The Good Shepherd
Did you notice a common theme in our readings this morning? Sheep! Shepherds! “The Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd” “The Lord is my Shepherd.” “My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me.” Even Dorcas. She made clothing! Which means she was probably a weaver. And she most likely would have used wool.
Sheep and Shepherds and Wool.
I think a lot about these things, more than the average person. In part because I’m a priest. Scripture, as we see this morning, is filled with this imagery. But also because: I’m a knitter.
Knitters love sheep. Of course we do - we need them to make wool to spin into yarn to knit into sweaters and hats and socks. I love knitting. I love yarn stores - standing around that much raw material, that much as-yet-unrealized potential is inspiring!
Knitting is one of our oldest crafts. It’s not as old as weaving or pottery-making. But it’s up there. The origins of knitting are unknown, but we believe they lie somewhere with fishermen (with all their net-making and mending) and shepherds (see: sheep). Fishermen and Shepherds. There’s probably a sermon in that, but it isn’t this one.
Knitting is rhythmic, orderly, beautiful. I generally have at least 5 unfinished projects going at any given time.
Technically knitting is very simple - there are only 2 stitches. Knit and purl. And technically, they’re the same stitch - a purl is just a backwards knit stitch. Easy stuff. Even the most intricate, complex knitted item is composed of these simple, lowly stitches.
The trickiest part about knitting is casting on. Casting on is how you start a new project. And it’s complicated. You need to stretch the yarn around your thumb and index finger, somehow holding it in place with your remaining three fingers. Then you take your needle and, via a complex maneuvering of twists and dips, you create loops of yarn on your needle that become the foundation of your garment. Casting on is awkward and frustrating. New knitters often find casting on to be painful too, because all that anxiety makes us tense up our hands meaning we’re not only pulling too hard but gripping too hard too.
And yet there’s a moment, about 20-30 rows in when something magical happens. You look down at your work and realize that you, a mere mortal, have, through your own ingenuity and determination, have started to make fabric. It’s all worth it because you’ve made something new.
When you picture a shepherd, what do you see? For most of us, it’s a highly romantic image of a young, attractive man with a staff. He’s sitting or laying on a hillside, napping or playing an instrument while his sheep graze peacefully nearby. Marie Antoinette famously built a small farmhouse for herself so she could go and play shepherdess complete with meticulously coiffed sheep and silk peasant gowns. Neither of these is an accurate depiction.
There’s a book popular in the knitting community (yes, that’s a thing. It’s real and we’re everywhere). Sheepish by Catherine Friend. In it, Friend and her wife buy a farm and 50 sheep, seemingly on a whim. They find, unsurprisingly, that being a shepherd is a lot of work. From lambing (the season where pregnant ewes give birth to lambs) to feeding, pasturing, to shearing, to selling and butchering, the whole process is complicated and messy. Friend finds that it’s worth it when she falls in love with wool and knitting.
In Iceland, there are over 800,000 sheep, nearly double the human population. In many places, the sheep are allowed to more or less roam free. They’re tagged, but free to wander. Each September, they need to be brought back in for the winter. Whole communities turn out to help gather the sheep.
And then it’s time for réttir. The sorting. Sheep are gathered in one large central pen with gates all around the perimeter. The gates lead to pens, each assigned to a different shepherd. The shepherds get into the pen with the sheep and start to coax their sheep into the proper pen. It’s as ridiculous as it sounds.
Sweaty, muddy, grown folks chasing and tackling sheep and wrestling them into pens. It’s a big messy ordeal. It’s apparently quite the sight. But it’s necessary - the shepherds need to do this to get the sheep back home to safety. And the sheep need it so that they can be safe and spend their time being sheep.
When Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd, he’s talking about a real shepherd, not a romanticized one. The first known depiction of Jesus in art is actually a shepherd - a young boy with a lamb over his shoulders. For a long time, that’s what I pictured when I heard him say “I am the Good Shepherd.”
But now? Now I picture réttir. I picture a shepherd who’s willing to jump into the pit and risk getting dirty and sweaty and embarrassed - even killed. A shepherd ready to leap out of his comfort zone for the sake of the sheep. A shepherd who knows and loves his sheep so well that his sheep will follow him even into places of danger because they know their beloved shepherd is with them.
“My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me”
Just before the portion of the Gospel of John we hear this morning, Jesus talks about the Good Shepherd leading his sheep out of their paddock. He takes them, and keeps them safe through dangerous places. Through the valley of the shadow of death, as the pslamist writes. This isn’t so that the sheep can feel self-righteous and show off their status as chosen, beloved sheep.
We follow a savior who is unafraid to jump into the darkest, messiest, most painful places in the world. Not to shield us from them. And not to make them go away. But rather, that through this act of vulnerability, God can redeem them and us.
We are called to follow Jesus’ example. To listen to his voice and follow him. To follow the example of Jesus who took on human flesh and humbled himself, even to the point of death on the cross. To follow the example of the God of all Creation who loves the whole creation with a reckless and abundant love. To follow Jesus, who lived and died and rose again to show us that we, too, through God’s grace, carry a piece of that same divine spark that spoke light into being.
Jesus leads us through places of darkness and difficulty not to test us, not so we can show off how righteous and chosen we are. But rather so that we can follow his example. So we can choose to look sin and death in the face and say: not today. That we can live into our calling to be co-creators of God’s kingdom here and now. If Jesus did it, surely we can too.
And so, beloved Church of the Good Shepherd. Where do you hear the voice of Jesus calling you?
This community is such a blessing. And it has been a deep privilege for me to journey with you this past year. You have incredible gifts for ministry. You possess a deep compassion. Amazing, untapped resources. Remarkable talent. So many incredible gifts.
Use them. Be bold. Be brave.
Throw open these doors and follow Jesus down into the dark places. Baltimore needs you. The world needs you.
Beloved Good Shepherd, I know it isn’t easy. I really do. And I know you can do it. Because, no matter how frightening, messy, uncomfortable...know that you are loved with a never-ending love. A love that cannot, will not be shaken. You are loved by a God who will stop at nothing to keep you safe.
Know that your life, your gifts, your story matters. And trust that God is right there with you. Working through you and alongside you.
Because here, and now, you are the Good Shepherd.
Look. Listen. Pray. And then jump in and lead.