Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Happy Good Shepherd Sunday, the one Sunday a year when around the world pastors and priests universally and intentionally preach really baaaaaad sermons. As preachers, we like to focus on the sheep and compare them to Jesus’ followers, which really isn’t much of a compliment. I read a line from a sheep farmer who said they’re twice as smelly as manure and half as smart.  Still,  sheep can be funny creatures.  For example, what do you call a flock of sheep tumbling down a hill? A lamb-slide. Or what do you call a really fast sheep? A lamb-orghini.  Perhaps my favorite is the story of the shepherd and his talking dog, a border collie. It was the end of the day, and the collie reported back to the shepherd, “All fifty sheep accounted for, boss!”  The shepherd nodded, “But wait,” he replied, “I have only 48 sheep!”  The border collie smiled slyly, “I know. I just rounded them up.”

Regretfully, on Good Shepherd Sunday must preachers choose to focus on the sheep instead of the shepherd, which is the challenge facing the Christian church today.  Critics of the faith choose to focus on the men and women who call themselves Christians rather than on Christ.  We live in a world of cautious, yet curious observers who see faith as nothing more than empty  words.  They do not merely want to hear what you believe and how faith is important to you.  Instead they want to see that what you believe is important and inspires and causes you to act. They want to see the Christian walk and not simply hear the Christian talk. They want to know what Jesus meant when he said, “I have come that you should have life, and live it abundantly.”

That is actually what is at the heart of this morning’s gospel of the Good Shepherd  and it all begins a chapter earlier when  Jesus  healed the man who had been born blind.   That is the back story that I would like to share with you today.

In the Old Testament, religious leaders, as well as kings, were often referred to as shepherds. The leaders in the Temple in Jesus’ age, however, acted as if they were hired men who did not care much about the flock rather than true shepherds.  Day after day the religious leaders walked past the man born blind, oblivious to his pain, his emptiness and his very being. When Jesus found the man begging in the Temple, he acted as a shepherd and healed him.  The religious leaders who could not explain to themselves or others how Jesus could do such a great feat, chose to cast the man born blind out of the Temple rather than to wrestle with a truth they could not explain.  But not Jesus. When he heard that the man had been thrown out, he went out once again to find his lost sheep and he treated the man as one of his own flock.  He acted as a true shepherd who was willing to lay down his life for the sheep, while the religious leaders were the hired hands ready to run when the flock was in danger.

Of course, ours is not the first generation to question the integrity of religion and religious leaders. In the very first years of the church, St. John witnessed this struggle unfold.  According to tradition, the beloved disciple was the only one of Jesus’ twelve who lived unto old-age.  All the other disciples died as martyrs early in life.  In spite of persecution by both the Roman and Jewish authorities, he watched the church growth in numbers and vitality. When Jewish converts to Christianity were driven out of their communities, St. John observed them being welcomed into the arms of faithful shepherds who offered renewed strength to these lost and abandoned sheep.  

In his old-age, however, St. John observed a change.  The words of faith were becoming empty.  Tragically, persecuted Christians were being neglected by their own people and were left to find their own strength and means.  And so John challenged the men and women who called themselves Christian to renew their faith and to live as shepherds in the world and not simply for themselves as hired hands. 

It is an important and timely challenge for the church today as well.  The vast majority of men and women who have left the faith, have not fallen away because of the lack of love of the shepherd.  No, they have abandoned the church because of the hired religious hands who have brushed them aside and forced them to conform to their beliefs and practices.  They have heard plenty of pious and religious words, but they have not met the Good Shepherd. Perhaps it is true for you as well. Most of us know John 3: 16 by heart, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son .”  But how many of us have embraced, 1 John 3:16 as well.  “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”   

Unfortunately, many people today do not feel that they need to follow or listen to anyone, especially a shepherd.  Others sadly do not believe they are worth finding. Two stories from American university life help illustrate this truth.  At a prestigious private college, the incoming students were asked to submit on essay, “Are you a leader or a follower?”  One family was received with the following letter of welcome.  “It is good to know that in the incoming freshman class of 400 we have 1 follower and 399 leaders.”

The renowned evangelist, Billy Graham, wrote of a visit to one of the United States leading universities.  He stood at an open window looking out at hundreds of students walking to their classes.  He asked the Dean of the university, “What is the greatest problem at this university?”  The Dean thought for a moment and answered, “Emptiness.”  So many people today are bored, lonely, searching for something.  You can see it in their faces.

To live abundantly with the Lord as your Good Shepherd, my friends, begins with the simple confession of one who recognizes first and foremost his or her need to be led, and second, they recognize their longing for meaning in the face of emptiness. Yes, the abundant life the shepherd offers begins with a sense of belonging to him. Let me assure you God will seeks you out and find you.  He knows your name and longs to guide you.  He knows your talents and your gifts. He knows the possibilities and opportunities. And more importantly, God knows his needs.  

My friends, Jesus did not become the blind man’s Good Shepherd because he found him and he healed him.  No Jesus became his Good Shepherd when the man born blind began to follow him.  That is your promise of abundant life as well.  You may not be aware of Jesus’s presence, but he is looking for you and he will find you.  Your new abundant life begins when you dare to follow him.

Why is following so important, you may ask.  After four decades of parish ministry, I can tell you that the balance of faith and life is easily shattered, when fear enters in. Wolves come and the sheep run away. Suddenly, it  a car accident. Suddenly, it is cancer or another debilitating disease that strikes you or a person living in your home.   Friends tell you that, “Everything can change in the blink of an eye. But don’t worry; God never blinks.”  Unfortunately, that’s not how you feel.  Everything was going so well last week, and this week it has all changed. Yesterday was glorious and today is tragic. In such a world, still God calls and challenges us to live out our faith in deeds, and not simply in words.  So how do we dare to follow?

In those moments you must learn to know the Good Shepherd and not simply the sheep. Meditate on the face of Jesus, in whom you are reminded that the promise of abundant life has come to pass at great cost. Study the haggard lines, and the pierced brow of the savior’s face, and the romantic, gentle countenance of a smiling, friendly shepherd will vanish.  Study his hands and feet.  Study the harsh conditions and confront the brutal adversaries, and your former, idyllic vision will disappear.  Remember, Christ became your Good Shepherd by laying down his life for you- and he will lift you up.  Why, you may ask.  Because you belong to him.  

My friends, there are pious hired hands the world over promising the fallen, the poor, the weak, the needy, and the disenfranchised with plentiful, empty word, and delivering nothing.  But the Good Shepherd, knows his own, and lays down his life, because of his great love for you.  And to you, he promises abundant life.  Amen.

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.