Originally published April 29, 2012
This Sunday was Good Shepherd Sunday and it was my turn to preach. As I read the lessons this week though, all I could come up with was sheep and death. I probably should have been trying to develop some really insightful theme that was deep and edifying, but instead I just kept thinking about the time when I considered becoming a sheep farmer. I used to own a farm in upstate New York and there was a perfect 8 or 10 acre pasture that wasn’t being used much that I thought would be ideal for a small flock of sheep. I even bought a book (this was before google and wikipedia and all that) called Raising Sheep the Modern Way.
It took a little digging but I unearthed my copy this week and starting skimming through it which caused two reactions for me. The first was that it made me kind of want to be a sheep farmer again, but the second was to cause me to reconsider the line from John’s Gospel we read this morning where Jesus says; “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.” Because as I read through the book I was reminded of how seemingly fraught with peril is the life of a sheep. The book describes all sorts of parasites and illnesses which can kill a sheep, and the dangers of lambing and how to respond; it has loads (really, loads) of info on fences, fences to keep sheep in and predators out. It even has a section on sheep dogs. But it didn’t have anything in there about laying down your life.
Set aside for a minute that this is Jesus talking; do we really believe that a good shepherd would die for a bunch of sheep? Many people say they would give their life for their children, and some people may think they’re willing to die for an ideal or a cause – but sheep? That’s not how our world works. We’re sheep-like enough, our primary concerns are a full belly and keeping the wolves at bay, but unlike sheep (probably) many of us are willing enough to do so at the expense of others. Even the most conscientious of us cannot escape the fact that all of our actions involve some kind of compromise with systems that perpetuate injustice.
Several years ago, after a Good Friday service, a friend said to me; “I just don’t understand why he had to die.” Many people have built entire theological careers on trying to answer that question. But in the end I think it might boil down to this. Jesus died because God believes in a world where good shepherds lay down their lives for sheep, and we don’t.