The Fourth Sunday of Easter (May 12, 2019)
Psalm 23 and John 10:22-30
The LORD is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
In grass meadows He makes me lie down,
by quiet waters guides me.
My life He brings back.
He leads me on pathways of justice
for His name’s sake.
Though I walk in the vale of death’s shadow,
I fear no harm,
for You are with me.
Your rod and Your staff—
it is they that console me.
You set out a table before me
in the face of my foes.
You moisten my head with oil,
my cup overflows.
Let but goodness and kindness pursue me
all the days of my life.
And I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
for many long days.
At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the [Jewish authorities] gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand.The Father and I are one.”
How do we feel about being compared to sheep? Americans, known for our perceived independence and self-sufficiency, tend to resist images that lump us into groups. Think of all the negative connotations with the word “herd.” “Herd mentality,” another way of saying “mob mentality,” implies that we can’t think for ourselves, but only drift along with the group. The phrase “herd immunity” isn’t meant to imply anything critical, but people seem to misunderstand that concept and how vital it is to public health.
There’s another sheep-related word that’s made it into our vocabulary, “sheeple.” Have you heard that word? “Sheeple,” a combo of “sheep” and people.” The definition? “People compared to sheep in being docile, foolish, or easily led.” Interestingly enough, the usage of the word started in the 60s, ramped up in the 80s and 90s, and sky-rocked after the year 2000. One can easily get sucked into the quicksand that is a Google Image search for “sheeple” memes. I saw two with the same lamb and a speech bubble, “We’re tired of your stupid conspiracy theories!” and “Don’t think! Trust the TV news!”
The point is that sheep or shepherding imagery doesn’t “click” with our culture, at least not in a positive sense. Yet in Scripture, it’s hard to miss. I’ve heard that sheep are mentioned in the Bible over 500 times, more than any other animal. Sheep were vital to the cultures of the Biblical writers, whose nomadic and agrarian societies relied on them for survival. Sheep provided for food, drink, and clothing. Sheep horns were made into musical instruments, like the Shofar. And throughout Scripture, God is compared to a shepherd, “The LORD is my shepherd…” and God’s people are compared to sheep “He maketh me lie down in green pastures…”
Jesus told parables about sheep. Remember the parable of the lost sheep? The shepherd leaves the 99 to go find the one that had wandered off. Maybe we like that sheep story alright because the individual sheep is singled out, marked as special. And Matthew describes Jesus this way in the midst of all his healing and feeding, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
All this sheep talk meant something to folks in the Ancient Near East. It conveyed something true about God, something fundamental to who people, over their long history, knew their Creator to be: nurturing, protective, wise, and even tender.
When we hear Jesus say, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand,” that can grate on us because we hear that as exclusive. I don’t hear it that way, personally speaking. Jesus says elsewhere, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.” It’s a statement about God’s grace and love, how there is no one or nothing or no circumstances in this life or the next that can snatch us from God’s embrace. Ever. It’s about belonging to God.
And it’s also about belonging to one another. That’s an aspect of being sheep of one fold, lambs of one flock, with one Shepherd, it’s God bringing God’s children together.
It’s easy to hear Psalm 23 as addressed to one person. After all, it’s been so comforting to people over the centuries in hard times and it’s read at many a memorial service because it expresses God’s provision and care, God’s generosity and forgiveness. “The LORD is my shepherd.” But while it is personal, it is also communal. Like the Parable of the Lost Sheep, the point is not just that the one sheep is lost and the Shepherd finds her, but that she is reunited with the other sheep. The LORD leads me “on pathways of justice,” as Robert Alter translated it, alongside others. The LORD restores my life with others. Why “You set out a table before me in the face of my foes,” if God isn’t invested in getting enemies to sit at the same table?
Back in the fall of 2017, Bailey Pickens, our Director of Faith Formation, and I were teaching a confirmation class with some middle and high school youth. Bailey, as we know, is brilliant, and when you put a piece of chalk in her hand and green board in front of her, she can look like one of those wild mathematicians scribbling out a complex physics problem. Those of you who were there in the youth room that day, do you remember that metaphor for the church that she drew? It was a cluster of little circles. Do you remember what it was? It was supposed to be a flock of sheep, a flock of sheep huddled together.
“Why in the world is the church compared to a flock of sheep?” she asked us.
And she explained—now correct me if I’m wrong, Bailey—that herds of sheep, when they are under attack by a wolf or other predator, huddle together. The stronger sheep, the buff and burley sheep, line the perimeter. And the weaker, more defenseless sheep, retreat to the center. The stronger ones protect the weaker ones. That’s part of being the church, she explained. When people are sick, the healthy ones tend to them. When people are hungry, the filled ones feed them. When people are down-and-out, those with plenty lend a hand.
Do you remember what the youth dubbed that? “Battlefield sheep formation!”
“Battlefield sheep formation.” When the vulnerable are threatened, the herd bands together.
This service at St. Mark’s has been called many things in my four years here: Youth Sunday, Celebrating the Gifts of Children and Youth Sunday. That last one is a little long, but I like because we’re uplifting the fact that we have some wonderful younger participants in our community here. Not just their musical and acting talents, but just who they, who you are as people. Your church loves you. You may not always know that or feel that, true, but that’s why they practice saying it every Sunday: “God loves you… and so do we.”
People in younger generations—and I’m talking about the wider culture here—catch a lot of flak from people in older generations. I think a lot of that has to do with the widespread technological change in which we find ourselves. You know the stereotypes: “they’re buried in the phones all the time,” etc. etc. but I digress…
Lately, we have witnessed some amazing “battlefield sheep formation” among younger folks today, particularly high school students. I’m thinking of the Marjorie Stone Douglas students in Parkland, Florida, and the powerful ways they’ve led the gun violence prevention movement nationwide and how they’re example inspired others throughout the country in the March for Our Lives last year. And one thing that’s absolutely incredible about that movement is how intersectional it is; white organizers, rightly so, called attention to how youth in communities of color weren’t getting the same level of media coverage when their communities repeatedly experienced gun violence, with little or no response from policy makers.
I’m thinking of youth right here in Tucson… When University of Arizona students rallied around three of their own who were penalized for protesting the presence of Border Patrol on campus. When high school students at Desert View demanded the release of their classmate, was held and faced possible deportation after a traffic stop.
When the students in Tucson High’s theater program presented Our Border Town. I saw that the other night. Wow… just wow! How inspiring it was to see these young people reflect a community back to itself with such conviction and presence, with all the pain and complexity of injustices here at the border. That Elton John song toward the end of the play, “Holy Moses,” those lyrics, “Oh, holy Moses… I wonder can can we live / In peace?”
Battlefield sheep formation. There are plenty of reasons for hope in younger generations. The Good Shepherd isn’t done with us yet!
Battlefield sheep formation…
- Whenever and wherever we realize the importance and the power and the beauty of our connection.
- Whenever we look out for one another in mutual responsibily, especially the vulnerable in our midst.
- Whenever that oneness of Jesus and his Father is truly embodied.
Whenever the love of our good and faithful Shepherd is mediated in community—in the fold, in the flock, even in “the herd”—there our cup overflows.