Sunday School did me a serious dis-service.
I’ll bet it did you one as well.
It wasn’t an intentional dis-service, rather a cute little ditty that sticks in your head and rattles around in there. Many a VBS teacher or volunteer has known the danger of singing with children and getting this earworm stuck, only to come back to them again and again in the middle of the night.
“I just wanna be a sheep, baa…….”
“I just wanna be a sheep, baa…….”
“Pray the Lord my soul to keep, baa…..”
“I just wanna be a sheep, baa……”
It’s a cute little ear worm, with a number of verses.
There is a verse about not wanting to be a Pharisee, because they’re not “fair, you see.”
One about not wanting to be a Hypocrite, because they’re not “hip, with it.” (thereby dating the song from the late 60’s or early 70’s.)
Another verse about not wanting to be a Sadducee, because they so “Sad, you see.”
“I just wanna be a sheep…”
On face value there is nothing wrong with the desire to be a follower of Jesus, — “a sheep of his own fold, a lamb of his own flock, a sinner of his own redemption” – as we say in our Baptismal and Funeral Liturgies. There is comfort to be found in knowing such connection, being assured that we are watched over and cared for and never snatched away from the Shepherd’s reach.
But like that earworm, (a song that won’t go away,) I’m a little afraid we get “stuck” right there. We get stuck on simply being sheep.
We tend to have a romantic view of Jesus of somehow existing just to take care of us. He is the “good shepherd” after all, as it says right here in John, there to poke and prod us around to where we need to go, and to expect so very little from us because, we are, (after all,) just sheep.
John’s Gospel however will not let us comfortably graze, minding our own business.
Jesus does all this talking about being the “good shepherd” into a particular context, and that context is what has just happened in chapter 9.
There we read the story of the man blind from birth whom Jesus heals. The question from the disciples in that story was “who sinned, this man or his parents?”
‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned;” Jesus says, “he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.”
That does not sound like a particularly passive existence.
Indeed, as soon as Jesus heals the man who had been blind from birth in chapter 9, his life gets, shall we say, “complicated?”
Far from grazing and docilely following Jesus, the man who had formerly been blind finds himself engaged in a confrontation with the Pharisees, and in defending Jesus, and in witnessing to him, and finally a bit perplexed as to how he ended up in this position.
It is then that Jesus re-enters the story with an invitation, and it is not one to simply to “follow” but rather to “believe.”
This man is meant for more than simply occupying space now. More than being dependent upon the kindness of others. The encounter with Jesus has made him into one in whom God’s works are revealed, and through whom greater works will be accomplished.
The Pharisees in the story are revealed as mere “hired hands.” They are more concerned about their own position, their own “skin” and maintaining their position and decorum within the community than with the individual life of the man now healed.
The “good shepherd” Jesus says, “lays down his life for the sheep.”
The “good shepherd” has other sheep to gather, (not to alienate or drive away) so that there will be one flock.
The invitation understood is to become a shepherd now. To become one who helps in the gathering of those who are “not of this fold.”
Far from being a picture of skittering lambs or thoughtless wanderers, those who hear Jesus and who believe in him find themselves transformed into workers with him in the Kingdom.
So, here’s my beef with the song.
I may just wanna be a sheep, but Jesus appears to be looking for more “good shepherds.”
He is looking for those who will follow, yes, but follows with the intention of maturing into leaders.
You can see this in John’s Gospel in the foot washing event. Jesus models what it is to be servant and then gives the command, “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”
That’s “good shepherd” kind of work, serving one another.
And in that same context, in the upper room he gives them another directive. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Having love for one another is a “taking initiative” kind of thing, not just blind following.
That’s “good shepherd” kind of work, to make a decision to set aside differences and divisions, and your own self-interest in order to be intentional about loving one another.
You can see this call to be a “good shepherd” in the final exchange that takes place between Jesus and Peter after the resurrection. There they are, on the shore of the lake, and after sharing a meal of fish, Jesus looks at Peter and says to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’
That’s “good shepherd” kind of language. And Jesus repeats the invitation three times, one for every time Peter had earlier denied him.
A second time (Jesus) said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’
He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.
What does that sound like to you?
Does that sound like being a sheep is going to be enough?
Does it not sound more like Jesus reminding Peter that he has followed the “good shepherd” not to learn simply how to follow, but also to learn how to love, and to live, and to lead?
“I just wanna be a sheep” is selling ourselves short.
“I just wanna be a sheep” is missing out on the challenge of discipleship, and also on the great joy that comes in helping others to believe and to become more than they thought they were capable of being.
This past week was a remarkable week, did you know that?
Here at St. James we had two members who were approved for Candidacy in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Heather and Sue, both approved to become “good shepherds.”
They are and will be engaged in Seminary.
They will train.
They will pray and be prayed for by us.
They will experience the full range of following Jesus, and they will be sheep of God’s own fold, but they will also aspire to be shepherds as well, and we pray good ones. Leading, guiding, being exasperated by the tendency of flocks to wander, but ultimately to trust in what the good shepherd has taught them, modeled for them.
They will do “good shepherd” kind of work.
And this past week Emily signed up for her final semester of classes, and in June she will begin her Internship at our sister congregation, Advent in Olathe. There she will get a chance to experience more fully what it means to shepherd. She’ll laugh at the antics of the flock, and how they will break your heart, and how she will see them grow and be with them as they die.
She will step a little closer to becoming a good shepherd.
And last weekend, we baptized little Fielding Brenner, and we said the words, “Fielding Brenner, Child of God, let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in Heaven.”
He may be just a sheep… for now… but we see in him great things to come. A good shepherd in the making.
Maybe a pastor someday.
Or maybe just one of any number of people whom Jesus has touched, and healed, and who suddenly find themselves not simply sheep anymore but called upon to lead, and a shepherd.
Maybe to shepherd another person.
Maybe to shepherd their own child.
Maybe to shepherd a spouse, or a co-worker, or a big brother or sister.
Those same words uttered over Fielding were also uttered over each and every one of us, (those words about about letting your light so shine) – they were spoken not so that we could forever remain sheep, tossed to and fro by every whim, but that we might, (as Paul puts it in Ephesians 4,) “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.”
That’s “good shepherd” kind of talk, and work, understanding that while we are to follow where Jesus has led the way, we are also expected to walk, and to work, and do the things that the Shepherd has shown us how to do.
So, like I said, Sunday School did me a bit of a dis-service.
I do wanna be a sheep, yes… but that’s not all I wanna be… and that’s not all that a God who sees great things in us wants us to be.
God sees great things in us.
God sees our light shining in this this world.
God sees and your life fitted for “good shepherd” kind of work, in the place where you are. Amen.