1 Peter 2:19-25 and John 10:1-10.
I believe each year I begin my Good Shepherd Sunday with the same disclaimer: I know nothing about sheep.
If Jo Fine were not at Nan’s graduation today, she’d offer up a loud “Amen” to that. And maybe even go on to tell you how ignorant your “city boy” pastor is I about most flora and fauna. One of her favorites is when I was riding my bike in the Poconos and thought I saw a coyote; I guess it’s sort of off-base to think there might be coyotes in the poconos… She suspects it was a very large weasel, something called a fisher.
In my defense, I could protest that I know cows– I worked on a dairy farm in the Swiss Alps one summer during college. I even know pigs– my father used to go hunting on the land of a family that kept pigs. But sheep– outside of children’s stories and the Bible, sheep are pretty much outside of my experience.
Or are they? Is it a Freudian slip that I almost forget how you all are changing all that? For the last two Advents, I’ve had some exposure to at least two mini sheep right here at the corner of 4th and Race. In our creche.
That first year, I remember worrying about the animals… Chris, you remember those monster snow storms? I came out to check on my barnyard neighbors. The cow and the donkey and the goats were all nestled together, sensibly keeping each other warm, in the hay in the back of the creche behind the mannequins.
But there the two sheep stood in the middle of the corral, dead still in the middle of the blizzard, standing in a few feet of snow, with at least another foot of snow piled up on their backs.
Ok, I know a little about sheep now. But, still, the baseline of this sermon (maybe all sermons) is what the preacher doesn’t know.
People tell me sheep are stupid. And I can see why they might think so. Staying out in a snow storm. But people who make pronouncements on tell sheep stupidity with such great authority, do they really know anything more about sheep than I do?
I think sheep earn our low estimation because of “the flock thing.” We rugged, autonomous, individualistic North Americans find the flock mentality easy to deride and sneer at. Why would a creature follow the crowd the way a sheep seems to do (because, of course, you and I never exhibit such behaviors!)?
I wondered if perhaps there might not be some greater purpose, some advantage to flocking, like geese flying in a v, With a little research, first, I learned that in regions where sheep don’t have any natural predators,
they don’t exhibit strong flocking behavior.
Flocking then sounds like a pretty smart response to a world full of wolves.
They stick together to protect one another from anyone or anything that may be attempting to harm even one of the flock. That doesn’t sound so dumb to me.
I also read that sheep have the ability to remember faces, not only other sheep faces which you might expect, even if to us humans most sheep look, well, sort of alike. But sheep have the ability to remember all faces, for years and years. In other words, they not only protect one another,
they also do not forget any shepherd they follow.
Jesus, we say as Christians, is our Good Shepherd. Welcome, beloved, to Good Shepherd Sunday. We, the church, are the flock.
These images that may be meaningful to us, even if we know little about sheep. I mean, when was the last time someone called you to come a running to help get the sheep back into the pen?
If you are still a bit confused by the sheep farming images Jesus employed, don’t worry. You’re in good company. It says right in the Gospel of John: those first disciples didn’t really get what Jesus meant either. And they were much closer to sheep farming in the first place.
So he tried another image, to break it down for them a little bit more:
“I am the gate for the sheep.
All who came before me are thieves and bandits;
but the sheep did not listen to them.
I am the gate.
Whoever enters by me will be saved,
and will come in and go out and find pasture.
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.
I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
Pedagogically, I wonder about Jesus switching metaphors. Especially, since later in the chapter, at verse 11, right after our reading this morning leaves off, he returns to “I am the Good Shepherd.”
Maybe the Evangelist is splicing together material from different monologues? Or maybe it’s just one more clear example why the Bible shouldn’t be taken literally– Jesus often taught metaphorically, sometimes even mixing his metaphors.
So what’s it mean for us that Jesus is the gate for the sheep? Here’s what I believe, but remember, the baseline of this sermon is all the preacher doesn’t know… Still, I think I’ve figured out this much:
Jesus came to this earth to lead us in The Way. That Way is taking care of each other like sheep do. He calls us by name, that we might listen for his voice, follow his lead, walk where he is going.
And it works, when we stick together. Not in some sort of lockstep, group-think conformity (have you ever seen a flock of sheep? crossing each other,
flitting this way and that, running circles around one another, bumping heads, rumps and just about everything else too– they’re worse than the church!).
But Jesus wants us, as best we can, to stick together, to travel not as a pack but in a flock, to remain part the church, even when we are on our own,
to traverse our life’s roads as part of this fellowship.
Jesus of all people knows the world can be a tough valley to cross, there are dangers lurking in the shadows and in the noon light of day, times can get awfully tough.
You see, Jesus is saying something very important in his two metaphors:
He’s not only the leader, He is also the way. I can’t exactly explain it all perfectly clearly: remember, I’m dumb like I sheep.
But, let me try one more tme: if we can remember what the face of Jesus looks like, if we can hearken to the sound of his voice, if we can keep ourselves within the bounds of his flock, and make it our business, our calling to be about protecting one another, particularly the most vulnerable… then we won’t be scattered, but will have our Good Shepherd!
When I was a child, I learned to pray at nighttime when I couldn’t go to sleep. Lying on my side, facing the wall, listening to what was happening in our house, I’d pray.
You all have heard me say this before, my parents, God bless them, struggled with some tough emotional issues and substance abuse. Their fights were worse at night. Probably because that was when my father had had the most to drink. Or maybe they thought it was better, would protect us, if they fought when we weren’t awake or around. As if any child could sleep through that.
I often couldn’t hear all the words. But no one could miss those sounds.
The emotional and sometimes physical hurt. The waves of anger and all the desperate threats.
Trying not to not hear, trying to hear something better, nicer, another voice,
I’d think about this image of Jesus. I can still see the image, but don’t know where I first saw it. Maybe it was somewhere in my grandmother’s house.
Or was it on the wall of Mrs. Jolly’s Sunday School classroom?
It was one of those gentle Jesus bearing a lamb on his shoulders images.
Kindly smiling, compassion on his face, love in his eyes. It sort of embarrasses me now, as an adult– the simplicity, even naivete of that image. An how wrong it was in many ways! A clean, combed-hair Shepherd– shiney, light hair, a white linen robe, almost blue eyes…
An make-believe image, far from the hard life of any Palestinian shepherd,
Or far from my own life back then.
But an image of comfort and hope, nonetheless, much as were both my grandmother’s house and Sunday School. They were always places of peace where there seemed to be, if not no disagreement, at least less strife. Where no one raised their voice or hand. Where desperation and fear couldn’t find room among us and make their home with us.
Lying on my side, facing the wall, I would ask that Shepherd Jesus to come and help my family. To help me. Even just to get me away from there.
And that helped somehow.
I share this story, not because it is unique to my experience, but because it is one instance, my life’s version, of a million other stories of people living through difficulty and finding comfort and strength in this shepherd Jesus.
Thanks be to God.
In a minute for our Affirmation of Faith today, we’re going to recite the 23rd Psalm. It’s one of the few Scripture passages that most people know anymore– one of the few commonalities that keeps us together as a flock,
in these days when even the church can be a divided, distant bunch.
It’s a shame that more often than not the only time the church says Psalm 23 together is at funerals.
Today we’ll say it together as our Affirmation of Faith. May it remind us of Jesus, our Shepherd …and of the Bible and all those stories that we ought not give up on, or give away to those who use them like weapons to harm, divide and conquer. The Bible is really a library of spiritual books,
sometimes too human, but always pointing to, promising something more than we can believe, the unending love of God that makes all the difference in the world. Right there in the holy pages of that sacred story, especially if we can read it with the eyes of Jesus: comfort for the afflicted and eloquent appeals for justice and peace, fo transformations– personal and public and political — that might reduce our afflictions.
If you don’t know the Bible, that’s ok. Church is a great place to get to know it. I’d even recommend you might want to learn it. It comes in awful handy along life’s way. You might get started with Psalm 23.
If you cannot recite our Psalm by heart today, that’s ok too. Georgie may provide the page number in the pew bible. But if you don’t want to read it, but just want to hear it– let those of us who can, tell it to you.
Just sit back and listen as if it’s one of those stories from childhood.
Listen to the beautiful words and hear more than is even actually said:
the wonder of faith, a confidence and assurance that comes of letting God be your Shepherd.