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 that classic image of the “good shepherd”… a laughing Jesus with the little lamb in his arms, clean white robes flowing as he carries it.
I have spent a few too many days on the farm to have those kind of images come to mind.
Those who have ever actually worked with livestock of any kind know how tasking and frustrating animals can be!
We did not have sheep. We had cows and pigs. 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 doing the day-to-day work with 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. They depend upon you, and yet remain so very independent.
The sheep (like the cows or pigs) know the voice of the shepherd because the shepherd has had to have been fussing regularly in their daily lives, and often very inconveniently!
He or she has been shearing them, vaccinating them, feeding them, corralling and weaning them from their mothers, and shoving wormer down their gullet for their own good.
He or she has been moving them from pen to pen, pasture to pasture to keep them safe and well fed without letting them follow their own tendency to overgraze the land.
As for the flowing white robes as you carry the little lamb? Well let’s just say the daily reality of working with livestock is often having to deal with the crap they leave behind… everywhere.
If the livestock has gotten used to hearing the shepherd’s voice, that has probably included not hearing only “gentle words.”
The shepherd or rancher has probably sometimes used “colorful” language to describe their antics and has peppered his or her urgings to them with exclamations born of frustration!
Livestock do not “intuitively” just “know” what they are supposed to do, where they are supposed to go, and what the best method for conveyance will be. They have to be trained, coaxed, and often forced into spaces and actions.
There is some biblical precedent 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, this faithless Israel, this “stiff necked people.”
Jesus makes a side comment or two as well, wondering how long he must put up with a “perverse and faithless generation.” He comments on and puts up with disciples who don’t know how to pray, or when to pray, or who seem to want to pick their places they want to be,(his left or right hand), or who lack trust.
I think it is important on this Sunday to counterpoint the romantic view of God as some kind of “sentimental shepherd.”
The truth is, like a real shepherd, farmer or rancher described, God 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 in us!
We do not have a sentimental God.
We have a God who knows what it is to get down and dirty with the flock, to live with us and to fuss with us.
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.
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 hard to put up with most of the time!
That’s not meant in any derogatory way! Please understand that! 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.
In every case, they are simply following their natural inclinations, their own “self-interest!”
They are looking for greener grass.
They are enticed by the prospect of what looks like better food or what looks like a more comfortable location.
They are following their own lines of self-interest, which are very often not always really in their best self-interest or their own safety!
It is often the case that the farmer, rancher, shepherd has to work diligently to keep the herd or the flock from doing damage to themselves!
So, in the Gospel, you have Jesus detailing that he is “willing to lay down his life for the sheep.” Whatever it takes to protect them from outside dangers, or from themselves, that’s what he’s willing to do.
That includes putting a check on the natural inclinations of the flock and its individuals.
We follow the “good shepherd”, who lays down his life for his sheep.
There is a stern determination in the voice of Jesus here 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, in order 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 daily life?
It means that you order your life around where the shepherd is leading and not have it come 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 and (like sheep) often leaving a lot of crap behind.
But God has sent the Son to show us the way, a way that leads into greener pastures, beside still waters, that is ultimately soul restoring.
In order to find that way however, you do have to be willing to listen to the Shepherd and to be led!
There is this promise in scripture that Jesus will always recognize us. “I know my own….”
But it’s equally important that we catch that whole phrase. “And my own know me.”
We do 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 always recognize the shepherd’s voice if you haven’t been letting him fuss with your daily life!
I am fascinated with all the voice recognition software that is available these days. You find it in computers, in your Amazon Echo, Siri, Cortana, Google, my car and my phone. It seems to be everywhere.
But do you know what it takes to make that work?
The first step is always for you to speak phrases clearly and repeatedly into a microphone so that the computer can recognize your voice and your inflection.
It has to learn 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 a life of faith is also something that requires some “voice recognition” in both directions.
We have to be willing to spend some time talking to Jesus about the day-to-day stuff.
We need to be bringing our questions.
We need to lift up our concerns.
We need to tune our voices to sing God’s praise and to develop the confidence to bring our day-to-day stuff to Jesus.
Shepherds don’t mind listening to all the bleating, it lets them know what the flock is up to or encountering right now.
Then once we have gotten used to bringing our day-to-day to Jesus, we can tune our ears to hear the shepherd’s voice.
We can begin to understand what it is that we need to do, what it is that the Shepherd wants us to do, where he wants to lead us.
It is in the back and forth, the give and take of a daily conversation that we begin to understand where it is that God wants us to go, and what God wants us to do.
We have to listen to the scriptures and make them a part of our daily contemplation, informing us and shaping our actions.
Even doing so, we have to do that with some humility. We have to acknowledge that sometimes we mis-hear or mis-read what the shepherd is doing or saying. We are (after all) like sheep, “prone to wander everyone, everyone to their own way”—as Handel’s Messiah puts it in the Messiah.
Self-interest is a constant companion for us, and Jesus knows this, which is why he reminds us that laying down the life is a choice.
He chooses, so that we can choose.
He shows us, so that we can follow.
On this is Good Shepherd Sunday the Shepherd calls to you.
God has great and gracious promises for us all.
Jesus has words of encouragement and 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 under the Shepherd’s attentive gaze, and steadfast commitment as he walks with us.