A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on April 25, 2010.
Psalm 23; John 10:22-30
You may not have given it much thought, but there’s a lot of references in the Bible to sheep. As you know, I’m sure, sheep and shepherding were an important way of life in that agricultural society, and people depended on this industry in many different ways. So it was natural, I suppose, for the imagery of sheep to be carried over into scripture to illustrate the way we, God’s human creation, relate to the One who has made us and gives us our reason for living. We are the sheep and God is our Shepherd.
That’s the way it seems to go, doesn’t it?
Jesus certainly didn’t hesitate to talk about the subject, referring to himself as the Shepherd who knows his sheep. By doing that, of course, according to the religious folk who had issues with him, he put himself in the place of God. And that, for them, was hard to swallow. But it didn’t stop him from making such bold announcements. When Jesus set his mind to something, nothing did.
He told parables about sheep. The most notable, I would think, is the one that precedes his most famous parable, the one about the prodigal son. He tells of the shepherd who loses a sheep, and then leaves the remaining herd – ninety-nine in number, you will recall – to go searching for the one that was lost.
Jesus was all the time using images and pictures from everyday life, and since sheep and shepherding were so important to their way of life, they were able to connect with his ideas quickly and readily. You and I could talk about our common experiences of… say, going to the grocery store… and we would be able to connect immediately with what that is like. The same was true for sheep in the first century world of Jesus.
Sheep were something they knew and understood, so when Jesus talked about sheep, they were able to pick up quickly on what he meant. And so, the common thought was that we humans behave like sheep and need the guidance of the One who is more than willing to be our eternal Shepherd.
Except… well I don’t know about you, but there is something about the idea of being likened to a sheep that doesn’t sit too well with me. Sheep come across as being docile and bland and not very intelligent, and I’m just not too sure I want to thought of in those ways. Are you?
I’ve been around a few sheep. The summer Janet and I spent in Scotland put me in contact with more sheep than I really care to admit. What I found is that they can be rather comical in their behavior. There was one, in particular, that I remember. It was outside Sterling. We had driven up for dinner with friends and business acquaintances of our daughter Emily, and on the way back a herd of sheep had decided to commandeer the narrow road leading to where we were staying. In Scotland, we learned, sheep have the right of way, so you just have to be patient and wait until the sheep clear the road. One of the sheep had only one horn, and baahed with a deep, deep voice. It performed for us awhile and then made its way down the road. It was not afraid of us nor of my camera, and proved to be really quite a ham.
Excuse me, did I say ham? Can a sheep be a ham? Talk about mixing your metaphors.
There’s something else I remember. Sheep are smelly. And they have absolutely no sense of direction. They’ll just take off wherever the green grass entices them without giving any thought as to where they’re going or what danger they might be in. That was the backdrop to Jesus’ parable we mentioned; no doubt the reason that the sheep got lost in the first place. And that leads to the next point. Sheep are not very intelligent, for sure.
Take all that into account, and I’m not too sure I want to be compared to a smelly, dull, dumb old sheep. Do you?
However, Frederick Buechner doesn’t seem to mind. He tells about his friend, Vernon Beebe, who was a sheepherder in Vermont. “I’ve stood with him,” Buechner says, “in their shed with a forty-watt bulb hanging down from the low ceiling to light up their timid, greedy, foolish, half holy faces as they pushed and butted each other to get at (the hay) it, because if God is like a shepherd, there are more than just a few ways, needless to say, that people like you and me are like sheep. Being timid, greedy, foolish, and half holy is only part of it.”1
Okay, maybe we’re more like sheep than we care to admit. But then, I also read that sheep aren’t as dumb as we tend to think they are. In fact, that idea has been promoted by cattle farmers who are hardly objective about the matter. Maybe those cattle folk have an axe to grind because sheep don’t act like cows. You have to herd cows, push them from behind, snap a whip every once in awhile to get their attention and to get them going. Occasionally, one will take off on its own and you’ve got to go chasing after it, put a lasso around its neck, and haul it back to the herd. But generally, despite Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep, sheep will follow a shepherd who walks out in front of them, leading the way. And they will do it without complaining or trying to run off.
And they know their shepherd’s voice and that voice is the only one they will follow…2 which is, of course, what Jesus was trying to get across to the religious authorities during their confrontation in the temple.
You will recall from our gospel reading that Jesus talked about his sheep while being questioned by the temple leaders. They want to know if he views himself as the Christ, the Messiah.
I can just imagine, can’t you, how the smell of sheep permeates the air? Sheep were used for their wool, to be sure, not to mention supper when the occasion called for it. Lamb, I believe, is the staple for the Passover meal. But sheep were used for the sacrifices too, and I’ve been around animals being slaughtered, enough to know that the smell is hard to let go of. It would have been quite natural for Jesus to talk about sheep when questioned by the temple keepers. All they had to do was take a whiff and they too would have sheep on their mind.
“… you do not belong to my sheep,” Jesus says to them. “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”
I’m struck by the verbal tense used by Jesus. He doesn’t use the past tense nor the future. He talks about the present, the here-and-now. “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”
The psalmist does the very same thing. Have you noticed? He uses the present tense. Is there anyone in this place, other than our resident grammarian Lynn Blagg, perhaps, who has thought about the tense usage of Psalm 23?
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside the still waters;
He restores my soul.
He leads me in the paths of righteousness…
You get the picture, don’t you? There is no time that God is not with us, tending to us, showing us the way, guiding us through the deep and sometimes craggy places of life. It is not until we get to the final verse of the psalm that the tense changes. There, the psalmist affirms that God’s goodness and mercy will be with him the remainder of his life, and after this sojourn on earth is over God will give him a home forever.
But that’s the interesting thing about verbal tense and time. Whenever we get to the future, it instantly becomes the present, and that which once was present is now past. We are always living in God’s present tense, and we always belong to his flock. Nothing can take that promise away from us. Nothing.
Barbara Brown Taylor talks about our propensity for thinking that we never quite measure up to God’s grace. She does so in the context of belonging to God’s sheepfold, and starts with a question…
What is it that you hold over your own head? What golden ring is it that you place just high enough so that you can never quite reach it? Is it that you do not pray enough, or witness enough, or read enough theology? Is it that you are not knowledgeable enough, or enthusiastic enough, or sure enough about what you believe? Whatever it is, please stop it (emphasis mine). Please stop exiling yourself from the flock because of your beliefs about what it takes to belong and see if you cannot allow yourself to belong simply because God says you do.3
As we come to the Lord’s Table, if you are tempted to think this is something you need to earn – or worse, that it is something you deserve – in Taylor’s words, please stop it. We come to the table now, we accept God’s mercy and grace now. We do not think about what happened yesterday nor do we concern ourselves with tomorrow. God is always to be found in the present tense, and it is right now that he has prepared his table for us. Here we will find evidences, in the words of the psalmist, of God’s goodness and mercy. Here we will find all we need for the journey.
So come and eat the bread, drink the cup, and know that you are a part of God’s flock… now.
Bread for the wilderness, O Lord, wine for the journey. Your mercy and grace overflowing. That is what we find now at your table. Eternal Shepherd, feed us and guide us, we pray, through Christ our Lord, Amen.
1Frederick Buechner, Secrets in the Dark (San Francisco: Harper, 2006), p. 126.
2Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life (Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1993), p. 140.
3Ibid, p. 144.