Who Is Jesus; The Good Shepherd -- John 10:11-18, Rev. Connie Frierson, 5-5-13

John 10:11-18 ‘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.’ Who Is Jesus; The Good Shepherd -- John 10:11-18, Rev. Connie Frierson, 5-5-13 We are continuing with our series on “Who is Jesus.” All of these sermons are based on the Gospel of John. An interesting thing about John is that this gospel uses seven dramatic “I am” statements. As in I am the Bread of Life, I am the gate, I am the Light of the World, I am the Way, the truth and the Light, I am the Resurrection and the Life, I am the vine, and today’s passage, I am the Good Shepherd. These declarations aren’t actual parables nor are they an allegory but they have similarities to both. Jesus was using what scholars call “symbolic discourse.” It is a mix of symbolism and straightforward talk. But we miss the message if we don’t get the symbol. If we miss the symbol and the message we can be a little lost on what Jesus was saying about how God wants to live with us and in us. So I started to think about how we miss this Shepherding business. We don’t understand sheep and so we don’t understand the Good Shepherd. So where does all this misunderstanding start? I think it starts with beef, beef and childhood. I am truly a product of my childhood. That childhood included lots of TV westerns. I thought Hoss and Little Joe from Bonanza were my big brothers. My cousin, Sally, and I pretended to rope and drive herds of cattle like on Rawhide. Though our playground was a Holstein dairy farm, we were really ranchers at heart. We knew cows. In fact at the age of eleven, I won a major award. At the Dairymen’s Association meeting at the Halstead farm, I won the cow-judging contest. I had watched the judging of 4-H shows since I was little and I could tell a good udder from a bad one. I could look serious and contemplate a cow’s shoulder and flank and how they stood on their legs. Yup. I walked away from that meeting with a little tack box with cow brushes and a gift certificate to the local Dairy Queen. I knew cows. But didn’t have much regard for sheep. I had inherited the cattlemen’s prejudice. While you out there may not be able to tell a heifer from a steer, I bet you know even less about sheep. So when Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd.” Do any of us know what that means? Despite our cultural shortcomings we do know some things. All the shepherds I ever met were wearing their bathrobes and a kitchen towel over their heads held in place by shoelaces. We know those Christmas shepherds. They were watching their flocks by night and ‘Lo the Angel of the Lord and a Heavenly Host’ announce the birth of baby Jesus. We know Psalm 23. In fact if I read the words most every one of you would be able to say this Psalm with me. The phrases of comfort and promise are written in our hearts and minds. “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever. So often we hear this wonderful psalm, but we engage the God of the 23rd Psalm at a child’s eye level. A child’s level can be wonderful. But it can also fall short of the deepest understanding. If we are to understand Jesus as our shepherd maybe we should think of how we understood this as a child and then think of how we can go deeper. As a child here is what I thought I heard. I figured “laying down in green pastures,” meant I had to take a nap. But it was outside so that was cool. I didn’t realize it meant God supplies every good thing we need to live. The “still waters” sounded like a good swimming hole. I preferred my pools clorinated but I was willing to go with still waters if Jesus wanted me to. I didn’t live in the desert so I didn’t think of how life-giving water was. I didn't think of that other promise of Jesus to provide living water. The “valley of the shadow of death” was pretty scary, kind of like cutting through the North Union churchyard when you’re late for dinner and it is getting dark. So I thought it might be good to have the Lord with me. But I didn’t realize that all of the dark spots of life could have God with me too. Nor did I realize how much I would need God presence in that very same cemetery as I buried my father and then my mother and then my husband. Now that “rod and staff” business didn’t appeal at all. I figured it was some religious talk to say I should take my lumps and like it. Rod and staff sounded like a spanking to me. I had no concept of how the shepherd’s crook was a way to rescue the sheep. Or that the staff wasn’t for beating sheep it was for protecting them from wolves. Guess what I got from Psalm 23 was that the Good Shepherd comforts and takes care of us poor dumb sheep. But as a child and later as an adult, I didn’t like to think of myself as a sheep. I was a cowgirl riding the open range by myself, finding adventure and overcoming obstacles my own ingenuity. No real American likes to think of themselves as sheep. But I was thinking of this all wrong. I was thinking with the hubris of a cattle rancher. I was overestimating my abilities and underestimating sheep. I figured every time the bible said we were like sheep. God was calling us dumb. We may not want to name our local sports teams after sheep. But ancient Israel often saw themselves as sheep and God as shepherd. Perhaps they saw themselves with more humility and honesty than we see ourselves. Even more important they didn’t feel shame at being like sheep. Sheep need three things 1) Protection, 2) A flock and 3) A shepherd. Sheep need protection. They have no offensive mechanism and they have no defensive mechanism. Sheep would be bad at war. So we don’t value sheep. But in God’s eyes being bad at war is not a bad thing. Sheep aren’t made for war because the shepherd will defend us. Nothing could be more natural to the Middle Eastern mind that an acceptance that sheep need protection. There is no shame. It is simply a matter of nature and trust. Sheep also need each other. The flock isn’t just a collection of individuals. Sheep are social animals and they require community. This is so true of human beings as well. God made us to be in relationship. The heroic, loner, superman is a modern construction, not biblical. We are not bad because we need each other. That is the way we were created. Lastly and most profoundly, sheep need the guidance of a shepherd. Needing guidance was considered self-evident and natural. Receiving guidance from God and the Good shepherd is righteous, having a right and natural relationship with God. In fact in Middle-Eastern society declaring yourself not in need of guidance would be crazy talk. Given these essentials sheep can do amazing things. They can produce milk and meat and wool on marginal pasture and steep slopes. Sheep are a measure of wealth. Sheep are valuable and by comparing us to sheep God is saying we are valuable. No matter how vulnerable, how in need of the necessities of life, how in need of community and guidance we are valuable. To God there is no worthless sheep. By declaring himself the good shepherd, Jesus was trying to describe a love relationship. But too often we are stuck with the cattle model. Sheep don’t act like cattle. For instance if you herd cattle you drive them from behind whooping and hollering and cracking whips. If you try this with sheep, they just circle around you. You can’t drive sheep. You have to lead them. Sheep won’t go anywhere unless they know someone is out front who knows the way. Isn’t this describe our relationship with God more accurately. Often old time religion has tried to drive and crack whips to herd people to God. But that has never worked in the long run. The relationship between God and humanity must be based on trust and relationship, care not coercion, love, not fear. In the passage today Jesus is not berating the crowd by calling them sheep. Jesus is pointing out one fabulous attribute of sheep. They recognize the Shepherd’s voice. In the Middle East today, just like in Abraham’s day if you meet go to an oasis many different Bedouin flocks will come and mingle at the water. The shepherds don’t try to split them up or keep them apart. They calmly mingle. But when the Bedouin shepherd decides to leave he merely has a distinctive call or whistle. And his flock will follow. The sheep know the shepherd’s voice. This knowing is an ongoing relationship of trust. This “knowing” isn’t the result of vast esoteric or secret knowledge. This knowing is the result of hours of familiarity, a history of safe passage and supplying everything we need. This knowing recognizes the inner call of the shepherd. This knowing the Shepherd’s voice is what we all are listening for. Jesus doesn’t just say I am the Good Shepherd. He gives the job description. The people in Jesus day would hear the echo of Psalm 23 in their heads. They knew how the shepherd leads and supplies pasture and water and protection. But Jesus adds the essential element of the Good Shepherd, “He lays down his life for the sheep.” When Jesus says he is the Good Shepherd, the word he uses is kalos. This means not just a good vs. bad shepherd. It means the model, the best, the supreme, and the ideal. The contrast of the hireling who runs from danger is a warning and a foil for what Jesus is doing. This is wear the metaphor becomes mixed with prophecy and fact. For in this passage Jesus is no longer using an extended metaphor. Jesus is taking this abstract idea of the Good Shepherd and bringing it into a gritty material world and events in the immediate future. Jesus is has jumped the fence from the pretty picture of sweet grass and clear water to a real fight for our lives. Our response is to jump into that same real salvation and rescue and healing or to wander away. Amen.