I don’t think I’ve ever seen a real live shepherd.
I’m familiar with the image. Pastors are called shepherds of their flock, and as parents – as well as grandparents, aunts and uncles and god-parents, we are a kind of shepherd for our family and children. But I wonder what we know about sheep and shepherds and shepherding beyond romanticized and sanitized images.
So I did some reading this week to learn what Jesus and the early church would have taken for granted – for instance, that “the life of a shepherd was anything but picturesque. It was dangerous, risky and menial. Shepherds were rough around the edges, spending time in the fields rather than in polite society. For Jesus to say, ‘I am the good shepherd,’ would have been an affront to the religious elite and educated…A modern-day equivalent might be for Jesus to say, ‘I am the good migrant worker.’”
Like the migrant workers in the background of Niagara society, or the 800 who drowned last week trying to make it across the Mediterranean from northern Africa to Italy. How often parents and pastors feel like that – that they’re toiling away in the background, doing work no one else will, maybe sometimes in over their heads and drowning.
Something else Jesus and his followers would have known is that a shepherd leads – and must always lead, the sheep. I read this week about sheep not behaving like cows. Cows are herded from the rear by shouting cowboys, but if you stand behind a herd of sheep and try shouting at them, they just run around behind you. They prefer to be led, and will not go anywhere unless someone – their trusted shepherd, goes first, and shows them everything is all right. They see the shepherd as part of their family; they come to know and trust their shepherd’s voice; and as long as the shepherd is willing to go somewhere, they will follow.
When I read stuff like that that I start wondering what kind of shepherd I am as parent and as pastor.
Going ahead of the sheep and leading is not the same as having all the answers, always being right, and being the expert on everything your children or your parishioners need to know. But how often do I act as though that were the case – or at least that I need others to see me that way, to feel like I am being a good parent and pastor?
Or, instead of leading, how often have I pushed, sometimes more and harder than was needed? Or just stood to the side and withdrew, letting the sheep sort it out for themselves – which sometimes is a way of encouraging others’ gifts, but sometimes a way of abdicating leadership. And how often have I led in a wrong or unhealthy direction – away from what Psalm 23 calls “paths of righteousness and right relations” – into more selfish or ethical ways?
I know I’m not alone in worrying about stuff like this. I was surprised in my 40’s when I had a good heart-to-heart with my dad and he talked about the ways he felt weak and like a failure as a father. When Japhia and I get together with friends and siblings we often share questions we have about ourselves and our behaviours as parents. If ministers were more honest with one another I’m sure our clergy gatherings would include a lot more talk about our self-doubts and anxieties about our own work.
And yet … we still are good parents and pastors – good shepherds, as others often assure us. I know my dad’s weaknesses and mistakes, but he was a good father. Some of my friends are the best parents I can imagine. And the minister I have most admired and loved in my life once confessed in a sermon to a feeling he had one sleepless Saturday night at 3 or 4 in the morning of just wanting to throw his colicky infant daughter against a wall to make her be quiet so maybe he could finish the next-morning’s sermon he was still struggling with, and get some rest before he had to preach it.
I love that minister for a lot of reasons, and the brutal honesty of that one sermon alone would have been sufficient. It makes me wonder how one can be both bad and a good parent, bad and a good pastor, bad in some ways and a very good shepherd at one and the same time?
And I wonder if it has to do with remembering we are sheep ourselves in need of a shepherd – that we are sheep in need of being guided, healed and led to new life ourselves.
Do you remember the shepherds in the Gospel of Luke – the ones watching over their flocks by night when an angel comes down, tells them God’s good news for the world, and they go off right away to Bethlehem to be part of it.
The Gospel doesn’t seem at all concerned with whether they’re good or bad shepherds. No attention at all is paid to their moral character, how they are with the sheep, with one another, or with other people. Chances are they’re quite ordinary – a mixture like all of us of good and bad, weakness and strength, good common sense morality and a healthy dose of moral compromise and sin.
But there they are, front and centre every Christmas -- in the carols we sing, on the front of Christmas cards, in nativity sets, in every Christmas pageant ever staged. They’re role models, we’re encouraged to be like them and to walk in their footsteps.
And it’s not because of how good or bad they are as people. It’s because when they have a chance to be part of the story of God’s good work in the world, and part of the appearing of God’s kingdom in their time, they drop what they are doing and happily go to be part of it. They are shepherds themselves but they humbly go to stand in spiritual community with others at the cradle of the One who they need to be, and who is their shepherd.
And the very name of this shepherd – the one who they go to see, also leads us in this direction. Have you ever wondered about the name of Jesus, just what it means? What it says about Jesus, and maybe what it doesn’t?
Names – especially in the ancient world, often describe a person, and say something about them and what they are like – what’s special about them. “Peter” for instance – the leader of the disciples and of the early church, means “the rock” and that’s what he was, and how everyone saw him every time they spoke his name. “Matthew” means “gift of Yahweh” – a glorious thing to have said of you. “Andrew” means “man” – a little more common, but still it says something about the bearer of the name.
"Jesus,” though, is the Greek form of the Hebrew “Yeshua” or which in turn is a shortened form of “Yehoshua” which is a compound of two words that mean “God saves” or “God delivers or rescues.” So it’s not even about Jesus himself; it’s a name that points away from Jesus towards God, towards someone and something bigger than himself, and towards trust in God to save and rescue us – to save even him, from wherever we sometimes find ourselves.
I think of the minister who confessed his murderous thought towards his daughter – a horrible thing to feel and confess to the church. He did all he could to be a good and loving father, and he was. But he also knew he could think terrible things, act unkindly at times, do and say things he later regretted, and not always be right or sure or certain.
And in all that – despite all that, and because of all that, he knew how to place himself in the presence and in the hands of One who promises to be, and is, his shepherd – who takes him as he is, brings him back when he wanders, heals him of his opened wounds and disclosed diseases, and leads him through to a new and better way of being.
That he was able to do this – and share it with us – able to find ways, and times and places, and groups of people with whom to be honest and open for the sake of being led through the valleys of life, is exactly what made him the minister I have most loved and respected, and who has been one of the best shepherds I have known in my life.
He led the way– not by knowing all the answers, or by fixing everything for everyone, or by being always good and upright – but by being able to bring both the good and bad of his behaviour, the strong and weak of his character, the certainties and questions of his life out into the open, into the community of faith, and into his dialogue with God and with others. He showed us it’s possible to do that, that it is the way – the only real way to new and good life, and that we need not be afraid of going there ourselves.
Do we not want our children to know that too? And how will they know, if not by seeing it in us – showing them the way by walking it ourselves ahead of them, letting them know it really is all right to go there?