Note: This sermon was preached by our seminarian, Ms. Rachel Daley. I am very proud to post it here.
Sheep abound in today’s lectionary readings. I don’t know why sheep should make such a special appearance on Easter 4, but there you have it - sheep at every corner.
Sheep appear first in the much-beloved Psalm 23. These sheep are living the good life -they go in paths where the footing is secure so they will not fall. These sheep eat from ideal pastures; they drink from the best waterholes - quiet and dammed up - where water is abundant and the sheep may satisfy their thirst without haste.
Then sheep in the Gospel reading. Jesus finds himself in yet another dispute with the religious leaders of the day. He won’t answer the questions they plant as traps, because the works Jesus has been doing speak for themselves. Jesus teaches about the sheep who have been given to him by the Father. Jesus’ sheep hear his voice - they recognize him even as he knows each of them by name. They follow Jesus in obedience, and nothing can snatch them out of Jesus’ hand.
The vision recorded in Revelation offers a glimpse of the heavenly worship of the Lamb who is also shepherd. The Lamb is surrounded by a multitude who have been washed in the blood of the Lamb so that their robes are now white. They wave palm branches and - with the elders and the four living creatures - they sing praise to the Lamb day and night. They no longer hunger or thirst or suffer under the heat of the sun - for the Lamb they worship is also their shepherd.
The Bible comes to us from a world where sheep and shepherding were commonplace. Sheep were an important economic commodity, and their care was entrusted to shepherds who found food and water and guarded them from prey. That much seems pretty obvious, but I still don’t really know what sheep are like. I don’t know sheep the way you would if your family’s livelihood depended on protecting them from predators and disease.
I do have a small connection - not to sheep, but to goats. For much of my childhood and early adolescence, my family lived in a farming community in rural Iowa. And before they sold it, my best friend lived on a small family farm. Can you imagine the love a pair of nine-year-old girls can have for such a place? The farm meant adventure, room to run, places to hide, contests of strength and endurance, scraped knees, calloused feet, and always enough dirt and foul smells to shock my parents when I returned home.
The farm was my personal petting zoo, with a rotating cast of pets, flocks, and 4-H projects. When a pair of goats arrived, the kids quickly took to naming and befriending them. My friend’s parents, I think, quickly repented of this decision. The goats were always eating, exploring and climbing. The goats were very difficult to keep contained and had a knack for testing and escaping from most enclosures. A favorite goat pastime, we quickly learned, is climbing on top of cars. To this day, any mention of goats will remind me of this pair standing so proudly atop the family station wagon. Not unlike we kids who roamed the farm, the goats were curious and independent.
Sheep, however, are not like goats. Sheep behavior more closely resembles the kind of scene I remember from the middle-school cafeteria. Sheep have a strong flocking instinct, they grow anxious if separated from the group, and they require the presence of at least four or five other sheep to maintain a visual link while grazing. In the case of sheep, flocking is an important survival strategy, because a group of sheep are more likely to detect danger early enough to have time to escape.
I have to be honest though, I don’t really like this sheep thing. I don’t like drawing a comparison between myself and an animal that instinctively follows the animal in front of it. Sheep are notorious for following - they will follow over the edge of a cliff and will follow to the slaughter. Sheep are vulnerable and in need of protection. We might use the word “sheep” to describe someone who is timid or meek, someone who thoughtlessly follows the crowd.
Isn’t sheep-like behavior part of the problem with the world? Too many are unquestioning followers of violent ideologies. Too many stand by silently while the weak and defenseless are trampled. Critics of organized religion say that the sheep metaphor is precisely the problem with Christianity. Christianity’s talk of meekness and mildness enforces social hierarchies, trains a mute and unquestioning following, and has silenced generations of women. We see this in the church abuses and cover-ups that are so often before us in today’s news. Too many have been trained to submit to leaders who were not worthy of their trust. When church policy conspires with male domination and rigid hierarchies to conceal rather than address situations of abuse, we start to wonder if such texts lead us very far astray.
In light of all this we must be clear that when Jesus talks about his sheep, he is not teaching mindless following, not instructing us to unquestioning submission. Jesus is teaching about radical trust and obedience to God. Despite the impression you might get from Sunday School pictures of a soft, fair-skinned Jesus cradling lambs, Jesus was hardly a pushover. I find it hard to imagine that anyone would have accused him of being sheepish. Jesus speaks about sheep as a metaphor, his real concern is the obedience of those who belong to him. The point is not the meekness of the sheep, but that they are trained to hear and respond to the voice of their shepherd. Jesus uses two verbs to describe his sheep: hear and follow. “My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me” Jesus says.
The sheep hear Jesus’ voice and they recognize who he is. The abuses of power remind us how important it is to follow a shepherd who is good and trustworthy. When the sheep hear Jesus’ voice, they know that he is the one who will lead them safely and will allow no harm to come to them. Obedience is automatic; with this shepherd you are secure and well-tended. For the people who have already been delivered by the power of this shepherd, there is nothing left but obedience.
The sheep hear and follow. Some tell Jesus, “If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus doesn’t really answer, because words will not evoke faith in those who have hardened their hearts. There is something mysterious and irreducible about faith; something that goes before explanation or understanding or decision. In Jesus’ words there is a sense that you are placed in Christ’s hand and on the path of obedience before you are quite sure what has happened. Belonging to this flock isn’t about your choice, but God’s ownership of you.
I like the idea of having the shepherd, but I wish I didn’t have to be the sheep. When it comes down to it, obedience to God runs counter to my instincts. I don’t believe that Jesus is telling us to be docile and passive, but I still don’t like being told where to go - even if by the Good Shepherd. I don’t think I’m the only one in this predicament. The shepherd image speaks to some of the things we most desire - like belonging and love and protection - like safety and being at peace with ourselves and with God. But then the sheep image speaks to some of the things we are most reluctant to surrender - like independence and pride and self-sufficiency. I would like to reserve the right to opt for the path that goes around the darkest valley, for example. That guiding staff is also a bit of a sore subject. Of course I need that gentle nudging to get back on the path. I could be wondering away from the rest of the flock or stubbornly headed toward danger. Maybe if I were a parent I would better understand how discipline and correction are really about love; maybe in time we can learn how much we need the love that we don’t always like.
Like many of us, I’m pretty attached to the myth that I can basically take care of myself and supply all of my own needs. This is strange, isn’t it? It’s strange that I would turn down God’s security, the protection and love of the Good Shepherd, for a glimmer of security - which is really just the illusion of security - when I am free to govern my affairs as I please. Though Jesus teaches that his sheep respond with automatic obedience; it seems that the surrender can be long, and that our wills are like beasts that will not be tamed, or like children who will not heed the voice that speaks out for their well-being.
Maybe that is why Psalm 23 is a song of trust that emerges, not in a moment of effusive piety, but in the wake of deliverance from a very real danger. Those words, “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want” remind us of the trust and innocence of children, but I think this Psalm comes from a heart much older and wiser. It is not the blissful unconcern of youth, but a spirit that has been chastened by bitter experiences and continues to find communion with God. This singer is peaceful and childlike even in the face of danger. There is a wisdom that has learned that the staff is a comfort; knows that God’s guidance leads in right paths - through the paths that lead to salvation. Obedience is a gift. It comes not all at once, but slowly and often painfully. It comes as we know the power of God’s deliverance, the saving help that comes in the valley of shadow and darkness.
The Psalm begins on a hillside, and it ends in the house of the LORD. This is where God acts as a host, setting the table. In this sanctuary the people enjoy the goodness and the presence of God; their heads are anointed with oil. God’s saving help leads to the temple and to the table, because these are the places where God has revealed God’s saving power. Worship teaches us the trust of the Psalmist, the very fact of your presence trains you in obedience. This worship prepares us for the heavenly worship of the great multitude who, robed in white and holding branches, stands before the throne and the Lamb. This is a peculiar scene. But if we really desire the peace of sheep with their shepherd - not just the peace of being free from danger - but the peace of obedient communion with God - this vision is a hope and a promise. Those among the multitude are pure and bright, they celebrate the shepherd who has brought them safety and victory, and in obedience they direct their cries only to Christ.
To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.