Shepherds and sheep 042912
Ezekiel 34:1-7, 15-16 and John 10:11-18
It’s still the Easter season in the church; as John said the Sunday after Easter: this resurrection story is too big for just one day. So we’ve had resurrection appearance stories since. Till today. For some reason the tradition of the church has become to put the shepherding texts in at this time of year. What’s with that? I’m hoping we might get to that as we look at these texts.
Whatever year or date this image of shepherding shows up in our readings, it always centers around John 10, around Jesus’ claim to be the Good Shepherd. The whole chapter is about a sheep and shepherding culture, less familiar to us today than for many, unless you live and watch what happens at the farm on the corner of Ayrault and Turk Hill!
It’s a lovely metaphor, this pastoral image of shepherd and sheep, much beloved by all who know psalm 23 by heart.
But it’s a disturbing metaphor. It would have been for the early Christians, many of whom came out of Judaism and were struggling to figure out what it meant to include non-Jews, Gentiles, pagans, in this new community of Jesus followers.
Disturbing because they knew their scriptures. They knew texts like the Ezekiel bit we read, or like others in Jeremiah. They knew that GOD is the shepherd, and that humans entrusted with the care of God’s people had failed miserably.
(You have NOT searched for the lost, fed the hungry, tended the lambs etc.)
So when John suggests that Jesus said “I am the good shepherd”, the response might be, wait a minute Jesus. Only God is our shepherd.
“I and the father are one” he replies
Gasp. You’re saying you are intimately part of the divine?
It would have been mind blowing
In fact, if we’d read on we’d have seen that this kind of talk really caused division; no wonder. It’s subversive, and raises all sorts of questions, like
Who really is our shepherd? Really.
Who are the sheep, especially all the “other” sheep?
Who are the hired hands?
I don’t much like asking, let alone answering, these questions. I’d much rather hunker down in the cozy sheepfold of psalm 23, and draw a safe wall around me.
Yes, it’s a disturbing text. But if I’m going to struggle with it, you know I’m not going down that road alone…..I’m taking you with me, so here goes.
Who really is our shepherd? Really. Who ‘owns’ us? On whom do we depend for nurture and nourishment—not just in the safety of Sunday morning, but to whom do we entrust ourselves day by day, as we leave the house each morning
as we wander and work in a difficult, sometimes dangerous world
as we return home and snuggle down safely at night?
IS God our REAL shepherd? Really?
Who are the sheep, especially all the “other” sheep?
In Jesus’ day, as he talked with the religious leaders called the Pharisees, this would have been doubly disturbing. First, he’s implying they are like the leaders of Ezekiel’s day, who’d failed in their shepherding job AND he is casting doubt on the exclusive claim of the Jews to be God’s people.
Then by John’s day, this saying would encourage and affirm all those who had been brought in from those ‘outsiders’ but still disturb those who were ‘in’—if we let them in, who’s next? And what will happen to our privileged position with God? Mindblowing
By our day?…..
I read a story this week about 2 people discussing a third who often goes out of his way to help people: “Joe is the best Muslim I know, “ said Mohammed, much to my surprise. “But Joe is a Catholic,” I replied. “The definition of a Muslim,” Mohammed calmly said, “is to be submissive to God, and I don’t know anyone more submissive to God than Joe.”
Who’s the shepherd? Who’s the sheep?
Perhaps we must revert a moment back to who is the shepherd, for Jesus says these other sheep in other folds will be brought in by him, and learn to hear his voice.
Like the witnesses we talked about last week, we might remember that it’s the shepherd’s job to bring them in; it’s the shepherd’s voice they will hear. I am afraid that too often, ‘other sheep’ simply hear the bleating of us churchy sheep, and not the voice of the Shepherd.
On with the disturbing questions: Who are the hired hands?
Well. As a pastor, this is a tough one. But it will be just as challenging for all who considers themselves any kind of faithful leader in the church. Do we see things through, or quit at the first sign of trouble? Do we work to tend the sheep like the shepherd, or run off when things don’t go our way?
The contrast Jesus makes is not about being paid to do the work, but about ownership of the flock….and ownership is about relationship. Earlier Jesus says that the sheep hear his voice and follow him; he knows them, they know him. Is that our kind of flock?
Whose flock/church is it? It’s not mine. It’s not yours. It’s not even ours. This has implications for how we live as flock, how we follow as disciples, how we trust as dependents. Which brings us back to the question
Who are the sheep? Who are we as flock? How do we live and trust and depend and follow the shepherd?
Notice I’m using we language. In these texts the word “sheep” is always plural.
It is common in our linear thinking since the Enlightenment to emphasize
individuality, it’s all about me and my needs and my goals,
which leads us to assume
scarcity – there’s only so much to go around so I have to get what I can for my self and my family
which leads us to practice
competition and rivalry – for resources, in sports and games, at work, politically
which leads us to believe in
exclusivity—who’s in/out in cliques and teams and gangs and churches and neighborhoods and races; who’s going up/going down in religion
Shepherding and flock language biblically blows that thinking right out of the water.
We are NOT firstly rugged individuals, personal believers, or ‘me’ achievers.
We are FIRST a community of faith, which can and does resource and become a means of grace for individuals.
You might think that’s not very controversial—but it’s really not how we or our society lives. If you doubt me, pay attention for a week or so about your language, or others’ language just about this church, for example. I hear talk about whether it meets my needs, or you tell staff or leaders, ‘you’ need to do such and so, or “I want”
Many of us see church as an institution designed to serve me, or my children, or my aging granny, or my wedding or funeral needs.
But if we’re a flock first, it’s our ‘sheep-ness’ (I made that up) together, and our shepherd that make those things possible.
The FLOCK follows the shepherd
The FLOCK hears his voice
The FLOCK provide milk and cheese to feed the world, and wool to clothe those in need
It’s the FLOCK’s behavior that reflects who they follow and who is attracted to this shepherd.
Obviously, like any image or metaphor, one can only go so far. Jesus even got bogged down in the image in this one chapter, and later he uses the image quite differently when he tells Peter, and us, to become shepherds who are like him: feed my sheep, tend my lambs. Whoever the good shepherd ministers to is who shepherds-in-training, disciples, us, must tend. But that’s another text, another sermon.
So, let’s come full circle and see if we’ve figured out why this Shepherd stuff comes up in the Easter season…..let me share this from something I read this week:
If Jesus wasn’t the good shepherd, he wouldn’t have hung around to heal, reconcile and commission a community of failures into an ecclesia. (turn sheep into a flock) He would have headed straight for heaven like so many of his followers today seem hell bent on doing….not the good shepherd though….the good shepherd picks up loving and caring, cajoling and commissioning just where he left off before they strung him up and left him for dead….It’s the kind of shepherd who won’t go home to rest until he knows all the flock have entered into their rest. A shepherd, who even when dead tired or just plain dead, gets up and continues seeking and calling until all the sheep are home. Peter Woods, I Am Listening, 2012
The shepherd has come to bring life, and doesn’t let death forces get in the way…come to shepherd us ‘beyond our wants, beyond our fears, from death into life’ (anthem)
Thanks be to God. Amen.