I’ve lost count of the representations of sheep and the Good Shepherd we have at Good Shepherd Church. My favorite is this little statue that stands out in the garden, work of an unknown artist. It’s only a couple of inches tall, so you could walk right by and not even notice it, but I like it very much—and for some reason I love it best in the snow.
Taking this picture yesterday brought to mind a sermon from a dozen years ago that changed my life. It was preached by Bishop Tom Breidenthal of the Diocese of Southern Ohio back when he was Dean of the Chapel at Princeton University and I worked in the civic engagement department there, though interestingly enough I wasn’t in the Chapel to hear it preached. I came across the text online and downloaded it; I have it still, and it continues to be meaningful to me. A reminder to us preachers especially that God’s grace may employ our words in ways we could hardly imagine.
Breidenthal talks about that appealing image of the Good Shepherd “who seeks us out as his own, who calls us by name, and who guards us through the power of his own indestructible life.” The Good Shepherd who embraces us tenderly in his strong arms and keeps us safe, as that little statue suggests.
But there’s more to the Good Shepherd discourse, something I honestly had never noticed before. As Breidenthal says, “Jesus says that the true shepherd ‘calls his own sheep by name and leads them out… He goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice’ (John 10:3-4). That is to say, he leads them out of the relative safety of the walled sheepfold into the mingled promise and danger of open country.”
The Good Shepherd leads them out, not in—out of safety into the risky unknown.
He continues: “When Jesus says he is our shepherd, he is not just saying that he cares for us and will protect us, although that certainly is true. He is also saying that we belong to him, and that he expects us to follow his lead, however much that may entail a radical departure from what seems safe and familiar in our lives.”
So here we go again …