Sermon for April 25, Psalm 23 and John 10:7-18, 27-3
Last Friday afternoon, Elizabeth, Katie and I attended the Dogwood Festival in Piedmont Park. Along the path that winds around the park were hundreds of booths displaying the works of local and regional artists that were as splendidly colorful, refreshing, and mesmerizing as the spring day that enfolded us.
One of the artist booths that particularly caught our eye and prompted much smiles and laughter was entitled “Sheep Incognito” The booth featured a large collection of whimsical, humorous and thought-provoking oil-paintings of sheep, each one with an outrageous title:
A sheep flying in a bumble bee suit: Bumble Baaaaa
A sheep in a gumball machine: Baabblegum
A sheep version of DaVinci’s “Virtual Man”: Baa Vinci
A sheep in a pickup, wearing a cap and smoking a cig: Billy Baab and his Truck
A sheep going up for a slam dunk: Baasketball
A sheep in a football uniform clutching a kicked football: Goal Oriented
Several sheep stacked on top of another: Tower of Baabel
And in a scene that is most appropriate for today’s scripture readings—
A sheep, standing on the luscious green bank of a clear blue lake, is gazing up at the magnificent sky with a sweet smile on its face: Beside Still Waters
Artist Connie Togel, the daughter of German immigrants who has a home in South Carolina on Lake Hartwell, says this about why she paints sheep for a living:
“They really are just sheep, even though you might recognize yourself or those you know in what you are seeing. Truth be told, sheep are messengers of insane moments around us, fun things awaiting us, and focal points of special things in life that often slip by unnoticed. What’s more, being the peacenik creatures they are, the sheep love being part of a greater cause: bringing some joy and whimsy back to a world that seems to be headed into all sorts of wrong directions…The sheep really are a vehicle for the message I hope to impart to the world around me. It is about hope, laughter, love, courage and just a smidgen of insanity—all the things in life that make life wonderful.”
I like Togel’s view of sheep as symbols of hope, laughter, courage and a smidge of insanity because it’s a perspective that is not commonly shared in society. Sheep are not held in the same high regard as other animals, animals well known for their power, might, wisdom, cunning and loyalty like the eagle, the lion, the tiger, the horse, the dog, and the bear. Whenever anyone asks the popular small conversation starter question, “If you could be any animal, what kind of animal would you be?” rarely do you hear a person say, “A sheep.”
The use of the word sheep carries a lot of negativity, a lot of wooly baggage. No one wants to be described as “sheepish” because it means they are embarrassed or ashamed. And no group of people wants to be labeled as sheep because it implies they are brainless conformists for whom passivity is a lifestyle, as the following quotes illustrate:
“We need more people speaking out. This country is not overrun with rebels and free thinkers. It’s overrun with sheep and conformists.
“I fear being a completely acceptable sheep in society.”
“Better to live one year as a tiger, than a hundred as a sheep.”
“If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”
It is perfectly fine, though, to claim sheep as your favorite animal or collect toy sheep because, let’s be honest, they’re pretty darn cute and loveable. But to be referred to as a sheep is always an insult. If the animal were to hear this they might loudly proclaim that they’re getting the proverbial short end of the shepherd’s crook.
Of course, sheep are not intelligent enough to speak or even remotely communicate as other animals like the dolphin or horse. But they are a lot smarter and more interesting than many people give them credit. For instance, sheep have good hearing, and are sensitive to noise when being handled. Sheep have horizontal slit-shaped pupils, possessing excellent peripheral vision; with visual fields of approximately 270° to 320°, sheep can see behind themselves without turning their heads. Sheep do have poor depth perception; shadows and dips in the ground may cause sheep to baulk…but sheep have a tendency to move out of the dark and into well-lit areas.“
All sheep have a tendency to congregate close to other members of a flock, and sheep can become stressed when separated from their flock members. Sheep can recognize individual human and sheep faces, and remember them for years. And despite perceptions that sheep are dumb creatures, a University of Illinois monograph on sheep found them to be just below pigs and on par with cattle in IQ, and some sheep have even shown problem-solving abilities.
There are worse things a person can be compared to than sheep like a snake, a slug or a stink bug. And of all the animals chosen to describe human beings and their relationship to God, the one most often used is…a sheep. Throughout scripture, we are told again and again that God loves us and cares for us like a shepherd cares for the sheep—cares for the flock. There’s not a better and more comforting reminder of God’s love than the 23rd Psalm written by a shepherd turned king:
The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters, he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and staff—they comfort me. You prepare a table before me; in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.
Hundreds of years later, Jesus evokes the familiar words of the psalm when he says to the disciples and the crowds in John’s gospel:
“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly . I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again….My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will ever snatch them out of my hand.”
This image of Jesus or God as the good shepherd and God’s people as sheep has a permanent hold on Christian imagination and piety, particularly among ordained clergy. It is all too easy and common for preachers, like me, to see ourselves as “good shepherds” who have been trained at the very best religious institutions to “pastor” to the church, otherwise known as the “flock of sheep.” And it is even easier and more commonplace for us ordained minister types (elders too) to become frustrated when the “sheep” in the congregation “don’t hear our voice!”
While Psalm 23 and John 10, among other texts, are wonderful theological and practical lessons for how church leaders are called to lead in the image of “Jesus’ leadership, to be the shepherd as Jesus is shepherd,”  it’s important for all of us to remember that we are not the “Good Shepherd.” Even when we’re trying faithfully to model our shepherding after Jesus’ preaching and teaching, we are still following Christ ourselves. We are also sheep and fellow members of the one flock, and God in Christ alone is our one shepherd, and that is an extremely wonderful and humbling truth to behold.
That idea has been particularly significant this week for me and I suspect many of us at Pleasant Hill upon hearing that Dave Fry, the founder and senior pastor or shepherd of this 25 year old church, would have to have emergency knee surgery. Overwhelming anxiety seemed as it was about to burst through the steeple as we immediately thought: “I can’t believe Dave has to go through this again! And he’s going to be in recovery for 3-4 weeks, what are we going to do without him!”
So far, we’re doing pretty good which is not to say that the church doesn’t need Dave or Dave doesn’t need the church. The church staff, while completely capable of taking over some of Dave’s responsibilities, will be the first to say “we’ll be glad when Dave gets back.” And I know all of you will be equally filled with joy to see a pain-free Dave walk back into the sanctuary, grinning from ear to ear.
What Dave’s sudden absence is teaching me, and I hope the rest of us too, is that the one flock of sheep, the Church Universal, keeps going no matter which ministers or elders or Christian Educators or church leaders are serving in a particular congregation. The one flock, the Church, keeps following the One Shepherd even when members leave the fold for whatever reason.
It’s true that a church’s staff, its Session and its members who oversee or lead ministries are called to use particular gifts for leadership and decision-making among the flock. But those folks are not the only shepherds any more than any one of them is the Good Shepherd. Those persons are not even the one flock, the Church, the larger body of Christ…not without everyone else in the fold.
There are many people at Pleasant Hill who don’t have seminary degrees or master’s degrees or have not been ordained in the church whom are faithfully leading, teaching, preaching, comforting, and nurturing the flock with the gifts God has given them. There are folks doing extraordinary things among the fold even when one of the “shepherds” or church staff, elders or other church leaders is sick or on vacation or on a mission trip or presiding at a funeral or counseling a teenager. Ministry happens among the one flock with, without and despite us because of the one shepherd, the Good Shepherd, who leads all of us—who lays down his life for us so that we may live, love and serve abundantly.
The words of the psalmist and especially those of Jesus helps the church understand itself as God’s sheep and inspire the members of the one flock to live out a life that is “grounded in the mutuality of love embodied in the relationship of Jesus and God.”
We, who are loved and nurtured by God like sheep tended to by a shepherd, are to live out a life that is keenly attuned to God’s presence among us. With sheep-like ears we hear God’s voice, we see God’s face and we know God walks beside us on our journey. We yearn to know God is with us, even in the most difficult and darkest of times.
In a television interview a few years ago on the powerful message of Psalm 23, Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of the 1981 best-selling book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, said:
“Right after 9/11 — when everybody was asking me, “Where was God that Tuesday? How could God have let such a thing happen?” — the answer I found myself giving was, “God’s promise was never that life would be fair. God’s promise was, when it’s your turn to confront the unfairness of life, no matter how hard it is, you’ll be able to handle it, because He’ll be on your side. He will give you the strength you need to find your way through…I was paraphrasing the twenty-third Psalm: ‘Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.’ The psalmist is not saying, ‘I will fear no evil because evil only happens to people who deserve it.’ He’s saying, ‘This is a scary, out-of-control world, but it doesn’t scare me, because I know that God is on my side, not on the side of the hijacker. God is on my side, not on the side of the illness, or the accident, or the terrible thing that happened. And that’s enough to give me the confidence.’ The twenty-third Psalm is the answer to the question, ‘How do you live in a dangerous, unpredictable, frightening world?’
Kushner continues by saying he was inspired to write When Bad Things Happen by the death of his son who was born with an incurable illness and died at the age of 14 in 1977:
“I asked myself, how did my wife and I get through that? You would think that would shatter the faith of the average person. Where did we find the strength and the ability to raise him, to comfort him when he was sick and scared, and ultimately to lose him? And the only answer is, when we used up all of our own strength and love and faith, there really is a God, and he replenishes your love and your strength and your faith.
But people who have been hurt by life get stuck in ‘the valley of the shadow,’ and they don’t know how to find their way out. And that’s the role of God. The role of God is not to explain and not to justify but to comfort, to find people when they are living in darkness, take them by the hand, and show them how to find their way into the sunlight again.”
The psalmist proclaims what we know to be true in our sheep loving hearts:
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…He leads me beside still waters, he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths…I fear no evil for you are with me; your rod and staff—they comfort me”
Jesus affirms what we know to be true in our sheep loving souls:
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.
I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”
Knowing this unconditional love that the One shepherd has for the one flock, how could any one of us not forever say, as the children’s song goes, “ I just wanna be a child of God. I just wanna be a sheep!”
 Bill Maher, controversial writer, producer, actor and comedian, late –night talk show host on HBO http://thinkexist.com/quotation/we_need_more_people_speaking_out-this_country_is/330208.html
 Marilyn Manson, controversial rock singer, http://thinkexist.com/quotation/i-fear-being-like-everyone-i-hate-i-fear-failure/347270.html
 Madonna, actress and famous pop singer, http://thinkexist.com/quotation/better_to_live_one_year_as_a_tiger-then_a_hundred/333822.html
 George Washington, founding father and first president of the United States, http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/g/georgewash146824.html
 New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, John 10:1-21 “Reflections”
 New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, John 10:22-42 “Reflections”
 PBS program on Religion & Ethics, Interview with Rabbi Harold Kushner on Psalm 23, Nov. 26, 2004, Episode 813, http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/week813/feature.html