Easter 4A — May 11, 2014

Tender Shepherd

John 10:1-10
“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. 2The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. 7So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
Let us begin with prayer:  Holy and Gracious God, you call us by name, Beloved, and beckon us to follow you.  May we hear your voice clearly today, through your grace.  We pray in Christ’s name.  Amen.
Ok, folks.  Here’s a true story for you. My Uncle Tom is known in our family to be rather eccentric, but I am pretty sure he’s also the only person I know who has had hands-on experience in being something like a modern day shepherd.  I remember visiting him at his farm in Chester County a few years ago and noticing that he no longer had sheep grazing in his fields.  “Oh yes,” he said.  “I finally sold them, and boy was I happy to get rid of those sheep.  In fact, once we got them loaded on the truck and the man who bought them drove away, I was so relieved that I got into a hot bath and drank a whole can of Hawaiian Punch.”

I told you.  A little eccentric.  I couldn’t make that story up if I tried.
 I read an article this week in which another disillusioned shepherd put it this way:  “Sheep are either suicidal or stupid—probably both. Sheep are just born looking for a way to die.  Sheep are forever putting themselves in unnecessary peril, much of which could usually be avoided by doing something simple like turning around.”[1]
 People who deal with the care and tending of sheep know the trials and tribulations of shepherding very well.  They will tell you that sheep are, quite simply, a pain. More urban creatures like us — who have neither tended nor been traumatized in caring for the animals — may have a hard time understanding exactly what Jesus is up to in our scripture passage today.  
I imagine that we are much like the cast of characters listening to Jesus.  His audience is a mixed bunch of disciples, Pharisees and the family and neighbors of the formerly blind man whom Jesus has just healed in the previous chapter.  In fact, John 9:1-10:21 is all one massive textual unit that follows the pattern used elsewhere in the gospel of John of sign — dialogue — discourse. Jesus performs a sign, which is followed by a dialogue as its onlookers try to figure out what the sign means, and concludes with Jesus’ discourse or interpretation of the sign he has performed. 
In a mixed group such as the one listening to Jesus in this text, it’s very likely that only a few of them have first hand experience in being a shepherd sheep.  As usual, I think the people who most understand Jesus are the ordinary folks. Not the religious professionals. Not the Pharisees or the fisherman, but the people who know what it is like to coax a whole bunch of pesky, stupid sheep to keep moving until they are safely in the pasture or wherever else they need to be.  The Pharisees and the fisherman without first hand shepherd experience probably don’t get Jesus’ joke at all.  The family and neighbors of the blind man, however, are probably laughing with amazement and gratitude.  
The ordinary people get the joke Jesus is telling them because they know that all of this talk about sheep obediently doing anything is ridiculous.  The last thing sheep will do is follow along obediently.  Sometimes they’ll follow for a time, but very often they will wander off into a jagger bush.  The shepherd will go after the straggling sheep, coax him out of the jagger bush, and pick all the thorns out of the sheep’s wool coat until his fingers are bleeding, all the while knowing that the sheep has probably not learned a blessed thing from the experience and will end up in another jagger bush tomorrow.
The ordinary people get the joke because they know most sheep will happily follow a stranger, at least for a little while, until the stranger has decided the sheep has become more trouble than it’s worth and ditches the sheep for a more manageable animal like a cow or horse.  The shepherd will then pick up the sheep from whatever ditch in which the stranger has abandoned the sheep and deliver the panicky animal to safety.  The shepherd will do that knowing full well that, given half a chance, the sheep will take off again when the next sheep thief comes around.
You see, I don’t think this is a story about what kind of dirty, rotten sheep we are, and if we just clean up our act, we’ll be able find the shepherd.  I think it’s a story about the kind of shepherd Jesus is. 
Jesus is the kind of shepherd who isn’t about to sell us out to thieves and bandits out of sheer frustration, then go have himself a bath and a can of Hawaiian Punch.  Jesus is the kind of shepherd who will wait patiently for us to discern his voice among all the other voices that attract and distract and ultimately disappoint us.  This isn’t really a story about sheep, but about a shepherd who doesn’t give up on the sheep he loves, but keeps the gate open and the lights on and will even throw a big party complete with a big old slab of roast beef when we somehow stumble home.  This is a story about a shepherd who doesn’t just turn water into a couple bottles of wine, but hundreds of gallons to keep the party going for days. This is a story about a shepherd who, when he sees one of his sheep suffering, isn’t above improvising with a handful of ordinary dirt, mixed up with a big healthy wad of spit, to bring a blind sheep back to life on the spot.  This is a story about a shepherd who is in crazy, long-suffering love with the most ridiculous animals God saw fit to put on this earth.  Yes, that would be you and me, and the rest of ridiculous humanity.
I can’t help it.  When I think about shepherds, I think about the lovely song from the Broadway show “Peter Pan” – Tender Shepherd. http://youtu.be/JsE4mwWuRZU Tender Shepherd is one of the loveliest songs I’ve ever heard.  It is one of the first lullabies I can remember my mother singing to me, and it is one of the first lullabies I can remember singing to baby Rachel.  If there was an official song for Mother’s Day, I would nominate Tender Shepherd.  The lyrics are simple and lovely – “Tender shepherd, tender shepherd.  Watches over all his sheep.  One in the garden.  Two in the meadow.  Three in the nursery, fast asleep.”  And then, when she got a little older, Rachel and I made up new lyrics:  “Tender shepherd, tender shepherd.  I’m a very little sheep.  One for my mommy, two for my daddy, three for the Rachel Ann, fast asleep.  Fast asleep.”  During Rachel’s nursery years, her dad and her mom were Rachel’s gate and green pasture.  Every night we carried her back into the safety of the sheepfold of her bedroom.  Ours were the voices Rachel could hear and trust to chase away the thieves and bandits.  The problem is that we do not stay in the nursery for very long and the voices of mommy and daddy are eventually replaced by other voices. 
Jesus doesn’t tell us what the tender shepherd’s voice sounds like.  Learning to hear his voice is something we must do for ourselves and practice every day.  And the problem, of course, is that the only way to learn to listen to Jesus is to listen to other people.  To rephrase the famous Theresa of Avila quote, if “Christ has no body but yours; no hands, no feet on earth but yours,” it follows that Jesus has no voice on earth but the voices of ordinary human beings.[2]  And listening well is a skill that comes about as easily to us as it comes to sheep.  Which is to say, not easily at all.   And considering the many and varied voices that hit us from every direction, I’d say it’s getting harder all the time to distinguish the voice of Jesus from the cacaphony.  
But our tender shepherd gives us a clue in our text today about what his voice does not sound like, and maybe that’s a good place to begin.  The tender shepherd’s voice will not come as words of scarcity that tells us that we better get all we can because there isn’t enough.  The tender shepherd’s voice will not deceive us into believing we are too lost and covered with thorns to be worthy of love.  The tender shepherds voice will not lead us to the place where we decide it’s so much safer to be cynically shutdown than hopefully openhearted.  The tender shepherd’s voice will not tear us down, but build us up.  And, most amazing, the tender shepherd’s voice will not call us by any other name than the only name that matters — beloved. 
It may have occurred to you that if the only way we can hear Jesus’ voice is by listening to the voices of other people, then the only way other people can hear the voice of the tender shepherd is by listening to us.  And that’s where the rubber hits the road, because the only thing we Christian sheep are worse at than listening carefully is speaking carefully.  In fact, I read another observation this week by a shepherd who really knows his sheep.  It is only lambs that bleat a gentle “bahhh.” Sheep blurt a disturbing “BLAGHGAGHHAGHAFFTT!!!!!” [3]  I am such a city kid that I had to go to a You Tube video to learn that sound.[4]  It is tough for a human voice to replicate that terrible noise, but it does drive home the point that we should resist bleating so loudly in our native tongue and learn to speak the tender shepherd’s gentle, but courageous language of love, forgiveness, and encouragement. 
I don’t often speak on the floor of Pittsburgh Presbytery meetings.  I don’t know if it’s because I was so freaked out after my oral parts of trial 3 years ago, or whether I’ve just displayed enormous good sense in not adding my voice to the BLAGHGAGHHAGHAFFTT that often passes for debate in some of our less shining moments.  I think presbytery can be a scary place sometimes for some ministers.  Although we begin each gathering with worship that is always rich and deep, the meeting that follows too often devolves into polity and politics.  Pittsburgh Presbytery can be a place of pretty pesky sheep.
But on the Wednesday night before the meeting, while watching the Pens game and scrolling through Facebook, I saw a post by a minister in Chicago that contained 260 names of the more than 300 young women who were kidnapped from their school in Nigeria and are now being sold as “wives” for $12 a piece by the terrorists who captured them.[5]  Now, you recall that I prayed for all the missing girls last Sunday and I continued praying for them through the week.  But there was something – I don’t know – startling and moving about seeing their names on my computer screen.  An abstract situation of global concern became a living, breathing, and strangely personal tragedy. 
So I used my voice on the floor of the presbytery on Thursday afternoon.  I passed out the names of the girls and asked those who were in attendance to pray not for a situation, but for a particular young woman.  And because the young women have been robbed of their voice, I asked the presbytery to use its voice to publicly proclaim that we join with our colleagues in the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations to call upon the government of Nigeria to use all available peaceful resources to rescue the young women kidnapped on April 15, 2014 and other occasions. We are grateful for the work of the Presbyterian Ministry to United Nations for expressing the concerns of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) within the United Nations community for the girls who have been abducted in recent weeks, for the education of all Nigeria’s children, and for peace and justice to prevail in the country.  Further, we pledge to pray without ceasing for peace to reign in areas of the world where women cannot be safely educated, acknowledging that the empowerment and education of women, especially young women, is the most powerful weapon in the fight against terror, violence, poverty and injustice in the developing world.  In this resolution, Pittsburgh Presbytery responds to Christ’s call to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives and to let the oppressed go free.
The thieves and the bandits think their voices can drown out the voices of justice, but we are the tender shepherds that God has called to prove them wrong.  The thieves and bandits think they can hurt and exploit God’s children and nobody will notice, but we are the tender shepherds God has called to speak against evil wherever it exists — halfway around the world or down the street. The thieves and the bandits think they can frighten us into silence, but we will not remain quiet when justice requires we speak.  The thieves and the bandits believe they can bully us into settling for a whispering scarcity, but we will insist upon abundant life for all of God’s children.   We will use our voices – in prayer, in writing, in speaking, in worship, and even in sometimes choosing not to speak — to be the voice of the tender shepherd in a world of lost and captive and hurting and broken sheep.  So all of God’s beloved may have life, and have it abundantly.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] http://www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian/Dirty-Sheep-Mike-Baughman-05-06-2014.html
[2] http://www.journeywithjesus.net/PoemsAndPrayers/Teresa_Of_Avila_Christ_Has_No_Body.shtml
[3] http://www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian/Dirty-Sheep-Mike-Baughman-05-06-2014.html