I Know You by Name – The Rev. Dcn. Sue Bonsteel
April 25, 2021
My first teaching job was in a rural area in central New York. Roger and I were newly married and we had a small apartment near the university where he was attending graduate school. Madison County is a beautiful community, about 50 miles from Syracuse. Even though it’s considered to be the geographical center of the state, I felt at times as if I had moved to a distant land. For I was raised in a densely populated area of Long Island where an easy train trip would take me into New York City at any time. Congestion, highways, shopping malls, noise…it was pretty much all I knew for many years. The open spaces and rolling hills…and the frequent odor of manure…reminded me that I was a stranger in a strange but lovely land.
Moving to the country where trees and farm animals seemed to outnumber the residents presented challenges that I hadn’t anticipated. The children in my classroom knew much more about John Deere farm equipment than the LIRR. Many had never traveled to Syracuse and had little awareness of what a truly large city might look like.
Early on before school began, Roger and I drove around the county to simply see where…and how…my students lived. I wanted to get to know more about the children who I was to shepherd through first grade. Some of them resided in modest and well-cared for homes. Others lived in profound poverty…in rather sorry buildings where old cars and junk littered the yard. And still others lived on small farms where cows and goats and sheep and chickens roamed freely around the yard and kids joyously hung from trees waving as we passed by.
I came to realize that I had much to learn about my new responsibilities if I wanted to be a good teacher for each one of my students.
When I read the many references to sheep and shepherds in the bible passages we just heard, I was reminded that unless we were brought up in Madison County…or in any rural area, for that matter…few of us have had any real contact with these animals. The metaphor of sheep and shepherds can be simply lost on us. For what does it really mean to be compared to sheep?
The common perception is that sheep are not terribly bright animals. It’s not a particularly flattering portrayal so I googled “sheep” and this is what I learned. Yes, sheep are considered difficult to shepherd because of their innate tendency to panic and scatter. On the intelligence scale, sheep are just below pigs and on par with cattle. But listen to this… sheep can learn to recognize individual human faces and then remember them for years. Studies show that, if worked with patiently, sheep can even learn and respond to their own names. So perhaps there is something more to this metaphor after all.
And here’s the thing about today…the 4th Sunday of Easter…which is commonly known as Good Shepherd Sunday. The readings are not primarily about sheep at all. Today is about a shepherd…the Good Shepherd…but even that portrayal has meaning that can be lost on us.
“I am the good shepherd,” says Jesus. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11)
We only hear the title “the Good Shepherd” in the New Testament. For when Jesus claimed it as his own, he was intentionally reaching back into the Old Testament to make a point to the Pharisees who professed to have special knowledge of scripture. The Book of Ezekiel prophesied about shepherds who were overseers for the people of God. It spoke of another shepherd that was to come…the Messiah that Israel was waiting for. So in calling himself the Good Shepherd, Jesus was publicly identifying himself as the Messiah of whom the scriptures foretold.
So then I googled “shepherd.” And this is what I learned. The life of a shepherd was anything but easy or appealing…quite unlike the romanticized images we have all seen in artwork of a gentle Jesus carrying home a wayward sheep in one arm and holding a shepherd’s crook in the other. The life of a shepherd was dangerous, difficult, and often tedious work. As one commentary described the shepherd…he was one who was “rough around the edges, spending time in the fields rather than in polite society. So for Jesus to say, “I am the good shepherd,” it would have been an insult in the eyes of the religious elite.” For a claim like that definitely has an edge to it. Suppose…in our world today, Jesus might instead say something like this: “I am the good migrant worker.” How many would be startled…even offended…by that imagery?
The message for us in John’s gospel is that the Kingdom often comes in surprising ways….and the world will likely be startled by a God who often turns our expectations and our prejudices upside down.
A friend once told of an uncomfortable experience he had while on retreat. Ken sat next to an elderly woman who dominated the conversation at dinner and seemed to be suffering from a form of dementia or perhaps mental illness. She repeated herself over and over, pulling at imaginary strings on her clothing, and using coarse language when she lost her train of thought. The others at the table seemed content to let her ramble on and Ken was puzzled by their tolerance of what he saw as disruptive and eccentric behavior. He couldn’t imagine how she would be able to participate in their retreat. At the end of the meal, as everyone stood, a man sitting on the other side of the dinner table walked over and thanked my friend for his patience. “She showed up one day and the brothers invited her to dinner,” he told Ken. “At first we didn’t know what to do about her. She was erratic and loud and seemed so out of place. Then one of the brothers told us her sad and difficult life story. He referred to her as one Jesus’ lost sheep – discarded, adrift, and frightened. The brother wondered if we might consider being her shepherds.”
But the story didn’t end there. The woman was brought into the fold of the community, not shunned or cast out or left to fend for herself. One of the men turned out to be a psychiatric social worker and was able to find her a safe place to live. And, yes, the members of the retreat did give him the nickname the Good Shepherd.
In retelling this story, anyone could see how deeply moved Ken was by the love and compassion shown to this lost and vulnerable woman. The care and gentleness the retreatants expressed simply by welcoming the woman by name into their midst mirrored the words of Jesus: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold…but I must bring them also.”
So what does this tell us?
Perhaps we are to be more like the Good Shepherd than the sheep. Perhaps our call and work in the world is found not huddled together in the field as one flock but standing at the gate…and watching and listening for the voices of our families, neighbors, friends, and acquaintances and to call them by name. And in times where there is danger, injustice, oppression and violence…our work is to stand among the lost, the abused, the refugee, the imprisoned, those without shelter, the poor and the hungry…and show them the love of God through Jesus.
The Epistle from First John points us in the right direction: “we know love by this…that (Jesus) laid down his life for us…and we ought to lay down our lives for one another…for how does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” (1John 3:16-18).
Just as I came to know each of my young students by name, God knows each of us by name. Like the Good Shepherd, we are to be selfless in our love for one another. Like the Good Shepherd, we are to do our best to protect one another and confront that which is evil in our world. And like the Good Shepherd, let us offer our lives in loving service for one another for it will only be then that we will be united as one family, one flock.