Chaplain Mel Baars
April 29, 2012
“Our Model Shepherd”
Lately, when running around the perimeter, I have noticed more and more shepherds and their flocks abiding the fields just beyond our walls. In this setting, perhaps more than any other place in the world, we find ourselves surrounded with quite a few, real life shepherds. Most Americans don’t have many occasions to meet a live shepherd, at least not domestically. In fact, our closest encounters with shepherds may typically happen during a Christmas nativity play-- A lanky group of boys, wearing ill-fitting bath robes and holding a large sticks. As embarrassing as this scene might seem to the preteens coerced to take part in church nativity one more year, mumbling a few lines about being “afraid” when the angels appear to give news of good tidings and great joy, none of us ever quite gets just how difficult and dangerous the work of a shepherd really is.
Between the exhausting task of keeping track of all the sheep, ensuring there is enough water and food to keep the flock well and satisfied, and providing places of rest, succor, and safety, shepherding is a twenty-four hour, seven days a week kind of a job. One glance away from the flock and chaos may ensue. Around these parts, especially in the aftermath of decades of war, shepherding is risky business. Most of the area surrounding Bagram where these shepherds herd their flocks has not been de-mined. This means even a skilled shepherd can’t totally shield his flock from harm since, at least the last time I checked, sheep don’t follow in single-file lines. In Afghanistan, mines are modern day wolves, and the level of sacrifice demanded of a shepherd may end up even costing his life.
The fourth Sunday of Easter is known for its focus on Jesus as the Good Shepherd. Between the green pastures and still waters found in Psalm 23 and the familiar lines from John in which Jesus claims to be the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep, we should have little doubt about just who is leading us and where exactly we are being led-- into goodness and mercy all the days of our lives, dwelling in the house of the Lord forever. Of course, this is all much easier read and heard than it is fully understood and believed.
I think Psalm 23 was the first scripture passage that I ever memorized completely. When I was very young, I had a terrible time falling asleep at night, particularly if I was alone. I was afraid of everything-- bugs and burglars, child kidnappers who were surely lurking in the woods next to my house, and even shape-shifting aliens which I was convinced could hide in the half-inch carpet fibers under my bed so that even when I looked for them, I wouldn’t be able to see them. I tortured my parents night after night, refusing to sleep without one of them there to protect me. Looking back, I am surprised that we all survived this particular season.
One night, perhaps out of utter desperation, my mother tried a new strategy with me. Picking up my pink Bible from the bookshelf, she opened it to Psalm 23 and suggested that I read it over and over again until I fell asleep. Night after night, I would read these words, again and again, until I no longer needed to look down at the page. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil…I will fear no evil… I will fear no evil.” It was about as close to contemplative prayer I have ever been. I would listen as my heart would start to slow down, and I would relax, letting the words lull me towards sleep. I wish that I could say it was the perfect fix. It wasn’t. I still struggled with sleeping every night, but over the years, I have never forgotten these handful of verses. And, at times, when fear and anxiety, mostly of an irrational nature, creep upon me, I find myself reaching for these same words, “I will fear no evil…” They are a reminder that no matter how bad things feel or how lost I have become, I am still be led by this same good shepherd.
The Greek adjective, kalos, most often translated as “good” in our Bibles is a little deceiving. When we hear a word like “good,” most of us assume that it means the opposite of “bad.” But, this word kalos is more than a polarity. It also suggests another meaning, along the lines of the word “model.” A model is an example of something or someone to be followed or imitated. In his life and interactions and relationships in the world, Jesus is a model of what shepherding should be-- seeking the lost, bringing back the strayed, binding up the injured, and strengthening the weak, even going so far to lay down his life for his sheep, if that’s what it takes. Model shepherding cuts no corners. It spares no expense. It knows no bounds but reaches to the very ends of the earth, all for one lost sheep.
It is not surprising that there are not many truly good shepherds out there. Model shepherding is more than any of us can handle, at least every single day. There are days when we may lead well, but there are other days- tired days, frustrated days, days when we can barely get out of bed to do our work much less expend the kind of energy that model shepherding requires. Thinking that we can ever be the model shepherd all the time, without fail, is actually when we get ourselves into trouble. When we delude ourselves into believing that we have it all figured out, that we are so good that we don’t need a shepherd after all, we often find that we have become the hired hands who see the wolf coming and flee, not really caring that the sheep will be snatched and scattered even further.
As people who are striving to be good leaders, this is not the kind of news we want to hear. As a part of the military, as soldiers and sailors, airmen and marines, we recite our creeds, saying out loud that we will never quit or leave a comrade behind. When the going gets tough, gets even worse than tough, we claim that we will remain faithful, going the whole distance, never wavering. But, if we are honest with ourselves, we know there are dicey moments and experiences when we fail, when we stumble, perhaps even fall. We struggle with doubts, with poor decisions, with outbursts we later regret.
We may all be leaders, but we can only be good leaders when we remember that we are, too, being led. There is only one model shepherd, just one. When we follow this shepherd, when we model our lives as this shepherd has taught us-- seeking the lost, bringing back the strayed, binding up the injured, and strengthening the weak-- we share with the world the gift of God’s grace and love and mercy. We also spread the good news of our shepherd’s voice a little bit further. When we follow this shepherd, we demonstrate what model shepherding is all about.
A few years ago, Time magazine ran a story called “How the Shepherd saved the SEAL.” It sounds a bit like a children’s tale, at least on the surface. What Time reported, however, was far from childish fantasy. Instead, it was an account of how a Navy SEAL, shot down over Kunar province, was rescued through the aid and hospitality of an Afghan shepherd.
Risking his life and the safety of his family, this shepherd brought this SEAL, this one lost sheep, into his village, offering him a place of sanctuary. When the Taliban demanded that the villagers hand him over to them, the village chief boldly responded, "The American is our guest, and we won't give him up as long as there's a man or a woman left alive in our village." To insure the SEAL’s safety, the shepherd and his fellow villagers moved him into a stable for the night, protecting him from the wolves howling at their gates, even when this put the whole village in danger. Then, the shepherd made a six-hour trek to the nearest U.S. base, likely traversing through unfriendly territory, to report that this one missing SEAL had been found. The shepherd went to great lengths just to save this one sheep.
“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices.”
This is the Easter message. Jesus returns to us from the grave, promising never to let us go, even if it means he will travel to the very ends of the earth to find where we have wandered. The relationship between shepherd and sheep is not dependent on the sheep, but instead, is all about the shepherd, what the shepherd does, how the shepherd reaches out into the world, gently calling us by name. The shepherd knows us well, but it’s not just us that he knows and calls, not just us who recognize his voice. The good shepherd reminds us that there are other sheep— many, many, many sheep. Sheep that we can’t begin to imagine. Sheep that we can barely fathom belonging because they are so different from us.
But, Jesus is going to find them, too-- every last one of them-- bringing them also into the fold, into God’s holy family, so that when all is said and done, there will be one flock with one shepherd. This is what the Good Shepherd promises. This is God’s promise, not mine, not anyone else’s. May it be so. May we so believe. Amen.