What it means to follow

 

READ: John 10:11-18

 

What does it mean to be a hired hand? 

When we think about it, unless we own our own businesses and don’t report to shareholders or boards, the rest of us who work are hired hands. 

We are. Even me…

And to be a hired hand means that there’s always someone higher up the ladder — even if it’s just one person — who is accountable for us. 

And to whom we are accountable. 

If you’re the business owner, hired hands can either make your job easy, or they can make it very hard.

Case in point: 

Recently, a “hired hand” — an employee — at a Philadelphia Starbucks coffee shop called the police on two men she believed were loitering in the store. 

The men were waiting for a third man to meet them and talk about a real estate deal. 

But because they hadn’t ordered anything yet while they were waiting for their friend, the manager asked them to leave. 

And when they didn’t leave, she called the police, who took the men away. 

Witnesses in the store are seen on video as defending the men — asking police why they were being arrested and claiming the men didn’t do anything wrong. 

And the accusations immediately flew that the manager — the hired hand — only called the police because the two men happened to be black. 

Racism is still a sad, sad reality in our country today.

And, of course, since then, the Starbucks company has taken measures to both apologize to the men, 

to close all 8000 Starbucks stores for a day in May to hold educational training about racism in their stores, 

and, of course, the manager — the hired hand — was let go. 

The Philadelphia police chief, who is responsible for his hired hands, first said the officers did nothing wrong. 

But the chief, who also is black, later apologized for that statement, saying: 

“The issue of race in this situation is not lost on me,” 

and he added that he shouldn’t be the one making it worse.

 

Hired hands

 So what does it mean to be a hired hand? 

It means not only following the directives and adhering to the company’s mission statement; 

but it means acting as the company. 

As a representative of that company. 

Following the directives, but leading the company’s image.

This notion isn’t lost on Jesus as he addresses his disciples, which we read today in John, chapter 10.

Jesus is talking about what it means to be his followers in this world. 

 

And he uses the metaphor of the good shepherd. 

A shepherd was a very common occupation in Jesus’s day, so this metaphor wouldn’t be lost on anybody.  

But we could say the good shepherd owns his own business. 

And because it’s his own livelihood, you better believe that he’ll do whatever it takes to make sure his flock is safe and well cared for. 

He says in Verse 11, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

But Jesus is quick to note that hired shepherd — an employee — probably won’t do the same. 

Jesus says “When the hired help sees the wolf coming, he leaves the sheep and runs away …

…He’s only the hired hand, and the sheep don’t matter to him.”

That makes me wonder— 

If that coffeeshop manager actually owned that business, would she have done the same thing?

Maybe, we could argue, that it would give her the license to be as racist as much as she wanted to…

But maybe she might have had the forethought to think, “Hey, this could be bad for my business…”

See, as an employee, she’s not really invested… She’s not thinking about that. 

She might lose her job — people do dumb things all the time in their jobs — but she’s not going to lose her investment.

Her livelihood… 

Her family is not going to suffer or starve… 

Like the shepherd’s would if his sheep were all gone. 

So, you see, there is something more here than just the difference between being the shepherd and the hired hand… 

The hired hand should be accountable and should represent the shepherd. 

But the shepherd isn’t just protecting his sheep out of duty.

The shepherd isn’t only taking care of the sheep because it’s his livelihood. 

There is something bigger working here. 

You see, the sheep need to want to follow the shepherd, too. 

If the shepherd is abusive, or uncaring, the sheep aren’t going to follow. 

Not for long, anyway. 

The first chance they get, they’ll bolt. 

The shepherd must develop a loving relationship with the sheep. 

Jesus says “I am the good shepherd. I know my sheep and they know me. 

“I give my life up for my sheep.”

That’s love, isn’t it? 

It’s not fiduciary responsibility. 

It’s not about our own selves. 

It’s about those in our care. 

If Jesus said you must love one another like I first loved you,

then we have to say we all must take care of one another in this way. 

Each one of us doesn’t act like a hired hand, not caring for one another; 

Each one of us acts like the shepherd because you know why?

Because when Jesus rose from the dead, and sent the Spirit of God to live within us, we became Christ’s body. 

Flesh and blood. 

Not metaphorically speaking. 

Christ dwells within us. 

Paul tells us in Galatians 2.20:

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. 

And the life that I now live in my body, I live by faith, indeed, by the faithfulness of God’s Son, who loved me and gave himself for me.

And so if we are Christ in this world, then we are the good shepherd for the world. 

We learn to follow from Jesus, 

then we go out and lead in Jesus’s steps.

 

For the world

Why do I say for the world?  What does that mean? 

Because in our culture, being the good shepherd seems to mean taking care of our own, doesn’t it?

Those who are like us… 

Like the business owner who seems uninvested in and untethered from Christ. 

That’s a very self-centered mode of operation, 

and it does little to gather and take care of sheep, as Jesus calls us to do. 

In essence, it turns a shepherd into the hired hand, who only cares for his or her self and his or her own people.

 It turns a shepherd into a hired hand, who becomes a slave to fear. 

It excludes those who aren’t like us. 

And soon we become fearful that those who aren’t like us are going to want or somehow take what we now have all to ourselves. 

All that we control.

And so we become fearful and protective of our way. 

And we do stupid things, like calling the police on peaceful people because we perceive them as being different. 

And because they’re different, they must be a threat. 

And we make policies that don’t allow them to have the same opportunities as us. 

And we vote for people and for legislation that keeps our power structures intact. 

 

This is not at all what it means to be a good shepherd. 

Notice these words of Jesus beginning in Verse 16:

He says: 

I have other sheep that don’t belong to this sheep pen. I must lead them too. 

They will listen to my voice 

and there will be one flock, with one shepherd.

Now, we may know Jesus is talking to a very Jewish audience — most likely disciples (who are Jewish) and the Jewish religions leaders, the Pharisees…

These “other sheep” Jesus is talking about are the gentiles. 

The non-Jews. 

In that culture, they’re outcasts, they’re considered to be religiously unclean, they’re slandered against, they’re discriminated against, and they are not welcomed.

Sound familiar? 

Jesus says I lay down my life for them too. 

He loves them.

And tells us we are to love all people, too.

Because being a good shepherd is welcoming everyone into the one fold. 

That coffeeshop manager? 

That’s not welcoming, that’s not loving, and that’s certainly not doing God’s will. 

I feel for her… 

I imagine there are more than a few pastors this morning using this very real example in the world to make a similar point. 

You see, the thing is, she needs love, too. 

She needs to hear the shepherd’s voice and come back to the fold, too… 

Jesus lays his life down for her as well, 

and does anything and everything to bring her back to the fold. 

And now, who is Jesus in the world? 

Yeah, you and me. That’s our job. All of us… 

Imago Dei

Why? Because it goes back to this: 

 We are all made in the image of God. 

There aren’t some of us who were made more in the image of God than others. 

We are all made in the image of God. 

And when we do hurtful things to others—

we commit sin. 

We become the judge of who is more valuable:

The white patrons who haven’t ordered coffee yet, or just the black patrons? 

We become the judge to decide who is made more in the image of God, according to our judgment, and according to our fearful vision. 

See this? 

This is the sin of commission. 

We are doing something — committing sin — against another or others.

And in doing that, we are taking what God has given us and throwing it back in God’s face.

We are not allowing others to be the image of God that they were created in too. 

And instead of letting God be God, we are trying to be God. 

Instead of the image of God, we become the image of ourselves and the world.

 

But also, when we don’t act in love, 

when we fail to stand in solidarity with the marginalized and oppressed,

we are guilty of the sin of omission. 

This is even worse, because this sin is us not living into the full potential of the image of God that we are created in. 

That’s what a world without hope and faith looks like.

This is us not being the good shepherd. 

 

Stories

So we now see that: 

* Jesus gives us the example of what it looks like to be a good shepherd. 

And he tells us to go and be good shepherds.

We see, too, that:

* God made all of us in God’s own image. 

And we are to live into God’s image 

— not the image of ourselves or even what we think God should look like. 

* Jesus told us that all people are to be treated with love and respect,

And that we all belong to one fold. 

But there is one more component here before we close, and it’s a critical one:  

Throughout the Bible — Old and New Testaments — we see example after example after example of how we are to treat one another in this life and in this world. 

To use the words of the great Peruvian Catholic Priest and father of Liberation Theology, Gustavo Gutierrez:

God exemplifies a preferential option for the marginalized. 

Time and time again, we see God coming to the rescue of the “least of these,” 

those who have been pushed to the margins, 

those who have suffered,

and those who have been persecuted. 

* It’s the story of how God heard the cry of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, and not only rescued them, but made them God’s very own covenanted people.

* It’s the story of the barren wife, ostracized all of her life, who God finally gives a child. 

* It’s the story of the youngest brother — the “runt of the litter” — who hasn’t ever even been trained up in the right ways but who God choses as a King anyway.

* It’s the story of a young and devoted Moabite woman who risks everything to follow her mother-in-law to Israel where she will be an outcast and save the royal line of David, through which Christ will be born. 

* It’s the story of teenaged girl engaged to be married, yet chosen by God to carry God within her and name him Jesus. 

* It’s the story of Jesus — God incarnate — born to a single mom out on the streets in the worst area of Palestine, who will grow up to be persecuted and killed for our sins.

* And it’s the story of a young, successful Pharisee named Saul who God strikes blind so that he can see the poverty of his own life that he thought was success, and only to be used by Jesus to be one of the most prolific disciples ever known. 

We could go on and on and on all day with this. 

This is the story of the Bible and God’s love.

It’s not that Jesus merely loves those who suffer; 

it’s that Jesus put those who suffer first. 

That’s the preferential option for those who suffer. 

And we must put them first, too. 

 

Fear

Last week, we talked all about the suffering of the Native Americans here in our own country. 

And in past Sundays, we’ve talked about poverty throughout the world. 

We’ve talked about eradicating malaria in Africa. 

We’ve talked about helping political refugees and providing safety for those who are trying to flee war-torn countries. 

We’ve talked about how people are mistreated in our own communities because of the color of their skin or their gender or their sexuality or their nationality or their race or their age….

We’ve talked about innocent children being abused for no fault of their own and having no voice for anyone to hear. 

Are they not all made in God’s image, too? 

What are we so afraid of? 

Do we really believe that God made them less than us?

* Because when we call the police to arrest them only because the color of their skin, 

* and we stand by passively and don’t speak up for them, 

* and when we don’t work to tear down the structures of evil that generate this kind of vitriol, fear and hate in our own communities…

we are not living into the image of God. 

We have lost hope in God. 

We are, in fact, telling God “You are wrong!”

 

One fold

It’s time to have hope again for our communities. 

For our fold.

The one fold. 

For all the sheep — all of God’s people. 

One fold.

We have everything we need to make this “one fold” a reality. 

We have the road map. 

We have the example. 

We have the tools.

We have the Spirit.

And we have each other… 

Unfortunately, we also have years and years and years of living among these power structures that have led us to believe we’re not all created equally. 

And it seems like it’s a lot to unlearn. 

And unfortunately, it’s not confined to a few dark corners of our lives 

— that darkness permeates this country and our communities and churches. 

It was Dr. King who said the most segregated hour of the week is Sunday morning at 11 o’clock. 

Sometimes, we don’t even know that we’re contributors to the suffering in this world. 

But what if we asked God to open our eyes so that we could see this?

So that we could ask for forgiveness and make amends? 

Is God big enough for such a task?

* Or, once again, have we lost hope in this God who commands us to love all of God’s children, 

* Who gives us the Son so that we could not only learn the way, but also already have those sins paid for by his death in advance?

* And who because of the resurrection gives us the Holy Spirit to encourage us and to empower us. 

Seems like that would be enough. 

Seems like we really have to work hard to hate others enough to think that it’s right to call the police on a couple of men at coffee shop simply because the color of their skin. 

Can we say “Lord have mercy on us!” 

But we also believe, that as the body of Christ 

— as we embody Christ in this world — 

let us always pray for open eyes and open hearts 

and know that we’re never alone 

— never on our own — 

because we’re all part of God’s one fold. 

We are not hired hands.

We are shepherds ordained by a Great Big God,

and through the Holy Spirit 

we are Christ’s Holy and Apostolic Church.

Made in the image of God. 

Made to lead all of God’s children back to the one fold. 

May it be so, amen.

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