Fourth Sunday of Easter, May 15, 2011
Lessons designated by the Common Lectionary include: Acts 2: 42-47, Psalm 23, I Peter 2:19-25 and John 10: 1-10
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want… (Psalm 23:1). “For you were going astray like sheep, but now have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls” I Peter 2: 25. “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd” John 10: 10b-11a).
Every year our Common Lectionary celebrates “Good Shepherd Sunday” on the Fourth Sunday of Easter. So three of the four lections this week use the image of a good shepherd to describe the loving and protective care of God. The one exception is the reading from Acts that continues a sequential reading of the book from Easter through the Day of Pentecost. This week it describes the idealism and energy of the earliest converts to Christ who devote themselves “to the apostles teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (2:42). It goes on to tell of their willingness to have “all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (2:44). It describes a communitarian idealism of the early church that does not long continue.
But the good shepherd image certainly does continue, despite the reality that in our mostly urban world not many of us have had much experience with shepherds, good or bad! It may well be that sheep are often helpless and vulnerable, depend on the shepherd for “nourishment, protection and guidance” and look to “him” (sic) to avoid exploitation or possible destruction, but at best for most of us that’s second hand knowledge.
So when I attended a chapel service at Hartford Seminary several years ago, I was moved by Ibrahim Ozdemir, a visiting professor from Turkey, as he told of his experience as a shepherd. He grew up in a remote village with no school or mosque within five miles and by the age of six or seven began to assume some shepherding responsibility for his family. He was taught to be proud of his work, as the prophet Muhammad himself was also a shepherd. So when he was asked by a Turkish friend at a university in Manhattan for help on a sermon she was invited to deliver on the value of shepherding based on this passage from John 10, this was his response:
“When I was a young shepherd boy in the Anatolian hills, I could produce more than ten distinctly different whistles by sticking a finger between my lips, one tone for each finger, giving different messages to my sheep. One day I did lose one of my sheep. When I realized that I ran to a nearby hills and valleys. One of my eyes was looking for her, while I kept the other eye on the rest of my flock. In spite of all my efforts, my search was fruitless. Evening had come and I had to go home. With tears welling up in my eyes, I told the news to my parents. They were also unset but my father told me that we could continue the search in the early morning. ‘Ibrahim!’ his father said, ‘don’t give up hope!’
“Although I was so tired I could not eat anything, I had a hard time falling asleep that night. When my father awoke me at dawn, I ran outside and what I saw made me very happy. The lost sheep was back at the courtyard. I thanked God for that.”
Ibrahim’s friend immediately wrote back asking why such emotion over a single sheep?
Again, he responded with the following:
“As a large peasant family, we depended on two things for our livelihood: land and sheep. A livelihood from the land, however, depends on weather. If the weather is fine, then we can harvest good crops. When the weather is not fine, we have to wait until the next year and bear the suffering in the meantime. But if, besides land, we have sheep, we don’t worry so much because if the crops fail, the family that has sheep can survive.
“You must understand that we rarely slaughtered sheep for meat. Sheep used to be everything for my family. Sheep provide milk. We used to drink some of it and sell the rest. We also made yogurt and cheese and sold these as wellÉMoreover, sheep provide wool. We would sell some of it, but the best wool we reserved for our family to make clothing and quilts. Sheep also provide us with dung to fertilize our lands and raise better crops. In short, it may seem strange to you, but the sheep are a bounty to us — a blessing and a bounty from God. Therefore when we lost one of them, it was as though we lost a member of our family.”
My commentary concludes that the impact of the sheep-shepherd imagery in our lection is to encourage the reader to believe that no thief or bandit will succeed in destroying even a part of the deeply valued flock. This is because the sheep are the shepherd’s “own.” Their familiarity with the shepherd offers the promise of their safety and security. Just as in the 23rd Psalm with its promise of protective love, here in John 10 that love is reaffirmed with the powerful image of a shepherd in the promises of Jesus. He is our trustworthy guide.
“So again Jesus said to them, ‘He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them and the sheep follow him because they know his voice” (John 10: 3-4).