Janusz Korczak was a Jewish man and Polish pediatrician. In 1911 became the director of an orphanage for Jewish children in Poland. When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939 and created the Warsaw Ghetto, they herded Jewish men, women and children like sheep to live in this ghetto, behind barbed wire, separated from people of the Aryan race. The orphanage also moved to the ghetto. Janusz was told that he didn’t have to go there. That he could remain on the Aryan side of the barbed wire. But he chose to accompany his children. In 1942 when word came that the children would be taken one of the death camps, Janusz was told that he didn’t have to go with them. He could remain free. But he refused to abandon his children. Instead, each child was dressed in their best clothes and given their favorite toy or book to take along on the trains that would transport them, and Janusz took them by the hand and went with them. When the children were finally lined up for their final march into the gas chambers, a Nazi guard offered to help Janusz escape with his life. He refused the offer and accompanied his children all the way to the end. He could have chosen otherwise, but he gave up his life to be with them. Julia Fitzgerald told us this story in Bible study on Tuesday night. And when she finished telling it she said, “there are a lot Jesus’s in the world.”
Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.” And when I listened to Jesus’s words alongside the story of Janusz Korczak, I could see what it means to be a good shepherd. So this morning I want to explore with you two aspects of what a good shepherd does. The first is deeply personal. The second is political. And these pieces belong together. We don’t get one without the other.
On a personal level, being a good shepherd is about accompanying the flock. Staying with them and doing everything in your power to provide what they need, and protect them no matter what. The good shepherd stays. In the ancient near east, after leading the sheep to lush green pastures, watching over them all day, and saving the strays, the shepherd gathered the sheep into the sheep fold at night, and laid across the entrance. The shepherd was the gate that secured the flock. With his or her own body, the shepherd prevented wolves from entering, devouring, and scattering the sheep.
Janusz did not have the power to protect his little flock from the devouring wolves. They were too many. Too organized. Too heartless. So intent were they on exterminating the Jews, so given to the herd mentality of Hitler’s genocidal regime, that they thought nothing of marching thousands of children into the gas chambers. Janusz could not save his beloved children. What he could do was stay with them. He did what it was in his power to do. He honored them, clothed them with dignity. Made sure that they had with them the books, dolls and trucks that they loved. Janusz accompanied them in strength and in peace all the way to the bitter end so they wouldn’t feel so afraid. He could have saved his own life, but he chose, to stay with them. With his presence and his love, he comforted them as they walked through that dark valley of death. This is what he could give. This is the power he had.
So I’ve been thinking this week about the power of personal accompaniment. The power of being with others in love, in our bodies, in the midst of suffering. I have to admit, I often feel it isn’t enough. I would like to be able completely to lift the pain away. Heal the wounds. Cure the dis-ease. Change the situation. Chase the howling wolves away. And I know you know this feeling. You share this desire. But this morning I say, being with others, in love, in our bodies, sharing in the suffering, letting the tears run down our faces too, and committing to stay present—this is what it looks like to be a good shepherd. This is the power we have.
I am mindful of how many of you are doing this with family and other loved ones right now, every day. And mindful too that many in this congregation and in our neighborhoods do not have, or cannot count on family members to accompany us in love. We are this mixed up little flock, gathered and accompanied by God, the Good Shepherd. And through the presence of the Spirit, we are also outgrowing our “sheepishness.” We are learning how to be good shepherds to one another by committing to be with each other when the pastures are green and when the valleys are deep and dark and scary. It takes time. It takes openness. There is suffering in it. It takes love, not just as a feeling, not just words, but love in action. This being present is intimate, personal. This is how we lay down our lives for one another. This is how there get to be lots of Jesus’s in the world.
The other part of good shepherding is political. It is about allegiances and loyalties and trust. When the Psalmist wrote the 23rd Psalm, beginning with the words, “The Lord is my Shepherd” he was responding to the implicit question: Who is your Shepherd? In whom do you trust? There is all kinds of comfort and peace in this Psalm. God is the Good Shepherd whose presence, and love, and provision you can count on. Personal and intimate.
But there is this whole other political dimension that comes with the question, “Who is your shepherd?” Whose voice are you listening to? What values are you embracing? Whose way are you walking in? For the Psalmist and our ancestors in the Jewish faith, the Good Shepherd image also points to God as King, or in more gender neutral language, God as Monarch, God as Creator and Ruler of the cosmos. God as Good Shepherd, president of the universe we might say.
And this understanding is in Jesus’ mind as he talks about being the Good Shepherd. Jesus is present in the world living out God’s passionate concerns for the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the alien, the poor, the oppressed and forgotten. Jesus is no pawn in the hands of the powers that be. Not the religious powers of the Temple leaders who will exclude and even kill if you don’t believe God is as they say, or if you don’t follow their rules. No pawn to the powers of the Romans who make and keep peace with the sword.
That’s what Jesus is talking about when he says, “No one takes my life from me. I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down and power to take it up again.” No one tells Jesus what to do, except his Father. And the Father, the original and eternal Good Shepherd has told Jesus to do love. Only love. Always love. Not just in words. But in action. And Jesus has decided to do what God asks him to do. Not because he’s afraid of getting in trouble with God if he doesn’t, but because he knows that love is the only way for us to live to together as human beings. It is the only possibility, unless we want to just blow the whole thing up, and disregard the reality that we are all members of the same flock, one humanity, all created by and loved by the same Creator—Shepherd–Monarch.
This is the witness of Jesus’s life. This is the witness of Janusz’s life. When he refuses to take his own freedom, when he chooses freely to give up his life in order to stay with his children, he resists the policies and programs of the Nazi’s. No one takes his life from him. In love, he gives it up. There is great power in this witness. The stories of Jesus and Janusz are about another way to live, a way that refuses to do anything but love.
And in the end, the political is always personal. Government policies and programs are always about people. They always effect the welfare of flesh and blood human beings. And every day we must choose how to live. With undocumented immigrants. With women and children who experience domestic violence. With homeless veterans in our community. With young black men who are treated unjustly. With the elderly who can’t pay the rent.
The question comes around again and again. Who is your shepherd? Who do you trust with your life? Whose voice are you listening to? Whose way are you walking in? What do you have to give? How will you love today? How will you live in the Spirit of the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for you and for all people, then takes it up again, and promises to be with us and stay with us always? You don’t have to be afraid. You can rest in this powerful love that keeps on giving and keeps raising us up to receive abundant life and to give ourselves away in love. That’s how sheep become shepherds. That’s how there come to be lots of Jesus’s in the world.