The image of the good shepherd is a profoundly important image in the biblical imagination. We have all heard those famous words from today’s suggested reading from Psalm 23 which describes the Lord as a shepherd who gently yet powerfully leads us to still waters and good pastures. We have all heard Jesus’ claim from today’s suggested reading from John 10 that he is the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.
They are well known images.
The only difficulty, of course, is that apart from these quotations from the Bible, very few of us likely have much experience with shepherds. We may, from time to time, have seen images on television screens of people walking out in the fields with their sheep, and perhaps some of us have a few experiences watching actual shepherds in action, but the reality is that the image of a shepherd is a strange concept in most of our lives.
So how might we relate to these images of a shepherd which – although so common to the biblical imagination – are so foreign to most of our lives?
To try to do so, and in honour of the presence of our friends from the 48th Highlander Regimental family, I would like to share a story drawn from Canadian military history.
The story took place during the Second World War – not at Vimy, but rather at a different battle, that of the raid on Dieppe, which took place on August 19, 1942.
The Rev. John Weir Foote was born in Madoc Ontario in 1904. Ordained as a Presbyterian minister, in 1934, Rev. Foote was posted as a Regimental Chaplain with the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry at the outbreak of the Second World War. He deployed with the troops and was serving during the raid on Dieppe in August 1942.
The raid on Dieppe was a costly battle, in which hundreds of soldiers – many of whom were Canadian – lost their lives or were badly injured.
And yet, it was for his conduct in that raid that Rev. Foote became the only chaplain in Canadian history to be awarded the Victoria Cross.
The reasons are well stated in Rev. Foote’s official citation during the awarding of the Victoria Cross:
The KING has been graciously pleased to approve the award of the VICTORIA CROSS to: —
Honorary Captain John Weir FOOTE, Canadian Chaplain Services.
At Dieppe, on 19th August, 1942, Honorary Captain Foote, Canadian Chaplain Services, was Regimental Chaplain with the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry.
Upon landing on the beach under heavy fire he attached himself to the Regimental Aid Post which had been set up in a slight depression on the beach, but which was only sufficient to give cover to men lying down. During the subsequent period of approximately eight hours, while the action continued, this officer not only assisted the Regimental Medical Officer in ministering to the wounded in the Regimental Aid Post, but time and again left this shelter to inject morphine, give first-aid and carry wounded personnel from the open beach to the Regimental Aid Post. On these occasions, with utter disregard for his personal safety, Honorary Captain Foote exposed himself to an inferno of fire and saved many lives by his gallant efforts. During the action, as the tide went out, the Regimental Aid Post was moved to the shelter of a stranded landing craft. Honorary Captain Foote continued tirelessly and courageously to carry wounded men from the exposed beach to the cover of the landing craft. He also removed wounded from inside the landing craft when ammunition had been set on fire by enemy shells. When landing craft appeared he carried wounded from the Regimental Aid Post to the landing craft through very heavy fire.
On several occasions this officer had the opportunity to embark but returned to the beach as his chief concern was the care and evacuation of the wounded. He refused a final opportunity to leave the shore, choosing to suffer the fate of the men he had ministered to for over three years.
Honorary Captain Foote personally saved many lives by his efforts and his example inspired all around him. Those who observed him state that the calmness of this heroic officer, as he walked about, collecting the wounded on the fire-swept beach will never be forgotten.
It is a noble citation.
But that is only the official citation. It is also reported that when the evacuation order came, Rev. Foote is reputed to have yelled “These lads [on the beach] need me more than the ones in England,” as he waded back through the water toward the wounded, with German troops closing in.
Let me repeat that – he waded back through the water toward the wounded, with German troops closing in.
It was a foolish, yet profoundly courageous and compassionate act. And it was the reason why Rev, Foote was captured and spent the next three years of his life in German POW camps. His liberation from Stalag 10B, near Bremen, took place on April 25, 1945 – which, interestingly enough, is exactly 73 years ago from this coming Wednesday.
It is interesting for us to realize that Rev. Foote – as a chaplain and, God knows, as a Presbyterian! – had often heard and read and studied the very same passages of Scripture that we have read today.
And I believe that it is safe to say that his actions illustrated the same dynamics that the Bible invites us to imagine in relation to this well-known image of the good shepherd.
The good shepherd who stays with those who are entrusted to his care, even in the face of adversity. The good shepherd who turned his back on glory to wade into the stormy waves of human life, and spoke of real greatness and the measure of true friendship being revealed in a willingness to lay down his life for his friends, the One who was willing to give up power and glory in order to seek out and to save those who needed a Saviour.
We can look to that example, as Rev. Foote clearly did, that day – and we can draw inspiration from it.
Would we have been willing to stay on the beach, rather than get on the evacuation boat, if it meant personal risk and sacrifice for the sake of others? We like to think that we would, and there is merit in pondering such a question.
But maybe that is not the best way to ponder these passages, or this story.
After all, there is another, and in many ways better way to interpret such passages.
What if, instead, take ourselves out of the hero’s role, and get a bit real for a moment? What if we realize that we, and our lives, are far more like that of the wounded soldier on the beach, unaware and unprepared for what life has just thrown at us, frightened beyond what words can describe, the effects of the morphine wearing off, desperately in need of someone to wade back through the waves to find us, to stay with us, to comfort us, to guide us, even to walk through a time that is just as hellish as three years in a prisoner of war camp?
What if we are the lost sheep, far from home, desperately in need of a shepherd to come and lead us and guide us to a place of peace, of stillness, of abundance, of joy?
What if we are the sinner whose life is completely messed up and desperately in need of a Saviour who dares us to believe that everything that we have done can be forgiven, and that every part of our lives can be made new, a Saviour who is willing to walk with us, and suffer alongside us, and even die for us – all to help us to know that we are not alone, that our lives are powerful and precious and – mostly importantly – that our lives are infinitely and uniquely important to God?
We might draw inspiration from the heroic actions of people like Rev. Foote — ordinary people placed in extraordinary situations, who do the best they can and whose best is wondrous to behold – but we are also called to remember, in doing so, that we are rarely the hero.
Rather, most of us are the lost sheep in need of a good shepherd, most of us are the wounded soldiers stranded on a dangerous beach, most of us are the broken yet beloved children of God who are desperately in need of someone to wade back into the stormy seas of our lives, and save us.
And the good news of God, made known to us in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is this. There is One who seeks us in order to save us, there is One whose love for us — for me, for you – is so great that He is present with us, in the midst of all of the insecurities, all of the stormy seas, all of the chaos of our lives, and who simply wants us to know that He is with us, that He is here to help us to find our way home, that He has come to this world to save us.
You, me, all of us.
And for that, all we can say is this.
Thanks be to God.