This is the sermon the Rev. Kevin Johnson, St. Alban’s Theatre Arlington, preached at the online worship service on the Fourth Sunday in Easter, April 25, 2021.
Easter 4 Yr B 2021
Slipping on my shoes, boiling water, toasting bread, buttering the sky: that should be enough contact with God in one day to make anyone crazy. (Hafiz)
My experience with sheep is limited. I’ve seen them grazing as I pass by in my car. I have a couple of wool sweaters. I like lamb chops. Once, when I was a child, a sheep attacked me at a petting zoo and ate the fringe off my cowboy vest. I tried to subdue it with my six-shooter, but cap guns only do so much.
Most of what I’ve heard about sheep is unflattering. They are reported to be stupid, lacking in initiative, and likely to fall over cliffs or entangle themselves in brush. Unlike the image presented in the children’s song, Mary Had a Little Lamb, sheep are not playful.
Although the image of sheep is wound throughout the scriptures, today’s scriptural analogy is a difficult one for the contemporary church to embrace. Not only are most of us far removed from the practices of shepherding; we also have a negative connotation of being a sheep. To describe someone as a sheep in 2021 is an insult.
Our society places a high value on ingenuity, creativity, and individuality. It is better to be a leader than a follower. We particularly value “pull yourself up by your own bootstrap” type of people. How many of you parents have ever urged your children to be good sheep?
An independent, self-sufficient adulthood is our dream for our children and there is no such thing as an independent, self-made sheep. I mean really. Do we really want to teach our children to follow the crowd without question; to expect someone else to take care of us?”
Well……Yes. You know, after we strip away all of the church fru-fru: all of the brass do-dads, all of the fancy outfits, all of the plethora of intricate, finely crafted doctrinal teachings, once we strip away all of the layers upon layers of church….we are ultimately left with one clear choice: Do we follow God? Do we expect and trust that God will take care of God’s creation, which includes you and me? Or, are we holding out?
Deep, deep down, when we strip away all of the self-defense mechanisms and all of the rational arguments and all of those layers we put on for our friends and family and enemies….when one peels back all those layers and reveal one’s core truth….Do you expect God to care for you? Or, are you holding back?
A sheep needs the shepherd to guide and care for it and – in dire straits – to rescue it. Despite the images portrayed in the movies and children’s songs, there is nothing sentimental about the relationship between a sheep and its shepherd: for the sheep it is a matter of survival, and for the shepherd it is a matter of economy.
The sheep are valuable property, not pets. The shepherd has been vested with the interest of a village’s most-valuable asset. In the undeveloped world, there are no 401ks, no certificates of deposit, not even a simple savings account. In the ancient world the savings account comes on four hoofs and has curly hair. If the shepherd falls asleep… lets the wolf into the sheepfold….the whole village goes hungry.
So, with this in mind let’s take a look at today’s lesson from John.
I’m going to start with the bookend stories on either side of today’s lesson, because they are critical to understanding the implications of this lesson about sheepfolds, sheep, and shepherds.
Immediately following this story about sheep, John takes us to a fairly benign scene where Jesus is taking an afternoon stroll in the covered porticos of the Temple. Suddenly, some “Jews” encircle Jesus and begin to question him. It is important to remember that Jesus himself was a Jew, as were the vast majority of his faithful followers. “Jews” is a blanket shorthand term that refers to the people of the city: some who support Jesus, some who oppose Jesus, most of whom are just curious about this Jesus.
Someone in the crowd cries out, “Jesus, if you are the Messiah tell us ‘publicly.’ It is a serious question with serious implications. In 1st c. Jerusalem to claim to be the Messiah was to cause social revolution and ignite the hopes of the entire nation. It was also to put the nation at risk from Roman military reprisals, ‘cause the Romans like their vassal states compliant and passive, not revolutionary.
For the Jewish state, a false claim of Messiahship carried the death penalty. For the Roman state, anyone claiming to be a revolutionary carried the death penalty. Either way – claiming to be the Messiah means putting one’s life at risk. “Hey Jesus! If you are the Messiah tell us publicly” – is a statement fraught with danger and courage.
Immediately prior to today’s sheepfold analogy is the story of Jesus healing a blind man, at the end which a group of Pharisees attempt to trap Jesus in public debate with those who had the power of the government.
So, you see, it is a heated, dangerous context within which Jesus’ analogy about sheepfolds and shepherds is contained. As usual Jesus does not answer the accusers’ questions directly, but puts the onus back on the challengers saying, “My works speak for me, and by implication since you are publicly asking this question, you are publicly admitting that you do not see or hear or get what my works are making clear.”
Jesus goes even further. He says, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me.’ The English translations use the word hear, but the Greek word, akouo (ak-oo’-o), is more than physical hearing. Akouo is much closer to perceiving the truth, to full comprehension. To use today’s language we would probably say, “Read between the lines.”
So, Jesus’ sheep don’t just “hear” his voice – they recognize it and respond to it. Think about when you answer the telephone and you recognize who is calling simply by their voice. Perhaps it is your mother, or grandfather, or son. That recognized “Hello” in an instant evokes of this emotional stuff inside of you. All of your perceived ‘truth’ about this person causes you to respond.
Most of us have been exposed to the voice of Christ. We recognize when Jesus calls and says “Hello.” The question of course is “How shall we respond?” And the reality is that Jesus calls pretty darn often. More often that we probably realize or desire. In fact, Jesus probably contacts us so often that his emails likely get shunted into the Spam folder.
Fortunately, for the sake of the village, Jesus is able to hack into our systems and move himself from Spam to the Inbox. “No one will snatch them out of my hand,” is Jesus’ clear statement. “I am the shepherd,” he says.
“I have been vested with responsibility for these, my sheep. I will hunt them down when they wander afar. I will stand between them and the wolf. I will liberate them when they get all tangled up in life’s bramble bushes.
“All they have to do is be my sheep. All they have to do is to hear my voice. To trust me. To expect me to care for them. To respond when I call. To let me untangle them from the brambles they get themselves all tangled up in.”
There was a time in my life when I spent a lot of time, effort, and trust in myself alone to untangle myself from a life bramble. “You’re a responsible, self-sufficient, reasonably well-educated professional,” I told myself. “Pull yourself up by your own bootstrap and get yourself out of this mess.”
It didn’t work. The more I tried, the more tangled up I became in the prickly life situation. And I failed to untangle myself.
Looking backwards, Jesus the Christ had tried to help me out of the mess. Again and again the Christ offered me a helping hand, and again and again I kind of trusted God, but wasn’t willing to completely trust God. I am certain I sent a lot of God’s messages to the Spam folder of life.
I don’t think I fully grasped the implications of the Shepherd and the sheep – that the sheep are not just pretty things for God to gaze upon, but that the sheep are valuable resources in God’s economy. And that the Shepherd has been vested with protecting this valuable asset so that that the village does not go hungry. In effect, I thwarted the Good Shepherd from doing his job because I was holding back some of my full trust in God.
I wonder, if you’ve had a similar experience in your life? I bet many of you have, because, after all, we live in a culture that values an independent, self-sufficient adulthood, and there is no such thing as an independent, self-made sheep in the Good Shepherd’s sheepfold.
It occurs to me that these same questions are also applicable to us as a collective diocese. Do we recognize that the collective we, gathered together as the Episcopal Church in North Texas, is a valuable resource in God’s economy? Do we see ourselves as a critical asset to help God’s dream unfold?
Do we fully, extravagantly believe with our whole being that the Good Shepherd has been vested with the protection of the collective us so that the village around us does not go hungry? Do we really, fully believe that the Good Shepherd is actively working to untangle us from this bramble bush we’re currently all tangled up in?
I do. I know many of you all do, also. I see Jesus the Christ, the Good Shepherd, extending his hand again and again to set us back on our feet so that we can be the living, breathing, present Good News for so many in our village that yearn to hear the Good News we have to offer.
I see, again and again, the Good Shepherd actively untangling us from the bramble bushes we’ve gotten all tangle up in. I see the good work that has been and will continue to be made manifest through our collective gathered togetherness. People have been fed. Wounds have been healed. The down-spirited have been renewed. Brokenness has been reconciled.
The Good Shepherd is at work and his voice is strong and present. Let us have the presence of mind and humility of heart to expect, to trust, and to follow the shepherd’s voice. Amen.