A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • Copyright 2016 All Rights Reserved
Fourth Sunday in Easter/C • April 17, 2016
It’s a cold day in Jerusalem, like some of the ones we’ve had recently. The city’s up on a mountain; winds blow like a knife there. Jesus and his friends and some others are gathered in a portico alongside the temple. Maybe they just wanted out of the wind; maybe it’s their regular place. It’s Hanukah: the feast of the dedication. The story is that after Antiochus Epiphanies desecrated the temple, a great messianic figure rose named Judas Maccabeus. He defeated the Greeks and rededicated the temple . Only a small amount of oil was available but the oil burned for eight days. So there they are in this festival season, in the cold, with that great story certainly present in everyone’s mind and some are asking Jesus, “Are you the Messiah? Tell us now!” This is his reply: my sheep know me. His sheep: that’s you, that’s me.
The Good Shepherd
The image of a good shepherd is all over the Bible. The Hebrews started out as herdsmen, people who moved with herds of sheep from one grazing ground to another. Long before they went down into Egypt where they became slaves, they were a people shepherding sheep, following them, shearing them, living off of them. Just like us, when they imagined God, they imagined someone like themselves except better, so the patriarch Israel, when he blesses his son Joseph, describes God as, “The God before whom my ancestors Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day…” [Gen. 48:15]. David is a shepherd and his first victory comes using a shepherd’s weapons: a sling and a few stones. The image of a shepherd became the ideal image of a good ruler and of course in Psalm 23 as we read earlier, the Psalmist himself calls God a shepherd. Later, Isaiah will describe God’s care this way:
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 48:11]
Jeremiah and Ezekiel condemn the rulers of Israel by describing them as bad shepherds.
So when Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd”, he is brought up one of the most powerful images these people know. It’s like talking about the Pilgrims here or the Founding Fathers and Mothers or Cowboys. All cultures have these pictures, these models. For this people, for this time, it is a good shepherd. Now people who oppose him and perhaps some who are just wondering ask: “Are you the messiah?” They’re trying to understand him. He says this mysterious thing: his sheep know him. Do you? Do you know him? It’s a good question because if Jesus is the shepherd—we are the sheep.
I don’t know much about sheep; I grew up around dairy cows but sheep are a mystery to me. So I asked friends who had more experience, “What are sheep like?” What is Jesus implying about us?The most common comment was: stinky. One of them said, “They are big. And heavy. And smelly. And loud.” When Jacquelyn lived in Spain, she remembers being awakened early in the morning…by the smell. The sheep would arrive shortly after, with bells tinkling and dogs barking and shepherds after who made sort of barking noises at them too. Sheep do, as Jesus says, know their shepherd’s voice. In fact, they will even learn the sound of their shepherd’s truck, according to one friend who replied. And they need the shepherd. They have a tendency to wander off and they need to be sheared. Sheep that aren’t sheared become a host for various pests. So in the very act of giving up their wool, the sheep is being served as well, helped, healed. All these comments are from people who know far more about sheep than I do.
Sheep can be difficult to manage. Perhaps that’s why centuries ago, people taught dogs to do it for them. This is what one of my friends had to say about his personal encounter with a sheep.
Early in my ministry, I had the brilliant idea of introducing live sheep into our annual Christmas Eve pageant. I imagined fluffy peaceful creatures that would make the pageant “come alive.” I located a small farm in a rural part of town and inquired of the availability of the sheep. The farmer said that he and his family would be away on Christmas Eve, but I would be welcome to come by the farm and borrow a sheep or two if I would return them after the pageant was over.
So, decked out in my best suit, I arrived at the farm, climbed over the stone wall surrounded the pasture, and managed to corral one of the sheep (who did not want to be corralled). I wrestled the critter into the back seat of my small car. I was covered with oily dirt by then (the natural state of sheep)and was dismayed that the animal didn’t know car behavior. In trying desperately to escape, it wailed and made a mess of the basket (think urine and feces).
There was no way THIS sheep was going to be allowed into the church for the pageant. I had to keep it in my garage and invite any of the children who wanted to see the Christmas sheep to walk across the street to the parsonage garage, but even then I was terrified it would bolt out the door and be lost in the night.
Eventually I gave up, covered my car’s back seat with a plastic tarp and delivered the sheep back to its pasture.
I learned my lesson. I also learned that when the Psalmist compares people to sheep, it isn’t a compliment.
That’s us. We’re the sheep. And, at least according to Timothy, it’s not a compliment.
Are you the Messiah?”
“Are you the Messiah?” That’s the question Jesus is answering and the people asking want a quick answer so they can go back to warm homes, have a glass of wine, have servants or slaves wash their feet and have light the Hanukkah candles. Their whole program is to be perfect, follow the rules, do what they’ve done before but do it better and they figure the Messiah will be the best of them, a powerful leader who will rise to the top. They’d like to rise with him. But they’re asking Jesus and Jesus is a shepherd. He’s not looking for rich donors: he’s speaking to sheep, gathering his sheep, and his sheep are stinky. They don’t have anyone to wash their feet, they don’t have homes to go to in many cases. Most powerful people don’t even see them; they’re invisible. But Jesus sees them and they hear him, that’s why the crowds gather everywhere he goes. Jesus sees them and he looks at them like a shepherd. That means he cares for them. When his disciples urge him to send a crowd of his sheep off on their own to find food, he turns to them and says, “You give them something to eat.” The most common complaint about Jesus in his own time is that he eats with sinners. He does, just like a shepherd sits down with his sheep for lunch. They know him; he cares for them.
Jesus sees his sheep; his sheep hear him. He sees them the way a shepherd sees sheep. That is, he expects them to produce. No one herds sheep for the fun of it; you herd sheep, care for sheep, towards the day they will be sheared, the day they will produce the wool others will use to keep warm. In fact, according to one person who wrote to me, if sheep aren’t sheared, parasites burrow into their skin and they get sick. So the sheep have a purpose; the shepherd cares for them so they can achieve their purpose.
All we like sheep…
I titled this sermon, “All we like sheep…” because if, like me, you grew up in certain traditions, you can hardly help saying the next few words from the prayer it begins: “All we like sheep have gone astray.” Jesus isn’t here to enjoy the richness of the successful: he’s here to gather up the straying sheep. That’s me. That’s you. That’s us.
Whenever we think we’ve gotten ahead, whenever we think we are above, or beyond, he’s there to gather us, remind us: all we like sheep have gone astray. And when we know that, when we hear his voice, then we don’t need to ask if he’s the Messiah, we don’t need to ask who he is at all: we hear his voice, we know he is our shepherd. We know because we know that having gone astray, he can lead us back to the green pastures mentioned in Psalm 23.
The Sheep go home
We read Psalm 23 at Bill Ferber’s funeral on Friday. I think it’s been read at almost every funeral I’ve ever attended. I understand how someone like Bill who was a church member and a Christian most of his life would want that read. What’s interesting is that people who know nothing else about faith, who have almost no church experience, also know it. It seems no matter who we are, no matter where we’ve been, what we’ve done, we all want to come home to this vision.
The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff– they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
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.
Where are you going? Where are we going? All we like sheep have gone astray. But if we listen for the shepherd’s voice, surely we will hear it; if we follow it, we will get where he means to take us.