May 12, 2019
Psalm 23; John 10:22-30
50 years ago, a man named Robert K. Greenleaf wrote an essay called The Servant as Leader. A retired AT&T executive, Greenleaf had a lot of leadership experience. Over time he developed a vision of something other that the hierarchical, top-down, model that was the norm in business. He called this model Servant Leadership and he described it like this:
[servant leadership] begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. [The servant first] is sharply different from one who is leader first … The difference manifests itself in the care taken … to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test [of servant leadership] … is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?
Among the qualities of a servant leader were empathy, skill in healing relationships, self-awareness, stewardship, and building community. Important among those qualities was commitment to the growth of those served so that they, too, could become servant leaders.
When the idea of servant leader was first proposed by Greenleaf, it did not cause and instant transformation of the business world. However, a few people saw themselves in Greenleaf’s words. Over the decades, they worked with his idea, developing it into usable models for leadership. Somewhere along the way, people began to realize that, while the term was new, Servant Leadership itself was actually not a new idea. In fact, it was a very old model indeed, and the founder and exemplar of that model was Jesus Christ, the Shepherd of God’s sheep.
The servant leadership model has given the church a reminder of the servant qualities in Jesus’ ministry. As a deacon, someone specifically identified with the servant ministry of the church, I am grateful for it’s contribution to our discourse. However, I am also aware of the limitations of a business-based model focused on building effective teams, not forming effective disciples. In this secular model, those who see Jesus as the original servant leader are only looking at management style; specific, definable and universally applicable leadership skills. They are not focused on who Jesus is, or what his mission was. And so they miss the relationships which lay at the heart of everything Jesus was and everything he did. Relationships on which Christian discipleship is built.
Today’s readings give us some insight into those relationships. The gospel from John begins with the who question. Who is Jesus? As Jesus is walking in the Temple precinct, he is challenged to identify himself. A group of Jewish leaders surround him and tell him they want a plain answer. Is he or is he not the Messiah? From their perspective, he has been stringing them along, refusing to tell.
Jesus appears to see it rather differently. He says the message has been given loud and clear, but they are incapable of hearing it. You might say they are operating from different assumptions about what leadership looks like. The Messiah was supposed to be a son of David, to sit on David’s throne – a mighty prophet, priest, and king who would lead his people out of oppression and back to the idealized Israel of history. A hierarchical, top-down model.
Instead of this mighty leader, what do they see in Jesus? A servant. A peasant. Someone who walks among the people, talking to extremely inappropriate people, feeding them, healing them, teaching them. They see someone who takes no obvious signs of authority on himself. And yet, the whispers have been growing that this is the Messiah, and the leaders are becoming nervous. They want a clear statement, information they can work with. Listen again to the answer Jesus gives:
I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father's name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father's hand. The Father and I are one.
So, what sense does this make? The people ask him if he is Messiah, and he starts talking about sheep. They want a declaration of leadership, and he talks about the power of the Father. Interestingly, though, what happens in response to this strange statement, is that his listeners pick up rocks to stone him (not for the first time). Because he has, in fact, told them who he is. Their knowledge of Scripture would make the claim he is making entirely clear, and they are outraged. So, what is it they heard?
Note that, although Jesus was asked a who question – are you the Messiah, he gave a relationship answer. He spoke of sheep who are his and sheep who are not his. His sheep hear his voice. He knows his sheep and they follow him. All of this is framed in his relationship with the Father.
Sheep and shepherd imagery is common in the Old Testament. There are several examples that help us understand the relationships Jesus is talking about. Psalm 95, for example, says We are the people of God’s pasture and the sheep of his hand. Psalm 100 is almost the same - we are God’s people and the sheep of his pasture. In Ezekiel 34, God says that he himself will search for his flock, seek out his scattered sheep and rescue them. And in Isaiah 40 we hear that the Lord God will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep. And, of course, as we have heard this morning Psalm 23 gives us an extended description of the Lord as shepherd, of his care for us as he leads us in right pathways, stays with us and protects us from harm.
Each of these passages identify something fundamental about God’s relationship to God’s people. God is shepherd of Israel. He is a God who cares intimately for the needs of his people, individually and corporately. God is the Shepherd.
In response to the question of whether or not he is Messiah, Jesus is clearly identifying himself with the Shepherd. And in doing so he is placing himself within his defining relationship. He is the Shepherd because God is the Shepherd. The works he does, he does in God the Father’s name. The sheep are his because God has given them to him. No one will snatch them out of his hand, because no one snatches them out of God’s hands. And just in case the message is not yet clear enough, Jesus ends with the words the Father and I are one.
The Jewish leaders did not miss the declaration in Jesus’ words. He is Messiah – the anointed, the sent one – but he is more than Messiah, because he and the Father are one. This is the heart of Jesus’s leadership. Not a set of leadership principles, however excellent they may be, but a relationship between the Father and the Son, the self-emptying of Jesus so that he lives in total unity with God the Father. His entire purpose is not to do his own will, but to do the will of the Father. When he performs a miracle, he does in the Father’s name. Whatever he has is given to him by God.
The deep love of the shepherd for the sheep, then, originates in the unity between the Father and the Son. And that deep love flows out of the Father through the Son into the relationship Jesus has with all who hear his voice and believe. There is no better metaphor for this relationship than that of shepherd and sheep. A shepherd is not distant, leading from above, but is right there in the midst of the sheep. The shepherd’s primary purpose is to care for the highest priority needs of the sheep – green pastures, still waters, right pathways. The shepherd shares the same conditions with the sheep – he doesn’t give them a few tools and a pep talk and leave them at the edge of the valley, promising to meet them on the other side if they manage to get through. The shepherd goes through the valley with them, directing, strengthening, pulling them out of danger if need be, but sharing every moment of the danger with them.
For sure, a shepherd has a lot in common with that description of servant leader I shared at the beginning. But this isn’t a leadership strategy, it is the very nature of our God, the one who sends his son Jesus, that great shepherd of the sheep, to lead us through death to new life. Jesus did this by walking the way before us, and does it now by walking the way with us. I know my sheep, and they follow me, he said. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. Each time we gather together and celebrate the Eucharist, we give thanks for this gift of eternal life. We give thanks that nothing can snatch us out of our Shepherd’s grasp.
The Christian formation program for our children is called Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, and this is the reason why. This is the first and foundational lesson the children learn; that the Good Shepherd cares for the sheep. He knows his sheep by name. The sheep know his voice and they follow him. Our children need to know that they are loved and cared for by a Shepherd who will never lose them. You and I need to know that as well. We need to remind ourselves of it daily.
Here's a question for all of, though, as we celebrate God’s love and care for us: what is our response? What does it mean to follow the Shepherd? This morning, I am only going to offer a beginning of an answer and then I’m going to give you a take home assignment.
One of the most important characteristics of servant leaders is commitment to the growth of those served, so that they too become servant leaders. As you and I live into the gift of life in Christ, we are called to pattern our life after the Shepherd who cares for us. As we are formed through worship and community, we are called to become the body of Christ in the world, so that we too become shepherds of the sheep. Recall last week’s gospel in which Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved him. When Peter replied yes, Jesus said “feed my sheep”, “care for my flock”. This is what it means to follow the Shepherd.
So, here is your homework. For the next week, as you go about your daily life, reflect on what being a shepherd might look like in your life. It might help to think of a few of the servant leader characteristics; care for the highest priority needs of others, empathy, healing relationships, stewardship, helping others discern and grow into their gifts, building community. Take home your bulletin and pray the Collect through the week as a reminder. We all have different gifts and different lives so there is no one size fits all answer to following Jesus. So reflect on this and see what you discover. If the exercise leads you to want to discuss it further, I encourage you to do that. Have conversations with your friends, fellow parishioners, or ministry teams you are part of. And if you would like to reflect further, bring your thoughts to any of the pastors; me, Mary, Rod, Donna. We would welcome the conversation.
In the words of the Collect, let us pray,
O God of peace, who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus Christ, that great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, make us perfect in every good work to do your will, and work in us that which is well-pleasing in your sight; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen