Keawalaʻi Congregational Church
United Church of Christ (USA)
Fourth Sunday of Easter
Sunday, April 29, 2012
The Rev. Kealahou C. Alika
Tradition dictates that today - the Fourth Sunday of Easter - is to be observed as Good Shepherd Sunday. Our readings from the Bible and the hymns we sing provide an abundance of images and stories on the role of the shepherd in the lives of sheep.
Our reading from The Gospel According to John focuses on this theme, moving us from the Old Testament reading from The Book of Psalms that we shared in our Call to Worship to the reassurance we find in Jesus as our Good Shepherd. The Easter message is clear. Through the resurrection Jesus has returned to us and will never let us go.
That assurance is reflected in the pastoral image of the shepherd and the sheep. I am not sure about how many of you grew up in communities where sheep were a part of your daily life. As for me the only sheep I ever saw growing up was in a photograph, on television or in a movie.
Live goats, pigs, cows, horses, and donkeys – yes. Sheep – no. The closest I ever got to anything sheepish were wool socks or a wool blanket – but only for a second or two. I was and continue to be allergic to wool.
I am not sure how I would fare around live sheep. I sometimes notice them grazing on the slopes of Haleakalā. At this point I have no interest in being in close proximity to any sheep to determine whether or not I am allergic to their mere presence.
All of this is to say that the metaphor or image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd did little to increase my love for him when I was a child attending Sunday School. I knew Jesus loved me and that because of that I loved him. But any talk of sheep would be cause enough for me to start scratching.
Despite my aversion to sheep for allergic reasons, I have come to realize any talk of sheep and shepherd still warrants our attention. It has been said that “we often speak of a congregation as a ʻflock,’ but such imagery is almost absent from our daily experience. Have we romanticized the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd due to our unfamiliarity of sheepherding?” (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, Bartlett & Taylor, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, 2008, page 450)
As picturesque as the slopes of Haleakalā may appear, I imagine that the work of a shepherd was anything but that anywhere else in the world. In Jesus’ day and time, it was dangerous work. It was menial work.
A shepherd spent time out in the fields and had to contend with the threat of predators; with sheep getting lost; and with other sheep falling by the way side because of injury. For Jesus to say, “I am the good shepherd,” did little to endear him to the religious authorities who sought the comfort and safety of the Temple.
But for others the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd became a source of great comfort. The power in the image of the shepherd comes from knowing that the shepherd would do anything and everything to protect and care for his sheep. Such an image “remind us that God is especially concerned for those at risk, those who are vulnerable.” In the same way that “sheep are lost without the constant, vigilant care of their shepherd” so it is that we would be lost without Jesus’ constant care for us. (Op. cit.)
It is one thing for us to understand the power behind the image of the shepherd, it is quite another to consider what it means for us to be sheep. My clearest memory of my first day at seminary in August 1975 was attending chapel and hearing a sermon in which the preacher protested the notion that “any of us wanted to be sheep.”
“Who wants to be dumb and dirty?” he boomed. “Not me.” And for some reason
I never remembered the rest of the sermon. It was such a shock to me.
I guess you could say I was dumbfounded and I wondered if I was that
kind of a sheep after all.
But we know sheep are far from dumb. Some say that the myth that sheep are dumb was a rumor started by cattle ranchers who were not too happy about sheep grazing on the open range that they claimed for their cattle.
The cattlemen will insist that sheep did not behave like cows - and that
is true. Cows can be herded from the rear. It takes a bit of shouting
and prodding. It may work with cattle. But such shouting and prodding
does not work with sheep.
If you stand behind sheep and make any kind of noise, “they will just run around behind you. They actually prefer to be led. Cows can be pushed; sheep must be led.” (Op. cit.)
And remarkably, sheep will not go anywhere that their trusted shepherd does not go first. It has been said that “sheep seem to consider their shepherds part of the family and the relationship that grows up between the two is quite exclusive. They develop a language of their own that outsiders are not privy to.” (Pulpit Resources, Barbara Brown Taylor, Vol. 29, No. 2, Logos Productions, Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota, 2001, page 30)
The key to that relationship is the shepherd’s voice. The sheep knows the voice of their shepherd.
There are times when a sheep may follow the voice of a stranger, especially
when ill. Sometimes a sheep may wander off. There are distractions.
From time to time we may, like sheep, lose our way. We
wander off and then we hear a voice calling us back. The promise of the
resurrection is that no matter what happens to us, Jesus will never let
us go. We hear his voice not only with our ears but with our minds, our
hearts, our eyes. There may be other voices vying for our attention.
Whatever our responses may be – saying yes to some and no to others –
Jesus is there, going before us and leading us.
The good news is that the relationship between the sheep and the shepherd is based on what the shepherd does, not on what the sheep do. The sheep feel secure just to hear the voice of the shepherd. (Ibid., page 452)
The assurance of our faith in the Risen Christ is not in what we do or do not do, but in what Jesus has done. He risked everything and in the end he gave his very life.
Yet he makes it clear that he gave his life willingly: “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.” (John 10:18) It is through the power of the Resurrection that we are reassured God is with us through all our days. Jesus is our Good Shepherd and for that we give thanks to God.