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A Motherly Shepherd
John 10: 11-18 (The Good Shepherd)
Jim Hill from B.C.

How many of you know anything about sheep-herding? The only sheep-herding I've seen is with horses and dogs. But from what I've heard and read about, there are shepherds in the Middle East who still herd sheep the old way, on foot, and with a crook, which is a stick with a hook at the end. And from what I've read, this old-style shepherding is more like mothering. These shepherds evidently don't have to crack a whip or blow a whistle. The sheep know the shepherd's voice, and will follow as if he were the surrogate mother. Even when herds are mingled (according to a pastor I talked to, who saw this happen on a trip to the Middle East), once each shepherd says the word and starts on his way, that shepherd's sheep know his voice, and separate off, following that particular shepherd.

Sometimes the shepherd will even name his sheep. The prophet Nathan tells a story in the Old Testament about a family who raised a sheep as if it were a member of their family, the way some people nowadays treat their dogs.

This old-style shepherding is more like mothering than leadership, and the sheep are more like children, like puppies than sheep.

That's why it doesn't bother me when some Christians use the metaphor of "mother" to describe God. God has many characteristics, including some motherly ones. For instance, in the familiar Psalm 23, which is the Psalm appointed for today, God is pictured much like a mother, as a nurturer and a feeder, as well as a protector and leader.

I must say, I do believe that the "father" metaphor is a better one, and absolutely NECESSARY because God's relationship to Jesus is the most important in the world, and that is a perfect Father-son relationship. But the metaphor of God as mother is not a bad one, especially because we see that side of God in Jesus. When God came into the world as the Christ, God was showing himself not as a strict disciplinarian or an angry judge or a distant, awesome God (although he is all of those things), but rather, God was showing himself as a kind and compassionate and gentle God— loving, embracing, motherly.

Nothing wrong with that metaphor, because that's certainly the way God is.

In today's Gospel Lesson, Jesus says, "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep." I'm sure you've nature shows on TV, or seen the actual thing outdoors, where a mother bear will sacrifice her life for the cubs, or a doe will lead hunters away from the fawn, or a mother bird will fake injury, in order to attract a predator away from the nest. A good mother will do that without hesitation, with total self-sacrifice. Isn't that a good illustration of what God is like!

I read about a forest fire in Western Canada that burned a farm, including the outbuildings. After the embers had cooled, the farmer was walking around checking the ruins, and noticed a burnt lump on the ground. He prodded it with a stick, and here it was a HEN that had burned to death. He flipped it over and underneath were three, live baby chicks, chirping and frightened. God is like that mother hen, giving his life for his children.

It reminds me of Matthew 23:37, Jesus' words of lamentation as he looks down over the city: "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem," he said. "How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were not willing!"

What does this mean for us? It means first of all, that we must be sure we're following our One Leader. Not any human leader, government leader, president, premier, minister, or hero, unless they are urging us to follow the Only Leader. We must not follow any church leader, bishop, pastor, evangelist, or prophet, unless they are like the Old Testament prophets, who always pointed away from themselves to Yahweh as the Shepherd.

You may recall that John the Baptist had a tremendous following, but asked his disciples to follow Jesus, saying, "He must increase, and I must decrease."

Not that society and government and church don't need good leaders! Good leadership is one of the vital requirements for the success of any group.

At the B.C. Synod Convention last weekend, it was good to see Vern Krienke, a member of Peace Lutheran Church in Vernon, taking strong leadership in a project to raise money for the purchase of the Lutheran Campus Centre property at UBC. The Lutherans have been leasing it all these years, but the university now says it must be sold, within five years when the lease runs out. It's been appraised at over 1.2 million dollars, but the university is willing to sell it to the Lutheran Student Foundation for the discount price of 750,000 dollars.

Under Vern Krienke's leadership, I have no doubt that the 750,000 will be raised. Even before the end of the convention, pledges of a couple of hundred thousand had already come in!

What's so delightful to me is that Vern is not an appealing personality! He looks like a bulldog; he's a lousy speaker, far too blunt and gruff; and has lots of other debilities. But, man, does he have commitment! Does he have FAITH! Whooo! It's obvious even when his false teeth are falling out.

The church needs leaders like him, who are motivated by Spirit of God, who see the gut-wrenching importance of the mission and ministry that the church is about— in this case, to university students who are in a vulnerable and formative stage of life, who are like sheep without a shepherd.

If there ever was a time in history when the church needed good leaders, it's today.

BUT we must never do, as so many people have in the past, come to think of our leaders as better than we, as little gods, as semi-divine, having some authority or power in themselves apart from God. Whenever we think that way, we will be hurt; we will be disillusioned; and we will find ourselves led by idols with feet of clay, by false shepherds in whom we have misplaced our trust. We must never forget that there is only ONE Shepherd, our Father-creator who showed himself in his Son Jesus Christ. "We are the people of HIS pasture, and the sheep of HIS hand."

The sole leadership of our God is emphasized also in today's First Lesson: Jesus as God incarnate is our sole leader: s-o-l-e, and s-o-u-l. Even if no one else in the world believes in him, you must never fall away. Peter said of Jesus: "‘the stone that the builders rejected has become the head of the corner, the keystone.' Neither is there salvation in anyone else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved."

The second implication of all this, is that we should be gentle with those sheep who go astray, as Jesus was. He didn't condemn the woman caught in adultery, but forgave her and said, "Go and sin no more." He felt sorry for Judas who betrayed him, and Peter who denied him, and the others who abandoned him. He desired that all should be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. He said: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. He was kind not only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, but also to the hated Samaritans and other foreigners. He kept company with the most ostracized and the most sinful people in society. He went into the highways and byways, inviting into the kingdom the sick, the blind, the lame, the maimed, the least loved.

That's because he wasn't a hired hand. He was the Good Shepherd. Strays are important to him. And all we like sheep have gone astray. We have turned, each one of us, to our own foolish ways. Therefore, the Lord has laid on HIM the iniquity of us all.

So let us be gentle and motherly to those who have gone astray, who are lost sheep, and don't know even how far from home they are. They're God's children too, who are prodigal, whom the Father is waiting to welcome home with open arms. We must do the same.

So let's remember those two lessons from this text: that we have only one Good Shepherd, and in following him, let us welcome any fellow sheep that he chooses to welcome. For he said, "I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd."

Praise God for his gentle and motherly shepherding of us. Amen.