The fourth Sunday in Easter is known as ‘Good Shepherd Sunday’ because the readings are about sheep and shepherds. We’ve just read Psalm 23, where David says ‘The Lord is my shepherd’ and John chapter 10, where Jesus says, ‘I am the good shepherd.’
The people of Israel in the Old Testament were often called sheep by the prophets – and the leaders were often called ‘bad’ shepherds of the people. Jesus contrasts himself with the leaders in the temple, calling himself the ‘Good’ shepherd. I always think that this is both good and bad news for us… Good news because Jesus IS the one with strength and wisdom, with the knowledge to lead us whereever it is we are going. And bad news because we are reminded that we are indeed sheep.
Shepherding is not as common an occupation as it once was – and surely not as popular or as well known as it was in Jesus’ day. So, what do we know about sheep?
Sheep are high maintenance animals. Yes, their wool is maybe the best idea God ever had and they are tasty. But sheep are high maintenance. They get lost easily and can easily lose their footing in fast water or even when they fall asleep. That same wonderful wool that makes such lovely sweaters and warm clothes gives sheep an unusual center of gravity. When sleeping or resting, sheep have to keep their hooves on the ground. If they don’t, they’ll roll over onto their backs with their legs in the air. And then they can panic and struggle to get back on their feet – which builds up gasses in their stomach and can kill them in a matter of hours if the sun is hot.
Sheep are high maintenance animals. They are easily frightened. When one sheep in the herd is startled, all the sheep startle. When they’re startled, they panic, expecting the worst. And then they run – without a plan, directionless, amok.
Sheep tend to graze the same patch of land over and over, even when the grass has been eaten. Sheep would prefer to eat the grass down to the roots than move to a new, greener field. And the shepherds have to be careful when bringing the sheep to water. Again, because of their beautiful wool, it’s important that the sheep drink from still water. Sheep easily lose their footing in flowing water and their wool gives them buoyancy so that once afloat, they have a hard time regaining their footing. They are easily swept away in the current.
Does any of this sound like us? Sheep are high maintenance and a good shepherd must always be quick to take care of whatever dangers arise.
The shepherd constantly counts the sheep to ensure that no one has wandered off and gotten into trouble. When the sheep get frightened and want to run away, the shepherd knows how to calm them down. Every shepherd has his or her own particular call or noise that they make as they walk along, leading the sheep. The sound of the shepherd’s voice leads the sheep from one place to another. The sound of the shepherd’s voice can calm them down when they’re frightened. When several flocks graze the same field or water at the same place, the sheep know the voice of their shepherd and when it’s time for the flocks to separate and move on, the flocks separate by following the call of their own shepherd.
Jesus is our good shepherd. He is the one with the wisdom and strength, the knowledge and understanding needed to help us through our wilderness. We cannot see what’s ahead of us. We don’t know what will happen tomorrow or next week or next month or next year. Yesterday I attended the funeral of my colleague and friend, The Rev. Adrian Amaya. He died last Sunday of cancer at 51 years of age. He leaves a wife and two boys in high school. This was not what he had planned. This was not what he thought his future held. We never know how long we have here in this life. We have no idea what the future of this parish looks like. How long will we be here? How will we all survive?
I don’t know. You don’t know. The Bishop doesn’t know. No one knows. The good news is that we do not have to know. Knowing probably wouldn’t change things anyway – we rarely do what we know we’re supposed to do – that’s why we don’t eat right, don’t get enough exercise, don’t keep to our budgets… we are sheep!
We don’t know and we don’t need to know what will happen to us and our world tomorrow or the next day or the next. What we DO need to know is the voice of our shepherd. Do we recognize the voice of Jesus? Do we listen to his call? Do we follow where he leads?
What could be easier? Listen to the call of Jesus and follow! It WOULD be easy if we were more like dogs – obedient, faithful, smart, and quick to respond to the master’s call… But we are more like sheep – easily distracted, easily frightened, prone to wander away and also prone to stay in places that no longer feed us, simply because those places are familiar to us.
Our challenge, our responsibility, our command is to follow the voice of Jesus, wherever it leads us. Only the good shepherd knows the way through this wilderness. Only the good shepherd can provide the safety and the new pools of fresh water and the fields of green grass that we need. May God grant us the courage and the faithfulness to follow where Jesus, our good shepherd, is leading us. Amen.