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What does it mean to be a shepherd? What does it mean to be sheep? We hear a lot about shepherds and sheep, and even some goats, in today’s scripture readings. In Psalm 100, which we sang (said) together, we are reassured that we are God’s people, “the sheep of his pasture.”

Let’s start by thinking about sheep. Sheep are among the earliest of domesticated animals. Archaeologists have found artifacts with images of sheep as far back as 6,000 years ago. Apparently, they are the one domesticated animal that has never been found to revert to being wild—you will not find feral sheep, anywhere. Sheep have been with us humans for so long that they don’t know any other way to be. Over the years, sheep have been stereotyped as dumb creatures. But in fact, sheep are smarter than we have given them credit for being. Sheep can recognize and remember faces of fellow sheep even two years after last seeing them. They form attachments to one another, and they have the capacity for emotions—for instance, they notice when a fellow sheep has left the fold for good, and they show sadness about it. Sheep have minds and feelings of their own—and maybe that’s why they, like us, can be hard to wrangle sometimes. A shepherd is needed to keep them safe, both from predators and from their own proclivity to wander.

So, what about shepherds, what is their role?  The life of a shepherd is not easy, especially back in the times when the Psalmist, Ezekiel, and Jesus were observing them. Shepherds needed to live amongst their sheep. And because sheep have minds capable of remembering and recognizing other sheep, and recognizing people as well, the more time a shepherd spends with their sheep, the more likely the sheep are to bond with the shepherd, to recognize the shepherd’s scent and voice and even face. Pope Francis once said that priests, if they are truly following the example of a shepherd, need to smell like more their sheep. In other words, someone who is truly ministering to a community needs to be so embedded in that community that they take on the scent of their flock—only then, they will be more accepted and followed when it is time for them to lead.

Being a shepherd also requires courage—when a threat to the flock comes on the scene, maybe a lion or a bear, or a river overflowing its banks, the shepherd has to do whatever it takes to either make the threat go away, or to get the sheep out of danger—to safe shelter or higher ground. Sometimes sheep are kept in an enclosure overnight; and if there is no gate to the sheep pen, the shepherd would make his body into a human gate to make sure that no sheep wandered away during the night—and that no predator snuck into the enclosure to steal away one of the sheep.

In Ezekiel 34, we hear all the ways that the Lord God will seek out the sheep, care for them, and defend them from predators. All the sheep are expected to do is “lie down in good grazing land” and “feed on rich pasture on the mountain of Israel.” Later, in the Gospel account from Matthew, we hear Jesus talk about separating people as a shepherd separates sheep from goats, before developing a parable of how those who would inherit God’s kingdom would be those who gave food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, welcome to the stranger, clothing to the naked, care to the sick, and companionship to the imprisoned.

Hear how God, through the prophet Ezekiel, characterizes the role of the shepherd—God first shepherding us, and, by implication us then shepherding those whom God entrusts to our care. First, God says, “I myself will search for my sheep” and “I will seek them out.” God isn’t delegating others to form the search party for the lost sheep. Rather, God believes finding the lost—the one who has strayed from the 99–is important enough to lead the search party. That’s why God sends David to be their shepherd-king, and ultimately why God comes to seek us out by living amongst us, in human form, as Jesus, the Good Shepherd.

God cares for each sheep personally—and in so doing, God is calling us to take personal responsibility for the flock of people who fall within the circle of our care. Who are your sheep? And what should you do when you notice one of your sheep is missing? God says we are to search for them, seek them out, and bring them back into the fold.

Next, we hear God say, through Ezekiel, “I will rescue them from all the places they have been scattered…I will bring them out..I will gather them… I will bring them into their own lands…I will feed them with good pasture.” When we come across those who have been scattered, those who have been separated from their homelands, those who have no place to shelter for the night, those with no table where they can be nourished, we are to do as God the Good Shepherd has done for us. We are to bring them into their own lands and feed them with good pasture.

Who are the scattered sheep that we are to gather? Some may be people who have wandered from the faith, or who have been alienated from the church, and now want to return. Some may be refugees and asylum seekers in need of a safe place to begin again. Some may be people who have nowhere to rest their bodies at night, perhaps due to joblessness, addiction, mental illness, or family strife.

And God says he will not just gather them, but that they will be brought into their own lands and led to feed in good pasture. The Good Shepherd wants to gather the sheep and lead them to a better place, that they can call their own, and be well nourished. And not only that, “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down.” God offers personal care and the gift of time and space for rest. That’s a high standard of care. And that’s the model we are given for caring for the sheep God assigns to each of our sheepfolds.

Finally, God declares this: “I will seek the lost… I will bring back the strayed… I will bind up the injured… I will strengthen the weak. … I will destroy the fat and the strong…I will feed them with justice…I myself will judge between the fat and the lean sheep…I will save my flock, they will no longer be ravaged…I will judge between sheep and sheep.” God is on the side of those on the margins, those on the edge: the sheep who are lost, strayed, injured, or weak. God will take up their cause. In a standoff between a strong, fat sheep and a weak, lean sheep, God the Good Shepherd will protect the weak one. God will intervene for his flock, and most especially the weak and lost sheep, so that they will no longer be ravaged. What does this mean for us today? As Christians, we are called to take up the cause of the vulnerable, be it due to hunger, illness, poverty, violence, or discrimination.

To follow in the footsteps of Jesus, we in the church are to be defenders of the weak and questioners of the strong. To those who perpeptuate the injustices that place other human beings in vulnerable conditions or take advantage of their weakness, God says “I will feed them with justice.” God will intervene and God will judge. And how will God do this? Through you and through me. As we hear Jesus declare in Matthew 25, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” And not only that, but “just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” As Andy Doyle reflects in his book, The Jesus Heist: Recovering the Gospel from the Church, “God in Christ Jesus is the victim. God experiences the pain and estrangement of victimhood. God is not some distant legal advocate for the victim but is experientially present in the cruelty and suffering of the rape victim, the abused child, the family of the murdered, the conscripted child pulled from a mother’s arms, the addict, the passenger killed by a drunk driver, the person sexually taken advantage of by her counselor or priest, and every possible human suffering. This is the God of the one who has cancer. The God of the one who survives. The God of the one who is lost to her family. This is the God of the dead man, woman, child, and the God of the dead church” 107-108).

Ultimately, being a Good Shepherd, as Jesus was and is to us, means to be someone who takes care of the needs of others, guiding others with equal parts gentleness, firmness, and courageousness. Our identity as followers of Christ means that we are both sheep and shepherds. We are sheep who need to be shepherded—we need to be led to green pastures and to be guided to still waters. We need to be guided through the valleys of the shadow, knowing that God is with us, his rod and his staff comforting us. We need shepherding by God—and oftentimes God shepherds us through placing shepherding people into our lives. And, in turn, we are called to be those shepherds to the people God places within the circle of our care.

As the Jesuit priest Greg Boyle, founder of Homeboy Ministries in LA, has reflected, “See Jesus standing in the lowly place. He is not pointing at the lowly place. He is not saying, would you get over to the lowly place please? No. He is standing in the lowly place and he is not saying anything. You just see him in the lowly place. Which is the place of humility. It’s also the place where the poor, and the voiceless, and the powerless, and those who live outside the camp, that is where they stand. So he stands with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop. And he stands with the disposable so the day will come when we stop throwing people away. He stands with those who are outside precisely so the circle will widen. You don’t erase the margins except by standing at them. Then you can look at your feet and see that they are being erased. That’s the only way to do it. And that was the strategy of Jesus” (Boyle in Doyle 111).

The last Sunday after Pentecost traditionally has been called Christ the King Sunday. Lately, though, we have reframed this day as being Reign of Christ Sunday. What difference does this make, you may wonder. The difference is focusing on what it means for Christ to reign in our hearts and how the ways we choose to live now allow the kingdom of God to be made manifest not just in the life of the world to come, but in the life of the world we inhabit today. This is why, in the Anglican Church of Canada, many churches call attention to FaithWorks as we observe Reign of Christ Sunday—because the reign of Christ means following in Christ’s way of standing at the margin, widening the circle to include more within the circle of our care. As we celebrate the Reign of Christ this day, we give thanks for the paradox that the Christ who has been crowned a king of heaven is the very same Jesus Christ who sat with sinners, lifted up the lowly, and humbled himself to death, even death on a cross. Amen.