In 1989, Charles Taylor led a rebellion by the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, setting off one of Africa’s most brutal civil wars that claimed more than 250,000 lives. For the next 11 years he would shepherd legions of followers down the same path through different territory.
During that time the people of St John would meet Jesse Matthews, who chose not to follow Charles Taylor, and risk everything for a different path. And in 2005 we would meet Everlyn and Issaac followed by Beatrice and Melvin in 2007, all of whom chose not to follow the bad shepherd in their midst.
The story of the Matthews family is unique to be sure. But that story says something about shepherds and followers in every context. We live in a world where we follow people all the time: on the road, on Twitter, Facebook, and a growing number of social media sites. Who and how we follow is a growing question for parents as they watch their children grab hold of the electronic age in ways that confound us. Trolls infect the internet. They are the bad shepherds—the agitators and in some cases predators, who follow in a deceptive attempt to lead. We live in a world where everyone can lead and follow—and the choice to do so is becoming blurry.
In today’s gospel we hear a similar dynamic in the parable of the good shepherd. We, the people of the church, are the sheep, and Christ is our shepherd. But the question that we ask ourselves as the resurrection event has taken place and we continue our journey through Easter is: Who and where is Christ the good shepherd? It is easy for us to have this image of God leading us and shepherding us, as if God were somewhere up there taking care of all the details of our lives. But this is not what God did in the event we call the resurrection. On that Easter morning that seems so distant in our minds, God became our shepherd in our everyday lives. But there is more to the resurrection than the Christ of history—that detailed event we retell from the pages of the Bible.
If we believe in the power of the resurrection — I mean really believe it, believe it in our gut — then Christ’s resurrection takes on a dynamic quality that goes beyond one event locked in history. The resurrection becomes a never-ending story.
One of the first Bible studies I ever attended was a study on the book of Job. I remember that Bible study with fondness because of the stories of grief we shared with one another: they were resurrection stories. They were stories with no endings. No one had figured out the remedy that would save them from their pain and suffering. It was through our questioning that we continued on our journey to being saved. Now, 15 years after my ordination, you may think I have an answer for you. Well, I don’t. What I do have is a deeper knowledge of the importance of asking the questions. It is by our searching through in thought and action that we are propelled along our faith journey. As our former Bishop Huras once preached, “Whether you are young or old, the possibilities for being a good shepherd exist for those who continue to learn. It is in this way that our faith-lives are fulfilled — not by answers, but through understanding.” And, I would add, the only way we can truly learn is in relationship with one another.
Certainly we can learn through reading; otherwise the Bible wouldn’t be what it is. But there is a danger in dismissing the power of the gospel inside each one of us. God continues to be resurrected inside each one of us, and without this understanding, the power of the resurrection becomes as flat as the pages of the Bible. If Martin Luther’s assertion that, “God is deep in our flesh” has some truth to it, then you and I are shepherds one to another. We are, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggests, “little Christs” struggling through in thought and action to live out the gospel.
I believe what Luther and Bonhoeffer suggest. I believe it because it has been my lived experience. People have taught me more about the resurrection than any textbook I have read. You people, who have traditionally been called the flock, have been my shepherd in more ways than I can ever begin to tell you. The saving power of the resurrection – this is not the Christ of history—this is the Christ of Salvation at work in our lives and in the world.
On Thursday, Charles Taylor was found guilty of war crimes in Sierra Leone. This action took place because of people’s taking an intentional look at who and why they followed Taylor. It was a world of people who questioned the leadership of this bad shepherd in their midst. The people of Liberia are still split on the verdict. Some people still follow Charles Taylor. Others—those who experienced the swift blow of this shepherd—never will. And as those stories reveal themselves it will become clear to the majority that this kind of controlling leadership was not good for their country. It is in the sharing of leadership — of shepherding — that people are served and a nation is strengthened. It is the Good Shepherd that stands the test of time.
The sharing of the role of shepherd is probably one of the most admirable qualities a Christian community can have. I saw it this week when I visited a group of Lutherans in Toronto working toward an on-line version of community. I saw it happening in the lives of a family working together to support someone who can’t support themselves right now. I saw it happening yesterday at the OSL conference meeting and last night at Good Shepherd, Brockville’s 50th anniversary party. You people of St John have been shepherds to one another in a way that has been life-giving not only for me, but also for the larger church and community, not to mention one another. Don’t ever lose this quality of being shepherds to one another. It is an inspiring quality. It is the better side of humanity.
So, who and where is Christ the Good Shepherd? With a knowledge of the Christ of History and the Christ of Salvation, we are given the open-ended answer to this question: God has, and continues to, become the Christ of Salvation in each one of us through our relationship with God and with one another. May we continue on this journey with thankful hearts that God is our shepherd and that through the resurrection we are shepherds to one another. Amen.