What Makes a Shepherd / Leader Good
Sermon by Rev. Steven McClelland on Psalm 23 & John 10: 11 – 18. Focus on what makes a leader good. Check out Kelly Crandell & The Choir!
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” That’s what makes the shepherd good, according to John – his willingness to get involved, to risk his life for the life of his flock. His flock. Not somebody else’s flock, which he gets paid minimum wage to look after, but his own flock – the one he has bought and bred, doctored and protected. He’s invested in it, in more ways than one.
His sheep are his livelihood, but they’re also his extended family. They know his voice, his touch, his walk, his smell. If they are grazing with a thousand other sheep and he calls them, they will separate themselves from the crowd and follow him home. His voice is the sound of safety for them – the sound of still waters and green pastures.
There’s something about ownership that creates intimacy, especially ownership of living things. A dog or a cat can become a soul mate that can read your every mood before you open your mouth.
I have a dog Tucker who is my spiritual director. When I come home he runs up and leaps on my legs with his tail going a mile a minute. When I’m worried, he worries about me. And when I’m fine he goes off to do his own thing. Some people say we pick pets that look like us. If that’s true, it’s because they’re really extensions of us, creatures who are so much a part of our lives that sometimes it’s not easy to tell who owns whom.
But ownership is more than owning a legal title to something. You’ve heard people talk about “owning their feelings” or “owning up to” a problem. When I hear expressions like that, I begin to think of ownership as a certain kind of relationship, one that’s created between people and other people, or animals. Then ownership is not about possessions, but about being bound to something beyond ourselves, about identifying with it so strongly that it becomes a part of us. And if it’s threatened, we defend it as if we were defending our own bodies, and sometimes that can get us into trouble.
Just after I graduated from college in 1980 I went to Detroit to visit my best friend Ed. Ed picked me up in a brand new cherry red BMW 700 series. Top of the line. He got these cars for free for a week or two as he was writing at the time for Road and Track Magazine and would review these amazing cars.
Well to make a long story short, Ed and I would go into Detroit and hang out at some of the greatest rhythm and blues bars you can imagine. But Detroit has always had a reputation for being a place where you have to be aware of who is around you. We leave the club at closing and start to drive back to his parent’s place.
But as we’re driving we notice a car following us. So we make a left turn and then a right just to see if he is following us. And sure enough the car is following us. Hard to see how many are in the car, but when we pull up to Ed’s folks place the car follows us right up. At this point both of us know we are in for some trouble.
Ed rather than jumping out of the car and rushing toward the door stays seated in the car. I’m thinking, “What is Ed doing? Get out!” But he doesn’t because he knows that these guys, two of them getting out of the car now are trying to steal the car. “Let them have it,” I shout. Ed yells no. And one of the guys punches the driver’s window. At this point I run to help Ed. And in a flash punches were thrown and I’m holding onto the guy who’s trying to get a hold of Ed.
Well after being punched several times on the back and neck, the two guys attacking us see that this is taking too long. And Ed and I are yelling for help. The doorman at the high rise that Ed’s folks live in starts to approach the front door to see what’s going on. Afterwards we realized how grateful we were that these guys did not pull guns or knives because everything could have gone horrible wrong. Call it stupidity by two 21-year-olds but there’s intimacy and care there too. Standing together against an injustice.
All in all we’re warned away from getting involved in other people’s problems. Therapists call it “trespassing boundaries,” or “codependence,” and they have a point. If we make a habit of rescuing other people, we prevent them from learning about the consequences of their actions. We help them keep their illusions about themselves and we get to be heroes in the bargain, but it’s not good for them or for us. Everybody deserves a chance to fail. It’s how we learn to be human.
But we also deserve to have someone in our lives who will say, “When you’re taking on my friend, you’re are taking me on, too. That’s not “codependence.” That’s agape, self-giving love, the kind of love the good shepherd practices and the kind of love he teaches us to offer one another.
If the shepherd had been a hired hand, we would not even know his name. A hired hand would have taken one look at the car-jackers and he would have vanished. If he’d been a religious hired hand, he might have said, “God bless you! I’ll pray for you!” before he disappeared, because a hired hand doesn’t care for the sheep the way the shepherd does. He doesn’t own them, so he’s not going to risk his life to protect what’s ultimately not his. He minds his own business. He takes care of himself.
The good shepherd, on the other hand, lays down his life for the sheep. But what happens to the sheep? Who’s going to protect them after he’s dead? Well, I’ll tell you. On the night before he died, they all fell asleep after having shared a big meal, and as they slept they shared a terrible dream: of people with clubs and torches who led their shepherd away, and tore him to shreds on a hillside outside of town.
In the dream, they huddled for safety, unable to think, unable to move, and they stayed that way for three days, wondering if the wolves would come back to finish the job. But on the third day, they heard a voice – far away at first, then coming closer – that awoke them from their sleep, and they stood once again in the presence of the good shepherd.
Everything was the same again, but everything had changed. Looking around at each other, they saw what had happened. They had fallen asleep as sheep, but they had awoken as shepherds. As they slept, every one of them had been changed into the image of the shepherd, and as they stood there staring at one another he handed them shepherd’s staves like his, and he sent them out to gather their own flocks.
“Do for them as I did for you,” he said, and as they set off they could hear his voice saying through the centuries, “And lo, I will be with always now and until the close of the age.” Amen