The Sacrificial Shepherd

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Easter, Year B

I Peter 2:19-25; Psalm 23; John 10:1-10

She turned the letter over in her hands, once, twice. Finally she steeled her nerve and ripped open the envelope. In it she found a brief note from a friend, and in that note the news she had been waiting so long to hear. Her father was dead.

In her cell in Ravensbruck concentration camp, Corrie ten Boom scratched a note on the wall, “Father released.” The ten Boom family had been a model Christian family in Haarlem, the Netherlands. Caspar ten Boom, Corrie’s father was a respected watch-maker. They had been a model family, that is, until they joined the underground resistance after the 1940 invasion by the Nazis. In a hidden room in the top story of their home, the ten Boom family hid Jews who came to them for help.

Ultimately they were betrayed into the hands of the Nazis in 1944, and the members of the ten Boom family were arrested and sent to internment camps. Now in her cell in Ravensbruck, Corrie new what had become of her beloved father. But the note, sent by a family friend, said nothing about the fate of the Jews that had been hiding in the secret room the night her family had been arrested.

AreAlloftheWatchesSafeThen Corrie looked again at the envelope. She noticed something peculiar about the handwriting in the address block. It slanted upward…pointing toward the stamp. Carefully Corrie peeled the stamp away from the envelope. Underneath the stamp she found writing. A short sentence, but it spoke volumes to her, “The watches in your father’s closet are safe.”

It had not been for nothing. Her family’s sacrifice had indeed saved the lives of Jews, if only for that night. She would be the only member of her family to emerge alive from the camps, released by what could only be called a clerical error. But she lived to tell their story. We hear the story of their ultimate sacrifice.

We read of similar sacrifices in the lesson from I Peter today. It is in suffering for what is right that we have a share in Christ’s suffering. He is the ultimate example of what is called “righteous suffering.” “When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.” And then we hear, “For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd…”

The Lord is our shepherd.

Today is often called, “Good Shepherd Sunday.” We have heard the very familiar words of the 23rd Psalm. Without a doubt this is one of the most beloved images of God in all of scripture, even though we as twenty-first century Americans are about as far removed from the culture it references. I dare say it would only be a handful of us in this room who could say that they have seen a sheep up close recently, let alone a shepherd. The closest most of us come to any connection to experiencing the imagery of this psalm may be a cashmere sweater.

For the Jews and other cultures of the world contemporary to Psalm 23, shepherd imagery needed no explanation. Indeed scripture is full of it. Moses was a shepherd, so was David. There were shepherds at the nativity.

Shepherd-in-IsraelBased on Psalm 23, we may have an idyllic view of the job of shepherd, but we know from closer study that the job was often more dangerous than serene. There were many hazards for sheep when they were out grazing the fields – predators, rocky terrain. But there were also hazards when they were in the sheepfold. Thieves would try to make of with the sheep if the shepherd left the sheep unguarded or had fallen asleep. Shepherds cannot be indifferent.

The good shepherd, the one who gets the job done and protects the sheep, is the very counter-image of indifference. The good shepherd had to be vigilant, and yes, often had to put his life at risk to defend the helpless sheep. Shepherds would often sleep in the gate of the sheepfold. They would literally place their bodies between the sheep and the predators, be they animal or human. This is a powerful image – the shepherd interposing his body, as it were, between the sheep and harm or death. This good shepherd mentioned in the Psalm, the one who leads sheep beside still waters is the very same shepherd that had to put his life at risk so that the sheep could safely graze.

There are other examples in scripture. Moses led the Children of Israel out of bondage in Egypt, herding them much like a shepherd would. And then on Mt. Sinai Moses placed himself between the Children of Israel and God’s wrath, imploring God to have mercy and to spare them. David as well repeatedly placed himself in harm’s way for the sake of Israel, acting as a mediator with God. Jesus, of course, is the ultimate example of this, laying down his life for the entire human race.

We are called to follow their example. Despite the hardship and persecution as described in Peter’s epistle, we have Jesus as our ultimate model. We are ALL called to the same struggle – to be shepherds to those who need both direction and protection. We aren’t often called to make the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of the poor or the oppressed, but when we work for their benefit, we do make sacrifices and thereby share in their suffering. When we hear the voice of God, when we recognize God calling us to take action, we must not delay no matter the cost.

The stories are countless, with most of the heroes going unsung. How many people of faith over the centuries have make sacrifices on behalf of others, many of their names and stories are now known only to God?

There is no room for indifference toward the poor and the oppressed. Taking the model of the good shepherd as our example, we must put our bodies, our livelihoods, our reputations, our freedom between these predators and their prey. When I think of the ten Boom family, how they sacrificed all that they had to see that just a handful of Jews escaped certain death, I ask myself how can I do any less?

Amen.

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