I mentioned earlier my ball of wool yarn that I brought. (At the beginning of worship, I invited folks to find an object in their home that helped them to think of God as their Good Shepherd.) This is something that I can look at and touch and hold onto that helps me to remember that God is my Good Shepherd. And I chose this particular item for a lot of reasons.
For starters, well, to state the obvious, it came from a sheep. This is natural, undyed wool. And it actually came from local sheep! I bought this at the Brown Sheep Company out in Mitchell, NE, by Scottsbluff. And knowing where it comes from reminds me that God, our shepherd, is not some far-off, distant, inaccessible deity; God is up close and tangible.
We know through the sacraments that God comes to us in humble, everyday things – things like water, bread, and wine: things that we can see and touch and taste. And God is often portrayed in scripture as a shepherd, which was certainly a humble profession – Jesus even paints himself as a shepherd in our gospel reading this morning.
And beyond being a humble line of work, being a shepherd was a common line of work. The image of God as a shepherd places God squarely in the middle of our everyday life. And since I really love to knit and crochet, you can imagine that yarn is a pretty big part of my everyday life! I am actually about 90% sure that there is currently yarn in every room of my house.
I use yarn to make things for people that I love and care about. And whatever I’m making – whether it’s a hat or a scarf or a whole blanket or whatever – I pray and think about that person as I’m stitching it together. So I know that whenever they use what I’ve made for them, they are not only wrapped in a layer of warmth and protection – they are wrapped in layers of love and prayer. And I can be present there with them in some small way, even when we are apart.
These are all elements we find in our texts for today, in the examples we see of God as the Good Shepherd: God’s love and presence and protection and care for us in our daily lives and beyond. And we also hear in our readings that this is an example that we are called to imitate.
Psalm 23, of course, is a treasured favorite for many of us, and for good reason. We actually just read this psalm not long ago, back in March – and it’s kind of a hard text to preach on, because honestly, what more can you add to it? “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.” The psalmist paints an image of God lovingly leading us to life and beauty and abundance – and God the shepherd does not abandon us, but walks with us even through the valley of the shadow of death. God comforts us and defends us from danger, bringing us through to dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
And abundant life is exactly what Jesus promises in our gospel reading for this morning. Like a good shepherd, Jesus knows his sheep so well that he knows all their names and they recognize his voice when he calls them. Like the shepherd in Psalm 23, he leads his flock to good pastures and to safety, bringing them through danger to abundant life.
And again, in our second reading, the author of 1 Peter emphasizes this image of the Good Shepherd. He writes that Jesus is the “shepherd and guardian of [our] souls.” Jesus is the one who finds us and leads us home when we have gone astray. I actually really love how this is phrased in one of the verses of our hymn of the day: The King of Love My Shepherd Is:
Perverse and foolish oft I strayed, but yet in love he sought me, and on his shoulder gently laid, and home, rejoicing, brought me.
It’s such a lovely image – Jesus gently placing us across his shoulders and joyfully bringing us home. And it’s a lovely image to think about, again, as we read our first reading from the book of Acts. This text ends with the author writing that, “day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” Jesus is the loving, gentle shepherd who is constantly at work in the world seeking out the lost, and bringing them home into the fold rejoicing.
This is the same Christ, the same God, who is with us now. This is the same Good Shepherd who continues to guide us, even as the news gets scarier and the pandemic gets closer and closer to home. Our Good Shepherd will keep on loving us and comforting us and watching over us even as people that we know and love begin to get sick and to die. Even in the valley of the shadow of death, we do not need to be afraid, because Christ has come that we may have life – abundant life – even in the midst of death. God is with the sick and the suffering, and reminds us that even in dying, we do not wander out of God’s sheepfold. God sustains us with the hope of abundant life in this world and in the next.
I know that life right now probably does not feel particularly abundant. Many people are dealing with financial struggles, with businesses closed or cutting back on hours and staff, and rent coming due. The new directed health measures that will soon be taking effect will kick many people off of unemployment and force them to choose between risking their health and losing their jobs. Essential workers, like those in hospitals and grocery stores and pharmacies, are on the front lines of this pandemic; they are risking themselves every day to keep their communities healthy and fed. Many people who live alone are struggling with social isolation. And even those who are quarantined at home with family are feeling the grind of being stuck inside day after day, week after week, all in the hopes of flattening the curve. To put it bluntly, things just really suck right now.
But in the midst of all this, the author of 1 Peter urges us all the more strongly to keep on following our good shepherd. He urges us to answer the call to imitate Christ, writing:
“For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.”1 Peter 2:19-21
Now, real quick, I have said it before, and I am sure I will say it again: but God does not encourage or in any way cause our suffering. Instead, what this text is saying is that we are called to imitate Christ in the sense of persisting even in times of struggle. We are to persist in doing the right thing to care for our neighbor and honor God, even when doing it means that we might have to suffer. God recognizes that doing the right thing is often hard. It’s hard to do the right thing, especially when it costs us something – especially when it requires us to be patient – and especially when we see lots of other people getting away with not doing the right thing.
Our efforts are not in vain. God sees the good that we do and is pleased by it. And we are helping to do God’s work! We are helping to do God’s work in showing our love for each other and for our neighbors by doing everything in our power to keep our community safe.
God is with us, giving us strength and helping us to be resilient to face these times. God is nearby and close to us, wrapping us each in a layer of love, like a hand-knitted blanket. Listen for the voice of your Good Shepherd, calling to you by name; God is gathering us in, knitting us together into one flock even when we are apart. Our shepherd, Christ, has come to be with us, so that, even in the midst of illness and social distancing and death, we might have life, and have it abundantly.