Our Theology of the Good Shepherd: Schmaltz or Substance?

A Reflection on the Gospel for

April 26, 2015,

The Fourth Sunday of Easter


David Somerville

Best known for his authorship of The Varieties of Religious Experience, early 20th century psychologist and philosopher, William James,  held the conviction that “The great use of a life is to spend it for something that outlasts it.”

No Sunday is not a good day to reflect on the the theme of the Good Shepherd.  It is a favorite of Sunday School teachers for all ages. Its invaluable use during times of disaster is beyond dispute, and its use as a comforter to the bereft is known to us all.

In this article I would like to describe the reality behind the theme of the Good Shepherd, the source of a lot of mediocre, sentimental art, and then suggest how that reality should challenge what God may be expecting us to do with ourselves as we discern what forms our vocations should take.

As I noted above, we have all have seen many depictions of the Good Shepherd that is really bad art. No Jesus should look like someone whose wrist is too limp to carry a crozier, or who might faint at the sight of blood!

A few weeks ago on a mid-week afternoon at about 5’ o’clock, the two-lane roads of Saint Simons Island were loaded with commuters. They always are at that time of the day. So I felt the pressure of several vehicles behind me as I paused momentarily at the yield sign before the entrance to a traffic circle.  I was anxious to squeeze myself in before the driver behind me would start to honk — which  I did.  Immediately as  I got into the circle, the vehicle in front of me slowed unexpectedly while I still had my eye on the the car behind me. I hit my break pedal. The driver of the car behind me was startled.  It was a Glynn county police officer. His light bar lit up.  Uh Oh! So, leaving the circle, I pulled off the road to absorb the consequences, hoping that I knew exactly where my registration and proof of insurance were.   I was feeling very sheepish. But the blue strobes of a light bar does not offer the same associations that I have with the rod and the staff that comfort me.

I rolled down the window and saw the uniform coming; I was about to be “shepherded”.  The police officer was African American, a fact that should have been irrelevant, and still probably is irrelevant. But my conscience was affected, like any conscience that is aware of the news since the tragic Ferguson, Missouri incident eight months ago.  I wondered for a moment what it must be like to be a black law enforcement officer.  I was already learning on the spot what it feels like to be an errant “sheep”.  I was entertaining some mixed emotions.  Was I, before I noticed the officer’s skin color, feeling some thankfulness at being white?  I would like to think I was capable of higher processes than that.  But am I really?

The policeman explained that after I entered the round-about, my driving appeared erratic. I understood that. I hit my break pedal, which caused him to hit his break pedal, which caused the mother in the SUV behind his car to hit her break pedal.  Fortunately her toddler was safely strapped in, who was crying anyway because he had lost control of his vehicle, a Tonka toy truck that now lay upside down at his feet and out of his reach.  All this the policeman saw in his rear view mirror.  I told the officer what it was that caused me to slow down so suddenly.  The policeman explained that he just needed to know a little more about me, and whether I was under any influence of alcohol, or if I had been texting.   He was polite, but dead serious at the same time. I was pleasantly surprised that he did not demand to see the documents I had already pulled out of the glove box. I was grateful.  As the day wore on, I thought of how my experience of being a “shepherded sheep,” gently admonished by an officer in the vocation of attending to my safety, and that of others were as news-worthy as the events of the past several months following the Ferguson incident. Since then, a number of black men had been stopped by white law enforcement officers.  The encounters led to fight/flight reactions by the black civilians involved (the sheep, as it were).   The officer/shepherds involved went into pursuit. The actions led to movements into the attack mode ostensibly to maintain law and order.   Media impressions have left much of the public with a sense that some of the shepherds had turned into “wolves”, causing violent actions (or overreactions) that led to their tragic,  irreversible consequences.

How does the Gospel of Easter fit into a world where such things happen? Do I dare to take a stab at answering this one? I am fool enough for Christ to try.  God, the Son, the Good Shepherd, is the physical expression of the unseen person of the “Comforter”, or “strengthener”, perhaps, namely the Holy Spirit. Without the Spirit, human shepherds in momentary fear and panic do not find the strength of God.  In other words then, their natural anxiousness to survive a lethal threat has left them in need of the strengthening of God.

Well, just look at what I have written! The rational, self-evident stuff of a boring sermon –  utterly useless to those who grieve in the wake of one child of God’s killing of another!      

The strengthening comforter is “the Lord and Giver of Life” according to the Nicene Creed.  He (or she?) is the strengthener that was not always present to the spiritually disoriented flock of disciples we read about in our Easter scriptures.  We see in the readings that they were adjusting to the strangeness of that time in their life we call the “Great Fifty Days” of the resurrection.  The disciples were in a self-protection mode, the same kind of mode that led to the tragedies between the mostly white law enforcement personnel and the mostly black civilians who had carried with them generations of cultural, experienced-based fear of the police.

The Fifty Days were a strange and unfamiliar time for the surviving disciples. They were the days they experienced  those unexpected moments of fellowship with Jesus who would appear suddenly, and unannounced, on the inside of a locked room,  or prepare an early morning barbecue for his former followers after a night of hopeless work, looking for fish.

Several of the Great Fifty Days had in them times of spiritual darkness.  Thomas spent a week off by himself, inconsolable, and it was Peter who said to his fisherman colleagues, “‘I am going fishing.’ … They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing,” leaving the reader of John 21:3 to wonder if what went left unrecorded by the evangelist, were words like these: “Yes, I’m going to fish for fish!  That I can understand.  That is what I know how to do.  Fish for People?  I still don’t know what Jesus was talking about.  I never did. So when push came to shove, I chickened out on this man whom I loved, and now he is  dead! I should never have become involved.

So here we are with two worlds in our midst.  One is in the first millennium; it is the Church’s memory-story of God making meaningful history with humankind, whether they, the sheep of the Good Shepherd, knew it or not.  The second world is ours at the start of the third millennium.  Both worlds involve sheep that failed to be led due to their fear.  And the shepherds, for their part, also erred in their leadership, out of their own loss of spiritual perspective in those fractions of a second that required right action without time for discernment.

The recent televised apology by the reservist law enforcement officer, Robert Bates, who grabbed his pistol instead of his taser in Tulsa, Oklahoma, appeared to be sincere, and the family of the victim, Eric Harris, seemed to respect Mr. Bates’s remorse, but in a guarded sort of way.  They would not let be trivialized a bare fact:  A man, who did not deserve to be killed, was killed, and that cannot be reversed.  A belief persists:  That had Mr. Harris not been a black man, the outcome might well have been different.  And so another difficult question is born:  How do we, members of the flock of the Good Shepherd, respond to tragedies like this?  One answer that is both true, and yet far from being enough of an answer, is to assure the Harris family that their loved one is in heaven; so all is well. People who say things like that may think their words are healing balm, but answers of that sort are more likely to be salt in the wound!  They are received by the grieving as a trivialization of their tragedy! We, in our faith commitment to the Shepherd and bishop of our souls, are called to do better than that — unless, of course we believe our good shepherd to be the limp-wristed incompetent who faints at the sight of blood.  Are we, the baptized, prepared to search actively for the light of Christ to give us an answer from the strengthener, the Lord and Giver of Life, and pay the price?

Our days after Easter continue to have variations of a theme that were first played out in the canonical Fifty Days.  We have received the assurance that our Lord Jesus Christ is alive and has offered forgiveness even before we have sinned.  And yet the process of experiencing the love of God most palpably depends on his appearing unexpectedly at odd times in the unexpected places when we are not in our best forms — like hiding defensively behind the closed doors of our frightened souls where risk-aversive behavior is the norm, and pat-answers to difficult questions are used to re-enforce the locks on the doors.  This is the stuffy closet of the soul where mottos like “Trust No one” and “Don’t Get Involved” hang from walls too narrow for an open window or a fire place with its welcoming hearth.

In spite of their faithless selves,  some of the disciples did a few things right. They did not mistake their returning master through the closed doors, for a gardener as Mary Magdalene did. Thomas decided to come back and rejoin his friends.  He may have had some idea that grief is something that one has to work through, and that one could not do that alone.  And what about Peter and the Zebedees?  They must have somehow known that even a night with nothing in their nets would still end with a sunrise.

These events, and more, suggest that we are called to discern with one another in the continuing sacrifice of repentance, prayer, fasting, bible study, and the sacraments to be the community priesthood that brings lordship and life to the Church,  That makes our individual selves available to receive the insight of the “aha”! that makes us know that we are indeed called to the life that is led by the Value of values, and that it really is  true — “The great use of one’s life is to spend it for something that outlasts it.”


Note to the reader: I use two excellent sources without which, I could not do this series with some accurate sources of information:

  1. SermonWriter – Resources for Lectionary Preaching http://www.sermonwriter.com/

2  Oxford Biblical Studies http://www.oxfordbiblicalstudies.com/


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