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Sunday, May 3, 2020 | 11:00 a.m.
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Every time I hear Jesus using shepherd language, I immediately mentally flash to a lovely stained-glass window I grew up observing as my father would preach. It was a large tall window on the side of the sanctuary, and in it Jesus is pictured as the Good Shepherd (First Presbyterian Church, Waco, Texas, www.firstpreswaco.org). Through the artistry of the stained glass, we see Jesus wearing flowing jewel-toned robes, his long brown hair pushed back, a small beard somehow incredibly well-manicured, standing while surrounded by a flock of innocent-looking, fluffy white sheep, most of them with their little faces pointed up as if he is speaking to them.
The smallest and weakest lamb is placed on his shoulders, around his neck, positioned carefully so that its nose and Jesus’ nose are close enough to share the same air. In the window, Jesus looks peaceful. And if one can project human emotion onto sheep, the sheep appear blissful like they know they are safer at that moment than they have ever been before. It is a lovely image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd surrounded by his flock.
But other than seeing those kinds of stained-glass windows my entire church life, I have not had a great deal of other positive experience with sheep. When my children were small, we always encountered them at Texas petting zoos, where everything was smelly and messy. The sheep my children would end up petting (much to my chagrin) never looked like those sheep in the stained-glass window. They were not blissful-looking, fluffy, lovely little sheep. They were always dirty, with spots of matted wool dotting their backs. They did not look into our eyes longingly for safety but rather used their determined noses to pry your hands open in order to get more of the feed before they moved on to their next snack.
Except for one trip to Scotland, that has been my experience with sheep, and because of those rather grimy experiences, I never quite clicked with Jesus’ imagery in this text. I know we are supposed to be the flock of sheep, but frankly something gets lost in the translation from more than 2,000 years ago in Palestine to today in Chicago. Who wants to be a bunch of grimy sheep?
Yet after I logged on to some agricultural colleges’ websites and did a bit of research, I found my sheep prejudice beginning to fade. Apparently although sheep are indeed grimier in real life than they appear in stained-glass windows, they possess some traits I rather admire. Now some of you might already know this, but please bear with me.
First, I discovered that sheep, unlike cows, refuse to be pushed around. While cows may respond to being pushed from behind, sheep much prefer to be led. A man who grew up on a Midwestern sheep farm reported to his preacher that sheep will not go anywhere that someone else does not go first. They insist by their behavior that their shepherd go ahead of them to demonstrate that the path or the pasture is safe. That is pretty smart sheep behavior, if you ask me.
Furthermore, that is behavior with which we might identify. We all want someone who will show us the way, don’t we? We all want someone who will walk before us, reassuring us as we follow that everything will be OK. We all want someone who will demonstrate by example that we have nothing to fear on the road ahead, even when it seems cloaked in darkness and mystery.
Frankly, that desire to be led and told what to do is one of my biggest challenges in this time of COVID-19. As I seek to help the leadership of this congregation make difficult decisions about our communal life together, I often wish we had a detailed guaranteed forecast of exactly how the next six to twelve to eighteen months will absolutely play out. Yet that does not seem to exist, not for any of us. Rather, all of us are simply having to make the best decisions we can with the information we have at the time. But back to the sheep.
The second thing I discovered is that not only do sheep prefer to be led by their shepherd, but they also grow very connected with their leader, as well. The Midwestern shepherd claimed it never ceased to amaze him that he could walk through his sleeping flock without ever having one of them raise a head in alarm. But a stranger? Well, a stranger could not take even one step into their sheepfold without causing pure pandemonium. A single step by a stranger sent the sheep into chaos (Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Voice of the Shepherd,” The Preaching Life). They instinctively know the difference between their good shepherd and someone who could be intent on harm. Something within the sheep knows when an intruder invades, and in response, they refuse to follow. They refuse to follow the voice of the one who does not know them. Instead, the sheep will all scatter about.
Sheep seem to consider the shepherd to be not just their leader but a part of their sheep family, if you will. The shepherd and the sheep even develop a language of their own. Like a parent of a newborn child, the attentive shepherd learns to recognize the difference between a bleat of pain and a bleat of pleasure (Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life). By listening to the sheep’s cry, the shepherd figures out what it needs.
And that recognition goes both ways. If the sheep are gathered around a watering hole, the shepherd can give his signal and the sheep know it is time to go home. It doesn’t matter if flocks are all mixed up together and an outsider would never be able to tell which sheep belong to what shepherd. As soon as the shepherd plays or makes his shepherd’s call, the sheep of his fold recognize the shepherd is calling them home, and they immediately begin to follow. Therefore, with all of this in mind, I suppose one could be likened to worse things than a canny, intuitive, albeit still grimy sheep.
But the clincher for me, though, the part of Jesus’ teaching that makes me throw my heart and arms wide open to being compared to a sheep, is verse 3: “The shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.” What a powerful image. The shepherd walks into the midst of the flock, knows each sheep by name, calls it out, walks ahead, and waits for each one of them to follow. With his “figure of speech,” as John calls it, Jesus paints a picture of the immanence, the closeness, the intimacy we enjoy with God, our Creator. And this picture is a compelling and much-needed reminder for those of us who make our home in the Presbyterian church.
For in the Reformed Presbyterian theological tradition, we focus a great deal on the transcendence of God—God as Great Mystery, Ground of All Being, over and above us, always beyond us, just out of our reach of comprehension and definition and grasp. And God’s transcendent nature is biblical, faithful, and true. Yet with that often-singular focus, I wonder if we sometimes lose the promise of the intimacy and immanence reflected in this verse. We lose the promise, the claim, that yes, while God will always be more than we can imagine, God also knows each of our names. God knows John. God knows Annette. God knows Clyde and Miguel. God knows Maria and Aurelia. God knows our names.
Yet this passage declares to us God does not only know our names. Jesus’ imagery of a Good Shepherd and the sheep of his fold reminds us of the promise that God also knows us so well that God can recognize the difference between our cries of despair and our cries of joy. God can recognize the difference between our standard response of “I’m fine,” when asked out of routine, from how we really feel underneath our matted woolly fur, whether we are scared or sad or angry. The God who knows our name also knows when we come into worship if we are wearing our church face even while worshiping at home—our “I’ve got it altogether” face—or if we are wearing the face of who we really are—the more vulnerable one often close to the water, the more tender one that lies beneath that pushy determined nose, beneath all of the strong, Teflon, power masks.
This verse, indeed this entire section of pastoral imagery that continues through verse 18, while embedded in a time of conflict in Jesus’ ministry, reminds us of our intimacy with God, our being fully known by God, that we’ve been given in Jesus our Good Shepherd. Through his picture of the good shepherd and the canny, intuitive sheep, Jesus is preaching to us that we can trust and build our foundation upon the promise that the Great Mystery, the Ground of All Being, the One who is over and above, all-powerful, everywhere present, incomprehensible and undefinable, that that God knows each of us by our name. Meg, my daughter. Terrell, my son. Morgan, my child. And that God will call us each by our name as the Holy One leads us out of what is familiar pasture into new life, going ahead of us so that we know it is safe and good to follow our shepherd.
For that is the other evocative aspect of this imagery. With all that we now know about shepherding and sheep, we can remember just how the sheep are led. We can recall that part of the reason the sheep trust the voice of the shepherd is because they know she will always go first. The sheep know the shepherd will always experience the journey before they do, so that the sheep have no need to fear being abandoned or purposefully led into danger. The shepherd never leads the sheep to a place that he, himself, has not been, has not experienced, has not touched or walked first.
That is incarnation, God becoming flesh and blood in a baby, born into this world through a woman. That is crucifixion, God experiencing betrayal and suffering and death firsthand, not escaping it but willingly entering into it. That is resurrection, God wrenching forth new life out of old, new possibility out of tragedy, refusing to let death have the last word and emptying it of its power. This picture of Jesus Christ as our Good Shepherd reminds us that he will always lead us on the right paths that he has already walked.
This is what we claim as people who follow God in the Way of Jesus, as Easter people. We claim that in Jesus Christ all of life and death has been hallowed, made holy. We claim that our Good Shepherd has traveled all the paths we will take in our lives. Our Good Shepherd has already experienced the journey firsthand so that we can be assured of God’s presence on our way.
“I am the good shepherd,” Jesus claims in the verses that immediately follow these. The one who knows you by name. The one who calls you and leads you out. The one who created you and abides within you and will not forsake you, especially not in these days of chaos and uncertainty and loneliness. I am the good shepherd, Jesus says, the one who lays down his own life for the sheep.
One more interesting image that emerges from this text before we finish. This passage is often used as a tool for Christian exclusivism. It’s often used to buttress a preacher’s argument about whom God saves and therefore whom God does not save; who goes into the fold; who is let in through the gate. But when it is used in this way it is being wielded as stone rather than offered as bread, for nowhere in the text does it say the sheep, not even the head sheep with a ministerial collar, ever get to choose who is in the flock and who is out. The sheep never get to choose who goes in through the gate and when and how. They are not in charge of any of that.
No, apparently, the shepherd is the only one who can call the flock together, who forms them into sheep family, and who leads them wherever they are to go. The shepherd is the only one who has the authority to make those decisions. The sheep simply don’t have that power. The sheep are just brought into a flock. They must simply learn how to abide with each other and live together. The shepherd is the one who defines the flock and who watches the gate, not the sheep.
Interesting, isn’t it. It is not the sheep’s decision whom God chooses. Those decisions are up to the Shepherd and, well, a few verses later Jesus declares he has other sheep that are not even a part of this particular fold. Thus it would not surprise me one bit if our Shepherd has a much bigger flock than any of us can even imagine, a pasture big enough for everyone to find a place to graze, a gate wide enough for all of creation to make its way through. I guess we will just have to wait and see for ourselves one day.
But in the meantime, may we find rest in the assurance that we are known and called. May we find comfort that even if we don’t feel very wise sometimes, Jesus promises us we will recognize the Shepherd’s voice as he calls and, if we will listen to the spirit that dwells within us, we will not follow a stranger. May we find courage in the promise that Jesus goes ahead of us always and that he holds our life. For since Jesus is our Good Shepherd, we can trust that the one who knows us the best is the same one who loves us the most. That is just who God is. Praise be to God. Amen.