Sheep of the Good Shepherd

Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Easter

St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Richmond VA

Lectionary Texts:

This is a perilous and high-stakes week to be preaching about shepherds and sheep.  

On this Fourth Sunday of Easter…which we often call Good Shepherd Sunday…our yearly readings invoke comforting, pastoral images of Jesus the Good Shepherd.  Jesus, who embodies the rich imagery of Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want” where we are guided, comforted, and restored.  Jesus, with a lost sheep separated from the fold lifted up on his shoulders with the rest of the flock following dutifully behind. We are reminded, lesson after lesson, that our Good Shepherd lays down his own life for his sheep.  

Our Holy Scriptures were written for a cultural context that was agrarian, and these metaphors of shepherds and sheep were instructional and intuitive to hearers of the Good News.  The many, many biblical references to sheep aren’t there to suggest a divine preference for cute, fluffy animals.  Sheep were livelihood…their survival was necessary and valuable for clothing, food, trade, sacrifice.  Sheep were not always easy to manage, terrain was not always easy to navigate, and shepherds often had an exhausting, smelly, dirty job keeping the flock safe and protected.

A good shepherd values each and every smelly, ornery, valuable, beloved sheep.  

This week, I found myself wishing that we had the capacity to value beloved, human lives the same way that a good shepherd values the lives of their sheep. In a high-stakes and perilous week such as this, we have watched a trial unfold for a murder that never should have happened and awaited a jury’s verdict knowing all too well how rare it has been for an on-duty police officer to be convicted.  Our collective tension was palpable, and even though there was great relief in the verdict, the ugly truth of racial injustice and state-sanctioned violence remains exposed. 

I turned my thoughts this week to this valuable flock that our Good Shepherd is tending.  There are so many other sheep of the fold who are on this journey, who by their very presence as valuable members of the flock are reminding me of the continued precariousness for some of the sheep of the fold.  We all have the same loving shepherd, but we are not all residing in lush, green pastures.  Just as Jesus reminds us, “I am the Good Shepherd; I know my own and my own know me” Jesus also says, “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.”

Jesus, the Good Shepherd, loves and values the other sheep.  At the cultural time and location of John’s Gospel, “other sheep” may have referred to those to whom the Gospel had not yet spread fully…to the Gentiles, the Greeks, the Romans…or like our evangelist namesake St. Mark’s to Alexandria and eventually spreading around the world.  At the writing of this Gospel, I’m fairly certain no one imagined the sheep of 2021 following the Good Shepherd the way we are doing now.  We have been the other sheep, and we, too, can fail to imagine that there are other sheep that our Good Shepherd knows and calls by name.  There are always more sheep than we can see from our vantage point within the flock, and with those sheep there is always the watchful eye and heart of our Good Shepherd.  The temptation that we get sucked into is thinking only of ourselves as the poor, lost sheep being picked up, cradled and supported on Jesus’ shoulders.  We need to remind ourselves that we are all the sheep of a flock, and that flock is more vast and diverse than we could ever imagine.  And yet, our Good Shepherd loved us profoundly, and knows us all by name.  All of us.

As I was trying to keep myself centered this week, I took a little “Good Shepherd Tour” through the artwork of Henry Ossawa Tanner.  Tanner, one of the first notable African-American artists of the early 20th Century, experienced a sort of religious intensification in his early life after which turned his career focus to religious art.  I learned this week that he had a particular pull to the image of The Good Shepherd.  In fact, I managed to uncover several very different paintings of this biblical reference. Let me show you one that is perhaps a typical, familiar “Jesus the Good Shepherd” scene from the mid-point of Tanner’s artistic career:

Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Good Shepherd, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The painted scene is pastoral, and given the serene quality of his art, one might assume the artist felt this tranquility in his own life.  But continuing to read on, I realize more about the cultural context of his experiences in the post civil war United States and later in his travels and residence in France.  Later in his life, Tanner offered up reflections on the continued, pervasive racism that he experienced from the years he lived in Philadelphia and which he experienced throughout the rest of his life and artistic career.  In his autobiography, he states, 

I was extremely timid and to be made to feel that I was not wanted, although in a place where I had every right to be, even months afterwards caused me sometimes weeks of pain. Every time any one of these disagreeable incidents came into my mind, my heart sank, and I was anew tortured by the thought of what I had endured, almost as much as the incident itself.

Tanner’s son Jesse later reflected on his father’s fondness for the Good Shepherd image and his father’s reflection that ​“God needs us to help fight with him against evil and we need God to guide us” (Jesse Tanner in Mathews, Henry Ossawa Tanner, American Artist, 1969).  

After leaving Philadelphia Henry Ossawa Tanner traveled to Morocco and spent time in the Atlas Mountains which also became thematic in some of his works.  I want to take a moment and show you a very different painting of the Good Shepherd from the 1930’s.  As a later life work, it reflects a different facet of Tanner’s faith and perhaps also offers us a retrospective image of the perilous and high-stakes experiences of his own life and context, too.  

Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Good Shepherd (Atlas Mountains, Morocco), ca. 1930, oil on fiberboard, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Norman Robbins.

I think it holds something for us to consider about shepherding other than green pastures and quiet waters.  How long did it take you to even notice the Good Shepherd?

These are high-stakes and perilous times, friends.  I believe Henry Ossawa Tanner, Black American artist and beloved follower of Christ, knew a great deal about that.

Imagine following the Good Shepherd through Tanner’s depiction of such a precarious domain.  If there are plentiful other members of the fold around us, tending each other and helping to keep us together and navigate the high and rocky cliffs without harm then perhaps what we see isn’t the vast chasm but the presence of other sheep.  But what if we are separated, or the world tells us we don’t belong in the same fold, or we are singled out and marginalized.  The vulnerability of the precious, valuable sheep is the focus of the Good Shepherd’s gaze.  It is the Good Shepherd whose eyes are on the terrain, and the perils, and who is directing the course of our journey.  It is the Good Shepherd whose eyes are on the sheep, who brings those who might be in danger of being lost back into the fold.  We cannot all be lost sheep, wandering off in our own directions oblivious to the peril to ourselves and others or there won’t be a flock and our Good Shepherd will be running after us all.  We are a flock…a community…who care for each other as we are guided, together, by our loving Good Shepherd.  As we hear in our Epistle reading, “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us– and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 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 help?”

Those words have echoed for me this week, as I watched the trial of Derek Chauvin and listened to testimonies of people whose only way to help was to stand by and film what was happening AND YET that visual testimony served as a catalyst for one of only seven convictions since 2005 for the death of a person at the hands of a police officer. Help can look like steadfast witness; tangible support; solidarity of spirit with those who are oppressed; laying down our power and privilege to advance equity of those whose way is more perilous than our own.

Like Tanner’s picture of the gaping chasms of the Atlas mountains, the context of the world in which we live is perilous and dangerous for too many people in the beloved community that we share.  And yet, our Good Shepherd is leading us with love, not fear.  And if we are paying attention to and care for each other, then even as we walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, we will fear no evil.  We will realize that those who lose their footing are the ones most likely to be pushed to the outside, or disregarded by the many.  Those who find themselves at risk in the perils of this world are the beloved sheep of the flock iover which the Good Shepherd is keeping the most diligent watch.  

How can we abide in the love that has been lavished upon us unless we are willing to help the Good Shepherd keep the flock together?  When we abide in God’s love, sharing that love is our desire, not just our mandate.  Loving is a way of being, not a chore of doing.  We go beyond seeing ourselves as the lost sheep that need to get rescued and lifted onto the shoulders of the shepherd, and instead find our sure footing by helping each other navigate the path that has been set for us amid the changes and chances of this world.  The Good Shepherd has us all. 

And all means all.

About harasprice

Professor of Social Work and Priest in The Episcopal Church, parent, teacher, learner, writer, advocate, and grateful traveller along this journey through life
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