4th Sunday of Easter; John 10.11-15
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 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. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. -NRSV
The Good Shepherd is a familiar and comforting image for God and for Jesus. Oddly so, because how many of us have contact with sheep and shepherds on a regular basis? When I looked up sheep farming in America, I found a website, sheep101.info, with this information:
According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, there are 101,387 sheep farms in the United States. Large sheep operations, which own 80 percent of the sheep, are located primarily in the Western United States. Texas, California, and Colorado have the most sheep.[i]
Little did I know…I am too much of a city dweller. Perhaps, some of you come from sheep farming families here in this state and you are more familiar with real sheep and real shepherds. I had never been up close and personal with them until I traveled to Ireland and Scotland in 2009. I found sheep everywhere as I traveled the country roads or hiked the moors and hills.
The image of God as shepherd is ancient in our Judeo-Christian religious tradition. Psalm 23, possibly composed around 1000 BCE, is so familiar with that many of us can recite it from memory. The prophet, Ezekiel, was prophesying in the late 6th century BCE. In Ezekiel, chapter 34, the prophet speaks for God, shaming and condemning the false/bad shepherds who have led the people astray. Then God says:
As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. … I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, …[ii]
You can hear the echoes with the psalm and with John’s passage. (Back to Me)The Hebrew patriarchs, Abraham, Moses and David, the young king, were all shepherds. It is in this tradition that Jesus says in the gospel of John, “I am the good shepherd.” New Testament scholars tell us that the Greek word “good,” kalos, actually has a larger connotation that just “good” as in “does a good job.” It means “model.” “I am the “model shepherd.”
As God is shepherd, so is Jesus who models the very essence of being caretaker of the people. As caretaker, as shepherd, Jesus is gathering God’s people together under the overflowing love and protection of God. Jesus, as shepherd, is willing to lay down his life for God’s people. Since our text is from chapter 10 of the gospel, you can hear the writer’s foreshadowing of Jesus death which comes in chapter 19.
The literary and theological metaphor of God and Jesus in God’s image as shepherd, of God’s people as sheep, of the threats and dangers to God’s people, can be spun out in many ways. A pastor could preach a series of sermons on this metaphor. The very word, “pastor,” comes from a 14th century French word meaning shepherd and is related to the word pasture, where the sheep are fed. So what do we make of God as the heavenly shepherd and Jesus, God’s word made flesh, the shepherd who laid down his life for the God’s people? Who are the flock, the sheep? All people? The church? If a pastor is the shepherd, are the parishioners the sheep?
Some folks would object to being called sheep because sheep have a reputation for being not so smart! I read in one commentary that this reputation comes from cattle ranchers. Cattle are herded by being prodded literally and vocally from behind. If you stand behind a sheep and yell, it will simply go around and get behind you. Sheep want to be led from in front. They want to follow the voice of the shepherd they know and trust or the shepherd’s whistle to the sheep dogs. It is only when they are ill that they follow a stranger’s voice. Or refuse to follow and wander off into ravines or fall from a height. I happen to know as a pastor that some people like to be led with encouragement from in front, and some people from encouragement behind, and some from alongside. So, the sheep metaphor is definitely not literal when it comes to people!
Here is what I’d like us to consider today …. if the Lord is our shepherd…if as Jesus says in John, he is the model shepherd who will willingly and with no coercion lay down his life for the flock…if we as the church are God’s flock – and I mean “we”, pastors included and not set aside in an elevated position – then, are we listening to the shepherd’s call? And if so, how? Because the shepherd’s call leads us home, even thru dark valleys to a place of care and rest, flowing streams of love and green pastures of food for our souls. It leads us away from dangerous pitfalls and into the safety of transparent and loving community. In these tense and fractious times, we need to listen carefully to God’ call to community as we worship, as we meet on Zoom, as we pray for one another, as we listen to the guidance of our strategic planning team. We need to do our individual work of listening so that God can be gathering and leading us all in community. We need to be assuming the best of one another in this exhausting time of pandemic when we all have frayed nerves and are glimpsing the light at the end of the tunnel but can’t quite reach it yet. Otherwise, we will be like scattered sheep, wandering off on our own. God, the protector and gatherer of God’s people is calling us together through the voice of Jesus and through God’s Holy Spirit to new and renewed community as we begin to come out of isolation into safe gatherings and as we continue to grow our work together building God’s realm here and now in northern Colorado.
When I was in Scotland in 2009, I stayed for almost three weeks on a tidal island, the Isle of Erraid, in the Inner Hebrides with a spiritual community connected to the Findhorn community of northern Scotland. This community lived in stone lighthouse keeper houses, working and praying together and offering hospitality to people coming from the mainland for retreat. It was early October. And while I was there the time came for the annual sheep round up. As I hiked the island, I had seen many, many sheep. In my inexperience, I didn’t realize or take note that they were all part of the same flock. They belonged to a shepherd named John who lived nearby on the Isle of Mull. It was time to gather the sheep for yearly inoculations and for the lambs to be sold at market. The people of the Erraid community gathered one morning to help the shepherd round up the sheep by walking the 462 acres of the island, hills and bog land and beaches, in groups that herded any stray sheep to the center valley where the sheep dogs and the shepherd could gather them safely into the flock.
Before we left, we held what they called an “attunement.” For me, it was prayer. We stood in silence in the lovely chill of the morning air with the sun just beginning to warm things a bit. Gradually people began to offer up affirmations, “prayers”. “May we all go in safety. May the sheep be safely gathered in. May the mothers be comforted as they are separated from their lambs for the first time.” I was in awe…a little stunned that we were praying for sheep and then ashamed that I was stunned. Why wouldn’t we pray for sheep as creatures of God and the source of the shepherd’s livelihood?
Then off we went. I ended up with a group on a high bluff where I could see and hear the shepherd signaling the sheep dogs. It was amazing the way the dogs worked at his whistling commands, amazing how hard they worked to gather the sheep into a safe group. Suddenly all the biblical shepherd imagery I had ever heard became clear. At that moment I saw the shepherd as the Lord of Psalm 23… I first thought of the sheep dogs as the pastors trying to gather the flocks. On further reflection, I think the sheep dogs are more likely the Holy Spirit trying to gather us all into God’s fold.
Suddenly there was a huge gasp from the group I was with. An older ram, had gotten itself out on the ledge of a bluff across the way from us. The dogs were working frantically to help the sheep turn around and go back the safety. A couple of people were on the ground below waving their arms at the sheep to get its attention. One was trying to find a way to safely climb down to the ram. But even with all this effort of care, the ram backed itself into a corner and then fell to its death. And there was an even bigger gasp as we watched it fall. And tears in the eyes of the community.
Eventually we gathered in all the sheep and walked them home by a path to the barns where the inoculations began and the sorting of the lambs from the mothers. The mood was joyous that the sheep were all home. And it was tinged with sorrow for the old ram that was lost despite all the care and the work of the shepherd and his dogs and the people of the community. It was a living metaphor for me of the real-life workings of God and God’s people in community.
My friends, I challenge you today: take another look at the Lord as our shepherd, at Jesus as the model shepherd giving all he has to gather the flock, at the Holy Spirit eager to round us all up. Our nerves are frayed from a year of pandemic and the turmoil of politics and racism. We are feeling our frustrations keenly. Yet we are being called home to our souls, called to rest in prayer after a long time of struggle and loss, called by God’s love to gather in love with one another. I invite you this week to re-read Psalm 23, perhaps daily. Read it slowly, resting in each image. Read John 10.11-15 slowly, prayerfully, letting the image of the Jesus, the model shepherd, willing to call you back home by laying down his life for you in the dark valleys, sink deep within your heart. Remember that the Holy Spirit is animatedly gathering us together as God’s people even as we are still socially distanced. (Back to Me) Remember, pray, allow yourselves to be led home in peace! Amen.
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2021 and beyond. May be reprinted with permission only
[ii] Ezekiel 34. 12,15-16a
Associate Minister Jane Anne Ferguson is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. Learn more about Jane Anne here.