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On faith: Jesus, the cowboy shepherd

Pastor Tom Murray

Zion Lutheran Church of Finland

Lutsen Evangelical Lutheran Church

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

John 10: 10-11

Back in June of 1975, my brother and I loaded up his car and headed out for the west coast. As we drove through the mountains of eastern Idaho, we rounded a bend and spread out before us were thousands of sheep moving up the road. Being a couple of kids from Minnesota, we didn’t quite know what to do. So we stopped and sat there watching this endless stream of sheep passing by.

Eventually, a cowboy sauntered up on a horse, wearing a hat and chaps and everything that a kid from Minnesota would want a cowboy to wear. He bent down to the window and spoke. “Sir, you just drive your car real slow through them there sheep. They’ll move out of the way for you all right. Y’all have a good day now,” he said. So we bumped our way through that mass of bleating (and surprisingly smelly) creatures until we finally came out at the other side, then we headed off down the road.

I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that before that moment, the only knowledge I had of shepherds came from pictures in Sunday school books. It had never occurred to me that shepherds are cowboys. I had always imagined shepherds as wearing robes and sandals, having long hair and probably living in communes. To me, shepherds were something like the hippies of Jesus’ day. It never occurred to me that shepherding is hard and dangerous work with long hours and low pay. Sheep require never-ending vigilance, and so ranchers hire cowboys to watch over them day and night while they are up in their mountain pastures grazing.

Our scriptures remind us that we are God’s sheep, and that God is our provider and our protector. We are reminded that Jesus stepped into this world to gather us in, like a cowboy herding his flock through the dangers of this world. We are told that Jesus shepherds us not just so that we may survive in this world, but also that we may live an abundant life in his name. Abundant life means living in community with one another. It means living in community with those who have never experienced the resurrection in their lives. It means sharing the abundance that we have been given so that no one goes without.

Our life in Christ is nothing like what this world tries to pawn off on us as an abundant life. To this world, “abundance” is having a bigger SUV, a younger spouse, an older scotch, or a deeper wallet. To this world, “abundance” is having more of what we already have enough of. To God, abundance is about living into God’s calling for us.

The resurrected Christ steps into our lives as our good shepherd, not the hippie good shepherd that I used to imagine as a child, but the cowboy good shepherd, the one who commits to the difficult and sometimes dirty work of saving us when we wander. This is the good shepherd who rounds us up when we become lost and brings us back into communion with one another.

It is Jesus, our shepherd, who shares his life with us by healing the blind and the lame, by feeding the hungry, by comforting the outcast and the despised, and by witnessing to the unrelenting love of God. It is Jesus, our shepherd, who gives of himself so fully that all who hear his voice may live this abundant life.