May 12, 2019, Sheep IQ (John 10:11-30) – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000135
Years ago, we had a flock of sheep. At one time or another, we had pigs and goats and rabbits and chickens and ducks and horses and a pony, but among all the farm animals, the sheep were probably my favorites. We started with five little lambs we called the Calamities, because they were orphans. They lived in a box by the wood stove in our warm kitchen and they drank their milk out of baby bottles until they were old enough to live in the barn. Eventually we had 15 or 20 sheep, and when we’d go into the barn in winter it was like being attacked by very large, very loud pillows, all crowding around to be fed. And in the summer we would have to check them out in the pasture regularly because if they get stuck on their backs they sometimes can’t get back up, and they can die. Sheep do need some looking after.
But I love sheep, and I have always found it annoying when people give “Good Shepherd” sermons that go on and on about how stupid sheep are. I can’t count how many times I have heard it pointed out that the reason Jesus used sheep and shepherd parables is because we are just like sheep – completely helpless, and really stupid.
Now, I can’t argue with the claim that we human beings are pretty helpless creatures and that very often we don’t always act like the brightest animals on the planet, but I don’t think those sermons are being quite fair to the sheep. Because in this passage about the Good Shepherd, Jesus is not talking about how stupid sheep are at all. He is talking about how wise they are.
Jesus began to teach about being the Good Shepherd right after the big blowup he had with the Jewish authorities when he healed a man who had been born blind. It’s pretty much always helpful to know the wider context when you read something in the Bible. In this case, the healing of the blind man was the occasion of a big confrontation with the Jewish leaders; first of all because the healing happened on the Sabbath. Working on the Sabbath was against Jewish law; therefore, any work done on the Sabbath – even healing – could not be pleasing to God – or so it seemed to them. They couldn’t deny that the man, who had been blind from birth, had been given his sight, because his parents were right there to confirm all the facts. But what they could and did deny is that Jesus’s power came from God. He broke the law, therefore he was a sinner, and God doesn’t listen to sinners. But the formerly blind man just replied, well, I don’t know anything about that, but I do know this – I was blind, and now I’m not. And it was that man you’re calling a sinner that did it.
And right then Jesus starts talking to the people about shepherds and the sheep. Look, Jesus says, there are shepherds, and then there are shepherds. The real shepherd, the shepherd who has authority, he’s the rightful owner of the sheep and he enters the fold by the proper gate. He belongs. The others, the false shepherds, sneak in any way they can: they climb over the fence, they squeeze in through a gap in the hedge. Once they’re in they might look like the shepherd to someone passing by, but if there’s anybody that can’t be fooled, it’s the sheep.
Sheep aren’t stupid, Jesus says. They know a stranger when they hear his voice, and there’s no way they’re going to follow a stranger. If a stranger calls they’ll just run away from him. They won’t follow anybody but the real shepherd. The Good Shepherd knows his sheep, and he guards them with his life. The sheep know his voice, they recognize his voice out of all the other voices, and they listen to him.
All through the gospels, when Jesus speaks, people come crowding around, like hungry sheep – sometimes so many that they’re in danger of trampling each other. When the woman with a hemorrhage touches Jesus, and Jesus asks, “Who touched me?” Peter says, “Are you kidding? Look at this mob? How can you ask who touched you?” And when Jesus looks out over the crowds, his heart goes out to them, Matthew tells us, because they look so harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
And when Jesus opens his mouth to speak to these helpless masses of people, when they hear his voice, suddenly they’re astonished by what they hear, because it’s not like any other voice they had ever heard. The Scribes know what they’re talking about, but this man doesn’t teach like a scholar. He speaks like these words belong to him. His voice has an authority like no other voice they’ve ever heard. People come out by the thousands just to hear it. They’ve never heard of this man, they’ve only heard the rumors going around, but they recognize his voice as soon as they hear it, and they follow him. Lazarus, dead Lazarus, even hears that voice from the tomb, and even he obeys it, coming out of the grave still wrapped in his grave clothes. Because when Jesus speaks, people listen.
Every other voice, every human authority that rises up and calls the people to follow – they’re all out to get something from them. They’re just hacks, hired hands out for a paycheck. Political leaders need followers to support their ideas. Military leaders need bodies to put in harm’s way. Religious leaders need people who will believe what they’re told to believe, who will do things the way they are taught things ought to be done. But to their followers it’s always pretty much the same in the end. To follow a false shepherd, is to get lost – to lose your freedom or your individuality or your integrity or maybe your very life.
The Good Shepherd’s voice is the only one that isn’t trying to get something from the sheep. “I come,” Jesus says, “that they may have life and have it abundantly.” He doesn’t come to get anything. He comes to find us. He comes to give everything he has for the sake of his sheep, for those multitudes, the poor and the sick, the lame and the blind, children and widows, sinners and criminals, all those people that come crowding out to hear his voice, to feel his touch, to be in his presence.
And the astounding thing, the crucial thing, the very central thing, is that Jesus doesn’t give his life as a tragic but helpless victim. He says, “I have the authority to lay down my life, and I have the authority to take it up again” There is a book by Max Lucado whose title says it all: He Chose the Nails. It is by choice, by authority, that Jesus becomes a man – a homeless man at that – and walks the earth, and suffers everything that goes along with being a human being, and ends up on the cross. It all has to do with love. “Greater love has no man than this,” Jesus says at another time, “that he lay down his life for his friends.” It’s the authority of love that people recognize when they hear Jesus’ voice.
People are definitely a lot like sheep. They can be deceived, and they wander off to places they ought not to go, and they do foolish things they ought not to do, but from the moment we are born we are all listening for the voice of the Good Shepherd. It seems appropriate today that we celebrate Mother’s Day and Good Shepherd Sunday on the same day today, because for most of us the first time we began to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd was in the unconditional love of our mothers – or other people God put into our lives to mother us – a good neighbor, a big sister, a dedicated teacher – the people who made sure we knew there was someone who knew us by name, that there was someone who loved us no matter what, there was always someone who was there for us. No mother ever loved perfectly; there is no human being who was ever there for us without fail, without disappointing us at some point. As a mother I can say that with some authority. But in their imperfect human love we learned to recognize and long for the perfect love of the Shepherd.
We live in a cynical world, which is to say a world that has in large part given up on faith and hope and love, because so much of the time people hear the voice of greed instead of generosity, the voice of contempt instead of pity, the voice of mockery instead of compassion. But whenever people serve others as our Shepherd served us, when they offer themselves in love, giving rather than taking, serving rather than being served, then they help to make the voice of the Good Shepherd heard in a world full of people that are desperately listening for it.
At one time or another, we have, and we will, wander off and get ourselves hopelessly lost. We sheep are foolish. We get lost in the demands of our career or our family, we wander off into addictions or obsessions, we find ourselves in the darkness of depression or dementia. But we have the promise of the Good Shepherd that no matter where we are he will leave the rest and he will come out and find us and he will call us by name. And no matter where we are, we will hear him. Because we sheep are foolish. But we’re not stupid – his sheep always know his voice.
So I’d like to close by praying together the prayer of King David, who was chosen by God when he was a young shepherd tending his sheep. (bcp p. 612)
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want
He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters
He revives my soul and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake.
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil;
for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me;
you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over.
Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.