*Sermon of Sunday, April 22, 2018, at First Christian Church (Hampton VA), on the fourth Sunday in Easter. Fond memories of being among those of my “flock” who raised sheep in Washington County, Pennsylvania. -Vinson
Gospel of John 10:11-18 (New Revised Standard Version)
11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 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. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”
First Letter of John 3:16-24 (New Revised Standard Version)
16 We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 17 How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister[a] in need and yet refuses help? 18 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. 19 And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him 20 whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21 Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; 22 and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him. 23 And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. 24 All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.
When I was a pastor up in Pennsylvania, I often wore a floppy hat and slick-soled boots, which along with my beard, sometimes caused me to be mistaken for an Amishman when I was in town. And my congregation and neighbors?
Some businessmen and women, or in the trades.
In that county — which once produced most of the wool in the U.S., and where the Disciples of Christ was born when Thomas Campbell published “The Declaration and Address” in 1809 – was near ideal land for sheep.
Rolling and often steep. With limited bottom land good for corn and other cash crops, sheep put the often rocky hillsides in that area to good use – grazing down even the briers and weeds that would quickly overtake the land without either sheep or a bushhog, as neither cattle nor deer would touch them or the trees that just as quickly sprang up. Cattle tend to tear up the steeper hillsides, exposing them to erosion, because of the combination of their weight and sharp hooves.
Out and about, I wore slick-soled boots because nothing else was as easy to scrape clean of “sheep dip” (as the black, smelly tar-like poop is called), as I dressed pretty much like most of my congregation who lived in the countryside. Some, after all, would only be found in their fields, like Dave Horn, a tall, thin, extraordinarily quiet and calm man whose sheep clearly knew his voice. When I think of a shepherd, I think of Dave, watching him as he led them into the barn at night for warmth and safety to protect them from feral dogs and other predators, or when I was out early and in the early light of day, he led them out into the pastures.
Always, he led them. One doesn’t really drive sheep. That will scatter them, kinda like people. But they will follow the shepherd, whether coming in for the night or going out for the day.
WHY I BRING THIS UP
No small wonder that over the centuries it has been the image of the “Good Shepherd” most closely identified with Jesus.
In Jesus’ time, the hard work of the shepherd was neither prized nor esteemed. Its labor was reserved for the lowest of the low, the less promising young men of the community. Shepherds smelled like the sheep and if you have smelled sheep, you would understand why the Egyptians – who raised cattle, so looked down on the Israelites – who raised sheep. Yet here, in John 10:11, Jesus made a statement that was probably shocking, even contradictory, to the religious people standing before Him: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” In the same sentence, He had just referred to Himself as both the I AM – the same almighty Yahweh who spoke to Moses in the burning bush – and a tender, lowly, protective, and humble shepherd.
And so, in the ancient church, it was the image of the good shepherd, far more than the crucified Christ or even Christ the King, that was portrayed on the walls of the worship spaces.
A young Jesus, carrying a single lamb upon his shoulders.
Many times over, found among the preserved paintings and drawings of Christians from the first centuries after Christ, for all the meaningful imagery expounded upon in scripture of Jesus as light, as vine, as pre-existent Word… it that of the shepherd that has resonated most among people – even among those who know nothing at all about sheep.
The image of the Good Shepherd holds our imagination, our hearts and our minds.
The image of the Good Shepherd, rooted in the 23rd Psalm and in the language here of the Gospel of John, that was held onto in those first centuries when throughout the Roman Empire it was a crime to be a believer in Christ, a crime that merited a death sentence. Amid this, the comforting image of Christ as the Good Shepherd… calming his flock… leading his flock… feeding his flock.
The image of the Good Shepherd, has been held onto in our own lifetimes, during the Cold War and in hot wars alike, amid seismic changes to our society, and when nothing seems sure – the comforting image of the Good Shepherd, is that to which we turn. Declared the Psalmist:
I lift up my eyes to the mountains—
where does my help come from?
2 My help comes from the Lord,
the Maker of heaven and earth.
3 He will not let your foot slip—
he who watches over you will not slumber;
4 indeed, he who watches over Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
5 The Lord watches over you—
the Lord is your shade at your right hand;
6 the sun will not harm you by day,
nor the moon by night.
7 The Lord will keep you from all harm—
he will watch over your life;
8 the Lord will watch over your coming and going
both now and forevermore.
Yet, here is this passage in John, it is also clear that while the Good Shepherd keeps watch and comforts, that doesn’t mean he makes us comfortable. Being comfortable would mean staying in the barn, under the warm lights… out of the rain…
There is a reason why John places this smack between the healing of a blind man and the raising of a dead man – one can now see and the other now speak. In both cases folks are upset because the ordered way of life is upended by Jesus.
Jesus isn’t going to be a guide who leads the sheep into a place of mere complacency, but where the sheep can feed and grow.
This means moving the sheep into the world.
If sheep are known to have excellent hearing, readily able to pinpoint the direction of sound with their ears, they are just as easily frightened by sudden loud noises, becoming nervous and difficult to handle. It is the shepherd who minimizes their stress by speaking in a quiet, calm voice. Calling them. Directing them onward.
If sheep have large pupils and eyes placed more to the side of the head giving them a 191 to 306-degree field of vision, depending upon how much wool is upon their faces, they also have really poor depth perception and may not be able to see the opening created by a partially opened gate. Being reluctant to go where they can’t see, it is that shepherd who goes before them. Leading them onward.
In the lesson, it is clear, the sheep cannot easily see the opening, and so Jesus enters in, as the gatekeeper opens the gate for him. And the sheep, they hear his voice, for he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.
Jesus enters in and leads the sheep – us – out.
Jesus leads the sheep out. Not in.
Jesus entered the world to lead us out.
Finding us where we are and as we are – at time perhaps a bit witless, defenseless, and obstinate – and transforming us into friends as he said in John 15:11-17.
Friends who aren’t held at arm’s length while the host holds his breath against the stench that comes with being sheep – but friends who are embraced, held close, kissed, loved.
Friends, not just to be fed, but to be transformed.
The sheep, emulating the Good Shepherd, extending his protection, his love, his grace. Perhaps clearing out the briers to make a place for the other sheep he wants to bring into the fold, who hear his voice too.