180422 – Shepherd and Sheep

Yr B ~ Easter 4 ~ John 10:11-18

The majority of this morning’s sermon is borrowed from a lovely extended illustration called “Led From Behind” by Methodist minister Rev. Laura Mendenhall. (edited)shepherd-sheep

“Tom is a real shepherd. Tom herds sheep in West Texas and has a dog named Shep and everyday Tom and Shep are with the sheep. Every day. Tom doesn’t take time off from his sheep to go out to dinner or to a movie. I don’t think Tom even leaves the sheep to go to church.

Maybe he holds his own services for the sheep. I don’t know. What I do know is that he stays with his sheep. Tom’s father bought these sheep years ago and Tom treats them like family, seeming to enjoy their company. Once somebody told Tom that God created sheep in order to make chickens look smart, but Tom didn’t laugh. While he knows that sheep aren’t smart enough for a game of fetch or a frisbee toss; nevertheless, sheep can generally figure out where food and water are. That’s pretty smart.

In order to encourage the sheep not to overgraze but to move on to other pastures, Tom cannot go charging out in front of the sheep shouting orders to them, “Here, sheep, sheep, sheep, come this way. Follow me, sheep, turn here.” If Tom were to try to direct his sheep in this way, they’d probably just turn and go in the opposite direction. So, Tom doesn’t usually shout to his sheep about anything.

Sometimes Tom talks out loud to himself and the sheep probably overhear. Sometimes he may speak to them in the same way we speak to babies never really expecting them to understand. And sometimes he sings to them because he likes to sing and because the sheep don’t seem to be disturbed by his singing, but I’ve never heard Tom raise his voice to his sheep, never heard him be angry or disparaging about his sheep. And so, they follow him, not because of his authoritative directions, but because they trust his voice.

While his sheep probably couldn’t distinguish Tom’s face from that of any other shepherd, that doesn’t mean that they’re stupid. The truth is they seldom see Tom’s face for Tom is not usually out in front of them but rather behind them. They know Tom’s voice and are reassured as he sings along behind them–encouraging those who are straggling, assisting those who are injured or sick, directing those who can’t find food, helping the unfortunate, the weak, the lame.

I doubt seriously, however, that the sheep are aware of how Tom works to keep them from danger. Tom transforms the wilderness into security and safety for them, guiding them around danger to green grass and cool water. Tom will not permit the wolves and coyotes of the hill country to be a threat to his sheep. He defends them from predators. Tom is always on the lookout because sheep are such vulnerable creatures.

Of course, on occasion when Tom has been ill or had a family emergency, he’s had to hire someone to look after the sheep. But hired hands want time off and at the slightest danger hired hands will abandon the sheep and run. A shepherd, on the other hand, will put his own life at risk in order to protect his sheep. Tom has, in fact, sustained wounds from wild animals he’s had to fight off his sheep.

Tom loves his sheep. That’s why, day after day, over rocks and crevices, through shadows and storms, Tom is with the sheep. They know his voice and Tom leads them, though most of the time it’s from behind.

The Bible tells us that the Lord is our Shepherd, which makes me wonder–is Jesus like Tom? Does Jesus seldom get a haircut and bathe only once a week? I don’t know about that.

I hope it means that Jesus refuses to laugh when the angels tell jokes about how stupid we are.
I hope it means that Jesus doesn’t wring his hands over us but is content to be with us even though we regularly do stupid things.
I know that like a shepherd Jesus picks us up when we fall down, mends our broken spirits, feeds our famished lives, supports us when we are limping along, sings to comfort our spirits.

Of course, if we look for Jesus to be out in front of us showing us the way, we may be frustrated at not being able to see him. It may be, however, that Jesus is leading us from behind, the way Tom leads the sheep. Maybe it’s because Jesus is a shepherd that he doesn’t shout directions to us. Jesus knows what we can do and wants to encourage us to go ahead and act on our good judgment. Sometimes we may wish Jesus would be out in front of us giving us explicit signals.

We wish Jesus would be that direct with us.
We’d rather not have to think for ourselves.
We’d prefer to have Jesus to make decisions for us so that we might have someone to blame when things go wrong.
But most of the time, Jesus is leading from behind, picking us up when we get into trouble, encouraging us to go ahead and trust what we know – just like a shepherd.

For we are as vulnerable as the sheep and just as oblivious to the dangers surrounding us. Like the sheep, we, too, live in a wilderness, yet the life we know is abundant because of Jesus’ love for us. We wander through life as though we were indestructible when in truth we’re not. We live as stupidly as the sheep, overextending our resources without paying any attention to what we’re doing. And all the while, Jesus moves us gently along protecting us from ourselves as well as danger, and we are often oblivious to his presence with us.

For, like the shepherd, Jesus leads us from behind, making sure that no one is left along the way, carrying us until we can continue on our own. Therefore, like the sheep, we may not often see Jesus’ face, but we know his voice of comfort and encouragement.

We are the beloved, those for whom Jesus laid down his life. And Jesus invites those who have been so loved to shepherd others, to love as we have been loved, not in word and speech, but in truth and action. For we are not just hired hands.

We are called to those who are vulnerable, those who do stupid things, those who are stragglers, those who are hurt, and who need help. We are called to stay with them, to carry them, to encourage them on their way. We are called to be as a shepherd to them and not to be in their face shouting directions to them. Doubtless, if that’s what we did, they’d turn and run the other way.

But if we lead from behind, nurturing and supporting, caring for them as God has cared for us, if we work for their safety and security, if we support them in using their own best instincts, we honor the One who is our Good Shepherd.

We honor the One who leads us beside still waters and restores our soul, the One who leads us on right paths, the One whose rod and staff comfort us so that we fear no evil, the One who prepares a table for us in the presence of our enemies, the One who anoints us so that our cup overflows.

The Lord is our Shepherd and invites us to shepherd others in order that goodness and mercy might follow us all the days of our life so that we all might dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Thanks be to God.” [end of borrowed illustration]

So you heard bits of the 23rd Psalm in there – probably the most famous passage of scripture ever – which begins with the words, “The Lord is my shepherd.” Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd.” And we, his followers, are therefore the sheep.
It takes great humility to accept the label of being a sheep. Sheep are known to be not very bright, kind of smelly, and easily led astray. Who wants to be that?
If we are sheep – and I do believe that we are – then we really do need a good shepherd to lead us.

But let’s be careful here. Church life is heaped with imagery around sheep and shepherds. This is called a pastoral charge – we offer pastoral care to one another – the minister is often referred to as a pastor in many traditions. So does that make me the shepherd and you my flock?
My answer is “no”. I am not your shepherd. I’m just another sheep – a sheep with a funky collar and a nifty robe – but I’m still just a sheep.

I have to confess that I’ve always had trouble with the “Good Shepherd” imagery – even from Jesus. Because when you think about it, a shepherd is not really the leader of the sheep – a shepherd is of an entirely different order than the sheep.

In literal terms, a shepherd is human and sheep are, well, sheep. Humans are several steps above sheep in the food chain. Sheep could never hope to be as advanced or knowledgeable or capable or powerful as shepherds are. To a sheep, a human isn’t just human but superhuman.

And that’s where I always ran into trouble with the Good Shepherd image. But reading the Good Shepherd story with post-Easter eyes – seeing the imagery in the light of Jesus as the resurrected Christ – I think we can understand the image better.
As resurrected Christ, Jesus is of a different order than us.

Think of the disciples – they had heard his voice every day but didn’t recognize it fully as that of the Good Shepherd – but then in the light of the resurrection they could finally hear it, and recognize it, and follow.

I am not your shepherd – I’m just another sheep. But even sheep are called to shepherd one another.
We are not called to be Christ but we are called to be as Christ to one another.
Not Christ, but Christ-like.
And how do we learn to do that? By listening to the Good Shepherd, of course.

There’s really only one way to become more familiar with the voice of the Good Shepherd – spend more time listening. Sheep follow the voice that they spend all day listening to. It’s familiar, and comforting, and always there, and they learn to trust in it.

The fancy theological word for this is “prayer” – especially when prayer is less talking and more listening – as it should be! When we pray we tune in to God’s voice and become ever more familiar with it – and with each passing moment we learn to discern our Shepherd’s voice from all the other noise – and we learn to follow.

For if you follow his voice, and allow Jesus to be your shepherd, then everything in the 23rd psalm can be true in your life.
You will not want for anything.
You’ll know the peace of green pastures and still waters.
Your soul will be restored.
You’ll walk in the right direction.
When bad times come you won’t fear them so deeply because you know you’re not alone.
People will be able to sense God’s presence with you and it will be as though your life overflows with blessings.

And the best part – the very best part – is that when the Lord is your Shepherd, God’s steadfast love – God’s hesed – God’s loving-kindness – will not just follow you all the days of your life – it’ll chase after you – it’ll pursue you – it will never let you go. That’s what good shepherds do.

And in that glorious state of being known and loved by God, we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever – simple, trusting sheep following the familiar voice of our shepherd – and striving to respond in gratitude by being like shepherds to one another.

It’s a simple, and wonderful message. May it be so!