Generous Shepherd

It’s a train wreck I cannot tear my eyes away from: HBO’s blockbuster show Succession, chronicling the epic of Logan Roy, fictional CEO of an immense media empire he rules with an iron fist and a cold and calculating mind. Who will succeed him (which now in the third and final season has become more urgent)? One or more of his four children, all of whom have demons and vulnerabilities of their own? One of his well-paid toadies practically salivating at the possibility? Will there be a hostile takeover by a competing outlet? The episodes depict the way raw power is wielded for economic gain; friends and family and allies are crossed and double-crossed when necessary to keep the upper hand. Blind loyalty is required above ethics, character, or any notion of the common good. Terrible, right? But I have to admit the machinations of evil are endlessly fascinating, right down to the dark and foreboding theme music. (I do find after watching I have to cleanse my palate—and possibly my soul— with an episode or two of Ted Lasso!)

The morning scripture text could hardly provide greater contrast in leadership by its portrayal of Jesus as the shepherd of the sheep and the gate of the sheepfold which provides shelter and protection for the flock against threatening powers and outrageous circumstances of this world. The shepherd knows the flock by name, and cares for them continuously (akin to the Psalm we read earlier, whether their way leads to luscious green pastures and quiet waters, or plunges them into menacing situations, surrounded by enemies who seek their harm). Most important of all is the reason the shepherd does all this; not for self- aggrandizement, consolidation of power, or acquisition of greater wealth, but something else. Listen for it!— in the reading from John chapter 10, verses one through ten. To help us hear the good news in a different way than usual, I’m reading from the First Nations Version, an indigenous translation of the New Testament [InterVarsity Press, 2021]. Here, Jesus is referred to by the name Creator-Sets-Free. [John 10:1-10]

Whether or not you’ve burned up time watching Succession, you know what kind of leader Logan Roy is. Though exaggerated for dramatic purpose, his kind are still running corporations and countries. And by the world’s definition, they are a raging success. Their vast wealth commands the attention of powerful influencers. At their word, heads roll, policies change, and stuff gets done with remarkable efficiency. Their image and likeness shine out from social media, billboards, and the front page. They always sit at the cool kid’s table.

On the other hand, Jesus—-as a friend puts it—-has a brand problem. He cultivated relationships with people of low wealth, out on the edges of society. He wasn’t afraid to stand up to the powerful, but he acted without violence and was interested in their well-being too. Today his name is invoked by Christians who promote practices that exclude people who don’t believe the right things, don’t vote for the right candidates, don’t love the right people in the approved ways. One reading of our text has been interpreted (sadly and incorrectly I think) to promote church as a gated community with only the “chosen” ones able to gain access. It hardly squares with the Shepherd who leaves the safety of the fold to venture out into the wild world in search of even one who is missing, lost, or trapped in a desperate place. No, the shepherd described in our text (and throughout the Bible) tends a flock as big as creation, with no ulterior motive beyond offering them the gift of life—life that overflows with beauty and harmony. As the late priest and spiritual teacher Henri Nouwen observed, For

Jesus there are no countries to be conquered, no ideologies to be imposed, no people to be dominated. There are only children and others to be loved.

Not exactly the stuff of headlines and applause. . .

. . . . yet could it be the right stuff, the power that actually transforms the status quo into something resembling the Kindom of God where we know we are loved and are set free to love. We follow Jesus not in fear of reprisal or in hopes of approval, but because we trust the Shepherd’s never-failing care and overflowing gifts of grace. The sheepfold offers protection and nourishment; there is freedom to go in and come out and discover the goodness of creation and its divine Creator.

Friends, in the shepherd Jesus we find a way of life characterized by abundance and generosity, the very fabric of life woven tightly together by love. Jesus offers us the generosity of God’s grace, big enough to heal our wounds and trauma and mend the rifts between and among us. The presence of enemies need not initiate warfare or scheming to obliterate them. Instead, there is a table to gather around with good food and drink and conversation that seeks understanding and reconciliation. And listen! You will hear your own name spoken (and yes, “their” names as well). A declaration of love. An invitation. A promise.

The Shepherd-Leader shows up in scripture once more, as the risen Jesus prepares a seaside breakfast for his disciples. It’s early morning after a night of desperate fishing and confusion about what life means now after their teacher, their shepherd, their friend will depart from their physical presence. Over a meal, in the fresh light of a new day, Jesus tenderly asks: Feed my sheep. Watch over them. Care for them.

It’s God’s succession plan. People in every generation, ordained or not, in the

fold or out, are invited to pick up the shepherd rod and staff, and with energy, intelligence, imagination and love follow the way he made for us. In some ways it’s a preposterous model of leadership: more servant than boss; less ego and more humility; not power over others, but power with them toward human thriving and beloved community. For everyone.

For many of us, the image of the Good Shepherd is comforting especially in times of sorrow and stress. The 23rd Psalm is hands-down the #1 request for funerals and memorial services. It’s also associated with Jesus’ particular care and attention to children, the most vulnerable lambs among us (somewhere in the building is a painting of the shepherd Jesus carrying a lamb and blessing the crowd of little kids around him). But I also want to affirm this leader for all of us, in the prime of life and at the height of our powers. We who are strong and savvy. . . . and in continual need of God’s guidance and grace.

The Lord is my shepherd. . . . which means that nothing else holds greater influence in my life. No other leader. And especially not my own ego. I shall not want. . . . I will practice trust that God really does provide everything I need for life, abundant in goodness and mercy. He leads me in right paths [the Hebrew word is also translated “justice.”] ……with the assurance of God’s presence, I will boldly pursue justice for others. I am freed to live for a greater purpose than self-interest and personal comfort.

I encountered the Good Shepherd this week, in a personal perspective article that appeared in the Denver Post by local freelance writer Kathleen Dunlap. I reached out to Kathleen to thank her for her witness and to let her know I was sharing it with you. These are her words:

“Those people!” My co-worker exclaimed next to me. “I’m so tired of catering to those who are too lazy to work, then get on government benefits like SNAP and WIC, and take advantage of the whole system.”

I blinked as my co-worker said these words to me. At first, no immediate response came from my lips. I was frozen as my mind drifted backward in time to December 2014.

“You have the wrong milk,” the store manager states. He crosses his arms and raises an eyebrow at me. He isn’t smiling. Heat rushes to my cheeks. I retrieve the pamphlet given to me by the Jefferson County Health Department from my purse. My index finger lands on the picture of the quart of buttermilk. “It shows it here? That it’s okay?” I say. . . I hate how shaky my voice is. I hate how inferior I feel to the man across from me. I hate that a line is forming behind me. My eyes dart to my shopping cart where my baby son is cradled by the car carrier and sleeps soundly. . . . I’d lost my job, unexpectedly, a mere eight weeks after returning from my maternity leave. The phone call to the Jefferson County Health Department [to apply for] the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children had taken all the courage I could muster. “I need to feed my baby,” I had cried into the phone. The administrator responded soothingly. . . and set me up with paper checks for items like formula, milk, and vegetables. Now I’m shopping. The looks on the faces of both the cashier and her manager reflect cynicism and judgment. The manager heaves a long-suffering sigh as he punches things onto the cashier’s computer. The line behind me mutters more. I leave with my baby and the milk. A sour taste sticks in my mouth. Back in the present, staring into the face of my co-worker, I said, “I used government aid when I was out of work and needed the help. Do you think I’m lazy?”

Dunlap’s article continues with statistics about the growing need (confirmed by Metro Caring as well), and importance of funding aid programs to reduce hunger and food insecurity among our nation’s families. She calls for accessible postnatal care to support new mothers with mental health services, breastfeeding clinics and nutritional information, and guaranteed food assistance for every parent of children regardless of work status. Her conclusion seemed almost to quote the Shepherd himself: We simply must do better for each other. . . .We could unite to ensure that the experience of receiving any public aid for working-class, low- income, minority families is one of inclusion, care and compassion, not humiliation and disgrace. . . . . we could use our privileges for justice and equity. [Your Voice by Kathleen Dunlap, in the Denver Post Your Hub, April 27, 2023]

I don’t know Ms. Dunlap’s faith commitment, if any. But she is surely a successor to Jesus the Shepherd Leader, who comes to give the good life, a life that overflows with beauty and harmony.

Thanks be to God.