A wonderful, very full day! I started early, catching the first train to Clarkston, where I dropped in as substitute celebrant for a clergy colleague. The congregation and I know one another well by now, so we greeted one another warmly. The sermon went well — I brought one out from files, dusted it off and spruced it up, and rewrote it. I’ve put it in the ‘extended’ section below, so that people who only just visit my home page and who want to avoid reading anything homiletical can easily dodge the sermon text.
After that, I caught up with Nick, whom we have not sufficiently run ragged, and brought her to the magnificent Burrell Collection in Pollok Park. We visited the museum, then meandered down to the cattle pens so that Nick could admire Highland Cattle face to muzzle; we saw a few, including what must have been a very new Cattle-onian. Long walk back to the station, train to Central and to Partick, and back up the Lane of Doom to our flat. After a break to replenish our energy levels, Margaret and Nick traipsed to the city centre to see the full hour show at Sharmanka.
Everyone’s back in one of the two rooms of Château Partickhill. It’s getting late. Time to wind down.
29 April, 2012
Acts 4:5-12/Ps 23/1 John 3:16-24/John 10:11-18
The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit — Amen.
Once upon a time I thought of sheep as curly, soft, friendly gentle creatures. I thought of them as sweet, wooly animal saints — after all, Jesus had used them as a special symbol for the people he had come to save. Jesus thought of us as his sheep, who come to him when they hear his voice, so I imagined that sheep were following kinds of creatures. And because lambs are such pretty little things, and because Jesus was called the Lamb of God, I thought that this fuzzy species of barnyard animal was a singularly appropriate symbol for the dedicated, obedient, peaceful people of God.
That all was before I served a congregation where people actually kept sheep. Academic types often make this mistake — we talk a lot about what we’re sure to be the case, instead of listening to people who do the work. Now, it’s not that I’d never seen a sheep before — I’d been to the zoo, and wandered into the petting area, where I might have learned a thing or two about these beasts. But when I served at St. Alban’s Church, I visited a family who kept sheep in their back fields; they took me to the pasture and I learned from them (illustrated by my encounters with the sheep themselves) that sheep can be a nasty, stupid, smelly, wayward bunch. Only the new-born lambs are at all the way I used to imagine sheep being — vulnerable, weak, gentle, mild. And when my eyes were opened about what sheep are like in person (or ‘in the wool’), I thought back to Jesus’s talk about his being the Good Shepherd, about the sheep who hear his voice, and I developed a rather different perspective on those sayings.
First of all, I realised that being a Good Shepherd involves a whole lot more than just sitting in the shade, perhaps sipping a cool lemonade (or other refreshing bevvie), watching a flock of peaceful woolly friends nibble their daily meals. Sheep do not only just stand there and graze — they try to get away. Indeed, it sometimes seems as though they deliberately try to get lost. There’s a reason that Border Collies are such energetic, persistent, restless creatures, keeping the sheep from wandering away. Good shepherding dogs need to be alert, need to be dogged, always chasing around after sheep that are trying to get away from them. Good shepherding dogs have to be incredibly patient, need to keep an eye on sheep that are too dumb, and too wilful, adequately to take care of themselves. Good sheepdogs may indeed have to be fierce enough to chase away predators, so that their clueless flocks can afford to fear no evil; they have to attend to the sheep every minute of the day, and to be ready to watch them at night as well.
So, too, I realised that now when I thought of myself as one of the sheep, it wasn’t as flattering a comparison as I’d been assuming all along. I had visualised myself frolicking in the pasture in a picturesque sort of way; but once I had a clearer picture about sheep, I recognised that one possible implication of the metaphor could be that I have a strong tendency to want to get away from the shepherd who is protecting me. I want to sneak out from under his care. ‘All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned everyone to his own way’. And why? Why do I want to escape from my shepherd? Primarily to indulge that prodigal-son side of me, to do foolish things which are likely to hurt either myself or other people. So as my understanding of sheep changed, I found that my new perspective on sheep applied even more aptly than my old perspective; I’m more like the smelly, stubborn, foolish, wilful old ram than the gentle, innocent, guileless sheep.
And our Lord is shepherd not only to this old ram, but to a whole flock of these ornery, wayward sorts of sheep. Our Lord endures generation after generation of sheep who are, at our best, rather short-sighted and careless — and who at worst are evil, destructive, and vicious. No matter how heedless we sheep are, however, and no matter how we wander, our Shepherd stays with us, chases after us, calling us by name and bringing us home — whether we want to come home or not. And if we’re upset, he comforts us; if we’re hurt, he heals us; if we are obstinate, when we are obstinate, he just sticks with us till our hearts relent and yield. And these are just the sheep who already know him — while he promises that he will bring along still other sheep, who are not of this familiar fold. Yet not one of the sheep he calls will, in the end, be lost; no one can snatch us out of his hand, not even at the cost of our Shepherd’s own life.
For that is the what the good Shepherd does, in truth and action, not only talking about love, but doing the work of loving us, however smelly and irascible and wayward we may be. And this is also what the Lamb does, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, the Lamb who sits upon the throne as we read in the Book of Revelation. The Lamb — vulnerable, innocent, gentle — who was slaughtered so that we might receive the gift of life, this same Lamb is the Shepherd, and this Shepherd is Messiah, the anointed King of all. The One who suffers for us is the one who heals us; the defenceless One is the one who protects us; the One whom everyone deserted is the one who comforts us. The sheep were saved, but the shepherd was lost. And Scripture emphasises that this reveals the key to our salvation: that Jesus undertook all the risks and losses of human existence, so that all of our risks and losses might be gathered up and redeemed through his unconquerable life.
When Jesus went to the temple for the Feast of the Dedication, for Chanukah on that long-ago day, the Judeans around him demanded to know right away, ‘Are you the Messiah? Are you the King?’ They wanted no more elliptical talk about his being a shepherd, a vine, a gate, a way — they wanted the straight story. They wanted to know about Jesus’s love not in word or speech, but is truth and action. ‘If you are the Messiah, the anointed King, then tell us plainly!’ But Jesus calmly repeated his message for them; he did not stand over them as a King, but stood among them as a humble shepherd, a patient and compassionate protector for those who answer his call. ‘My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.’
The Shepherd may know some pretty unlovely sheep. You may know some unlovely sheep, some malignant mutton-heads; some may even think themselves unlovely, unwelcome at this supper of the Lamb. In this morning’s readings, the Shepherd speaks to them, to us all, to reassure our hearts: ‘I must bring them also; they will listen to my voice.’
We, like sheep, don’t always want to follow our Shepherd. All we, like sheep, usually just ignore his call, even though we hear it clearly. But our Shepherd will not let us go; he will set a table for us in the presence of our enemies, will anoint our heads with oil, and our cup will run over. And he will wait for us.
If we are his sheep, if we hear him calling us, then even if we try to ignore him or turn away, he will bring us with him, and no one will be able to snatch us away. Surely his goodness and mercy will attend us — and we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.