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The Flock 2

goodshepherdJohn 10: 11-18
Acts 2: 42-47
Introduction to the reading
Until today, our Gospel readings for the Sundays after Easter have focused on post-resurrection appearances of Jesus to the disciples.  Now we back up and in the last verses of this reading, we hear Jesus predict what is going to happen to him and the underlying reason why.  So listen for that.

But interestingly, Jesus is also letting us know how it’s going to be for us - his followers – in the days and months and centuries and millennia afterwards.  He uses the old familiar metaphor of the shepherd and the sheep, which always speaks to us no matter how far removed we are from that time and place.

The Lord is my shepherd.

You could say that the first part of the first line of Psalm 23 sums up the whole passage from John that we just read.  

By the time Jesus was born, the vocation of shepherd had fallen into disrepute.  For the nomadic tribes of the ancient Near East, flocks of sheep and goats were the basis of the economy and shepherding was a way of life.  But when Israel became a settled people with an agricultural economy, herding was less important than it had been.  So in the 1st century, observant Jews classed shepherds, along with tax collectors, prostitutes and lepers, as unclean, as persons with whom they could not eat or even associate.  It is interesting and important to note that the birth of Jesus was announced first to this marginalized group, to the shepherds abiding in the fields.  

And now Jesus describes himself as one of them, these shepherds; he redeems the image of shepherd and the importance of the flocks.  The shepherd is the manager, the guide, the caregiver, the protector.  Nothing that life throws our way can keep us from God’s loving oversight.  The shepherd Jesus declares that he gives his very life for us, for our well-being, our salvation.

This simple – though certainly not simplistic - image is good and necessary to remember in our own complex, tumultuous times, when the world over, people are struggling; when political, social and economic systems that we think have worked for so long seem to be crumbling; when we don’t seem to be taking very good care of one another.  The Lord is our shepherd.

Sheep require more attention than any other livestock.  They can’t take care of themselves; they are not well-groomed.  They are docile, feeble and fearful, and they have little means of defense.  When a sheep strays from the flock and gets lost, it can’t find its own way home.  Someone has to come to its rescue and that would be the shepherd.

Like real sheep we are a difficult flock to manage.  We are such independent, self-contained individuals – I think the current term is ‘silo’.  We are addicted to our devices, connected to one another by the fragile and dangerous cord of the internet.  Do we know any more how to converse with one another, face to face?  Do we know how to pay attention, to listen?  Are we baffled by trying to build relationships, let alone love one another?  And worse, do we care?  Not so much…  But the Lord is our shepherd.

Jesus sets up the contrast between the good shepherd and the hired hand.  The hired hand doesn’t know the sheep by name and doesn’t love them either.  He doesn’t own the sheep; it’s just a job and not a very respectable one at that.  At the first sign of danger or trouble, the hired hand abandons the flock.  The sheep are on their own and that’s a problem.  
But the good shepherd – the ideal shepherd – knows every member of the flock and they know him.  The sheep and the shepherd have a trusting relationship and a mutually understood language.  

Not only that, but Jesus says that his flock is not limited in time or place.  “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.”  Jesus has come not to save just Israel but to save all humanity.

Like real sheep, we can recognize the voice of our shepherd when he calls to us, and this is our saving grace.  Over the centuries that the church has been in existence (the Protestant Reformation is marking 500 years now, in 2017), the institution of “the church” has been weighed down by doctrines and dogma, fractured by denominationalism and disputes, smeared by misconduct, mismanagement and malfeasance.  How hard it is to hear and recognize the voice of Jesus in all the church cacophony, even as we claim that the Lord is our shepherd.

Sheep need to be led.  Sheep will not go anywhere that their trusted shepherd does not go first so that they know it is safe to follow.  At the back of the flock, it’s easy to lag behind, become distracted, wander off, get caught in a bramble bush.  

But if the sheep stay together, there is not only safety but also a kind of community and camaraderie (a little stretch here perhaps).
Like real sheep, we do our best when we stay with the flock.  The reading from the book known as The Acts of the Apostles, describes the community life of the first converts, the very early Christian community:

  • They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
  • All who believed were together and had all things in common.
  • ...they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread [from house to house] and ate their food with glad and generous hearts.

In my reading some years ago, I came upon an account by a Mennonite pastor in North Carolina that illustrates the meaning of community in Christ.

I remember sitting in a hospital room with a man from my congregation who was recovering from a severe stroke.  He was telling me about all the other people from church who had visited him that week – several congregants who brought their hymnals and sang with him, another who brought his fiddle and played Appalachian tunes, others who stopped by on lunch breaks or after work.  All those church people, he mumbled to me, made it easier to believe in God.  When they are with me, he said, I know that God is with me. … The life of the congregation reveals the life of God.  “Christ is present to us” … “insofar as we are present to each other.”  (Villegas 19)

I do not sense that this kind of care and presence with one another, as members of a church congregation, happen as much anymore, especially here in the metropolitan, cosmopolitan Northeast.  Heck, we even have trouble just being here together on a Sunday morning.  We have lost even the idea of Sabbath.  Too many people feel forced to give in to the demands and pressures of the world; declining attendance at worship services is a reality across the religious spectrum.

If our faith is to survive, if our faith communities are to survive, we must continue to proclaim:

The Lord is indeed our shepherd, we shall not want.
He makes us lie down in green pastures, he leads us beside still waters.
He restores our souls.
He leads us in right paths for his name’s sake.
Even though we walk through the darkest valleys, we fear no evil,
for you are with us.  Your rod and your staff comfort us.
You prepare a table before us in the presence of our enemies;
you anoint our heads with oil; our cups overflow.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our lives together
and we shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.    Amen.

Villegas, Isaac S. “Reflections on the lectionary”.  Christian Century 15 April 2015, 19.

Rev. Kathryn Henry
Peapack Reformed Church
Gladstone, NJ
May 7, 2017

khenryRev. Kathryn Henry
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