We all love sheep. They’re cute, wooly white animals who make funny noises. We have pictures of Jesus gently carrying a lamb over his shoulders and these cute, woolly white critters frolicking all over, listening to Jesus’ voice and following him with no questions asked, because he’s, well, Jesus. If that’s our picture of sheep and Jesus as the good shepherd, though, it’s a good bet that our only experience with sheep has been at the petting zoo. Has anyone here today been around sheep on a regular basis on a farm or a ranch? Well, I haven’t either, but here’s what I’ve learned from people who have been around sheep. First of all, sheep are not the most intelligent creatures in the world. I had a friend once whose father raised sheep, and she told me that, if you place a fence in front of the lead sheep and get him to jump over it, and then a few more sheep jump over it, and then you take the fence away—the rest of the sheep will jump as if the fence were still there. Secondly, another friend of mine talks about his uncle who raised sheep, and how his uncle disliked coming to worship on Good Shepherd Sunday, because the pastor would say things about sheep that simply weren’t true. This friend writes that, “Sheep will graze a pasture to the ground and will then eat the roots of the grass, making a desert, unless a shepherd moves them along. Sheep will bloat themselves to death on green alfalfa, lacking the sense to stop eating even when their stomachs start to swell. Sheep are rude, they smell bad, and they leave a sticky slick coating on everything they rub up against so that you come away wondering what the attraction of lanolin in hand lotion might be” (Provoking the Gospel of John, p. 269). In other words, Jesus is not paying us a compliment when he calls us sheep.
But, these descriptions of sheep fit us as human beings in many ways. In a crowd, we will follow a leader regardless of how intelligent that leader is. And if he jumps over a fence, we, too, will jump over a fence, even if the fence is no longer there. We human beings also know when we have a good thing, and we will stay where we are comfortable unless someone points out that we have used up all of the resources that are of benefit to us in one place and we need to move on to another place. And that is where I’d like to focus our meditation today: who are we following, where is he leading us, and, as we listen for his voice, what is he asking us to do?
So, here’s the first question: who are we following? Well, if you’re here today, I’m going to assume that your answer is going to be: we are following Jesus. Or, at least we are doing our best to follow Jesus. Sometimes other voices can drown Jesus out in our society. Or sometimes, we hear voices claiming to be Jesus who preach a message that Jesus himself would not recognize. If we are listening to those voices that say that God wants us to be happy and to be wealthy and that all we have to do is follow some simple steps and pray until good things start happening to us, then that is not the voice of Jesus. Nowhere in the Gospels does it say that Jesus was wealthy and that he claimed for himself the glory of God. And nowhere in the Gospels does it say that our lives will be happy and easy if we just pray hard enough. Instead, the Gospels tell us that Jesus went to the cross and suffered an agonizing death for us. And when Jesus says that he came so that we might have life, and have it abundantly, he is not talking about material wealth. Life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. When Jesus talks about abundant life, he is talking about having relationships: a relationship with him, and a relationship with our brothers and sisters in Christ. He is talking about coming together and helping one another through this life, in both our sorrows and our joys. Anyone who says that Jesus is talking about material possessions when he is talking about abundant life is one of those thieves and bandits who come only to steal and kill and destroy.
So, we are following Jesus, who assures us that he came to give us abundant life in the form of relationship with him and relationships with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Where is he leading us? Well, let’s start with some of the language that Jesus uses in this passage. One of the things that you will discover about me is that, since I studied German as my major when I was an undergraduate, and since I have learned some other languages since then, I am fascinated by translation issues and how sometimes, we don’t always get the nuances of the original language and culture when we read something in translation. So, when you hear Jesus say, “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out,” you’re probably thinking of Jesus standing in front of the flock, calling them, and the sheep docilely walking behind him. But sheep and other animals don’t always cooperate like that. So, let’s hear Jesus saying this, “He calls his own sheep by name and drives them out.” That would mean Jesus is behind the flock, pushing them and using his staff to knock a few sheep back into place, getting them to go where he wants them to go, because the sheep have eaten up all the grass in the place where they are.
I like this picture because, in the short time that I have been here and I have been learning what’s been going on both at Salem and at St. John, I think that’s what Jesus is doing with us. He is calling us and he is driving us out of our comfort zones and out of our church buildings and into the community. And it’s not just our two congregations, but the church as a whole. Let’s use this metaphor of sheep and shepherd as we think about what’s going on. Could it be that we as the church have gotten too comfortable in one spot and have, in fact, eaten the grass down to the roots? Could it perhaps be that Jesus is starting to drive us out of the spots where we have overgrazed and is calling us to get out of our buildings and to find new pasture in the communities around us?
We are following Jesus, who is driving us out of our buildings and into new pastures in the community. As we listen to his voice, what do you think he is calling us to do as we go out into our communities? Well, I think that our two congregations are off to a good start. We are working more together with one another and with our two neighbors, Trinity two blocks down from us and St. Peter’s in Highspire. We are starting to look around at our neighborhoods and realize that they have changed drastically since our congregations were founded, and we are beginning to get to know our neighbors and to listen to what their needs are. And I believe that, as we listen to the voices of our neighbors, we will also hear the voice of our Good Shepherd, Jesus, calling us to follow where he leads and showing us how he would have us serve as witnesses to his love as we serve our neighbors.
And that is the good news in all of this. Jesus tells us that, “When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” In other words, after Jesus has been behind us and driven us out of our comfortable places, he does not leave us alone. He goes ahead of us. So, whenever we are facing uncertainty in the times ahead, we know that Jesus has not left us alone. We know that, in whatever new places we find ourselves, Jesus has gone ahead of us and is already there, waiting for us. We do not need to be afraid of this new world that we, the church, find ourselves in, because we know that Jesus is already here, and is with us, both behind us driving us out of our comfortable places and ahead of us, calling us forward and urging us to listen to his voice.
And so, as you and I begin our walk together, and I join with you in ministering in this time and place, Jesus urges us not to be afraid. Yes, we will stumble, and sometimes we will fall into holes. But Jesus will be there with us, pulling us up from our mistakes, dusting us off, and urging us to keep moving. So, yes, it may not be a compliment when Jesus calls us sheep. But we know that Jesus loves us in spite of the bad traits we share in common with sheep, and Jesus is with us. Always. Amen.