Texts: Psalm 23, Revelation 7:9-17, John 10:22-30
When I was living in Scotland I would frequently leave St. Andrews and take the train to Glasgow or Inverness or Edinburgh to spend some time exploring. One of my favorite parts of traveling was the train ride. The train would pass through Scottish countryside and through small towns and large cities. I saw some beautiful views through those train windows. But perhaps the view that I saw the most of was sheep. They were everywhere. Practically on every hill and every valley, near and far, I could see sheep dotting the landscape. Sheep are very common in Scotland because they, to this day, play a significant role in the economy. All of the wool for Scottish tartan have to come from somewhere! Just like in Scotland, sheep were a significant part of the economy during Jesus’ day. Their wool and dairy products were very valuable, providing economic security. There was always need for cloth and food. Sheep were important, and the job of shepherding those sheep was also very important!
Today in each of our scripture readings we find a particular image: the image of the good shepherd who cares for his sheep. This is an image that runs throughout Scripture, offering us one way of understanding a little bit more about who God is in Jesus Christ, and also who we are as human beings in relationship to God. Because the gospel passage that was read today is only a snippet of the Good Shepherd text of John, I want to go back and read the earlier segment of it.
‘Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.’ Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
So again Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 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. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.’
Today I want to focus on two key elements of this text: 1) the sheep recognize the voice of the Good Shepherd and respond to it, and 2) the sheep will not recognize the voice of a stranger.
So for the first part: the sheep recognize the voice of the Good Shepherd. Right from the get-go, this statement insinuates a familiarity, an intimacy. If the sheep are going to recognize the voice of the Good Shepherd, then obviously they will have to be pretty familiar with him. They have to know him. Do you have someone in your life who you know extremely well? The person who can call you on the phone and simply say, “it’s me!” and you know exactly who it is? My mom is probably the only person I know who can hear just one word out of my mouth and know if something is wrong, even if I think I am disguising my mood. She just knows me so well that she intuitively understands what a slightly different inflection in my voice means. And then Darick growing up, used to play out in his neighborhood. Many of the parents in his neighborhood would often whistle when it was time for their kids to come home. Yet, still, out of all of those whistles, Darick knew what his mom’s sounded like. He knew her special call in the midst of all the others. This is the sort of intimacy that Jesus conveys when he talks about the relationship between the sheep and the Good Shepherd.
Do we recognize the voice of God this easily or this intuitively? Do you spend enough time with God to know when he is speaking or what he is saying? Can you distinguish God’s voice in the midst of other competing noises? Conversely, do you know that God hears your voice, and knows you uniquely even in the midst of every other human being? Do you know that you are special and treasured by God, and that you don’t just get lumped into the crowd before him?
When I was in Scotland, I didn’t have a car (nor would I have felt too confident driving on the other side of the road or from the right side of the car), so my usual transportation consisted of walking or riding my bike. One of the things I liked to do on occasion would be to take a long bike ride in the countryside around St. Andrews. One day I was riding my bike down a path I hadn’t taken before. There were just fields around me. I came across a field full of sheep. They were pretty close to the barbed wire fence next to the road, so I hopped off of my bike to go take a closer look. I think seeing some of the cute little lambs was what caused me to pause and get a closer look. But as I went over to the fence and was looking at the sheep for a while, I started to notice that each of the sheep looked different from the others. Each had some sort of distinguishing mark or habit or personality. I don’t know about you, but when I normally think of sheep, I tend to think of them as rather boring and dumb clones that blindly follow. These days, it is usually an insult to call someone a sheep. It insinuates lack of uniqueness, ignorance and blind allegiance, or an inability to think for one’s self. It insinuates homogeneity. When we call someone a sheep, we are placing them under a stereotype, as if to say, that’s just one of those skater kids, that’s just one of those prim and proper church ladies, or that’s just one of those non-Christians, transforming unique and valued people into one-dimensional objects, indistinguishable from the masses. I reckon people do that with each of us sometimes. But as I looked at those sheep, I could see that they were individuals. They weren’t all just alike. I imagine that when a shepherd looked at his sheep, he knew each of them.
A shepherd actually lives out in the fields with his sheep. He doesn’t go home at night, leaving them to graze on their own. He sleeps in the fields with them. He guides them, protects them from wolves that may come, and leads them to areas of fresh grazing. He goes after a sheep that gets lost, he untangles them from brambles. I also imagine a shepherd talks with his sheep. After all, a shepherd probably doesn’t have human company very often. Not only is he charged with caring for the sheep, but they are also his companions. To him, they aren’t one monolithic reality, simply a herd. They are his sheep, each with distinct characteristics and personalities.
How often do we look at someone and label them before we have even met them? How often do we take a human being with complex thoughts, feelings, and motivations and reduce them into a one-dimensional person? So often we approach people making assumptions about them. We approach them as strangers, and they see us also as strangers.
This leads us to the second idea of the scripture passage I want to focus on: that the sheep will not follow the voice of the stranger. We live in a society where interacting with strangers is not particularly encouraged. We teach our kids from a young age not to talk to strangers, we avert our eyes from people we don’t know when we are passing them on the street, and often inserting ourselves into conversation with complete strangers is seen as odd or invasive. And yet, sometimes, when it comes to evangelism, we go into it, expecting to have an encounter with someone who we don’t know very well or even at all, wanting to talk to them about Jesus Christ. So often, we approach evangelism against this backdrop. We want to jump right in and talk about Jesus to people who are strangers to us. In our zeal to help them know Christ, we can sometimes bypass the natural development of a relationship, seeing someone as little more than a target. While I don’t think we intentionally do this, we do still do it.
While it is good to be passionate about sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, how we go about doing it is just as important. In the same way that Jesus says that the sheep will not follow the voice of the stranger, neither is it very likely that someone we don’t know or have only just met will respond to the words of a Christian sharing the good news, especially in the younger generations. For us, the goal cannot be to just get people to come to worship to hear the message or to get kids to come to programs. Sure, we want more people to share in our life as a faith community, but getting them in the building cannot and should not be the regular starting point. Building relationships and friendships outside of the church should be the foundation. Building trust and familiarity is crucial. And while we may do this in part because we hope that they can come to know Christ in this way, we do it more because they are loved and treasured by God, regardless of where they are in their faith. Brian McLaren, a pastor and author wrote that we need to ask this very important question: how is the good news of Christ good news for the world? How is it good news for both those who adhere to the faith, but also non-adherents of the faith? Could it be good news for the latter group because of how we as Christians may love and respect them as unique people, loved by God, even if they do not currently have faith in Christ? Because we treat them as people, not simply as targets for conversion?
A few weeks ago I read a book called “UnChristian”, which is a book written about a study done on the perceptions people outside the church hold about the church. In it, one young man tells the story of how he had just moved to New York City and didn’t really know anyone. He was on the subway one day, and another guy about his own age started talking to him and was really friendly. This young guy was really excited because he had not met anyone that friendly yet. The other guy suggested that they hang out sometime, so he was stoked to finally be making a new friend. Not too long after that, the guy he had met on the subway invited him to come to a bible study. This young man wasn’t too keen on doing that. When he politely declined, he never heard from the other guy again.
In this encounter the young man who had just moved to New York City was approached more like a target than as a person. When he wasn’t prepared to go to a bible study or talk about Jesus, he was then dismissed. But would Jesus, the Good Shepherd dismiss him so easily, or see him only as a target? Would not Jesus the Good Shepherd see him as one of his own beloved sheep worthy of his time, even if the sheep was one that continually wandered off?
When it comes to sharing the good news of Christ, do we seek to be more like the shepherd himself, or are we more like the hired hand? Do we run away at the first sign of challenge? At the first sign of resistance? Do we walk away from a sheep if it is being belligerent? If it is showing doubts or contentment with where it is? Do we leave them behind if we think it is a lost cause of trying to bring that sheep to come graze over in our greener pasture? Do we actually want to spend time with the sheep, live with them, keep them as our companions?
I firmly believe that the intimacy found between the Good Shepherd and his sheep found in today’s gospel lesson has a lot to offer to our understanding of evangelism. At the heart of this story is relationship: a closeness, a friendship, a recognition. It is a story that reminds us that if we are sheep of the Good Shepherd, then we should be able to hear his voice, to be able to know when God is speaking to us. Our first task is to get to know this Good Shepherd who has laid down his own life for us. But we are also to imitate our Good Shepherd. Our second task after being in relationship with God is to be in relationship with our neighbor. God has called each of us by name, he knows us and wants us to know him. And we ourselves want to be known, loved, respected by God and by those around us. Now how can we be reflections of God’s intimate love for us? How can we begin to show that to others? Hear these words of Jesus a final time: “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 in also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock and one shepherd.” Together, let us seek to build relationships amongst ourselves and even more importantly, amongst those outside of the church, so we might reflect the love of this utterly relational God who has called each of us by name.