
Remember how Jesus promises in another place in the gospel that he will not leave us desolate? How he will not leave us on our own? That’s because our God is not the kind of deity who abandons anyone…and I do mean anyone: not the murderer…or the bigot…or the drug dealer, not even the predatory pedophile. God does not abandon the worst that human beings can become any more that he abandons their victims. This is really important because if the Good Shepherd were to abandon even someone like that, how could you and I ever be certain that he will not abandon us?
Earlier in John’s gospel, Jesus says that God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son to live in the world. That’s how deeply invested God is in you and me and all his children. He’s invested love and compassion in us. He’s entrusts us with carrying the very imprint of his being in our being. He’s invested the flesh and blood of Jesus. And though he grieves at what lousy stewards we are of his investment, he never gives up on us. He never writes us off.
In spite of the promise, we find it difficult to know “beyond a shadow of a doubt” that we will never be abandoned. It’s hard because even if we or someone we care about are never victims of murder or bigotry, even if we’re never preyed upon by drug dealers or pedophiles, bad stuff does happen in our lives. We lose a job and don’t know how we’re going to meet our obligations. A relationship which has sustained us unravels. Illness strikes turning our world upside down. And we find ourselves feeling like sheep abandoned in the wilderness.
What we’re talking about here is trust. Trust is strange in that it’s one of the strongest things that binds us to one another and to God, and yet it’s also extraordinarily fragile. I am a firm believer that for trust to endure and to grow ever stronger, you and I must be historians. We must steep ourselves in the history of God with his people, taking to heart the way he’s repeatedly taken us back and reinvested himself in us when things get really bad… whether we’ve been the perpetrators or the victims. And even more importantly, we must be historians of our own lives. In our darkest hour, it is the memory of who God has been for us, the memory of how God has been for us that gives us hope and confidence that he will continue to sustain us…no matter what. That kind of trustworthiness and integrity is often in short supply in the twenty-first century. In fact it’s been in short supply in all the centuries of human existence. God alone abides.