This is “Good Shepherd” Sunday. Every year at this point in the Easter Season we have an opportunity to hear Jesus talk about his role as the shepherd. We hear him tell us what he will do for us as the flock. The problem, of course, is that many who hear this Gospel will have had very little experience in the world of agriculture. We hear Jesus talk about sheep and the activity of the shepherd, and we tend to conjure up cute images of cuddly animals, or maybe the image of the “good shepherd”… that laughing Jesus with the little lamb in his arms, clean white robes flowing.
But I have spent a few too many days on the farm to have those things come to mind. No one who has ever really worked with animals ever wears a white robe that stays white for very long.
Those who have worked with livestock of any kind know how tasking and frustrating animals can be! We did not have sheep. We had cows and hogs, and there was very little about working with them that was particularly romantic!
So, when I hear this gospel lesson, it is not cuddly animal images that come to mind. It is the harsh reality of the day to day working with the livestock that I consider. If you are going to work with livestock, the first great learning that takes place is the nature of the relationship. You have to be there for and with them, in every aspect of life.
The sheep (like the cows or pigs) know the voice of the shepherd because the shepherd has been fussing regularly in their daily lives, and often very inconveniently! The shepherd has been shearing them, vaccinating them, castrating them, feeding them, weaning them from their mothers, and (in modern context) shoving wormer pellets down their gullet for their own good!
The shepherd has been moving them from pen to pen, field to field to keep them safe and fed. He or she has been scooping their poop and putting up with their incessant bleating, bellowing, and squealing their protest.
Oh, and if the livestock have gotten used to hearing the shepherd’s voice, it probably has included not hearing just “gentle” words! The shepherd or rancher sometimes uses “colorful” language, peppered with urgings and exclamations! Livestock do not intuitively just “know” what they are supposed to do. They have to be trained, coaxed, and often forced into the place they need to be.
“Thy rod and thy stock prod, they spank and zap at me until I concede!”
We do have some pretty good biblical precedents for that kind of coaxing and pleading. More than once in the Old Testament and in the words of the prophets we hear God lamenting at how long he must suffer with his wayward people, his faithless Israel.
Jesus makes a side comment or two as well, wondering how long he must put up with this “perverse and faithless generation.”
I think it is important on this Sunday to counterpoint the romantic view of God as some kind of “sentimental shepherd” with the harsh reality of a God, who; (like a real shepherd, farmer or rancher,) is really in this with us for the long haul and in the day to day! What is at stake in making that clear is the very matter of the incarnation and the investment that God has made in us!
We do not have a sentimental God.
We have a God who knows what it is to get down and to get dirty. We have a God who fusses with creation with his bare hands, who shapes and forms us in Genesis.
We have a God who enters creation physically in his own Son, the incarnation, to live and walk and move along the dusty pathways with us, experiencing firsthand what it is to live and move in this world.
So, here is my first point. Let’s acknowledge that if we want to compare ourselves to the flock or the herd that we have to acknowledge that we’re really pretty had to put up with most of the time!
That’s not meant in any derogatory way! Please understand, I’m just being descriptive here.
Sheep don’t mean to be dense or wayward.
Cows don’t consciously choose to be contrary.
Pigs don’t search for ways to get out of their pen on purpose or just to tick off the farmer. (Okay, well, maybe that is an exception if you’ve ever had to work with hogs, they are mightily intelligent!)
But mostly, in each and every case, the animals are just following their natural inclination, their own “self interest!”
They are looking for greener grass.
They are enticed by the prospect of better food, or what looks like a more comfortable location.
They are following their own lines of self-interest, which are not always what is best for them, or for the pasture, or for the countryside in the long run.
It is often the case that the farmer, rancher, shepherd has to work diligently to keep the herd or flock from doing damage to themselves and to the places they inhabit!
So, in the 23rd psalm you have the shepherd “preparing the table”…. digging out the noxious weeds before the sheep come into that area so they don’t eat something that will make them sick or worse.
In the Gospel, you have Jesus detailing that he is “willing to lay down his life for the sheep.” He is willing to risk his own life and safety, do whatever it takes to protect them from outside dangers, or from themselves. That includes putting a check on the natural inclinations of the flock.
That prompts one to ask this question then, “What are OUR natural inclinations that the good shepherd has to protect us from?” We all, in other words, have to examine where our “self-interest” lies.
Like most of the herd, I’m prone to looking at what others are doing, getting, what they have, and making sure that I slide over to that side of the feed trough to get mine too.
I confess, that left to my own self-interest, I would probably see to my own needs first, and then just give whatever what was “left over” to the church, charity, and my neighbor.
But I follow the “good shepherd”, who lays down his life for his sheep. There is a stern determination in the voice of Jesus as he talks about that. It penetrates to the level of life and death.
We do not have a “sentimental God.” We have a God who gets down and dirty and walks the dusty road with us, and then invites us to “follow.” Jesus has considered the cost of being the shepherd. So to follow, we must also consider the cost of being the sheep. What is it that God requires of us? What does following Jesus mean for our daily life?
It means that you do have to order your life around the following of Jesus, and not have it simply come as an afterthought, or when it is convenient.
We are a flock that is pretty hard to put up with at times, prone to go our own way. But God has sent his son to show us a better way, a way that leads you into greener pastures, beside still waters, that is soul restoring… but to find that way you have to be willing to listen and to be led!
This gets to my second point. There is this promise in scripture that Jesus will always recognize us. “I know my own….” But it’s important that we catch the whole phrase. “And my own know me.”
We have a God who gets down and dirty and walks the dusty road with us, but the truth of the matter is that even if Jesus recognizes you, you may not recognize the shepherd’s voice if you haven’t been letting him fuss with your daily life!
This is where the matter of shepherd and sheep becomes also a stewardship matter, where you consider what the whole of your life says about your following of the shepherd.
“Is this what God really wants me to do?” “Is what I and doing now really important? What I’m spending my resources on right now?” “Am I being faithful with the gifts and blessings given to me? Or could I do so much more?”
Those are hard questions, but ones that are worth asking, and you’ll only do that if you’re challenged by this matter of following the Good Shepherd.
I am fascinated with voice recognition software in computers today. I can train my phone to recognize my voice and do things because it “knows me.” But do you know what it takes to make that work?
The first step is for you to speak phrases to it clearly, so that the computer inside recognizes your inflection, your way of speaking, your “voice.” Once the computer learns what it is that you sound like, what it is that you want, it can perform the tasks that you ask of it.
I think that faith is also something that requires some “voice recognition.” We have to be willing to spend some time talking to Jesus about the day to day stuff, and listening for him to respond.
Once we tune our ears to hear the shepherd’s voice, we know what it is that we need to do, but to get there we too have to engage in the give and take of conversation.
Beloved, this is Good Shepherd Sunday, and today the Shepherd calls to you. He has great and gracious promises, words of encouragement, and he has words of correction to keep us from wandering off on our own. It is a good day to tune up the ears, and to tune in the heart, that we may find our way as our Savior leads us in the joy, and the messiness, of daily life.