Posted by: dacalu | 13 May 2019

Shepherds and Sheep

Today I worshiped with the people of Trinity Episcopal Church, Seattle.

 

Prayer for Good Shepherd Sunday

O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

 

Readings

Acts 9:36-43 (Peter raises Tabitha from the dead)

Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd”)

Revelation 7:9-17 (“for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd”)

John 10:22-30 (“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”)

 

Sermon


Today is Good Shepherd Sunday, the fourth Sunday in Easter.
We get sheep and shepherds in three of today’s readings, all familiar.
	Psalm 23: The Lord is my shepherd
	Revelation 7: The Lamb will be their shepherd
	John 10: My sheep know my voice
Christians are often compared to sheep.
	Raise your hands if you like being compared to sheep.
	It’s a powerful image, but one I worry about on occasion.
	How many of you see sheep on a daily basis?
	I see them approximately once a year, out the window of a car.
This suggests a certain amount of caution.
I spent this week thinking about what it means to be a sheep,
	and whether this is something I want to be.

Spoilers are a bad thing when talking about movies, 
but rather useful when talking about scripture.
So, let me tell you where I’m going.
I’ve decided that sheep have some wonderful qualities,
	and some awful qualities,
	and some sort of scary qualities.
I’m signing up part time.
God has called me to be sort of sheep-like,
	but also to be sort of shepherd-like,
	not in some fancy collared way.
No, I think all Christians are called 
to feed the sheep, to gather the lost, and to lead the way.

When I looked at all the passages about sheep in the Bible,
	I saw something strange and slightly subversive.
Sheep are common, social, docile, and poor.
	Shepherds signal the lowly 
in stories of King David and of Jesus’ birth.
Most of the sheep in the bible get sacrificed or eaten.
	Usually both.
Five New Testament books refer to Jesus as a shepherd:
	Matthew, John, Hebrews, I Peter, and Revelation.
	Four of five introduce him first as the Lamb of God.
	Only in Matthew is he not a sheep before he is a shepherd.
Let’s take a closer look at sheep.
 
Sheep, Ovis aries, are popular farm animals.
	Current estimates suggest there are around a billion sheep in the world.
Sheep are calm, social, and recognize both other sheep and humans as leaders.
	Unlike closely related species they do not defend their territory,
		making them easier to herd.
	They default to group behavior, but can recognizing threats
		and move on their own.
	Overall, these seem like good qualities.
Sheep tend to focus on eating and avoiding danger,
	much like humans.
Sheep can recognize voices and faces for both sheep and humans.
	They really do know shepherds,
	at least after spending time together.
I’d like to emphasize that last point.
Sheep develop relationships with humans.
Those relationships take time.

Turning to today’s Gospel, John 10 troubles me.
First of all, we have this word “Jews.”
	“The Jews gathered around him” “in the portico of Solomon”
		a covered walk in the outer court of the Temple.
	Scholars suggest that this means people generically,
		the natives of Judea, including Jesus’ followers.
	Or it could refer to leaders in the Judean establishment, 
the Sadducees who ran the Temple.
	It could even be an attempt by later authors to discredit
		a rival faction.
	In any case, it does not line up the modern word.
Local leaders argued with him in public.
They asked what seems to me a reasonable question:
“Are you the Messiah?”

Here we come to my second trouble,
	the one having to do with sheep.
“Jesus answered, ‘I have told you, and you do not believe. 
The works that I do in my Father's name testify to me; 
but you do not believe, 
because you do not belong to my sheep. 
My sheep hear my voice. 
I know them, and they follow me.”
 
In the past, I heard this unconsciously through a Calvinist lens,
	in terms of predestination.
Some sheep are simply good from birth.
	God’s voice was imprinted on their souls.
Some sheep are bad from birth,
	and incapable of hearing the good news.
	Too bad for them.
This, especially when paired with a poor understanding of the word “Jews”
	has led many Christians to think of Jews as
	inherently and irredeemably evil.
This is really, really bad.
I’m happy to argue about predestination.
	Sometimes I’m for and sometimes against.
	A careful reading of John Calvin will reveal that
		disregard for other humans is just wrong.
I don’t think John is talking about predestination, though.
I think he’s talking about sheep.

Sheep do not instinctively recognize shepherds,
	they grow to love them.
Sheep discover that the shepherd
	leads them to food, water, and safety.
Sheep learn, often with other sheep around them,
	that life as a flock is a good thing.


I do not doubt that we hear God’s voice.
	I have heard it for as long as I can remember.
But, hearing is one thing, recognition another.
	Trust requires even more.
	It takes time and commitment.
Staying in a flock takes work.
	I’ll nod to John Calvin and say this:
		I do not know who does this work.
		Maybe the sheep, maybe the shepherd.
		Maybe some of both.
	However it happens, the sheep learn to trust the shepherd.
		They learn what the shepherd says and what she means.
		They learn her voice and her vocabulary.s
So, when the people ask, “Are you the Messiah?”
Jesus has to say this.
	I said I was the good shepherd.
	I said I would give you real food and water
and find you when you’re lost.
	I said I would open a gate.
	I said I’d lay down my life.
If Messiah means something else,
	then we’re not communicating.
Healing the sick and lifting up the lowly
while refusing political power…
that’s what a Savior does.
Becoming a sacrificial lamb, making atonement,
	opening a gate between heaven and earth…
	that’s God at work.
Without that link between the word and the reality,
	conversation fails.
Demonstration was necessary.
Life together was necessary.
God did that.

We should probably use different words today.
	Few of you have extensive experience with sheep.
	Fewer, if any, have experience with Temple sacrifice.
	This is a good thing,
		but it means we can miss out on the significance
		of the image.

So I might say that Jesus committed to living with us,
		even when we were unbearable.
	He made himself subject to our wants and whims
		in order to communicate.
	He was humble and honest.
	He gave without taking,
		listened without interrupting.
took on our burdens without adding to them.
How many leaders can say the same?
How many shepherds actually live with their sheep
	and lay down their lives for them.
Jesus is the good shepherd, 
because he is also an ideal sheep.
He saved humanity, by being human.

It’s not an abstraction.
	It’s life and death, food and water, predator and prey.
	It’s real sacrifice.
And we understand it by living it,
	together.
 
The big, theological words can be helpful.
	Most days, you’ll find me rattling off 
pentasyllabic nomenclature.
	It’s a weakness.
And there is a time and place.
Words like predestination, atonement, soteriology, and ecclesiology –
they get us in trouble on occasion,
but we can usually work our way out.
Few of us pretend that pecuniary substitution or homoousias
	are easy concepts.
The big words save us from the over-confidence.
It’s the little words that get us into trouble.

Little words like ‘mother.’
	Mother’s Day is a secular holiday.
	‘Mother’ means something to me
		because of remarkable mothers in my life.
	My mother and grandmother have been examples to me
		of faith, hope, and love.
	Unofficial grandmothers – Ethel and Jane –
showed me how to listen, comfort, nurture, and lead.
	My friends Sharon and Patricia and Bill and David
and Empress Elephant (her kids know who she is)
		taught me more about mothering than I could possibly say.
	Some of them bore children; others did not.
		All of them raised children, officially or unofficially.
		All of them created and nurtured.
If Mother’s Day were simply about female parents,
		it wouldn’t really interest me.
Some do that well; others poorly.
Some have the chance; others do not.
But this amazing process of nurturing, comforting, teaching, sacrificing,
	strengthening, supporting, and letting go…
I could never explain it, but I recognize it.
	I trust it.
It warrants a holiday.
As you celebrate Mother’s Day, if you celebrate Mother’s Day,
	I hope you’ll think about this important, dangerous, wonderful
		little word
		and what it might mean
	and I hope you’ll remember all the mothers in your life.
 
Another little word trips us up: ‘love.’
Few words have caused so much trouble.
	It can mean lust or affection or desire or pity.
	For many it means reciprocity.
And so, when we say that God is love,
	people misunderstand.
They hear the word ‘love’
	but do they recognize it?
	Do they trust it?

Christianity, for me, is deeply wrapped up in community.
	It requires flocks of real people,
		calm, social, 
consistent, but capable of change
not territorial, but aware of dangers.
	It requires individuals who help one another
		find food, water, and safety.
	It requires real leadership,
		but that leadership has a very special character.
It starts with a shepherd who laid down his life for his sheep,
	a God who lived with his worshipers.
It continues with those who
	give without taking,
	listen without interrupting,
take on burdens without adding to them.
Not always, but once in a while.
It continues with communication, forgiveness, and trust,
	each of which, when we understand them
	requires genuine sacrifice.

We have all been called to be shepherds, and mothers, and priests.
Not always, but once in a while.
If you’re like me, it happens a more frequently
	than you would like.
I am a sheep, after all.
But my shepherd calls.
That is the best possible meaning of love
		and the best possible meaning of Christian.

I believe that all who recognize his voice 
will hear him say:
	“Feed my sheep.”

 

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