Fourth Sunday in Easter 2011

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on May 15, 2011 (Easter 3, Year A)

Ah, Good Shepherd Sunday. Every year on the Fourth Sunday of Easter we mark this day and if you’ve been paying the least bit of attention this morning, it’s pretty obvious why: sheep are wandering all over the place. They’re in our readings and hymns and prayers and the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd abounds. I’m even wearing this chasuble with the Lamb of God on the back – an old restored one that I’ve never worn on a Sunday morning here.

But it all makes sense because sheep were a regular feature of life in ancient Palestine – they were everywhere and they were an important commodity, providing wool and meat and even milk (which sounds particularly unappetizing). So when Jesus talked about sheep, his audience could all relate. It was as common for his hearers as a football analogy or talking about driving a car would be for us. But we sometimes need a bit of help with the vocabulary. Because unless you grew up on a farm, and I sure didn’t, you might not have any clue what Jesus is really talking about; the metaphors get lost in translation. 

Take the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. There’s a whole cottage industry of bad art depicting Jesus as a blond-haired, blue-eyed shepherd cradling a little lamb or holding a shepherd’s staff while little children cling to his legs as if he’s some sort of pied piper or the Biblical version of Mary Poppins. And while that’s a nice, comforting image, it loses the essence and power of the metaphor.

Because the thing you need to know about shepherds is that they were at the very bottom of the social order. No one went into shepherding because of their deep love of the outdoors. They were either hired workers paid a pittance to watch an owner’s flock or else they were the youngest sons of a family – the ones who wouldn’t inherit any land of their own. The shepherd’s job was essentially to keep the flock intact and protect it from predators. Since they would move the flock from pasture to pasture to graze, shepherds lived apart from society and thus had little human contact. It was hard, dirty, smelly, tedious, and lonely work. A far cry from the image of the smiling shepherd leading fluffy white sheep out to pasture on a beautiful spring morning. And this reality is precisely why the first line of the familiar 23rd Psalm is so radical: “The Lord is my Shepherd” made about as much sense back then as us saying “The Lord is my sanitation worker.” 

In our gospel passage, Jesus’ talks a lot about the “sheepfold.” This has nothing to do with sheep origami. Rather, a sheepfold was an open air pen that consisted of four high stone walls and a door. After a full day of grazing and wandering around or whatever it is that sheep do during the day, the shepherd would lead the sheep in through the door. At night, he would then lie across the doorway in order to keep the sheep in and all intruders or wild animals out. The sheepfold was a place of safety and comfort for the sheep – as long as the shepherd was doing his job.

The other thing you should know is that sheep aren’t the brightest creatures in the world. They can’t find food and water without help. They’re vulnerable to attack. They’re stubborn and don’t follow directions well. And they head butt things. Without a shepherd, they would either starve or be devoured by wild animals. But one quality they do have is the ability to recognize a familiar voice. If Little Bo Peep happened to be standing at the back of the church and called out to her flock and I stood up here and did the same thing, they would go to Ms. Peep every single time. I could ‘baa’ my heart out; I could offer them sheep food – I have no idea what they eat besides grass (goat cheese?) — but they would still choose Little Bo Peep every single time. (Although I think she lost her flock so perhaps that’s a lousy analogy – but you get the idea).

So the whole notion that sheep are just a bunch of followers is true but only to a point. Only if they recognize the voice that calls out to them by name. And this ability to recognize a voice is something we can strive to emulate. As opposed to the head butting thing. Now, let’s face it, we do get called by name. A lot. And it’s not just by friends, family, and co-workers. Telemarketers call and ask for us by name all the time. I can sniff them out when they use and butcher my last name. But often they’ll just say, “Is Tim there?” as if they were a cousin or a friend. We get mail and e-mail addressed specifically to us from all sorts of people we’ve never heard of. And if you’ve ever had the experience of going to some meeting or event, leaving, and then hearing your name called while walking down the street, it’s likely that you forgot to take your name tag off. 

There are lots of voices out there. Lots of voices seeking to draw our attention and make a claim upon us or our resources. We’re bombarded to the point that it’s sometimes easier to just shut down and ignore the noise. But there’s only one voice that matters; one voice that that bears listening to; one voice that transcends all others. And that is the voice of our own Good Shepherd, the one who calls us each by name.

Our charge, like sheep, is to respond to the voice that calls us. That’s what faith is; hearing Jesus’ voice and trusting him enough to respond. Jesus beckons us to the sanctuary and safety of the sheepfold. He calls us each by name even as he calls us into community with one another. 

Like sheep, our only path to survival is to put our complete trust in the shepherd. When we place our lives in Jesus’ protective custody he will keep us safe. This is where the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd truly resonates. Because authentic relationship with the risen Christ draws us into safety even when life’s challenges arise; even when we walk through that valley of the shadow of death. We don’t remain locked up in the safety of the sheepfold. We live most of our lives out in the world, amid the dangers, and snares, and temptations that lurk at every turn. But when we listen to the gentle voice of our Good Shepherd, we can walk boldly in sure and certain hope of God’s love for each one of us; the God who calls us each by name and walks alongside us at every step of the journey.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2011

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