May 3, 2009
Fourth Sunday of Easter
The Shepherd’s Song
Have you heard that sheep are dimwits? (Apologies to Barbara K!) It turns out that this is not true! It’s a vicious rumor started by cattle ranchers. Researchers who have tested animals have discovered—please don’t ask me how—that sheep have only slightly lower IQ’s than pigs, and are equal to cows.
But sheep are different from cows. That’s why cattle ranchers didn’t like them. You can’t herd sheep the same way. If you get on a horse and chase them, they panic. If you holler at them, they’ll run around behind you. Here’s the thing: cows can be pushed; sheep must be led. Sheep will not go anywhere that their leader—either the number-one alpha sheep, or the shepherd—doesn’t go first.
This is a generalization, of course. You may have seen a sheepdog running around the outside of a flock of sheep, moving them along. In that case, though, they are usually following the alpha sheep, who has decided to move because of the racket the dog is making. And sheep who are ill may get confused and follow the voice of a stranger. Sometimes sheep wander off and fall into ravines. But generally speaking, sheep need to be led. Otherwise they just stand around right where they are.
This all sounds familiar to me. We may be more like sheep than at first I thought. Like sheep, we need to be led. In my experience, it’s much more effective than being pushed.
But to be led, sheep need to hear the voice of their shepherd.
Even if the shepherd is a pig! Do you remember the movie Babe? In the movie, a little orphan pig named Babe learns how to herd sheep. At first, he tries to do it like his friends the sheepdogs do. He runs around the outside of the flock shouting “Woof!” And the sheep laugh at him. But then Babe decides to try something radical—he talks to the sheep. The sheepdogs tell him it will never work—but it does. He speaks the sheep’s language, and asks them, and shows them what he wants—and wins the sheep-herding prize!
uses many agricultural metaphors when he’s telling people how the
can discern their own shepherd’s voice, even among other voices. I have read how, in
It worked for Babe. It works for middle-eastern shepherds. And it will work on us, but only if we can hear our shepherd’s voice. It is such an amazing thing that our Shepherd (I’m talking about Jesus now) knows us by name and calls out to each of us as though we were the only sheep in all the world. Already he knows us, and invites us to know him—to know him and follow him. But a further step is necessary. We have to listen. Even the voice of Jesus goes unheard unless we make the choice—and the effort—to listen.
Some of you may know that I was a Teaching Fellow at Yale this semester, working with a pastoral care class. One of our first exercises was to practice radical listening—like I did with the kids earlier. Listening that didn’t include speaking at all. It was interesting how heard the speakers felt, when the listener was limited to gestures and “umm-hmmm’s.” We’re mostly used to listening with our mouths open, hearing with half our brain while we figure out what fascinating thing we are going to say next.
But listening for the voice of our Shepherd requires more. Listening is the foundation of discipleship. We’re not going to be able to follow our Shepherd if we don’t listen to his song. So why is it so hard? Here’s what I think: true listening opens us up to the possibility of being changed. So often, if we really hear the truth, it overturns our prejudices, challenges our self-image, shakes up our view of the world. And most of us are at least a little uneasy about having our boat rocked.
Listening is also hard because much of our society is arranged to keep us from hearing deep truths. Many people are paid to make noise so that we do not hear the true music. We fill our lives and our heads with noise. We may become so accustomed to noise that we forget there is a true music.
Did y’all do your homework? In my sermon last week, I asked everyone to spend at least ten minutes sometime this week paying attention to a meal, with no reading material, no TV, no radio—as much as possible, just noticing what was happening right then and right there. I did my homework Tuesday at breakfast, sitting at the dining table eating strawberries and toast and drinking green tea, looking out the window at the pink-and-green leaves dancing in the sun. I was paying attention to what I was eating, and I still remember how delicious those strawberries were. It was warm, and I had the window open. The cat was on the buffet, right by the window, and I was lined up behind her at the table, catching the same breeze. I saw a hawk, a squirrel, a cardinal, and a big black ant that crawled right over Lily’s foot. The birds were singing like crazy. And what I heard was,
This is my father’s world and to my listening ears
All nature sings and round me rings the music of the spheres…
Listening takes practice. It’s hard work. If you didn’t do your homework last week, I urge you to give it a try this week—practice being still and paying attention. You may be surprised by what you hear. Because the saving grace is that the Shepherd never ceases to call us. Jesus, our Shepherd, sings his song to us new every morning. There is no shortage of messages that come from him, if only we will listen.
Discipleship starts with listening, but it doesn’t end there. The sheep hear their shepherd’s voice…and then they follow. Listening makes it possible for us to follow. And it’s a cycle: the more we follow, the more it is possible, the easier it becomes, for us to listen. As we listen and follow, Jesus leads us. As the Good Shepherd, he goes ahead of us. He doesn’t ask us to do anything he doesn’t do.
I hope this isn’t news to you, but it is not enough to just go through the motions as a Christian. We don’t want our Shepherd Jesus looking back over his shoulder to see us wandering off, or fighting with each other, or staring into the sky scratching our leg, or chasing after some pretty sparkly thing. Jesus has work to do, and he expects each of us to do some of it.
In the passage just before today’s reading, Jesus contrasts the shepherd with a thief, who intends to harm the sheep (and the owner of the sheep). Jesus says,
Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep…He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.
The sheep follow where the shepherd leads, and do what the shepherd does. We need to pay attention to our Shepherd’s actions, because they are our marching orders. In today’s passage, Jesus contrasts the good shepherd not with a thief, but with a hired hand, someone who only cares for the money, not for the sheep. The hired hand isn’t an absolute villain—but becomes one because he or she doesn’t care. A hired hand will tend the sheep only until a better offer comes along, or until tending the sheep becomes too much trouble. Having a hired hand is worse than no shepherd, really—it gives the illusion of protection without providing any!
A true shepherd doesn’t give up on any of the sheep. And we must not give up either. Jesus says,
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.
In the Greek, the words for “flock” and for “shepherd” are very nearly the same word. The New Testament scholar Raymond Brown suggested that a better translation of the Greek would be “So there will be one sheep herd, one shepherd.” We are all one sheep herd, regardless of how strange some of the “others” seem to us.
ago I visited
When Jesus spoke these words, we were the “sheep from another fold”! Jesus was speaking to Jews, telling them that he was also here for non-Jews like us. And now that we’re “in,” we need to remember that Jesus is also here for others, for people who are not like us. All Jesus asks of us is that we follow the Shepherd, not worrying about who the other sheep are. Such concerns are way above our pay grade.
Shepherd calls us, and leads us. And our
Shepherd knows what we need. He knows
that our fears are real—and that there is an alternative. The Twenty-Third Psalm was Jesus’ prayer
before it is ours; God was Jesus’ shepherd before Jesus is ours. I like the alternate wording of this section,
which comes from the King James version of the Bible. I wonder whether Jesus recited this as he
carried the cross to
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death
I will fear no evil; for you are with me.
Your rod and your staff—they comfort me.
Yes, there is danger, even when we have a good shepherd leading us. There is danger, and also protection. There is need, and also provision. Our Shepherd knows that the sheep need to eat. The Shepherd doesn’t actually feed the sheep—the sheep have to feed themselves. But our Shepherd leads us to the places were we can be fed. Jesus calls us, all of us, to the table. The cup that runs over is the cup of Jesus, overflowing into ours. God’s goodness is already everywhere.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.
Let us come to the table, where all are welcome. I encourage you to pay attention as you come. Pay attention to your footsteps, how your body feels if you kneel, how it feels to have other people next to you and across from you. Taste the bread. Smell the grapes. Jesus invites us to his table—let’s give him our full attention. Let’s listen for his call, and follow where he leads.