Did you notice a theme this morning, in the Psalm and the Gospel, the prayer and the music?
Yes - it’s “Good Shepherd Sunday”. This is not an official holiday of the church, but three weeks after Easter every year, we pause to think about Jesus’ identity as the Good Shepherd.
It’s one of the most popular images of Jesus, from the earliest years of Christian faith through today, when the world is drenched in stained glass windows, postcards, paintings, statues, mugs and candles of Jesus with a lamb on his shoulders or a herd of sheep around his feet. It’s an identity that resonates with the 23rd psalm, probably the psalm most familiar to many Christians
Knowing Jesus as the Good Shepherd promises protection and guidance to the flock - to you and me - God’s care for our every need, a shield against darkness or fear or hunger or scarcity. And the images are beautiful and comforting, bright and tender and gentle.
But every year around this time, I find a raft of biblical commentators ready to point out to me that – for all the times our scripture compares God or Jesus to a shepherd – first century Palestinian shepherds were not generally seen as bright, gentle, happy and comforting. Quite the opposite, in fact. Depending on the commentator, you can read that shepherds were regarded merely as outsiders, as terrible dirty thieves. People you would definitely move away from (though you still shouldn’t call the cops) if they settled in at your neighborhood Starbucks.
After all, the actual work of a shepherd – like most farm work – requires some very close contact with a herd of animals who don’t bathe regularly, and probably a fair amount of cleaning up after them. Doing this day and night in the hills of Judea would, well, not make you very popular in what used to be called “polite company.”
There are certainly jobs like that in our world, too. Jobs that make lots of us wrinkle our noses, though we know how necessary they are.
One commentator on today’s readings tells of an amusement park that dressed their grounds crew – their garbage collectors and street sweepers – in formal wear. Imagine men in tuxes and women in evening dress, picking up the litter, wiping down benches, constantly cleaning away the debris of thousands of people passing through the park.
It doesn’t feel quite “right”, does it, according to the habits of our world, for a lady in a long satin skirt to be picking up the sticky napkin that didn’t quite make it into the garbage bin, or a gentleman in a tux sweeping up the popcorn that fell carelessly out of the bag? A little embarrassing to think about, actually.
All of a sudden, I suspect, at that park the almost invisible, messy and thankless work of cleaning up after the rest of us becomes visible. Gracious, extravagant, even, by the cultural assumptions and codes that follow tuxes and evening gowns in our world.
It feels gracious, extravagant, or a little embarrassing, to have someone who appears so elegant and important taking care of the little messes we leave, just as many of us feel embarrassed by the extravagance of asking God’s help for the mundane details of our daily lives, or embarrassed to share with God the burden of our dirty laundry, literal or metaphorical, or shy of trusting God’s interest in our dreams to be as strong as God’s protection in crisis.
But that’s what those pictures of Jesus holding lambs, and the poetry of the Shepherd Psalm are all about: God’s extravagant, gracious, all-encompassing willingness to get mucky or tired or cold or stinky with us. Pursuing us with goodness and mercy when we’re careless, when we fail, or make a mess; even – at the extreme of gracious extravagance – laying down God’s life for us.
In the years since I’ve been ordained, and put this collar on, I’ve often been told by church folks and strangers alike that I have more important things to do than listen to them, staple worship booklets, or help clean up the parish hall.
Sometimes, I believe it myself.
And sometimes it’s perfectly true.
But very often, the most important thing I can do in that moment is in fact to wash a pile of dishes or wipe down tables. To listen to the story or the worry you don’t yet know how to tell. To share in the small or yucky or boring tasks because they matter; to be interested in the “small” or messy griefs and hopes and angers and joys that mean more to our spiritual lives than we often want to think they do.
So sometimes, I sweat under this collar, or get cleaning fluid or baby spit on my clergy shirt. Sometimes, I lay down precious free time I’ll never get back.
But so do you.
Because that’s how we lay down our lives for one another, as the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. This interest in the little things, this investment in helping clean up messes and carry the burdens, isn’t just the life of a priest or a divine shepherd. The image of the Good Shepherd is a model for every Christian.
Three times in a few sentences Jesus defines the good shepherd as the one who lays down his life – putting aside all the vestiges of divine elegance to take on the messy, mucky holiness of human life and death so that you and I get to live with cleaner hearts and spirits day by day. And then John the letter writer reminds us to follow the model Shepherd and do the same.
Very few of us, fortunately, are called upon to be crucified for the transformation of the world. But all of us are called to lay down our lives for one another; to get our formal wear messy in the actions of caring for the careless, loving the unlovable; or making a messed up world welcoming again. Exactly what we give up to do that – what we lay down –is often different from person to person, but we’re all called to risk what is nice or precious in our lives with gracious extravagance for the sake of someone else’s everyday need.
We’re called to do that, but also to receive that gift from one another: to receive each other’s service, and God’s, with the same extravagant graciousness with which God offers it. Because that extravagant, abundant grace is God’s dream and promise for us, and for every one of God’s people, following the Good Shepherd into the paradise pictured in that beautiful familiar psalm.
Following the Good Shepherd to where we are surrounded by abundance for every need, guided in all that is right, protected from evil and fear, and pursued by mercy, accepting the extravagant graciousness of God’s messy care for us, and passing that gift on to one another, until all are at home and at peace with God, now and always.