The Good Shepherd

Good Shepherd

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

May 2, 2004

Scripture: Revelation 7:9-17;

sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them
eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of
my hand…(that is, out of the Father’s hand)…I and the Father are one.”


We could go
through this text item by item and experience a nourishing sermon today, but I
feel moved to take the opportunity of the familiar image of the Good Shepherd to
offer a meditation on leadership. The shepherd is a traditional symbol of the
ruler and Jesus says in vs. 11 of this chapter, “I am the Good Shepherd. The
Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” He is contrasting the Good
Shepherd with the bad shepherds, the shepherd to whom the sheep belong, with the
hired hand who has no personal stake in the flock. How do our current shepherds
of the nation appear on such a spectrum?

let us look briefly at the items in our text above as an introduction to our
meditation on leadership. We are metaphorically sheep in the flock of Jesus the
Good Shepherd. As such we hear, in the sense of recognize, his voice; we follow
him, in the sense of doing what he wants us to do; he gives us eternal life, a
gift we have been emphasizing since Easter, and have claimed is the single most
valuable characteristic of the church, the one that sets it apart from all other
organizations in the world and makes it uniquely precious. If we follow the Good
Shepherd we shall never perish and never be separated from God, because Jesus
holds us in his hand and his hand cannot be pried open because it is the
almighty hand of God. Thus our text confirms what we have been emphasizing
especially since Easter, that the spiritual engine of the church is the power of
eternal life beyond this world.

I have made
this text the introduction to our meditation on leadership because it makes
clear that the gift given by the Gospel is not for life in this world but for
the life of heaven. In this world we live under the sign of the Cross, we see
puzzling reflections in a mirror, we walk by faith and not by sight, and are
well advised to take reason, evidence, and humility as a guide to decision
making. Therefore, we judge our earthly shepherds with understanding, not
expecting perfection. In the light of this brief exposition of our text, and in
the spirit of faith in eternal life, let us turn now to a meditation on

You will have
noticed by now that I have discharged part of my obligation as your shepherd, by
always making clear this sheer centrality of Christ, his Cross and Resurrection,
to the faith. I challenge you to find one sermon in the 415 I have preached here
that does not point first and overwhelmingly to the living Jesus Christ as Lord
of our lives, Lord of the church and giver of the most precious gift of eternal
life. Having put that eternal truth at the center I have then tried to relate it
to living in the world, sometimes on the personal level, sometimes on a communal
level using psychological, anthropological, ethical, and yes,
political categories. I usually do the relating in terms of the realities
of life that are impinging on me at the time, and I try to make sure that those
realities are not idiosyncratic but representative of important things that
anyone living in the world would be bound to take note of.   

Today my
meditation begins with a picture of a father and mother receiving the body of
their dead child in a military coffin. I am speechless with dismay as I imagine
the agony of loss, the desolation at so much life lost. I have just become a
grandfather for the sixth time. Anna Elizabeth Wallin was born to our daughter
Ruth and her husband John late on Saturday night. I am filled with the joy and
satisfaction of one of life’s incomparable moments. All that beauty, all that
blessing, all that promise, all that grace, as this beautiful little creature
comes from the darkness of the divine love into the light of a loving family and
a generous world! Against this background I imagine the father and mother whose
child has come home in a military coffin, – more than seven hundred and thirty
seven such agonies to date, (not to mention the thousands of Iraqis killed), –
and I imagine them experiencing the opposite of what I am experiencing, and I
hear them asking why, wrenchingly, desperately asking why, and hungering for a
truthful assurance that their child died defending our country because there was
no alternative, that this death was not just brave, but necessary, utterly
necessary, occurring in the face of a real and imminent threat to the existence
of our homeland. Can our political shepherds assure them that the death of their
child was absolutely necessary for the country? Good shepherding would seem to
demand it.

Then there
arises in my meditation on leadership the picture of our leaders painted by Bob
Woodward, in a memoir encouraged by the president, who himself gave three hours
plus of face to face time to the journalist and allowed himself to be taped.
This record does not assure me that the death was necessary, rather it persuades
me that it was unnecessary and even whimsical. Woodward had similar access to
all the principals, and gives vivid accounts of meetings, debates and exchanges
at which he was present or had information from those who were present. I
conclude from this account, entitled “Plan of Attack,” (New York: Simon and
Schuster, March 2004) that there were only three people involved in the actual
making of the decision to go to war, Dick Cheney, George Bush and Condi Rice.
All the other principals, even Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz, and especially Powell and
Armitage, were out of the loop where the decision was finally made (The latter
are the only two who have personally seen military action). This means that the
decision came from deep within the consciousness of only two men, Cheney and
Bush, because Rice, although she was always present at meetings seems only to
have reinforced Bush’s already made decision. At least two of the principals,
Colin Powell and Karl Rove said to Woodward that Cheney was in a “fever”
over Iraq, and Woodward sums up his impression of Bush as never really in doubt,
never really questioning the decision.

Here is a
quotation: “(Woodward) Blair said that he had received letters from those who
had lost sons in the war who wrote that they hated him for what he did. I quoted
Blair, ‘And don’t believe anyone who tells you when they receive letters
like that that they don’t suffer any doubt.’ ‘Yeah,’ President Bush
replied. ‘I haven’t suffered doubt.’ ‘Is that right?’ I asked. ‘Not
at all?’ ‘No. And I am able to convey that to the people.’ To those who
had lost sons and daughters, he said, ‘I hope I am able to convey that in a
humble way ’ (p.420).” Bush seems unaware that Blair’s quote brands him a
liar; he does not disagree but rather agrees with Blair and then states the
opposite of Blair’s position.

By this point I
am greatly dismayed at the way our shepherds are leading us, and then my
meditation becomes really dark, because as the recent PBS documentary in the
Frontline series, called “The Jesus Factor” in the shows, Bush underwent a
conversion to Christ in the Methodist church, just as I did. His language about
his conversion echoes my own. It was in a Methodist chapel in Austin at a
private service before his second inauguration as governor of Texas that Bush
got the call to be president, when the preacher compared him to Moses, who was
halting in his speech but nevertheless chosen to lead Israel to liberty. One of
those present said there was  an
“electricity” in the room at the moment when that text from Exodus was
expounded while the preacher looked at Bush. Afterwards Bush told some friends
that he believed God had called him to be president. This means that the
decision to go to war came ultimately from a level of religious experience that
I seem to know well. What makes this so problematic for me is that I continue to
experience in worship something like that electricity and I also take it to mean
that the Holy Spirit is present. I too have felt called, and done things on the
basis of that call.

What is the
relation of such experience to truth and reality? What is the deciding factor
when calling our national shepherd not a Good Shepherd but a “hireling, who
cares nothing for the sheep” (to quote the gospel text). I think it is the
presence or absence of informed critical reflection in addition to the
experience that makes the difference. Woodward’s book will shows that a lot of
study and talking went on, but it will also show that all was ultimately for
naught because the decision makers, Bush and Cheney, were in the end not
listening, were not open to criticism and change. The former acted out of a deep
sense of divine call, and the latter out of a volcanic rage that rumbled beneath
the pale surface of the physically impaired cowboy from Wyoming.

Why am I
dismayed? Because I have clung to the hope that a deep conversion to Christ is
also a deep conversion to reality, and truth, a breaking out of the tissue of
unreality that is the world of sin and death; but the opposite seems to be
happening in our country today, and our shepherd who has had such an experience
is leading us not through but into the valley of the shadow of death, strongly
supported by Christians who put conversion to Christ at the center of their
faith. This is troubling to say the least.

So, trying to
be a good shepherd or pastor I have told you the truth as I, and any reasonable
person, must see it. I shall not apologize for sharing this meditation with you,
not least because, among other more important reasons, these bad shepherds are
killing our young people and thousands of Iraqis for reasons that any reasonable
person can only call delusional. I know that some of you don’t want to know;
but if you think I make this stuff up to embarrass a Republican administration
because I am a Democrat, you do not know me at all. I give you this information
and opinion simply because I am trying to be a good shepherd and help you live
honestly in the real world. I bet you will not hear such straight talk again
from this pulpit for a very long time, if ever.

I speak also
because only five corporations control the information the major information
media in this country and we the public are
being swallowed by a propaganda monster. The example of the small
Sinclair Broadcasting Group in Maryland, using its corporate muscle to keep off
the air the reading of the names of the honored dead, scheduled on their
stations by the ABC network, is a nutshell indication of our advancing
imprisonment in propaganda. Also last week a woman lost her job for
photographing military coffins, and her husband was canned too for obscure
reasons. We are not to see the return of the honored dead, we are not publicly
to acknowledge them, because that is politically unpropitious for the Bush

And that is not
the worst; worse even than this is that millions are too lazy to read the books
that reveal this corruption and decadence and are content to get their political
information from Rush Limbaugh, whose recent confessions about drug use over the
years must surely make his judgment suspect, or from the late night talk show
hosts, Leno and Letterman.

As a pastor I
want (in the last few weeks of my public life) do my bit
to keep the pulpit a place where people may hear the truth they may not
get from the media they consult, and from someone who is prepared to do the work
necessary to penetrate behind the lies of the bad shepherds of our nation. All
this work and witness might enable us who want to, to hear the voice of our Good
Shepherd and to follow him into the real world, and to live there authentically
and honestly. It may also help reduce the number of young people who die for