We used to have a dog who, among other things, would help me with my sermons. No, she didn't look up the words in my Greek and Hebrew lexicons, or compare dozens of translations, or seek out other relevant Bible verses, or point out important insights from my commentaries, or track down illuminating customs of the time and cultures of the Bible, or suggest illustrations from pop culture. What she did was drop whatever she was doing, which was usually sleeping, and be ready to go for a walk whenever I found myself stumped at some point in writing the sermon. I would put on her leash and we would walk around the neighborhood. She would answer her "pee-mail" and I would ponder what to say next in my homily or how to say it. With the kids grown and gone, and my wife and I working 2 jobs each, we have resisted getting another dog and subjecting her to hours of being left alone in our house. But I really miss those walks.
Taking care of animals teaches you not just about them but about yourself. A very special notoriety attaches itself to those who neglect or abuse their pets or other domestic animals. I remember reading one of the non-Fleming James Bond books and was intrigued that 007 dealt with 2 vicious guard dogs sent to rip him to shreds by harmlessly gassing them to sleep. He may be licensed to kill humans but the author knew better than to have him kill animals. So they get better treatment than most nameless guards receive at his hands.
With sheep being the most frequently mentioned animal in the Bible, shepherding them is a very important topic. Sheep were a key part of Israel's economy and, as in most Ancient Near Eastern countries, the shepherd was a popular metaphor for leadership. Patriarchs like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and David were shepherds, as was the prophet Amos. Ezekiel and Jeremiah blasted Israel's leaders for being bad shepherds, both neglecting and exploiting their flock. Last year for Good Shepherd Sunday, I examined the 23rd Psalm, phrase by phrase. If you want to read it, look up "Shepherding 101" on my blog. This year, let's look at our gospel, John 10, and see why Jesus compared himself to a good shepherd.
A shepherd was the sheep's GPS: guide, provider and security. That's the point of Psalm 23, that God as shepherd guides the sheep to good pasture and still waters so that they lack nothing. But guiding and providing are the bare minimum standards for being a shepherd. The amount of protection offered is what separates the person who is invested in the sheep from the person who is just out to make a buck. God provides such good protection that the sheep fear no evil, no matter how dark and dangerous is the valley he guides them through.
Right away, Jesus sets a high standard for being a good shepherd. It is one who will lay down his life for the sheep. If a sheep was killed by a beast, the shepherd had to give proof of that to the owner, like the legs or a piece of ear, even if snatched from a lion's mouth, according to Amos. Of course if the shepherd is the owner, he will do more to save his sheep. That's what the rod or cudgel a shepherd carried in his belt was for: to fend off predators of the animal as well as human variety. If the shepherd is in it just for the money and has no love for the sheep, he isn't going to risk much for them. Only he who loves the sheep, who sees them as more than meal tickets, will sacrifice himself for them.
Evidence for the shepherd's good relationship with the sheep is that he knows them and they know him. My son has 10 sugar gliders. They look like a cross between chipmunks and flying squirrels. They are very cute but they look alike to me. My son and daughter-in-law know each by sight. They've spent a lot of time playing with them, feeding them and nursing their injuries. They know their likes and dislikes, their quirks and personalities. They know which ones are nippy, which are nice and which are hairy Houdinis. When one escapes, they know the places in the house they are likely to be found. And they don't have to protect them from their cat, who is freaked out by the little critters.
You can't love someone unless you know them. I'm always surprised when celebrity marriages break up so quickly. They of all people should know about artifice and public relations. Do they not know that they need to get to know the real person, not the public persona, before making a commitment? In general, a long engagement is better than a short one precisely because it's hard to maintain a façade for so long. And the personalities and character of the couple will be more vital than looks in the long run.
Earlier in John 10 Jesus speaks of the sheep knowing their shepherd's voice. In Jesus' day, that's how shepherds would separate their flocks at, say, a well or a campsite--by calling them. The sheep would follow their respective shepherds. We need to know Jesus well enough to recognize his voice. I started my IronicJesus Twitter feed because I've heard a lot of so-called Christians attribute such outrageous opinions to our Lord that I figured they must think that what he said was spoken sarcastically. "Surely he didn't really mean that how we treat the sick or resident aliens or those in prison would be judged as how we treat Jesus." So I started tweeting bizarre "quotes" followed by the Bible reference to what was really said. Some people didn't get the meaning of irony and objected. Those who didn't respond either did get it…or didn't realize it how contrary to his character the quotes I made up were.
What did the crusaders think Jesus meant when he said "put up the sword?" What did the Inquisition think Jesus meant when he said "love your enemies?" What do Christians fighting nastily over nonessentials think Jesus meant when he said "all people will know that you are my disciples if you love one another?" Are we tone-deaf to Jesus' call to repent, forgive and reconcile? If we can't pick out Jesus' voice from all the partisan, political, tribal, agenda-driven and selfish voices out there, it means we really don't know him and we have to ask ourselves if we are in fact his sheep.
It's like the really tough problem a neurologist had to solve. A patient of his could not unclench his fist and the pain was excruciating. That wasn't the problem. Ordinarily, the doctor would figure out how to open the hand. But the hand in question was gone. The patient had it amputated due to an injury years ago. He was feeling phantom limb pain. But how do you get someone to open a hand that no longer exists? The neurologist built a box with 2 compartments, one for the physical hand and one for the missing one. The compartment for the phantom limb had a mirror angled so that the reflection of the good hand appeared to replace the one that was gone. The doctor had the patient ball up his remaining hand, slide it into its compartment and had the patient look at its reflection which was in the place of the missing hand. Then he told the patient to unclench his hands. Seeing the illusory hand open up, the patient felt relief for the first time in years. Just so, a lot of the anger and pain and fear we feel towards others comes from hanging onto stuff that isn't there anymore. When we let go of the insubstantial baggage we carry around, we can relax, stop concentrating on them and pay attention to what really matters. Like Jesus' call to follow him, our good shepherd.
And we better listen because otherwise we might not understand when different sheep start joining us. 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." Christianity started as a sect within Judaism. Despite the risen Christ's command to "make disciples of all nations," God had to give Peter a push to bring the gospel to gentiles. Paul preached in synagogues only to find that Godfearers, gentiles sympathetic to Judaism, were responding to the gospel in greater numbers than Jews. Today it is hard to find any race or nation not represented in the church. In fact, the majority of Christians are found not in the West but in the Third World: in Africa, Asia and South America.
This has not come about easily. In Acts 6, we find a controversy developing between Greek-speaking and Hebrew-speaking Jews. Those from the Diaspora, who came to Jerusalem from all over the Roman Empire, felt that the native-born Jews were receiving preference. This led to the creation of deacons who made sure all who needed help got it impartially. Paul, who found himself becoming the apostle to the Gentiles, spent much of his letters emphasizing Christian unity and love. In Galatians, Paul says that the diversity found in the church should not lead to divisions. "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." In 1st Corinthians he uses the parts of the body as a metaphor for how very different people with very different gifts can still be part of a larger organism. In John, Jesus is using the metaphor of a flock made up of sheep from different folds to make much the same point.
Most religions originate within a culture and a race. They seek to foster unity among those who share blood and traditions. Towards those on the outside, the attitude is often that of "us versus them." But Christianity teaches that we are to approach everyone with love, even those who don't love us, even our enemies. That's why it soon spread beyond the people and culture in which it arose. However, it runs contrary to the human tendency to stick close to those who are like us and not get too chummy with people who are different. But how are we to practice the reconciling love Jesus calls us to if we do not reach out to folks from other races, cultures and classes? Too often Christians go to clubs masquerading as churches. We ought to be welcome centers for the Kingdom of God. Our Lord, our shepherd has warned us that he is calling others into his flock and he expects us all to be one.
William Barclay tells a story about Egerton Young, a missionary to native Americans in Saskatchewan. When they heard him speak of the love of God, it amazed them. Their chieftain asked if Young had indeed called the Great Spirit "our Father." When Young said he did, the chief said, "We never thought of the Great Spirit as Father. We heard him in the thunder; we saw him in the lightning, the tempest and the blizzard and we were afraid. So when you tell us that the Great Spirit is our Father, that is very beautiful to us." Then the chief paused in thought. He asked Young if he had referred to God as his own father. The missionary said, "Yes." And the chief asked if Young had said God was the Father of the Native Americans as well. Young agreed. The old chieftain's face lit up. "Then you and I are brothers," he said. The chief understood Christian unity better than most people raised in churches.
Every metaphor breaks down at some point. It may sound good for a shepherd to be so protective of his sheep that he would die for them but in reality, the shepherd's death would be a disaster for the sheep. They would be without protection from the very predators who killed their shepherd. After Jesus' death the disciples were predictably hiding behind doors. If Jesus hadn't risen, they probably would have slipped out of Jerusalem quietly and disappeared into ordinary lives back in Galilee. So Jesus addresses this at the end of his extended metaphor. He can not only lay down his life but take it up again. Unlike mortal martyrs he lives on not merely through his words and in stories of his life but by continuing to guide, provide for and protect his followers. We can talk to Jesus in prayer and receive answers to those prayers. We can ask for guidance and receive it. We can ask for our necessities and receive them. We can put ourselves in his hands and know that we are safe from lasting harm.
Being called a sheep may not feel like a compliment but we do tend to follow the crowd and we do tend to stray if we don't have a leader. Disease, natural and financial disasters teach us that we are never as in control of our circumstances as we think we are. Not being in control can be terrifying. Unless we know someone who is in control and that someone is trustworthy. By laying down his life for us, Jesus has proved that we can trust him. And by taking his life up again, he showed that he is in control of death and anything else we fear. All that is required is that we respond to his loving leadership. He will guide, provide for and protect us, as any good shepherd would…as long as we listen to him and follow him, as all good sheep should.