The fourth Sunday of Easter has long been known as Good Shepherd Sunday, thanks to the appointed readings, especially that which we have just heard from John’s Gospel, wherein Jesus states in no uncertain terms: “I am the Good Shepherd.”
Due to Easter’s moveable date, Good Shepherd Sunday does not always occur in April — but this year it does fall within the thirty days called by T. S. Eliot “the cruelest month.”
Now I’m not a scholar of Eliot, so can’t pretend to know what he had in mind when he named April as the cruelest month, but there certainly are many April events — some within living memory, some historical — that lend heft and credibility to that designation. Most recently, the fifth anniversary of the Marathon bombing, and the nineteenth anniversary of the Columbine school shootings.
There are many other examples: The assassinations of Abraham Lincoln (1865) and of Martin Luther King Jr. (1968). School shootings at Virginia Tech (2007) and — just two days ago — a high school in Ocala, Florida. The Bataan Death March (1942) and the protest in Tienanmen Square (1989). The explosion and fire at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant (1986) and explosion of Apollo 13 (1970). The bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City (1995) and the entry of the United States into World War I (1917). The Warsaw Ghetto uprising (1942), commemorated just ten days ago on April 12, Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom Hashoah).
This is a sad, sobering — and incomplete — litany of events. In “this joyous Eastertide” it serves as a reminder that the flock of humanity lives in a broken, fallen world.
Centuries of romanticized depictions of Jesus as the Good Shepherd have, I suspect, led to the assumption or belief (even if unconsciously) that the Good Shepherd is a soft, tender presence, calmly gazing upon the little vulnerable lamb he cradles in his arms, or carries across his shoulders. In the classic, familiar images of the Good Shepherd, there is nary a wolf; the assembled flock surrounds the Shepherd, unharmed, unalarmed. In these idealized images, there is only one Shepherd, one flock. But it is not so in the world we live in, is it?
Even the deepest devotion to the Good Shepherd cannot deny the reality of this wild, unruly world; the persistence of questions without answers; the ever-present dangers of frightened hirelings and fierce wolves.
I don’t believe there’s any need to enter into an explanation of the relationship between sheep and shepherd, or to attempt to examine the metaphor of Jesus is to Shepherd as we are to sheep. I suspect that even those with no rural experience get it.
But there is an aspect of this relationship that does warrant our attention: that is, the good-ness of the Good Shepherd, especially in light of the horrendous events of this “cruelest month” — not to mention the other eleven months of the year.
In declaring “I am the Good Shepherd” Jesus refers back to the prophet Ezekiel’s warnings and alarms about the dangers that threaten an unguarded or neglected flock. He counters Ezekiel’s description of the flock’s perils by proclaiming his devotion — “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” — and his intimate knowledge of each member of the flock: “I know my own.” But perhaps most importantly, he provides what is arguably the most concrete statement of his own identity: not vine, not bread, not door, not way nor truth nor light, but Shepherd. How much resonance would that have to those who heard his words, and who repeated them, and wrote them down, two millennia ago?
And how deeply do they stir those who hear them now: Those longing to be led to peaceful green pastures. Those living on the edge, in harm’s way thanks to an uncaring or selfish hired hand…Those reluctant to leave the sheepfold’s closed community. Those imperiled by the wolves of anger or addiction. Those not sure which flock, or shepherd, is theirs. Those wandering far from the flock in search of — what?
Even as we, like sheep, persist in going astray — “perverse and foolish oft I strayed” — the Good Shepherd, the shepherd who knows us, calls us. Calls us by name. As he called Lazarus out of the dank, dark tomb. As he called Mary Magdalene, weeping at that other, empty tomb.
The Good Shepherd does not promise to eliminate all the wiley wolves or lackadaisical shepherds, but rather to be present with the flock in the midst of these dangers. To anoint our wounds with oil. To lead us to calm places to slake our thirst. To be next to us in the darkness. The Good Shepherd does not lead the flock to the sheepfold, shut the gate, and proclaim Mission Accomplished.
The Good Shepherd accompanies the flock in the presence of enemies. In the valley of the shadow of death. Jesus the Good Shepherd calls the sheep away from the safety of the walled-off pen. And they follow.
Jesus calls us, too, to the open wilderness, just as he was led by the Spirit into the wilderness for 40 long days. Just as Moses the Shepherd was in the wilderness for 40 long years. Do you hear his voice? Can you follow?
The shepherd isn’t in the sheepfold. The shepherd is beyond its boundaries, beyond the walls, beyond a place of safety and comfort.
The Good Shepherd can be found feeding the hungry. Loving the unlovable. Giving hope to the hopeless. Touching the untouchable. Calling distracted people away from their daily tasks, saying Follow me. Bringing salvation not through the law, but through love.
Jesus calls us not only to be followers, but also to emulate the example of the Good Shepherd. And so students who have experienced and survived a school shooting raise their voices calling for safety for all students in all schools, all the time. Women who have experienced sexual harassment or discrimination band together to support each other and confront predators and seek justice. People whose lives and livelihoods are diminished or degraded by racism or classism or homophobia or other prejudice link arms, support and strengthen each other, and speak truth to power.
They do not languish in the safety of the sheepfold but have heard the voice of the Shepherd calling them into the wild pasture, reassuring them, “I know my own and my own know me.”
The Good Shepherd calls us and when we are united we can say, in the words of another poet:
He’s firmly mine by oath, I his by vow; / He’s mine by faith, and I am his by love; / He’s mine by water, I am his by wine / Thus I my Best-Beloved’s am, thus he is mine.
Poem: “My Beloved is Mine and I am His” – Francis Quarles (1592-1644), from Love’s Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness compiled by Geoffrey Rowell, Kenneth Stevenson and Rowan Williams. Oxford University Press.