Sermon delivered by Keith Herron, pastor of Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, M.O., on May 3 2009.
John 10: 11-18.
It’s all there in John’s gospel, if you ever wanted to be a shepherd, if you ever had a secret hankering of tending a flock of your own, Jesus gives us the job description. It starts with character. Jesus walks right through the front door of faith and names it from the very beginning. It starts with goodness. “I am the good shepherd,” he says.
One doesn’t do this work idly; just because shepherd and sheep look relaxed in the field doesn’t mean this is an easy job because the demands of character are tested mightily when the wolf comes calling. When the wolf comes prowling around, a decision must be made about what to do about that. The one with character determines whether one has the commitment and courage to care for the needs of the sheep.
Jesus understood there was a cost to be paid and the hired hand often does not have enough invested in this job to cause him to want to put his life on the line. Jesus is being honest when he points out there’s a significant difference between the commitment level of the owner and the employee.
Barbara Brown Taylor tells a story out of her husband’s experience to illustrate this important distinction. It seems her husband Ed was out duck hunting with one of his buddies. They were out in his friend’s boat all morning hunting on a nearby river. Both men shared equally in making sure the boat was well taken care of so they could make the most of their hunting opportunities. Both men were respectful of the boat understanding how crucial the boat was in getting them to the right place to hunt ducks. When lunchtime arrived, they heaved the prow of the boat onto the bank, unloaded their guns and decoys and headed back to the car.
When they returned after lunch, the boat was gone. As you might guess, for just a brief moment they panicked. They looked around. Nothing! But when they looked downstream, they could see the boat idly floating down the river. It was floating near the riverbank as it slowly drifted downstream. They immediately dropped their guns and decoys and went tearing down the riverbank, crashing through the underbrush until they finally came even with the boat. But by this time, it was farther out toward the middle of the river. As it went further downstream it was also steadily moving away from shore toward the middle of the river where the current flowed freely.
And a certain reality of responsibility settled in about this dilemma: It was not going to return on its own anytime soon. Someone had to swim out into the river no matter how cold the river in order to retrieve the boat. They looked at one another and without a word both men understood clearly who had to do this. Ed was just being honest when he said: “Well … it’s not my boat …”
Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd (character). The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep (add the twin ideas of commitment and courage).” What’s obvious is Jesus saw his sheep as his friends and recognized the intimacy of his relationship with them. They were of value to him and he was willing to pay any price necessary to keep them safe. He said he was willing to lay his life on the line for their sake.
In retrospect, we read into these words the foreshadowing that Jesus knew he would intentionally lay his life down for them, not that his life will end in a chain of events beyond his control. Jesus was sure and certain about his sacrifice for their sake. These sheep were not someone else’s sheep he’d been hired to watch. He saw them as his and there was no price he was not willing to pay in order to demonstrate his commitment to them.
But there’s more to this. Jesus widens the discussion in words that are troublesome to many. He can’t just stop with the coziness of this relationship we feel by being in the center of his deep love and care for the sheep. Those of us in the sheepfold of God understand we are caught in the web of God’s great love. We’re like little children at this point feeling as if the whole world is tilted in our direction. Jesus intrudes into that security and says to them something they were shocked to hear. “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold,” he says to them. Do you remember the first time you learned your parents had love for other children?
When Chiefs drafted Brodie Croyle from Alabama a few years ago. One of the compelling background stories about Croyle that surfaced came from his family. His dad, John Croyle, played for Bear Bryant and was later drafted as a defensive lineman in the NFL. But rather than taking his shot at professional football, he gave up his chance in order to create a sanctuary for abused and neglected children. He and his wife Teresa believed God wanted them to take in children who needed their love. Instead of a lucrative professional career chasing down quarterbacks, they bought the Big Oak Ranch for this purpose.
Brodie Croyle grew up understanding his parents had children of another fold. But the fold these children came from was tragic and filled with terror unimaginable to most folks. Brodie grew up knowing his parents had enough love for all those children. Perhaps it was a love like the fish and the loaves brought by the little boy to Jesus. In our limited way of thinking, that little offering looked like too little when in the power of God it was enough.
We’ve long been enfolded in God mistakenly assuming God had no other persons to love like God loves us. While we’re trapped in our self-focused world thinking there’s no one else in the picture, Jesus is crystal clear about the fact that God’s love is wider than anyone person or group.
Heaven is not a gated community if it means some are excluded because of anything other than their refusal to enter in. No matter what we think about this, Jesus says it clearly … the work of redemption is as wide as the world.
We sometimes chafe at the thought that Jesus would have other flocks, other sheep upon which he shares his amazing love. Part of the problem comes when we realize we think of ourselves as “God’s little gatekeepers.”
Guess what? When Jesus says there will be “one flock, one shepherd” the position of shepherd has already been filled. It’s a job most of us are poorly designed to meet but we think it’s ours to fill.
The Bible is filled with sheep and shepherd passages. Listen to this one from Ezekiel:
“I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep,
and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God.
I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed
and I will bind up the injured,
and I will strengthen the weak …”
(Ezekiel 34:15-16a, NRSV).
The risk of letting Jesus be the good shepherd and allowing him the freedom he claims he’s already exercising, we have to lose control of that role and figure out what Jesus needs us to do to help him in that work.
Hmmm … if we did that, maybe the sheepfold would be a little crowded and then what would we do?
After serving as bridge pastor at First Congregational Church of St. Louis, Missouri, during the past year, Herron moved recently to Lawrence, Kansas, where he will continue to minister in interim settings. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).