April 29, 2012 sermon
11“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”
Hear what the Spirit is saying to the church…
How many of you passed a lot of sheep on your way here today?
I had the opportunity to spend a semester in Europe when I was in college, and our first 3 weeks were spent in Scotland, Ireland, and Northern England. THEN, I saw some sheep. We frequently had to stop in the road to let a herd cross, and their white wool peppered the beautiful British countryside. But here? In Chattanooga? Sheep aren’t a big part of my day. I don’t know a lot about sheep. I saw one sheared as part of a field trip with Julia’s school a few years ago. But I could not begin to tell you what it means to spend much of your time with sheep. To shepherd them.
I know all of the things I can derive from scripture, of course – my go-to for farm animal facts. I know that shepherds tell the sheep where to go, and that the good shepherds can be trusted to find still water to sip, good grazing areas, and offer the comforts of predator free travel. I can imagine how hard it is to be a shepherd. How tedious and lonely the work is. How easy it could be to bolt when things get hard if you are not truly committed to your flock.
Because we know all about bad shepherds, don’t we? Alyce McKenzie reminds us: Every day in the news we encounter fresh examples of bad shepherding. People in charge of protecting the President are not at their post, but instead, allegedly, at the bar or the strip club. A young man is in the driver’s seat early one morning with three friends in the car. Driving drunk, his actions result in their deaths. Politicians focus on finding chinks in one another’s armor rather than finding solutions to the nation’s injustices. Pastors abuse their positions of spiritual influence and take advantage of vulnerable people” (http://www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian/Staying-at-Your-Post-Alyce-McKenzie-04-23-2012.html). We are no strangers to bad shepherds.
But here, in the gospel of John, Jesus offers one of his famous “I am” statements, this time identifying himself as the Good Shepherd. John’s audience would have been familiar with the Hebrew Bible testament to what a good shepherd was. Benevolent kings were described as good shepherds. The rulers who sought their own fortune and ignored the needs of the poor, the widow, and the orphan were condemned by the prophets as bad shepherds. The hoped-for messiah was imagined as the Good Shepherd – the one who would remain faithful to the flock and ensure that the weakest members were protected.
So we welcome the image of Jesus as the good shepherd for some good reasons. But I wonder if we have too easily romanticized this vision, in part because of our general unfamiliarity with sheep-herding. It was dangerous and menial work. One pastor notes that in our modern context, for Jesus to say “I am the Good Shepherd” would be akin to him saying “I am the good migrant worker.” Not exactly glamourous, but very much in keeping with Jesus’ declarations about the first and the last. Our ideas of power and prestige mean little in God’s reign.
But how do we feel about being sheep? When I asked this at the Bible study on Monday, we were all over the place. Some found the image comforting, imagining Jesus leading and guiding us. Others felt a bit insulted – are we just mindless followers? I must admit that I often put myself in the second camp. People always told me sheep were quite dull animals and I never liked the idea that followers of Christ were just stupid farm animals. Don’t we have some agency? Some responsibility? I rather appreciate that God calls my head as well as my heart to lead and worship, and there is something about being a sheep that seems to undermine that idea.
Well, I read something this week that helped me a bit. Barbara Brown Taylor tells about someone she knew who actually grew up on a sheep ranch and could refute the myth that sheep are dumb. She believes “it was actually cattle ranchers who started the rumor, because sheep don’t behave like cows. Cows are herded from the rear with shouts and prods from the cowboys. But that doesn’t work with sheep. If you stand behind sheep making noises, they will just run around behind you. They actually prefer to be led. Cows can be pushed; sheep must be led. Sheep will not go anywhere that someone else – their trusted shepherd – does not go first, to show them that everything is alright” (Feasting, Blakely, 450).
We are not merely mindless followers. We are followers of the way – faithfully traveling, knowing that no matter how dark the valley is, God in Christ, our good shepherd, goes before us and leads us. We are not mindless sheep. We are followers invited to go – following in the paths of love and mercy that our shepherd sets out for us.
But we don’t do this traveling alone. There are all kinds of other sheep in this flock. And Jesus tells us that there are other sheep who are not yet in our flock, but will be. That’s not always easy for us to accept. We rather look to choose who is in and out of our flocks. After all, we can control who our friends and followers are on Facebook and twitter, we can choose to join this organization and not that one. But it is not so with Christ’s flock. His expansive vision of who makes up the church – the body of Christ – is more than most of us might choose, if we are honest.
How do we really feel about the idea that there will be one flock?
Are we ready to welcome everyone who will be in it?
- The ones who have different ideas about what it means to be church.
- The ones who make us angry with their clearly incorrect political opinions?
- The ones who live their lives differently than we do?
- The ones who read the Bible differently that we do?
- The ones who will never join this church and will never fill out a pledge card?
We are called to be the church of Jesus Christ in the world.
To seek reconciliation and to inspire discipleship. All that is asked of us is that we follow the shepherd, not make judgments about the composition of the flock.
As I was thinking about us as farm animals, I was reminded of the story Neal shared in his Lenten devotional. It is a story Thomas Daniel told at Loaves and Fishes about cattle ranchers in Australia. Now, cows and sheep may differ in how they prefer to be led, but they are both prone to wander. Thomas Daniel described the shock American cattle ranchers felt when they discovered that the Australian herders did not construct elaborate fences to keep their cows from wandering away they learned that there is something much more effective than building barriers to define the parameters of the herd. Instead, they dig good wells. If there is a good, consistent, nourishing well of water, the animals will not stray. So it is with the church.
Too often, we have built higher and higher fences, seeking to define who is in and who is out of our flock, hiding safe within our walls. But we follow a shepherd who promises to go with us – to lead us through dangerous places and to offer us still waters. So perhaps part of our job is to ensure that we continue to offer good water – deep wells, still water to restore other weary travelers and to offer life and love to parched souls.
May we be led beside such still waters and have the grace to share it abundantly. Amen.