I just wanna be a sheep _____________. So you were paying attention to the children’s message today! Though did you know that sheep are generally not considered the brightest of livestock. In fact, sheep are quite vulnerable without a shepherd. Like our scriptures today notes, they are vulnerable to predators like wolves and thieves. They are vulnerable to themselves, notorious to wandering from the flock. Which is why some people are quite uncomfortable with language that refers to humans as sheep. They don’t want to be associated with an animal that is deemed, weak. However, this morning on the 4th Sunday of Easter we celebrate Sheep or Shepherding Sunday; our readings point to just two of the many passages in scripture referring to sheep/shepherd language. And if Jesus himself calls us his sheep, then there has to be viable reason for this metaphor.
Often times we think about these passages and seek to find comfort in them, the idyllic scenes of lush green pastures, gently rolling hillsides, crystalline blue streams, and a strong shepherd carrying a lamb over his shoulders. But the truth of the matter is that shepherding life is not so beautiful and iconic. The just outside of Jerusalem, is a rocky and hilly area, few trees dotting the landscape and varied shades of brown pastures surpass hews of green. The shepherds live a nomadic lifestyle with daily risks of predators, safety, and food insecurity.
The journey for sheep and their shepherds can be rough. However, it is a normal part of a sheep’s life to have to journey through these dangerous and sometimes painful places in the process of getting from grazing pasture to pasture. Yet, shepherds transform the wilderness into security and safety for the sheep, guiding them around danger to green grass and cool waters. As the sheep are prone to wander, the shepherds will guide them back, calling them from behind, herding them back to safety. In biblical times, they would use the rod and the staff as tools for this task.
For Jesus, the image of the shepherd and the sheep was about the relationship and the bond they had for one another. You see, there is a deep bond between the shepherd and the flock. One that goes beyond safety and food, one of deep trust. Barbara Brown Taylor noted in a sermon that “Sheep seem to consider their shepherds as part of the family, and the relationship that grows up between the two is quite exclusive.” It is true, that sheep know the voice of their shepherd, and will follow that voice, but none other. For Jesus to be the Good Shepherd, he embodies strength, power, empathy, kindness, and mercy. This relationship between Christ as the Good Shepherd and his flock, is one built on obedience, trust, and mutual love. What Jesus does for his sheep, for his people, is an extension of his love and devotion to God, no matter the danger that is present.
So perhaps us being called sheep is apropos. Jesus yearns for us to listen to only his voice, to follow only him. But in reality, we are much more accustomed to being shepherds in control than sheep in need of leadership. However, when it comes to our relationship with God, Jesus understands our human tendencies, better than, perhaps we understand ourselves. When it comes to our faith, we are very much like sheep in need of a shepherd. Like sheep, we have the tendency to follow. Like sheep, we are often confused by the cacophony of voices calling out to us, often mistaking the Good Shepherd’s true leadership with the kind offered by hired hands (or shepherds who are in it for the wrong reason). Like sheep, we are endangered by those who prey on our vulnerability. Like sheep, we are perhaps most vulnerable to ourselves and our tendency to wander away from the care of the shepherd and the safety of the flock. For we live in wildernesses, we put ourselves in the way of danger. We wander through life as though we are indestructible, when in truth we are not. We may live as recklessly as sheep, overextending our resources. We certainly need a Good Shepherd, like Jesus, who is willing to care for, to lead us, and who will sacrifice for us.[i] The good news is that our Good Shepherd, Christ, is guiding us, leading us, not from in front, like the pied piper, but rather from behind, moving us gently along, protecting us from ourselves as well as danger. We often are oblivious of Christ’s presence with us, we aren’t able to hear his calling.
Yet it is in this gathering--this community where we best hear the voice of the shepherd. But not unlike that early community that John is addressing, we still struggle to discern the voice of Jesus among the many competing voices trying to get our attention. And our hearing is also afflicted by our own intended and unintended actions that muffle or block the voice of the Shepherd. Sometimes we allow these voices to become the center our lives such that the voice of the Shepherd becomes faint and distant and we begin to lose our way. Sometimes these voices can be deafening, attempting to take advantage of our vulnerability and separate us from the flock. The voices of bitterness, criticism, hate, prejudice, exclusivism, rejection, envy, addiction–just to name a few…drown out the voice of the Shepherd. The reality is we will always be confronted by these competing voices. They are a part of our humanity.
Which is the challenge for the church today. It is the same as it was in the time of John and every time since—to be community in and for one another with the cross at the center and our ears tuned to the Shepherd. In community, together we listen to the competing voices, we discern, we listen again until we hear and know the voice of the Shepherd. The only way to do that is to be here with one another and be in the presence of Christ and recognize the presence of Christ in one another. The Good Shepherd who calls us together and attends to each and everyone of us. In community the voice of the Shepherd is amplified and is clarified. In community we are best able to genuinely critique ourselves, thus, assuring we hear the voice of the Shepherd and the voice we follow, is that of the Shepherd.
Henri Nouwen said, “The basis of the Christian community is not family ties, social or economic equality, shared oppression or complaint or mutual attraction. The basis is our divine call—something we hear together.” And it is together centered around the voice of the shepherd that we can once again resonate with the voice that calls us, asks for our attention, our commitment, our faithfulness and our trust. This Christian community is not a closed flock nor can it be like-minded in the way of a safe and cozy clique that narrows the community and the sense of community. We must always be able to create space for others so that they also may become one of the flock and add to our fullness in hearing the voice of the Shepherd. Trusting in the Shepherd who stands guard against the worst the world can do-- we are empowered to be the community, --the flock that points beyond itself to the one who calls us by name.
The challenge that our scripture lays upon us this week, is asking ourselves if we are willing to be sheep, to be led by the Good Shepherd, to help one another hear his voice and to welcome others into the flock ?
Because the truth is we will never be as good as or even come close to being the shepherd that Christ is. So instead, we need to decide if we are willing to follow the Good Shepherd, to be led by him to pastures and places unknown. Will we choose to learn his voice and follow his commands to love and serve him? Will we welcome others into Christ’s fold. May our response to the call from our Good Shepherd be, “I pray the Lord my soul to keep, I just wanna be a sheep.” And may is be so. Amen.