The mark of a good wonder-worker is his similarity to wonder-workers of the past. Though Jesus exceeded Moses in teaching authority, his miraculous acts are patterned after his prophetic forebears Elijah and Elisha.
The only sheep and shepherds to be seen in my urban neighborhood are either the subjects of cheerful pastel murals in church school classrooms or the children themselves, decked out as the inhabitants of Bethlehem for the Christmas pageant. So far removed are we from teeming, bleating sheepfolds that both the creatures and those who care for them seem little more than quaint artifacts.
I have absolutely nothing new to say about the 23rd Psalm or the tenth chapter of the Gospel of John, and most readers have little need to rehash what they’ve already learned. What I don’t know much about, and what many of us fear to fully and faithfully confront, is the reading from Acts.
I was looking through a high school yearbook recently, a dangerous thing to do when 40 years have passed. I got lost staring at the silly hairstyles, the photos of teachers who are long since gone, the friend in the senior play whose name is now etched on the Vietnam memorial. It was a time of turmoil and strife in the nation. Racial tensions, assassinations and war were tearing the country apart. But you would never know that from my yearbook’s carefree and hopeful class photos.
Our church has an unwritten rule: we will never ignore a member’s basic need. Whenever our members know of a need in the church, they call me. “Is there any money in the benevolence fund? You know Johnny got cut back on his hours, and his kids need help with school supplies.” The answer is always yes. We’ve yet to encounter a need we couldn’t fill.
Good shepherd Sunday! The imagery in the readings is beautiful and triumphant, a fitting trumpeting of Christ’s victory over sin, death and the devil. The foreboding passion sayings are past, the betrayals have been left behind. Jesus is the good shepherd and we are his flock, the sheep of his pasture. Jesus has proven his love for us by giving his life for us, and we show our love for Jesus by listening to his voice and no other.
Although the images of shepherd and sheep wind their way through these lectionary texts, they are difficult images for the contemporary church to embrace. I recall many of the adults in one congregation cringing during a children’s time a few years ago, when a well-intentioned volunteer tried to teach the children a song that had them “baa-ing” for Jesus. What are we teaching our children, some of us wondered: To follow the crowd without question? To have no mind of one’s own? To expect someone else to take care of us?