On Shepherding - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

On Shepherding

John 10: 22-30

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22 And it was at Jerusalem the feast of the dedication, and it was winter.

23 And Jesus walked in the temple in Solomon's porch.

24 Then came the Jews round about him, and said unto him, How long dost thou make us to doubt? If thou be the Christ, tell us plainly.

25 Jesus answered them, I told you, and ye believed not: the works that I do in my Father's name, they bear witness of me.

26 But ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep, as I said unto you.

27 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me:

28 And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand.

29 My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father's hand.

30 I and my Father are one.

More than one version exists of the story I am about to recount, but I rather like this one:

A vicar changed jobs and moved from a busy urban parish to a remote rural church.  At his very first family service, keen to make meaningful connections with the world of his new farming congregation, he gathered the children together down at the front of the church, and held up a picture of a sheep.  'Can any of you tell me what this is?,'  he asked.  To his surprise, the children were silent, and looked at one another rather perplexed.  'Come on,' he said - 'you must know what this is!'  The children peered anxiously at the picture, until eventually, and very tentatively, one of the older boys raised his hand and said, very hesitantly: 'Is it ... is it a two-year old Herdwick cross?'

It's interesting, isn't it, how something that might appear to be glaringly obvious in one context, can mean something very different in another setting.  For most city dwellers such as myself, a sheep is a sheep is a sheep; whereas those who spend their time living and working amongst them are attuned to all kinds of factors that completely bypass the untrained eye.

Many years ago, we had a family holiday on a farm in Yorkshire, and one afternoon the farmer took us out in his Land Rover to go and see some of his livestock, accompanied by his daughter, who was then about eleven years old    He drove us into the middle of a field of about 200 sheep.  And he then said to his daughter, 'OK, which one of them is yours?'  The girl immediately singled out her own prize-winning, which she had hand-reared, from somewhere in the midst of the enormous flock.  I was astounded - I have absolutely no idea how she did it.  They all looked absolutely identical to me!

The Bible is, of course, absolutely packed with shepherds and sheep - which is hardly surprising, given that it emerged out of a community that lived very close to the land, and in a context in which sheep and goats were the most common form of livestock.  So it was very natural for the Biblical writers - and indeed, Jesus himself - to reach for the imagery of sheep and shepherds when speaking of the things of God.

The Old Testament is full of such references.  Psalm 23 famously declares that: 'The Lord is my shepherd'.  Jesus tells stories about Good Shepherds and bad shepherds; he tells parables about lost sheep, and separating sheep from goats; and good and bad ways of entering sheepfolds - in ways that cover just about every aspect of ovine husbandry.  News of the birth of the Messiah is delivered to shepherds on the Bethlehem hillsides.  And much else besides.

But going back to my starting point, I wonder whether we are always able to hear and understand those stories and references in the same way that the first followers of Jesus did?  Because I would suspect that for many of us here today, our most routine encounter with sheep is those that are vacuum-packed in the meat aisle in Waitrose.

This morning's Gospel reading is a good example of this.  But just before we look closely at that particular sheep reference, it may be helpful to set the whole passage in context.

Immediately before the reading we actually heard, Jesus has performed a truly astounding miracle: the healing of a man who had not merely lost his sight, but who had been born blind.  The Pharisees are shown the healed man, but steadfastly refuse to believe the miracle.  So, they question the man's parents to find out if he really had been born blind.  They assure the Pharisees that he had, but the Pharisees remain unconvinced, so they continue to question the man.  Note the irony that is typical of John's Gospel, by the way: it is of course the Pharisees themselves who are most blind in this story - because they are the ones who are totally unable to see what is staring them in the face.

And immediately after that comes our reading.  Jesus is in the Temple, surrounded by the Jewish authorities, who are demanding to know if he is the Messiah: 'Tell us plainly,' they say.  Now, just think about that for a moment: they have just been given all the hard evidence they could possibly need as proof that he is indeed the Messiah, in the form of an extraordinary, earth-shattering miracle, but still they don't get it.  Still they demand more proof: 'Tell us plainly!'.

And in response Jesus simply points out the following: there are some people who are never going to get it, basically because they don't want to.  Their constant demand for yet more proof is in fact simply their way of trying to postpone the moment when they have to decide: do they believe that Jesus is the Messiah?  Or not?  Are they going to follow him?  Or not?  Jesus knows full well that no amount of proof will ever satisfy them, because they will always demand yet more.  So, eventually, they will go to their graves undecided, and uncommitted, and unredeemed.  They will never be part of Christ's flock for the simple reason that they will constantly put off the moment when they actually join it.

Jesus then contrasts their behaviour with those who are his flock, and it is here that a knowledge of ancient Israelite sheep husbandry comes in handy.  Because Palestinian shepherds did not drive their sheep from behind, as is the custom in this country.  Rather, they lead them from the front.  In other words, there is absolutely no coercion involved whatsoever: the sheep follow the shepherd purely and simply because they choose to.  And they choose to, because the shepherd is known to them.  They recognise his voice when he calls them, and they trust him.  They know that it is imperative that they follow him because he knows better than they do where they should be going; he will take them to places of safety and shelter; he will lead them to green pastures, and beside still waters.

And that crucial trust between sheep and shepherd grows out of relationship.  A relationship that emerges from lived experience; a relationship that is built, not on theories, or ideas, but on love.  When any of us is in need of help, or guidance, or support, or companionship, or a place of safety, then it is likely that the person to whom we turn first of all, will be a person whom we know loves us; a person whom we trust; a person who will always have our very best interests at heart.  A person whom we know it is safe to follow.  And so it is with sheep and shepherds.

There is a wonderful little blessing by the Australian writer and pastor Rowland Croucher (interestingly, of course, the word 'pastor' itself means literally 'shepherd'), which goes like this.

Go, and know that the Lord goes with you.
Let him lead you each day into the quiet place of your heart,
where he will speak to you;
know that he loves you and watches over you -
that he listens to you in gentle understanding.
That he is with you always, wherever you are and however you may feel.

For he is the Good Shepherd, who knows us, and loves us, and calls us each by name; the one who invites us to follow him, here and now; the one who truly will lead us into life in all its wonderful and glorious fulness.

And thanks be to God for that. 

Amen.

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