It is, as I said earlier, Good Shepherd Sunday. I searched long and hard to try to figure out why the 4th Sunday of Easter is designated as Good Shepherd Sunday, but I just couldn’t find a reason. Each year on this week, three weeks after the festival of Easter begins, the designated gospel reading is from Jesus’ teaching about sheep and shepherds. The psalm is the 23rd psalm; the gospel in John 10 (the beginning, the middle, or the end of the chapter). It’s one of those themes that comes around and around again each year in such a way that it sometimes makes a preacher just want to skip it, especially a preacher raised completely in Suburbia.
The thing is when most of us think of the Good Shepherd, if we think of the Good Shepherd at all, we think of the kinds of scenes that have thus far, illustrated our worship service. We think of a soft, smiling Jesus, sitting under a tree, feeding a lamb out of his hand. Or maybe it’s a tall authoritative, but gentle Jesus, staff in hand, flock staring up at him adoringly. Or still another Jesus, just from the chest up with a sheep around his neck yet not one of his perfect brown curls out of place and his clear blue eyes staring deep into ours. These are the images on which we were raised.
But even a preacher raised in Suburbia, even this preacher, knows that isn’t what life is like for a shepherd. At least one member of our family who knows better has been heard to declare, “Sheep are the stupidest animals alive.” Friends of mine confirmed this when they decided to go into the wool business. First they bought alpacas and then they decided to buy sheep. Within months they were trying to get rid of the sheep. Alpacas, it seems, know better than to, shall we say, turn their living room into their bathroom. Sheep don’t seem to know the difference. Any room is a bathroom!
Another friend of mine who grew up helping on her grandparents’ sheep farm gave me a few more interesting tidbits about sheep, some of which will (and some of which won’t) inform our reading and hearing of Jesus’ comparison in John 10. Teri told me this, the truth about sheep:
1. Sheep smell bad.
2. Sheep are not soft and cuddly, though they look that way.
3. Sheep are not mean. They are very sweet unless you are holding food, in which case they will eat your hand to get it.
4. Purposely bringing a whole group of sheep together is impossible. This is why dogs are used to round them up. Pushing from behind, as you do cattle is even more impossible. Sheep have to see the leader before they’ll go anywhere.
5. Sheep will eat ALL the greenery in a given area to the point where they have to be moved regularly if penned, in order for the grass to continue to grow. Otherwise they’ll eat it down to the dirt and then look around lacking any understanding as to why there’s no more grass.
6. If unpenned, sheep will just keep wandering outward, completely absorbed in eating, but never seeming to learn to turn around. They will keep walking in the same direction, farther and farther from the flock and from help. Another friend related a story about sheep grazing in the mountains of Utah in this manner. The sheep had no regard even for their own safety or survival as they wondered into a two lane mountain road, stopping traffic for over an hour.
7. If they know you, sheep will follow you anywhere. If they do not know you or if you have proved untrustworthy, they will not follow you anywhere, they’ll just stare at you like you’re an alien.
8. Sheep, just like your house pets, respond to their names if they are taught them.
Although the traditional Western pictures of the Good Shepherd seem to imply the Jesus knows nothing about real sheep, he isn’t the slightest bit dirty as they would be and he doesn’t seem at all repulsed by their bad smell, his words sound an awful lot like the testimonies of my more knowledgeable friends at least when it comes to how they respond to the shepherd. As Jesus says “the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” I don’t much about sheep and I have never tried to wrangle them with anything, much less my voice. However, I feel like I have experienced the frustration of trying to gather sheep together - - sheep who would much rather be doing their own thing, wandering in their own direction, as far as they would like, without paying attention. I feel like I have just a hint of knowledge of what a shepherd goes through, because I have helped in a kindergarten classroom.
It’s not a bad a comparison. The children start all together in one place, working on the project that has been handed out at their desks or sitting on the carpet listening to the story. But then one of them, just slightly distracted starts to look around. She wanders just a tiny bit away, to look at the book cover that caught her attention. Then another realizes he needs to go to the bathroom and another she needs to get a drink. Some finish the project quicker than others and start to head to the book corner. Little by little the sheep, I mean the children, start to wander away, spread out in every direction, finding their own way to go in the room.
I have tried to gather them back together. I have raised my hand. I have done the counting game. I have done the whispering game (“If you can hear my voice, clap three times.”). I have sung the quiet down and listen up song, but it has rarely worked. It’s like I’m not even trying. But when Mrs. Meincke speaks up, when she says all the same things, it’s like their ears are tuned in just for her. It’s like somehow above the low din of conversation and laughter they can pick out her voice above all the others. Like sheep who know their shepherd they hear and follow her.
If it were only that easy for us. Jesus’ teaching of the good shepherd and the sheep is the entire tenth chapter of John. We get only about a third of it this Sunday, but even in what we have we hear several different metaphors at play for Jesus. He is the gate, the gatekeeper, and the shepherd. There are even more metaphors for him throughout the rest of the chapter. The one to which I am drawn in this section, though, is the one where we are the sheep and he is the shepherd. Maybe I’m just feeling more sheep-like lately. Maybe the fact that sheep are prone to wander hits sort of close to home.
It feels that way in the life of faith sometimes. It feels like I’m just wandering around looking for anything to eat, anything to feed me. I’ll wander a little bit this way, nibbling at this grass, a “Read the Bible in a Year” program, or wander a little bit that way, trying out a patch of the “Write your prayers to God for 40 Days” grass. Maybe you do it, too - - nibbling a some of “These Days,” tasting an on-line devotional, munching on volunteering with the food shelf, chewing on teaching Sunday School. Like sheep who wander away while eating, while filling themselves with good and needed food, we, too, can sort of wander around any which way through the fields and pastures of faith. We wander around looking for the right words to pray, the right Scriptures to read, the right deeds to perform. None of which are bad things, but our approach could possibly use some guidance.
Yes the truth about kindergarteners, and people of faith, and even sheep is that we need to be led. On our own we wander. On our own we walk with our heads down looking for the next patch of grass right in front of our noses. On our own we will move farther and farther away from fold of the shepherd even when we have the best of intentions, even when we are looking for good things to eat. On our own we can end up in the middle of a highway, in the dark shadows of death, in the middle of a picked over pasture wondering where in the world all the good grass went.
The truth about sheep is they need a shepherd; we need the shepherd to lead us the way that we should go. We need the shepherd who will call us by name and lead us into green pastures, beside still waters, into and out of pastures that we may have life and have it abundantly. We need the shepherd whose voice makes our ears perk up, our hearts stir, and our feet move in the direction he is calling, because if this abundant life Jesus speaks of is ANYTHING, it's moving. It's active. It's dynamic.
In the second part of his teaching, the part Jesus proclaims after his audience stares at him dumbfounded by the metaphor, Jesus calls himself the gate for the sheep. He is, essentially the doorway into the pen where the sheep are collected. However, what I notice in this teaching is that Jesus recognizes that the sheep don't stay in the pen. The sheep are not gathered up, passed through his gate, and then locked in there away from it all. Instead, the truth about sheep, the truth about us as we strive to follow Jesus, is that we are called into and out of herd.
We are called to gather with one another. We are called to come close together to the church and to Christ, to places of holiness and acts of righteousness, but we are also called to go out. The same shepherd that leads us back to the pen also leads us out into the world, out to the edges, out to the margins of society where acts of justice and mercy are needed. The voice of the shepherd calls us to us, leading by his own example, to minister at the farthest reaches of the landscape. And the voice of the shepherd calls us back to the center of all being, the center of the beloved community, where we find comfort and peace and safety before the next journey.
The difficult part, of course, is listening for and recognizing the shepherd's voice. There is all sorts of noise going on around us. There are authors and speakers and politicians and even pastors clammering for us to listen and follow. There are books and lectures and interviews and sermons calling for us to trust and obey. But there is one voice that should rise above them, there is one call that should turn our heads and pique our interest above all the others. To those who are in places of comfort and stability it is the call to go out - - to follow the shepherd who leads us through the gate and out into pastures, to the edges of pastures, to serve and share his grace. To those who are at the margins, who look up and wonder how in the world we go here, alone, and eating dirt, it is the call to come in - - to find rest and refreshment and nourishment for our bodies and souls.
Called in or called out, we are called to move. We are called by his voice be it the still small voice of prayer or the loud crying voice of those who are suffering, we are called by Jesus and led into life with him. He came that we may have life, and have it abundantly. Listen and follow the voice of the Good Shepherd.