“Sheepish”
The Holy Habit of Biblical Teaching, Week 3
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
Easter 4A
Acts 2:42-47
John 10:1-10

 Prayer for Illumination:
Loving God, we pray that your Holy Spirit will strengthen us to be devoted to the teachings of your Word, that through it we may hear your voice and follow it into eternal life.   May the words of my mouth and the meditations in all our hearts reflect your eternal Word to us in Jesus Christ.  Amen.

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As you know if you’ve been with us the past couple of Sundays, we’ve embarked on the exploration of a new Holy Habit.  For the past two weeks, and throughout the month of May, we’re focusing on the Holy Habit of Biblical Teaching.

During this season of social distancing and stay-at-home orders, many of us have more time than we used to—and the opportunity is right in front of us to form new habits or patterns in our daily lives.  As we heard in the lectionary reading from Acts 2—that same passage we’ve heard numerous times this year as we’ve been focusing on Holy Habits—the earliest Christians “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42).  The apostles’ teachings – the gospel accounts, and the letters they wrote to fledgling congregations – are what constitute the New Testament of our Bible today.

If you’ve read your Chimes newsletter, you’ll know that I’m encouraging all of you to commit to learning more about the apostles’ teachings in the Bible firsthand, by your own reading of it on a more regular basis.  Try to start by taking just five or ten minutes each day or a few times a week to read something in the Bible.  See whether introducing this practice doesn’t begin to shift the way you see the world, especially as you try to interpret current events through the lens of what you’re reading in our ancient texts.

As we read the Bible, we discover that there are a variety of images and themes that pop up from the Old Testament stories, the Psalms and the prophets, right on through the New Testament gospels and letters.  One of the most popular and favorite images is that of shepherds and sheep.  Think of all the characters who we know were shepherds in the Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament:  Abel, the first-born son of Adam and Eve, was a keeper of sheep.  Jacob, son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham, tended his father-in-law Laban’s flock first, and then his own.  Moses cared for his father-in-law Jethro’s flock.  David, who would become the greatest king in Israel’s history, started out as a shepherd boy.  And his skills as a shepherd helped him defeat a menacing giant.  The metaphors and themes embedded in each of those stories are rich.  And, as we heard in our gospel reading today, of course, the theme of Jesus as the Good Shepherd has been there from the very beginning of the Church’s history.

But the other aspect of the shepherding theme is the idea that we, as God’s people, are metaphorical sheep.  The 23rd Psalm has been a human favorite probably since it was first written.  Why do you suppose this metaphor seemed so apt, even three thousand years ago?

It’s ironic how little most of us know about sheep, given how deeply entrenched they are in human civilization.  They’ve been referred to by many different cultures and religious texts for thousands of years.  As the stories of the biblical characters I mentioned imply, the economic dependence of nomadic tribes on flocks for their survival was commonplace in the earlier days of the Hebrew Scriptures.  Grazing flocks would have made economic sense to the Israelites especially while they were nomads wandering in the wilderness, prior to their settlement in the Promised Land.

Did you know that there are currently about 1.2 billion sheep on the planet, according to data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization?  Beyond knowing that they were the source of the wool that made my socks and sweaters, I didn’t have a whole lot of exposure to sheep before moving to the U.K. (where about 33.5 million sheep reside).  For a couple summers, we housesat for some friends who owned a beautiful old estate called Sheepstead.  As its name suggests, it was surrounded by pastureland where sheep grazed.  They’re fascinating creatures, and the more I learned about them, the more I began to recognize the similarities we share in our habits of relating as human beings, and why ancient people drew parallels between us and sheep.

Nearly three decades ago in the early 1990s, researchers from the University of California observed sheep and rams for three years and discovered several similarities to human beings, especially in terms of their communal behaviors.  For example, they form long-term relationships; they choose lifelong companions.  Sheep can learn how to navigate out of a complex maze—and they were especially motivated to get to the exit by seeing their fellow sheep friends awaiting them at the finish.  They intervene on behalf of weaker contemporaries, and support each other in fights.  A 2009 report published in the journal Animal Welfare found that sheep are capable of experiencing a whole range of feelings, from fear to anger, despair, boredom and happiness.  And, not only do they recognize a shepherd’s voice, in that study they also showed clear behavioral signs of visually recognizing people and other sheep, by vocalizing in response to facial pictures.  Furthermore, they can differentiate between facial expressions, preferring a smile to a frown.[1]

Before I say anything else about them, I hope what I’ve already said has helped to dispel the myth that sheep are stupid and utterly helpless creatures.  If they were, it wouldn’t paint any of us in a very good light, would it, as those who are characterized as sheep?  Maybe the reputation comes from the fact that they’re easily startled and quickly follow a leader in herds especially when they’re scared.  Maybe it’s because, as Jesus suggested, they can appear to be aimless; even if they are more clever than they’re given credit for being, they can spend much of their lives simply going through the motions, enjoying the safety of the crowd, content to settle for little more than a full tummy and satisfied appetite despite the boredom of such an existence.  Arguably, another similarity might be that—as Jesus also said—they recognize and heed the voice of their shepherd, but sheep don’t always discern up front whether the leader they follow is going to do them good or harm.  They just trust and stick to the one they’ve identified as their leader.  So, it’s really important that we be attentive as we select a spiritual leader or shepherd to follow.

In our gospel reading, Jesus tells a parable about a sheepfold, mentioning not only sheep and a shepherd, but also a gatekeeper.  In the first ten verses, Jesus doesn’t identify himself as any of these.  Oddly, he says, “I am the gate for the sheep.”  What do you suppose Jesus meant by saying he was the gate?

It’s no wonder that people think the Bible can be difficult to understand—especially when Jesus starts mixing his metaphors.  But don’t let it turn you off or shut down your curiosity: struggle with the text a little bit, see whether you can’t wrestle some of the meaning from it!

If you read the entirety of John’s gospel, you’ll notice that he repeats a particular figure of speech, which Biblical scholars call the “I am” statements from Jesus.  According to John, in addition to saying, “I am the gate”, Jesus also said at different points, “I am the bread of life” (6:35); “I am the light of the world” (8:12); “I am the good shepherd,” (10:11); “I am the resurrection” (11:25); “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (14:6); and “I am the true vine” (15:1).  All of these metaphors became symbols for understanding the Jesus’ spiritual role and identity in Christian community.

To John’s earliest community, which was largely comprised of Jewish people who no longer felt comfortable in the synagogue or with the rabbinical teachings that did not recognize Jesus as the Messiah, the questions of exclusion and inclusion would have been constant on both sides (Jewish and Christian): who was in and who was out theologically, morally, ethnically?  “According to John, water and not blood [baptism, not birth family] marked the sheep that entered through the gate that was Christ.”[2]  Unfortunately, the human inclination to define insiders and outsiders has been twisted and abused even by the Church, some of whom have used Jesus’ words against those who don’t conform to their interpretation to presumptuously suggest that the people (er, sheep) who don’t agree will be shut out of God’s grace and protection.  It’s worth noting to the exclusivists, though, that gates can swing both ways—so we should take care lest we mistake who’s being protected, and from whom.

In the verse just after our lectionary passage ends this morning, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”[3]  No doubt, as soon as the words, “I am the good shepherd” fell on their ears, John’s earliest audience would have heard echoes of “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want… surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life.”  The Psalms would have been among the Scriptural writings that John’s original community had learned early in life.  And, as people living under duress, in a near-constant state of crisis (they were frequently persecuted, physically and emotionally sought out and punished for following “The Way” of Jesus), they would have found comfort in Jesus’ affirmation that the one whom they had recognized as Lord and Savior (as Messiah), he was the good shepherd.  The earliest Christian communities would have been strengthened as they heard the Psalmist’s words, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”

Friends, whether we recognize our enemies as fellow human beings sowing confusion and mistrust with their words and ego-driven agendas; or whether we perceive that our enemy is a virus forcing us into isolation and unfamiliar, uncomfortable new ways of being, revealing all sorts of previously-veiled inequities and problems with our social structures; or whether our enemies are our doubts, our fears, our grief … one thing is certain.  Although plenty of ego-driven individuals will strive to be recognized as the shepherd of fearful sheep-like human souls, there is only one Shepherd truly worthy of our trust and confidence.  There is only One whose voice leads us to abundant life and a deeper experience of peace, hope, joy, and love.  He is the one who has set a table everyone – not just for a few – by laying down everything: power, glory, his life for us.  It is he who invites us to keep the sacrificial feast alive today as we celebrate the gift of holy communion with Him, and with one another, in our separate places yet drawn together in one transcendent space by his Spirit abiding with all of us.

As the final part of my sermon, and as part of my encouragement for you to see how we might come to the Bible with our own thoughts, questions, qualms, and open, attentive spirits, I’d like to share a video that was shared with me by a clergy colleague.  In it, a young woman silently reads and engages with the 23rd Psalm today—and demonstrates how the Word of God still speaks through 3,000+ year old texts.  It’s entitled “Psalm 23 and Me”—where the Psalm is in red text, and the person’s thoughts are in black:  (URL could not be embedded on this page; check church Facebook Page.)

[1] http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20170418-sheep-are-not-stupid-and-they-are-not-helpless-either

[2] Cynthia A. Jarvis, Feasting on the Word Year A, Vol. 2, p. 445.

[3] John 10:11

 

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