Easter 4(B): What About the Mediocre Shepherd?
By: The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly
When I was in seminary, course assignments often asked students to imagine that they are serving a parish that is dealing with some issue—the need for a new Sunday school curriculum, the need for a policy of some sort, or any number of psycho-social conflicts that tend to arise when groups of people spend lots of time together in the same place. Whenever I was charged with completing one of these “what would you do” assignments, I would take my creativity to its logical and snarky conclusion, naming the imaginary church in question the “Church of the Mediocre Shepherd.”
The truth is, John 10:11-18 is so familiar that it’s gotten a little stale. It relies on agricultural imagery that is second-hand knowledge at best for most of us, so we insert idyllic and pastoral notions of fluffy white sheep gleefully following a dutiful and attentive shepherd. From there, it’s easy to see how the text becomes a simple allegory about Jesus’ sacrificial love on one side of the equation and the threats of wolves and fickle-minded farm hands on the other.
All of that is to say nothing of the tendency of preachers and parish leaders to cast themselves in the role of “Good Shepherd” tending the flock of Christ. But as Gerard Sloyan reminds us, “The danger is that shepherds who are doing the preaching will identify themselves with the “noble shepherd” at all points. It is good, even essential, to make Jesus’ cause one’s own, but making one’s cause that of Jesus is a risky business.”
Perhaps a better homiletical move is to consider what might be underneath the text. We know of the dangers of wolves and derelict farm hands, but there’s another danger lurking just under the surface here. Think about it: If there is such a thing as a “good” shepherd, then it stands to reason that there have to be at least a few “not-so-good” shepherds around, right?
Let me explain what I mean: Jesus claims that a “good shepherd” lays down his life for the sheep. And yet, our political discourse is laden with words like “weak” and “small” and “lame” as adjectives for anyone who is not a macho, gun-toting, threatening figure. (Fragile masculinity, anyone?) We all know stories of heroes and heroines laying down their lives for someone helpless in harm’s way. Firefighters, first responders, police officers, and other folks who sacrifice themselves for others in this manner are rightly and justly celebrated.
But what about laying down one’s life for a sheep who has gone out of their way to get themselves into trouble? Sure, we’ll risk it all on a damsel in distress, but what about a sheep who has knowingly and willfully distanced herself or himself from the flock over and over and over again, refusing to help her or himself? Self-sacrifice for the sake of self-sacrifice isn’t exactly a good résumé builder.
And what about these other sheep that don’t belong to this fold? The “good shepherd” is going to get a reputation as a poacher if he’s not careful! Even in ecclesial circles, crossing into another shepherd’s pasture to minister to her or his flock is tricky! Better that there are many mediocre and not-so-good shepherds in the name of peace and “free association” than one “good shepherd” who is impervious to concerns about letters of transfer and membership status and ecclesiastical reports.
The threats facing the flock aren’t as easily-identifiable as wolves, or even inexperienced farm hands. It should come as no surprise that the cult of Nationalism is alive and well. “My shepherd is the strongest, the most well-armed, and the most able to protect me from danger. Everyone is afraid of my shepherd!” Maybe so, but will your big strong shepherd who’s armed to the teeth selflessly lay down his weapons and his very life for yours?
There are hundreds of Christian denominations in the United States alone, each with their own theological, doctrinal, geographical, and cultural eccentricities. How much are our mediocre shepherds really working to build ties that bind us together? I mean really? Psalm 85 speaks of righteousness and peace meeting and kissing each other. I’d be happy if the local clergy group could meet over pizza and discuss real-world concerns like racism, sexism, and gun violence without it turning into a snowball fight!
My point is this: When it comes right down to it, we who are in ecclesiastical leadership roles have two essential tasks. The first task is to admit that we’re not perfect. Our churches aren’t perfect; our flocks aren’t perfect; the world isn’t perfect. But perfection isn’t the goal. Discipleship is the goal. That leads me to the second task: our job as shepherds—mediocre as we may be—is to point our flocks to the Good Shepherd. Jesus is the Good Shepherd. We are not. We do our best and most important work when we remind the faithful (and ourselves) that the path of discipleship is not about following us mediocre shepherds; it’s about following the Good Shepherd.
 Gerard Sloyan, John in “Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching” (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988), 130.
The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly was elected the 26th rector of Grace Episcopal Church in May of 2015. A native of Paris, Kentucky, Marshall earned a BA in American Studies at Transylvania University, and a Master of Divinity and Certificate in Anglican Studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, where he is currently completing doctoral work in Biblical interpretation. Marshall is also the editor of ModernMetanoia.org. Most important and life-giving of all, he is Elizabeth’s husband.