a sermon, based on John 10.11-18, preached with the people of St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church, Spartanburg, SC, Sunday, April 26, 2015
O Lord Jesus, our Good Shepherd, by your Spirit, continue to call us. O Lord Jesus, our Good Shepherd, by your Spirit, continue to find us. O Lord Jesus, our Good Shepherd, by your Spirit, continue to lead us into the Kingdom life of your Father, our God. Amen.
“I am the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.”
I wrestle with sheep. Well, the imagery of sheep. So foreign to my daily existence. I can’t recall the last time I saw sheep. The most recent experience of any kind was this past Christmas Eve at the annual Children’s Pageant at St. Mark’s, Capitol Hill, where I served as rector. Several of the children, in retelling the story of Jesus’ nativity, were dressed as sheep (and, typical of St. Mark’s conscious inclusivity, other animals were represented: a horse, a donkey, some cats and dogs, an alligator, a giraffe, a lion, a rabbit, and a turtle!). But that’s as close as I’ve come recently to sheep.
Yet I when I do think of sheep, as I did in reflecting on our gospel passage, my mind at first gamboled through a mental pastoral setting. Verdant pasture, a flock kept together, watched over by a brave, ever vigilant shepherd, ready to lay down his or her life for the living, breathing, four-legged woolly collection of the family’s wealth. (Regarding the “his or her,” yes, in Jesus’ day the shepherd most likely was a he, but I also recall the reference in that children’s hymn, I sing a song of the saints of God: “…And one was a doctor, and one was a queen, and one was a shepherdess on the green…”)
Traditionally, this image theologically was believed to “work,” to be efficacious, meaningful when it evoked in us wonder, worship of Jesus, the good shepherd, who in his crucifixion laid down his life for us, his sheep. However, this has proven problematic for many post-modernists who existentially refuse to be compared to sheep, not the brightest animals in the world, and more practically reject the notion of needing to be saved, particularly from an original sin they cannot comprehend having originated. (I never shall forget one Sunday years ago, at the close of the liturgy, after the resounding singing of Amazing Grace, one of the older members, a pillar of the parish, Frances, and hardly a post-modernist, coming up to me angrily waving her cane in her hand, saying, “Father, I will never sing that song because, even as old as I am, I wasn’t there ‘in the beginning.’ So, whatever happened in the Garden was not my fault! And I am not a wretch!”)
Still, the thing about sheep that we need to claim is an essential aspect of our humanness. Our need for care. At our unsheep-like best, we can’t do “it” (however defined) all. Even more, at our unsheep-like brightest, we don’t know it all and can’t have all, at times, any answers. Sometimes the only certainty is ambiguity.
This truth of our human beingness alone compels me to listen afresh to Jesus’ message: “I am the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.” In listening with the Spirit-freshened ears of my soul, I hear a bold, radical call to us that all the pleasant Christmas pageantry and traditional interpretations neither can reflect nor obscure.
Jesus’ claim to be the good shepherd, as self-identifying as it is, also is a call to us, a claim on us as followers of Jesus. Jesus, as much as he is talking about himself, is saying something about us; who we are and to whom we belong.
Point is we don’t belong to ourselves. We belong to Jesus and we belong to one another. Verily, our identity derives from our being sheep. A word in the English language for which there is no singular form. Therefore, our truest identity is not in our separateness, but rather in our belonging to a flock, each of us, a person amongst a people. For it is our life in community – each of us surrounded by others, sharing one with another, reflecting back one to another how we are viewed, revealing who we are – that defines most clearly for each of us our individuality.
And thank goodness, thank God, that Jesus, the good shepherd (good, not meaning meek and mild, but rather generously, radically hospitable) defines the community: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold and I must bring them also.”
Left to each of us, even concerning life in community, we, with our very personal, individual perspectives and preferences, doubtless would be tempted (and perhaps, at times, succumb to the temptation) to make our chosen company a society of our peers. Folk who think and feel and act the way we do. Jesus calls as his flock all whom he sees and knows and loves, all for whom he gave his life, all who would come together to sing songs, pray prayers, pass the peace of God, break bread. All!
And all of it so that we might learn the will and live the way of the One who lays his life down for others. All of it so that we, even we, will “know love by this, that as Jesus laid down his life for us, we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (1 John 3.16).
A story is told of a rabbi walking along a road, teaching his disciples who trailed behind him. He turned and asked, “How do you know when darkness has turned to light?” The chief disciple upon whom it was incumbent to render a response, said, “You know that darkness has given way to light when you can look in the distance and see an animal and know whether it is a sheep or a goat.” The rabbi, silent for a moment, said, “No,” and continued walking for a time. Then stopping, turning, the rabbi again asked, “How do you know when darkness has turned to light?” The second disciple whose turn it was to answer, said, “You know that darkness has given way to light when you can look in the distance and see a tree and know whether it is a fig or olive tree.” The rabbi, again silent for a moment, said, “No,” and continued walking again for a time. Then stopping, turning, the rabbi said, “You know when darkness has turned to light when you can look in the distance and see all men, women, and children and behold the faces of ones the Lord has sent you to love. Unless and until you do that, then even at high noon, you still will dwell in darkness.”