Sermon: Counting Sheep

11 May 2014 – Dr. Irene Lawrence:
There are a lot of sheep and shepherds in today’s lessons. That may be because there are a lot of sheep and shepherds in the Bible. Most of us don’t have much contact with sheep in the flesh any more, but, unlike some of the more obscure images in Scripture, I don’t think we have a lot of trouble with this particular metaphor. But it’s still worth looking at it.

Aside from the very occasional passage where a shepherd is simply a shepherd, in the Old Testament the leader of the people is frequently described as a shepherd. In early times it was the “judges” or tribal leaders, later it was the king, whose responsibility was to be a shepherd to Israel. The archetype of this metaphor was the shepherd-king David, who was, of course, literally a shepherd as a youngster, and whose reign was looked back upon by later generations as the “golden age” of Israel. Here are a few quotes from various OT books:

[God] chose his servant David,* and took him away from the sheepfolds;
He brought him from following the ewes,*to be the shepherd over Jacob his people and over Israel his inheritance.
So he shepherded them with a faithful and true heart* and guided them with the skillfulness of his hand.
(Psalm 78:70-72, BCP)

The Lord said to [David]: It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over Israel. (2 Samuel 5:2, NRSV)

I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. (Ezekiel 34:23, NRSV)

If the leader does not fulfill his responsibility, the sheep are doomed:

“I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains, like sheep that have no shepherd” (1 Kings 22:17, NRSV)

So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. (Ezekiel 34:5, NSRV)

And the famous Zechariah 13:7, NRSV:

Strike the shepherd, that the sheep may be scattered.

The premise behind all this is that the sheep are so dumb they are helpless without a shepherd. I don’t know sheep well myself, but I have been told that this is literally true: that the gibe “too stupid to come in out of the rain” describes sheep pretty well. Other animals will seek shelter, but sheep just bleat and have to be led.

On the other hand, the other shepherd who is constantly mentioned in the Old Testament is God. When God is called shepherd, the emphasis is always on God’s love and care for the sheep, not at all on how helpless the sheep are. We’ve already read the beloved Twenty-third Psalm. Here are some other descriptions of God as shepherd from the OT:

Save your people and bless your inheritance; * shepherd them and carry them for ever. (Psalm 28:11, BCP)

Hear, O Shepherd of Israel, leading Joseph like a flock; * shine forth, you that are enthroned upon the cherubim. (Psalm 80:1, BCP)

He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep. (Isaiah 40:11, NRSV)

I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. (Ezekiel, 34:15, NRSV)

Please excuse me from reading all this to you, especially since most of you probably have heard it before, but Jesus’s audience, and John’s audience, would have been very familiar with all these ideas, and would be hearing Jesus’s words about sheep and shepherds in this context of how God had acted as a shepherd in their history, being the model for their leaders, as well as loving and caring for them directly.

The synoptic Gospel writers, Matthew and Mark, pick up these Old Testament ideas, expand them a bit, and apply them to Jesus. In Matthew’s words:

When [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. (Matthew 9:36, NRSV)

If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. (Matthew 18:12, NRSV)

Here we have again the Old Testament themes of helpless sheep and God’s ridiculously extravagant love for them. The hearers (including us), steeped in the Old Testament, would instantly recognize the Matthew was identifying Jesus with the God-chosen leaders of old Israel, and also with God’s loving and personal care for the flock and for each individual in it.

If the subject ended here, it would be enough. But John, as always, puts his own stamp on the old traditions. Reading only Matthew and Mark, it would be possible to identify Jesus as the Shepherd of the New Israel in a world with only sweetness and light, a world without crucifixion, only free new life at no cost. I think that would be a misreading, but it has been done—think of some of the sentimental “Good Shepherd” illustrations that you may have seen. In any case, John is making sure you understand that we and the Good Shepherd inhabit a world that also contains thieves and robbers.

These thieves and robbers try to steal, kill, and destroy, but we are protected by our shepherd. As John tells it, our shepherd knows us and calls us all by name, which might be implied in the earlier images but certainly had not been made explicit before. We are all as individually precious as the lost sheep in Matthew and Mark. Also, the sheep, as John portrays us, seem like a different breed of sheep from those earlier sheep: we are not helpless, but have learned to recognize our shepherd’s voice, and are now able to follow our shepherd’s voice and to run from the strangers’—the thieves’ and robbers’—voices.

Then John throws us a curve, or at least a mixed metaphor. All of a sudden, in addition to being our shepherd, Jesus describes himself as the gate. Any time in John when Jesus makes an “I am” statement, we should pay attention. “I am the gate for the sheep.” And he says it twice. The thieves and robbers come over the wall, but “whoever enters by me will be saved.” In contrast to the thief, coming to kill, Jesus comes to give abundant life.

Unfortunately, the passage selected for today ends here. Left at that, we might think that John is saying that Jesus is excluding from abundant life everyone who does not or cannot have faith in him, especially if we remember Jesus later saying “No one comes to the Father except through me.” That would be a misunderstanding; in the larger context—the context of the following verses—John’s words are meant to be both accurate and inclusive.

I admit that we and John are walking on a tightrope here, as we try to balance our faith and trust in the Jesus we know and that John tells us about—the Jesus who is uniquely both human and an indivisible part of the holy and undivided Trinity, who is our gate to abundant life—as we try to balance that with our recognition that other people claim to find their abundant life in other ways and on other paths, both Christian and non-Christian.

It may help if I distinguish possible contemporary responses to this plurality. I have to admit that I am oversimplifying, and that these are not the categories that John would use. But I hope they are helpful.

First, of course, there is simple intolerance. This says, essentially, “You are wrong, you are going to hell, and we will kill you if we can.” Think of the Westboro Baptist Church, think of the Boko Haram, think of the Crusades and the Inquisition.

A step up from that, and a great improvement, is tolerance. Tolerance says, in effect: “You are wrong; you are probably going to hell, but we will not punish you for it. We will do our best, short of torture, to change your mind and convince you that we are right.” Think of the 19th century missionaries “civilizing the savages.” More benignly, think of the first 50 years or so of the 20th century ecumenical movement, when participants believed that if they only really understood each other, they would find a highest common factor that they all believed in, and that everything else would seem optional and insignificant. Of course, in the end, when they all agreed that they did in fact understand each other pretty well, there was no significant highest common factor and no one could agree on what was essential and what was optional.

Another approach is relativism. A relativist says: “You are right; I am right; nobody’s going to hell, and nothing is better than anything else. All religions are equally good; Jesus is just another version of Buddha or Mohammad (and vice versa), and every inculturation of the gospel is as good and complete as any other.” Of course, that does not do justice to any of the world’s profound religions; it turns them into shallow caricatures. And all ways of life are not equally good; for obvious examples, think of acceptance of slavery or human sacrifice.

The last possibility is pluralism, sort of in between tolerance and relativism, almost an Anglican middle way. It says: “I am right except where I’m wrong, and I am certainly incomplete. You are right, except where you’re wrong, and you’re also incomplete. We’ll leave the question of hell up to God, and do our best to recognize and build on each other’s gifts, knowing that the truth is greater than either of us alone.”

Of course this is twenty-first century talk, and not the language John uses. But I think it is compatible with the words of Jesus that John reports in the verses the verses following the ones we heard today:

14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.

Let us pray that we may follow him who calls us by name, and follow where he leads in welcoming and learning from his sheep that do not belong to our fold.

This entry was posted in Sermons. Bookmark the permalink.