Easter 4 / Year B
“O my, Grandma, what big teeth you have!” Do you remember the next line? How about this one: “If you don’t open the door, I’ll huff and I’ll puff…” What comes next? Because we were raised on children’s stories we remember being taught to beware of wolves. Never mind most of us grew up in urban or suburban surroundings and never saw even one wolf, these stories served an important function in our maturation.
They taught us the world isn’t always as safe as the sheltered environment our parents created for us. They let us know danger is always present… though not always seen. They educated us about the cunning ways evil can feed off innocence and naiveté. And, mercifully, they reinforced we are not completely alone and helpless in our struggle against these harmful forces. Little Red Riding Hood is saved when her grandmother fetches the woodsman. The three pigs are saved because one invests the time and energy necessary to construct a safe, sturdy, brick house. These were important stories for us to hear as we grew up and as adults we remember them because, metaphorically speaking, wolves come after us throughout our life.
This Fourth Sunday of Easter is known as Good Shepherd Sunday. The Collect sets the theme for the day and each of the readings builds on it. The Gospel lesson calls us to reflect on the difference between the shepherd and the hired hand. Drawing on imagery familiar to people employed in the herding trade, Jesus makes a simple, but important point: There is a significant difference between the shepherd who owns the sheep and the hired hands who are paid to help out. When the wolf comes the hired hands run away, but the shepherd puts his life on the line to protect what matters most to him.
Jesus invites us to ponder a reality and a question. Here is the reality: In life we will be tested. The wolf will come at us in different times and in different ways and we will be tested again and again in these moments.
Since this is our reality, here is the question: When you see the wolf coming, who or what can you count on? Who or what will stand with you, even to the point of laying down life itself? When sorrow comes, will the friends who want to play with you stay with you? When weakness comes, will the possessions you have accumulated strengthen you? When tomorrow’s failure comes, what of yesterday’s successes will remain to shelter you? When death comes, who or what will stay with you to see you through? Not your education. Not your career. Not your stock portfolio. Not your winning personality and certainly not your good looks.
Jesus said this to a handful of men and women: “When the wolf comes the hireling will flee; but I will not. I am the Good Shepherd. I will be there when you need me.” The one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church began when this small group of people discovered Jesus keeps his promise.
Scholars say it is no accident the beloved 23rd Psalm (“The Lord is my Shepherd”) is placed immediately after the 22nd Psalm (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). The 22nd Psalm tells us about the dark, terrible testing in life, while the 23rd Psalm tells us about the Good Shepherd who leads us through these experiences to still waters and green pastures.
There will be times when we will be tested in the laboratory of calamity. These moments teach us who and what we can and cannot count on. With each testing our trust in the Good Shepherd grows deeper. And as our trust deepens we begin to discover a life which pain and suffering cannot defeat, a joy which sin cannot dim, and a power from God which stands the test of living, as well as the test of dying. All of this is possible because when the wolf comes the Good Shepherd does not flee from our side.
So today we reflect on the reality of testing and ask who or what will see us through. I think today’s readings encourage also us to ask one more question: Who can count on you to be a shepherd when the wolf comes for them? We all have relationships that are more like pleasant acquaintances. In the moment of their need we may, in fact, be more like the hireling. But each of us has a few precious relationships that stand through thick and thin.
When a couple seeks God’s blessing on their marriage, we ask them to face one another, to join hands, and to promise to have and to hold for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health… until parted by death. The wolf comes to every marriage. Every couple is tested again and again. This is why we do not ask them to sign on as a hireling in each other’s life. We ask them to be shepherds who will lay down even life itself for the other.
Parents also are called to be shepherds, not hirelings. A parent will sacrifice everything for his or her children. Each will put off personal needs to tend first to the needs of their children. Their love is a bond that cannot be broken by any trouble. When loving parents see the wolf coming they do not run away. They do everything possible for their sheep, their children.
Some friends are shepherds, others are hirelings. I learned this for the first time when my father died. My friends and I were still in our teens and death had never touched closely to any of us. Some of my best friends were not able to stand by my side when that wolf was present. They did not know what to say or do or how to make it better, so they stayed away. Only a few friends stood with me in that awkward moment, but what friends they were! They did not know what to say to make the pain more bearable. They did not know what to do to slow the flow of tears. So most times they stood by in silence, but their presence said more than any words of wisdom ever could. We can’t be that kind of friend to everyone we know, but we all have friends who will know us to be shepherds in their hour of need.
We need to be realistic about this shepherding business. There will be times of personal testing when those who should stand with us will fail us. In our marriage, in our parenting, in our friendships, and even in our faith community, there will be times when we will look for a shepherd and find only hirelings. And there will be times when those we love will need us and we will be little more than a hired hand who does not show up to do the job.
As we rely on the grace of God to forgive us our sins, so we offer this grace to those who have sinned against us. If we are to be shepherds, we will need to learn how to ask for forgiveness as well. A hireling who screws up will run off and find another job. But a shepherd who does not live up to the call will not run away and hide from the flock he or she loves. A shepherd will return to gather the scattered, bind up the wounded, sooth the anxious, and begin the process of tending to the flock anew.
In this life we can be sure we will be tested. We can be sure the wolf will come. Jesus tells us he is the Good Shepherd who will not disappoint us when everything else fails. He asks us to help him watch over the flock of those who are closely connected to us. He invites us to love one another as he loves us; to love as a shepherd. In this love for one another we receive a glimpse of a kingdom yet to come. It will be a kingdom of one flock under the love and protection of the one Great Shepherd. Until that day when the wolf will be no more, we have a job to do.