John 10:11–18 (NRSV)
11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”
I am the good shepherd. Of all the statements made by Jesus this one is probably the one that I find the most comforting. As a person who has spent time with herd animals, I can somewhat identify with the sentiment. Just this one statement causes me to think of the 23rd Psalm, which was penned by David while he was most likely still a young boy tending his father’s sheep:
Psalm 23:1–6 (NRSV)
1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; 3 he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. 4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me. 5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. 6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.
The image of a shepherd is one that has been with humanity since the beginning of civilization. Animal husbandry is actually one of the very first activities recorded in human history. It began first with the domestication of dogs and cats for the intended purpose of assisting in hunting. Then after approximately 5000 years according to history they began to domesticate goats. And about 700 years prior to the first domestic goat humanity began domesticating plants like wheat, which is what many historians use to mark the dawn of civilization. As people started planting crops they did not want to move too far away from their fields so instead of hunting animals they began catching animals and working with them so that they could keep a ready supply of protein close at hand. After the first animal was domesticated others quickly followed, sheep were domesticated approximately 300 years after goats and pigs were domesticated about 200 years after the sheep. Showing us that they were becoming better at capturing and domesticating animals.
Since animal husbandry was so attached to human civilization most ancient cultures began identifying their deities as shepherds of people, and their rulers as the divinely appointed agents to keep watch over the cattle of the gods. We see symbols of this throughout the ancient cultures: in Ur, Egypt and in Israel. In ancient Egypt, the Pharaohs had a shepherd’s crook as one of the symbols of their authority. And throughout the Hebrew scriptures we are blessed with literary images of God being our shepherd, as in the Psalm I mentioned before. Why do I go into the history of this idea? Because within it lies truth.
Yes, most of the ancient cultures were not followers of the Hebrew God, but that does not mean that God did not reveal some truth to them. The fact that through the majority of ancient cultures they saw mankind as being the cattle of god, reveals to us that people have value. In ancient cultures a person’s wealth was often recorded in terms of the size of their flocks. Meaning their value, their ability to provide for a family was determined by how many animals were available for food and wool. If that is how man regarded worth, what would God value? God so loved the world, the gospel writer tells us, that he gave his only son not to condemn the world but to save it. God values people, we are the cattle or the flocks of God.
Have we ever considered this? Have we ever really thought about our value to God? For someone who has cared for animals, I know what goes into their care. I personally did not tend sheep because in the United States we do not places a high value on the products that come from sheep. But the same basic concepts remain no matter what type of animal it is. If you have any animal under your care, any type of animal, you must take care of it. It does not matter if it is a dog or cat, a sheep, cattle, or a horse if you own it you provide for its needs. We care take this so seriously that there are actually social penalties attributed to those that neglect their animals. We have even formed humane societies to be the watchmen for proper treatment of animals. Humane societies, have we ever thought about this? Organizations that monitor the care people give to animals. And we, humanity, are God’s cattle.
Jesus said, I am the good shepherd. The implications of this are profound when you think about the historical concepts surrounding shepherds. In most commentaries they mention that good, is not quite good enough, but the words that should be used is true. I am the true shepherd. The reasons they continue to use good instead of true are because good is more comforting and humane than true. But the idea of true shepherd is one that wraps every historic religious idea and places it under Jesus’s authority. Pharaoh might be a shepherd, but Jesus is the True Shepherd. All other shepherds are underlings or hired hands, they are mere agents of the true shepherd.
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Jesus says. This statement is of course a prophetic statement uttered by Jesus announcing his crucifixion, but there is more to this than meets the eye. If we were to look back through the histories of the Hebrew people we would see several instances where the image of the divine shepherd being mentioned. One of the most profound is in the 34th chapter of Ezekiel. In this chapter God commands the mortal prophet to speak to the religious leaders. And in this prophetic message he condemns the religious leaders of neglecting God’s flocks, and instead exploiting the flocks for their own gains. They take the fatlings and the wool for themselves, yet they neglect care. They fail to feed the sheep, they fail to seek the lost, they fail to bind the wounded with healing balms. And because of their neglect the sheep wonder off and scatter to be devoured by the wild animals of the wilderness. Because of the neglect these leaders were relieved of their charge, and God says that he will become the personal shepherd of his sheep. This prophecy points to Jesus, the true shepherd. As I read this passage this week, as I let the words of Jesus, and the prophecy of Ezekiel saturate my soul, it broke my heart. My heart aches because I see our current era in the words.
I could stop right here, and I would feel confident that as we centered on the scripture God’s spirit would reveal to us what we need to hear, but I feel that words must be spoken. As researchers and statistical analysis is being made about our current era we see that the church today is in decline. Much can be said about this, both positive and negative. Some say that nominal Christians are leaving because they never had faith, others say it proves that religion is dead, while others blame millennials because we always like to blame millennials for everything. But if people are leaving the church this says something about the church. It says that the church as a whole has neglected God’s flock in some way. We have failed to recognize the wounds that God’s lambs are experiencing. We have failed to lead them to the nourishing grasses for them to eat, and perhaps the waters we guide them to are not still but are filled with rapids.
We like to blame the millennials for the social ills of situation. They are lazy, they are unambitious, they are entitled. I have heard many things said about the emerging generation. Most of which are stated out of ignorance and not truth. The emerging generation is facing challenges that those prior have not faced. No, they have not experienced the Great Depression or the second World War and the horrors of the holocaust, but they have faced challenges. This current generation is the first generation where it was more common to be raised in a single parent or blended family than the prior generations. The only family they have witnessed was one based on self-interest instead of commitment and we look down at them for rejecting the traditional family. Friends they do not know what a family is. We look down at the Millennials for not buying houses or living with parents, but in the 1940’s when the “greatest generation” was coming into adulthood, the median home value was around $3,000, if we were to adjust the for inflation today that home should be just under $40,000. Yet today the median value of a house is around $200,000. This current generation cannot afford a home. And to make it even worse the cost of education has increased in the past forty years by 213%. With 71% of today’s students holding a debt before they even start a job that is greater than what their grandparents spent on their first home. And if we look at wages, the equivalent minimum wage from 1950’s adjusted for inflation would be just under $5 more than it is today. And many of them often were required to take unpaid or now low paid internships for at least year before they even have an opportunity to apply for jobs within their field of study.
We blame millennials for many things, but they are entering into their adult life in debt, they earn an equivalent of $5 less per hour than the previous generation did when they started working, and the cost of living has increased at a greater rate than wages reflect. And their family situations are often not ideal if they exist at all. They have deep wounds, they have grave concerns, and they are seeking answers. Yet this deeply wounded generation so often leaves the church, the agent of the true shepherd. What does this say about us? Do we reflect the true shepherd?
All that information of course is statistical analysis, each of you could probably find an exception and could say that those were life choices that were made and now they need to live by them. You would be right, but that does not alleviate the statistical norm within that generation. What we once knew and believed as a culture has shifted, and now we are scrambling with attempts to figure out how to correct the errors. We are casting blame and pointing fingers but are we even asking the right questions? Are we more focused on preserving institutions or caring for God’s flocks?
I have said often that history is filled with cycles. If we look at the names of the genealogy of Jesus we see the names reflecting various trends within history: they praise God, praise technology, praise war, cry in despair, cry out for God’s help, and praise God. They repeat again and again. And those same cycles continue even to this day. This gives me hope because eventually things will improve, but what do we do in the mean time?
Jesus says he lays down his life for his sheep. He freely gives everything he has for his flocks so that they will be well maintained and cared for. He leaves the ninety-nine to search for the one that was lost. When the sick are brought to him, he has compassion, he sits with them in their illness and then provides healing. He cares for the body and the soul. He faced down the hypocrisy within the religious institution and demonstrated a better way of life. A life focused on prayer, worship and service to the community. He demonstrated this to such a degree that he willingly took on our sin and shame by carrying a cross to Calvary. He said he freely lays down his life for his sheep and he also have the power to take that life back up again.
Jesus loves his flock, humanity, so much that he left heaven to be born as a baby to a virgin mother. He loved humanity so much that he lived a life devoted to God before us and he taught and showed us how to live that life with him. He cared so much for us that he bore the cross and was buried in our sin’s tomb. And He loves us so passionately that he rolled that stone away defeating the wages of our sin and throwing off the chains of death.
Knowing this, why does the current generation leave the fold?
The disciples were amazed at the wonders that Jesus performed around them, yet Jesus told them that those who believe will do the very same things, not only the same but greater things than he showed them. I read those words and I consider the things I have read as I studied this week and I wonder. If this is true why are so many struggling, and why do we lack faith?
It all goes back to who is our shepherd? Are we following a hired hand or are we following the true and good shepherd? All of the statistics and comparisons I mentioned before are based on mankind they have nothing to do with God. They are the worldly interpretations of worldly situations, that will lead into worldly applications and garner worldly results. Meaning we are looking to humanity for answers to problems we created for ourselves, we are looking for a human shepherd to make us great again. What result do we expect out of that? But what if we actually believed the words that Jesus spoke? What if we not only believed with our minds but what if we entrusted our very existence to those words, which is truly what belief means. What if we actually believed that if we followed Jesus we would see even greater things than mentioned in scripture happening all around us?
If we believed in that way, if we lived a life where we followed the teachings of Jesus in all that we do, the world around us would definitely change. Let us just dream a moment. Scripture tells us all that we need to fulfill the work of the kingdom is present right here with us. Every gift of the spirit is present and available to every body of believers. We may not have every gift personally but if we work together we have all we need to expand the kingdom here. With that being said, if we look at statistics again the median income in Kansas City is around $45,000 per household if we had just 11 families who gave a tithe we would be able to fully function at our current level. What if we added 2 new families? We would have a 17% increase to our current budget. Imagine what we could do? In one of my dream ministries, I considered serving oatmeal at bus stops three days a week. If we were able to have a 17% increase of ministry capital that dream could easily become a reality. That is just one dream that I have had, I am sure if we were to ask each of us in this church what our dreams were in ministry, what we would do for the kingdom if resources were available to us, we would have many more ideas that were even greater than oatmeal.
What is stopping us? What is stopping us from doing what God is calling us to? Is it because our minds are not on the true shepherd? The reality is that those resources that 2 new families could provide are already available if we wanted it to be. We already have all that we need to accomplish the work that God has given to us. Because he is the good shepherd and he will take care of his sheep. The reality is that the very power that rose Jesus from the grave is available to everyone who believes, but do we believe? The truth is that out of our fear we bind ourselves, we restrict ourselves, and we limit what we can do because we are focused on worldly things instead of focused on the things that God values. We would rather maintain our own systems of wealth instead of tend to the flocks of our Father. Why is the church in decline? The answer to that question is really simple, the church is not reflecting Jesus. I know that sounds harsh, I know I do not even what to mention it, because I am part of the church just like all of us. But if we reflected Jesus we would take his life as our own. We would live lives of prayer, worship, and service every single day. We would not worry about if we stay open another year or five but we would serve today and trust that our shepherd would lead us to green pastures and still waters and even when we pass through the valleys of death we would not have fear, because we would know that God is with us even to the end of the ages.
As we enter into this time of open worship and communion as Friends let us consider what it means to be in the flock of the Good and True Shepherd. Let us consider what it means to believe and to follow Christ. And let us consider how we can reflect Christ in our community right now today.