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Beyond the Sheep

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John 10:1-11

I have noticed a change in my preaching recently. I have noticed that I am bored . . . not with the scriptures or with preaching, but with the usual way of interpreting them. I have grown weary of wading through scholarly arguments about obscure theology that may or may not feel connected to our current reality. I have grown bored with my usual preparation style, my tendency to spend too much time researching and not enough time soul-searching. All this could be a sign that I need a vacation, but instead I think it’s possible that I have grown tired and weary because I have grown hungry, or maybe just because I have grown.

Of course, I do realize that my preaching isn’t all about me, or about what I need. Some of you respond the most when I give you a good scholarly explanation, when I explain the historical context and the correct Greek or Hebrew translations. Some of you find God through knowledge; you learn your way to God. Plus, some scripture passages really need that kind of explanation. I also am very aware that emotionally moving worship can be exhausting. Sometimes you need to come to worship and just let the words wash over you without invading you. Those who come to worship each week need a variety of worship styles, a variety of sermon styles, with some breathing room between difficult sermons. (I try to do this, although I base it on the assumption that you’re here every week, so it may not feel that way!)

So I’m not saying that you’re suddenly going to notice a huge change in my preaching. But my personal approach to the scriptures seems to be shifting, and this particular passage really pointed it out to me. Each year, after Easter, the lectionary gives us a portion of this shepherd passage. It is “Good Shepherd Sunday.” In the past I have read about sheep. I have learned about shepherding. I have studied the ancient context; blah blah blah. This year I thought, “I’m tired of preaching about sheep!” I was surprised when I read a blog post this week by a woman I admire, expressing this very same feeling about our passage. Mary Luti writes:

I’ve heard countless sheep and shepherd sermons over the years. Some have informed me that sheep are the world’s stupidest, smelliest animals. Others insisted that they’re smart creatures, clean and good-natured. One preacher read us a long excerpt from a biblical encyclopedia article about shepherding as a disreputable profession in Jesus’ day.… In one oddly memorable sermon, an older preacher regaled us with his youthful escapades around sheep on a hippie commune…. All these sermons eventually meandered home to their various points and conclusions, some of which were worth the wait. Still, every time this text comes up in the Lectionary, I find myself praying that preachers will resist the temptation to indoctrinate or entertain us with lore about sheep…. They do this, I think, because they believe that, lacking real-world knowledge of sheep and shepherding, we’ll fail to grasp what Jesus is getting at, so they contextualize, ‘splain, describe, and illustrate…. We progressives say we’re not literalists, but the truth is when things aren’t straightforward and clear, we get as nervous as the next person, as eager to nail things down as any fundamentalist. We say we prefer heart over head, yet in our need to get to the factoidal bottom of things, we cling to our commentaries and seminary notes,  forgetting to feel. But in texts like these, the thing is to feel, and to try to help other stubborn literalists feel, too. Forget sheepy information and encyclopedia articles.… No one was ever converted by knowing the exact dimensions of a sheep pen in first century Palestine.”[1]

So, when I take Mary’s advice and skip the explaining, what do I get? The first thing that hits me, surprisingly, is fear. I’ve always brushed over this talk of thieves and bandits, but now I worry. I like the sheep pen, the safe place, being surrounded by those like me. Who are these thieves and bandits? Why would they try to steal me away? Or are they trying to steal not me but my joy, my passion, my energy to resist evil? I’m just a little sheep, a cute little lamb … ok, I’m not, I’m a stubborn old ewe, but still—I need a shepherd to keep me safe. I’m just a vulnerable sheep.

Or maybe not. Maybe I’m not a sheep. Maybe that’s not the role I’m supposed to claim in the story. Maybe I’m the shepherd. Pastors have been called “shepherds” for a very long time. Maybe this is about me needing to protect you from those who would steal your peace, your joy, your direction. Some of you are stubborn ewes and rams, too, so how am I supposed to keep you in the pen?

Or am I the gatekeeper? The one who decides who decides who belongs and who doesn’t? No, that can’t be right. Am I the gate? I don’t even know what that means.

I’m getting confused now. Maybe I should go back to the commentaries and study sheep some more! I don’t know who I am in the story, and Jesus doesn’t make it easier because he implies he’s the shepherd, and then says he’s the gate, and then says he’s the shepherd. If he can’t figure out who he is, how do I figure out who I am? Or maybe I should realize that it’s not all about me, and the question is not “Who am I?” in the story but “Who are we?”

Sometimes we are sheep, which means that, first of all, we’re in this together; but it also sometimes means we are in danger. There is so much that threatens us, that makes us afraid. We fear diminishment, our own or others’. We fear loss too soon, or ever. We fear the future and all that it holds or might not. We fear change and we fear that things will never change. We fear never being known or wanted enough for someone to call for us. We have so many fears. We’re just little lambs.

Or maybe not. Maybe we, the church, are the shepherd. After all, Jesus didn’t say he was THE shepherd but A shepherd. Maybe our role is to protect, to provide safe haven, to all those threatened by wolves and false shepherds. If we’re the shepherd, our job is to make sure the vulnerable are fed and live in safety. Our job is to make sure the poor aren’t targeted, the sick aren’t abandoned, and minorities aren’t scapegoated. It is our job to defend against predators who would steal to feed their appetites or line their wallets. There are many ways to steal and many kinds of thieves, wolves in sheep’s clothing, and wolves in wool suits. If we’re shepherds, it’s our job to protect from all threats of violence against body and soul.

And finally I see that I have written my way out of fear so I return to the passage to see what else it has for me, for us and now I can hear the voice. “The sheep hear his voice.” “The sheep follow him because they know his voice.” And suddenly we’re back to being a sheep! And I know it doesn’t make sense and I know I’m asking you to follow a stream of consciousness style of sermon but it makes sense to my heart so maybe it makes sense to yours . . . because if we’re going to be part of the shepherd church, then we also need to hear our shepherd’s voice.

And I do. I hear the voice of one who loves me. I hear the voice of the one who created me, calling to me in the crowd. I hear it, and when I can’t hear it, I feel it, my heart like a tuning fork that has been struck. The vibrations call me, tell me I am home. You know the feeling, even if you don’t define it the same way. It’s when your heartstring is plucked, when beauty takes your breath away, when you look into the eyes of another and see forever, when a rainbow arches over the cemetery and points to our church. There are many ways to hear. The sheep hear the shepherd’s voice.

We’re sheep … and we’re shepherds, because in your dreams you are all things. And that may not make sense logically, but it makes sense to my soul.


[1] Luti, Mary. https://sicutlocutusest.com/2017/05/06/some-thoughts-on-preaching-john-101-11/

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