I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.John 10:14
It is quite a challenge to preach on this fourth Sunday of Easter without talking about sheep and shepherds. They are featured prominently in today’s readings, as they are every year on this particular Sunday, known as “Good Shepherd Sunday.”
The image of God as our shepherd, and Jesus as our good shepherd, is such a familiar one. But I have to wonder: is it still of help to us? It is rather old fashioned, isn’t it? In biblical times, everyone knew a shepherd. It would have been a very familiar and helpful metaphor. But is that still the case?
And yet, somehow, this image continues to speak to us as people of faith. Psalm 23 is still one of our most beloved psalms and passages in scripture. Jesus as the Good Shepherd is still one of the most familiar ways of thinking of him, and of picturing him.
And as I thought about why this is still the case, in this very modern, post-agricultural world of ours, it struck me that the answer is actually quite simple: We all long for a shepherd. We all know that we need someone to lead us, and to protect us, and to guide us. We are a lot like sheep. And sheep need shepherds. The world, then and now, looks for someone to lead, because we need someone to lead us.
I suspect that is why superhero movies are still popular, and probably always will be. Because our world needs heroes. Our world needs leaders. Our world needs good and faithful shepherds, to take care of us, and to lead us.
Our world certainly needs a good shepherd right now. We need someone that we trust to lead us, as a nation and all around the world. We are in uncharted territory. What will the world look like after this pandemic runs its course? What will our congregation look like when we get back to a “new normal”?
Like so many other congregations and businesses, this pandemic has affected our life together, profoundly and perhaps permanently. We all long for getting back to the way things were, but will that ever happen again? We don’t really know what the world will look like when all of this is over. And there is no road map through all of this. There is no handbook to turn to.
Times like these are when we need a shepherd more than ever. Because we are a lot like sheep. Whether it is an old-fashioned image or not, it is still true. We are still a lot like sheep.
So, I am going to keep using the image, especially this Sunday. And this morning, I am going to explore three ways that it still is helpful to think of us as sheep, and what that can teach us about our life of faith, in this moment when we are so in need of our shepherd.
First of all, sheep are what is known as “flock animals.” They like to be together. They don’t do so well on their own. There is safety in numbers, and sheep seem to know this. So, they tend to spend a lot of time together, and they find a lot of benefit from being together.
And we as humans are “flock animals” too, are we not? We like to be together. We like to gather in groups. There is this innate drive to surround ourselves with like-minded people, in sports and politics, at work and at school. We tend to flock together. Birds of a feather flock together, as the old saying goes. Congregations, of course, are sometimes called flocks.
We are a community that recognizes that there are important reasons to be together. And the pandemic hasn’t changed this. It has been a challenge, of course, in these days of social distancing. but no less important to find ways to be together.
But what is unique about congregations is that we are not necessarily birds of a feather. I mean, we are all Lutheran, and we all live in this community, but beyond that we have a number of differences. We are different ages, we grew up in different parts of the country, we have different tastes in music, we support different sports teams, we have widely-varying political views, and on and on. We are not exactly birds of a feather, except that we are all followers of Jesus, and we are all Lutherans. And so, we are here, flocking together, as best we can.
When you spend any time studying Scripture, it becomes very obvious that God’s plan is for us to be together, in a community of faith like this one. You might remember that the first thing Jesus does when he begins his ministry, is to call a group of disciples together. And the early church – after Jesus is crucified and raised – spent a lot of time together. In the Book of Acts, we learn what life was like for those early Christians. In Acts 2:46, we find this description:
“Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.”
Christians are supposed to spend much time together. We are not intended to be on our own. That’s why Jesus created the church. That is one of its primary purposes: So that we sheep can come together and be kept safe. And so that we can join together in seeking guidance from our shepherd. Especially in uncertain times like this one. Which brings us to the second way that we are like sheep.
It turns out that sheep are very good at hearing, and especially at hearing the voice of their shepherd. A practice typical in Jesus’ time was for shepherds to get together with other shepherds and their sheep during the day. A bunch of shepherds, all together with lots and lots of sheep, usually at some kind of watering hole. It was noisy and chaotic, to say the least. But at the end of the day, the shepherds would call for their sheep. And the sheep would follow their own shepherds to a safe place to sleep. In the midst of all that chaos, and all those competing voices, the sheep would hear their shepherd’s voice and follow their shepherd. And that is, of course, what we are supposed to do, too: Listen to our shepherd, our good shepherd, and follow him.
There are plenty of competing voices these days, all clamoring for our attention. Voices from our tvs, and our computers, and our phones and tablets, and on and on. But there is only one voice that truly matters to our soul. And that is the voice of the shepherd, the voice of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Sheep are good at listening to the voice of their shepherd, and we need to be, too. Now, more than ever.
And the third characteristic of sheep that I want to remind us of today is that sheep are natural followers. They don’t like to be pushed; they prefer to be led. And it is their shepherd who leads them. We have all probably heard that sheep are not very smart animals, but that turns out not to be true. Sheep supporters claim that it is a rumor started by cattle ranchers, because sheep don’t behave like cows. Cows are herded from the rear by cowboys. They yell and prod the cows to get them going in the right direction. But when you stand behind sheep and make noises, they just try to get behind you again. So some cattle ranchers assumed that they were stupid animals. When, in fact, sheep simply prefer to be led.
Cows can be pushed. Sheep must be led. And, when you think about it, that’s really not that stupid. Sheep trust their shepherd, and go where the shepherd goes. And they let the shepherd go first, to make sure the way is safe, and then to invite them to follow him.
And isn’t that what Jesus is asking of us? To be his followers? He’s not going to push us. He’s not going to force us. Instead, Jesus just keeps calling us, in many and various ways, and inviting us over and over to follow him. He promises to lead us, to protect us, and even to lay down his life for us. And he invites us to trust him. Trust him and follow him.
Jesus is our shepherd, the Good Shepherd. The leader that our world needs right now. And we are his sheep. Flocking together, listening for his voice, and following him. Perhaps this image of being sheep, and Jesus as our Good Shepherd, is not so out of date as I might have thought. Or perhaps, we need an out-of-date image, to remind us that what we need right now is not going to be found in technology, or progress, or any of the things that we are tempted to believe in and follow.
Our world has not out-grown its need for a shepherd. It is now, just as it has always been, a world in need of a good and faithful shepherd. And today, Good Shepherd Sunday, we pause to remember this. That we are blessed to have a shepherd, who is good and loving and faithful; who promises to lead us all the days of our life, through the trials and tribulations and whatever this world throws at us. We can help this shepherd by being good and faithful sheep: By continuing to flock together, faithfully listening for his voice, and by following him.
The Lord is our shepherd. Still. So, let us be his sheep. Still. Until that blessed day when we shall be gathered, by our shepherd, into the house of the Lord forever. Thanks be to God. Amen