Are You Smarter Than A Sheep?
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ARE YOU SMARTER THAN A SHEEP?
The Rev. J. Donald Waring
Grace Church in New York
The Fourth Sunday of Easter
April 30, 2023
Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits, but the sheep did not listen to them. (John 10:7)
Today’s reading from the Gospel of John reminds me of some curious phone calls I had just about a year ago. One morning I arrived in my office to find a lengthy voice message from a man named William, who was calling from Branson, MO. William explained that his wife-to-be was a woman named Catherine. He described her as a member of Grace Church who attended every Sunday. Surely I knew her. She was 34, blonde, gorgeous, and spoke with an accent because she was from the Netherlands. William said that he had met Catherine online, and they had been talking for over a year. The relationship had blossomed. Catherine accepted William’s marriage proposal, and the plan was for her to move to Branson. But Catherine recently had suffered a terrible accident. She’d been hit by a car and was now in the hospital. William asked if I would go see her. Would I call him back?
Before I returned William’s call, I wanted to check our data base to see if we had any record of Catherine. Something wasn’t making sense. I had no doubt that in this sheepfold called Grace Church we have women who are 34. Also, it is entirely likely that on any given Sunday, you’ll find in the pews women who are blonde. Also among us are women whom the world would deem to be gorgeous. Some of them may be 34, blonde, and gorgeous all at the same time. But in all my years here I have never encountered a 34-year old, blonde, gorgeous woman with a Dutch accent, especially not one who attends every Sunday. Sure enough, no such person by the full name William had given me had ever even so much as filled out a newcomer card.
Sometime later when I reached William on the phone he was in an agitated state. Catherine was not doing well in the hospital. Her medical bills were piling up, and he wasn’t sure he could send her any more money. I broke the news to William that we had no record of Catherine at Grace Church. He was dumbfounded. Then I asked William if he had ever actually met Catherine in person, and he confessed that no, he had not. I didn’t need to say any more. It was very sad. With sudden clarity William realized that he’d been swindled out of thousands of dollars. He’d been fleeced. He’d listened to the voice of a thief and a bandit.
Today’s reading from the Gospel of John asks us to consider whose voice we are following. You know, of course, that because we are in church the conclusion we are supposed to draw is Jesus. We would do well to hear and heed the voice of the risen Lord Jesus. Jesus is the great shepherd of the sheep, who speaks to us in triumph over the grave, so that we might have life and have it abundantly and eternally. The whole point of this Easter season is that Jesus lives, and not only lives, but speaks to and leads those who listen for his voice.
In the very next verse beyond today’s reading, Jesus will refer to himself as the good shepherd (10:11). In doing so he could not have made a more startling claim. The image of a shepherd was a well-established way of speaking about the one true King of Israel, who is God. “The Lord is my shepherd,” declares the Psalmist. Thus, if Jesus claimed to be the good shepherd in the context and culture that John described, he wasn’t merely announcing that he was yet another earthly king, or even the Messiah. Rather, what we have here is a claim to divinity. He was claiming to be the Lord God Incarnate. When you hear his voice, you hear God’s voice. When you hear his word, you hear God’s word. He is God’s Word. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, writes John at the in the opening lines of his Gospel.
Now, it’s one thing to make such claims about yourself, and indeed other historical figures have done just that: claimed to be divine. What sets Jesus apart? What saves the claims of Jesus from being merely an outrageous boast? The answer is the resurrection: Easter. Easter distinguishes Jesus above all others. Stay with me, now. We understand Easter, which itself was an objective occurrence in history, as God’s validation of all that Jesus said and did. Therefore, from earliest times Christians have set aside a Sunday in Eastertide to proclaim that Jesus is our good shepherd. Jesus is the good shepherd of this flock we call the church. He is the good shepherd of all the earth. He is the good shepherd of all the vast times and spaces in the cosmos, because, as John (1:2) asserts, he was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.
Are you still with me? The implications of the shepherd metaphor that Jesus used are staggering. As the mind of the shepherd presides over the sheep, so does the will and the way of God prevail in the universe. The universe is not a chance, mindless occurrence with no purpose, but rather the theater in which God enacts his will. Behind the universe is the mind of God, and Jesus is the incarnation of God, the principal actor in the drama. Indeed, in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (John 1:4-5). All this light floods the stage when we declare that Jesus is the good shepherd.
Unfortunately, the light that has come into the world casts shadows, and we choose too often to focus on the shadows instead of the light. Yes, Good Shepherd Sunday also has a dark side – a shadow side. You see, over the centuries, the more we have used the metaphor to proclaim the virtues of the Shepherd, the more we have slandered the sheep – the literal sheep themselves. Good Shepherd Sunday is largely an ecumenical affair, so that every year on the 4th Sunday of Easter, congregations across all denominations will be hearing the shepherd passages from the 10th Chapter of John. Preachers will be climbing into pulpits, and let me tell you what they are going to do. They are going to tell jokes at the expense of sheep. It’s true. If a preacher today doesn’t include at least one story about how stupid sheep are, well, he or she just isn’t playing along.
My guess is that right now, up at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Bishop Dietsche is running through his litany of tried and true sheep jokes, even using his bishop’s crook as a shepherd’s staff. At St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Cardinal Dolan has a million of them, and even something of an Irish brogue that undoubtedly has the worshippers in stitches, all at the expense of lowly sheep, who aren’t even there to rebut the charges. As for me, my Good Shepherd Sunday confession to you is that I, too, have been a gleeful, willing participant in the character assassination of sheep. From this very pulpit I’ve told you every sheep joke I know, and oh, how smug and superior it’s made us feel to laugh at the foibles of these maligned, misunderstood animals.
Well, today I declare that enough is enough, and I rise in defense of the sheep. Why? If you read the 10th Chapter of John, you will hear not a single discouraging word about sheep, that’s why. In fact, Jesus has nothing but good things to say about them. The good shepherd knows, names, loves, and values each and every one of the sheep, and even would lay his life down for them. What is more, rather than making jokes about how stupid the sheep are, the good shepherd even boasts about the sheer smarts of these creatures. They know which voice to follow in order to live. A stranger they will not follow. The robbers and thieves who come to steal and kill and destroy they will not follow. They will flee from them because they do not know the voice of strangers. Can the same be said of us? Just think of the pundits and politicians these days whose voices lead people astray. These are the people we think are going to give us abundant life? Really? A good case could be made that sheep are more discerning than humans.
Therefore, to offset all the sheep jokes being told today, perhaps a human joke is in order. It’s actually not a joke but a true story. Two times I’ve been to Iceland, the tiny island nation where the sheep seem to outnumber the people. Iceland has no natural predators like wolves or coyotes to threaten the sheep, so the sheep safely graze wherever they can find green grass. At one point, my son James and I were walking along the top of a deep gorge carved out by a river below. On the other side of the gorge we saw a lone sheep perched precariously on what most of us would call the side of a cliff. It was quite a balancing act, but the sheep wasn’t worried at all. It was happily munching away at the thick, green grass it had found, where human feet could not trample.
Above the sheep on the pedestrian path were three young men – loud, overserved, American tourists – who were laughing and yelling at the sheep. Apparently, they were trying to startle it so that it would fall. “BOO,” they would shout. “Watch your step, Mr. Sheep! BAH!” No one appreciated their humor more than they themselves. In fact, they were laughing so hard that one of them leaned over too far, lost his footing, and started to slide down the slope. Fortunately, the man grabbed onto a bush and his friends were able to pull him up before he fell to what would have been his death. Let the words they cried be imagined rather than repeated. Of course, the sheep paid no attention to their voices, but my guess is, when back in the fold that night, this one had a good story to tell about the foibles of humans.
So how about you? Are you smarter than a sheep? Do you know which voice to follow so that you might have life, and have it abundantly? Here’s the amazing proposition of today that much of the so-called smart and sophisticated world rejects as utter nonsense. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who knows, loves, and values you is calling your name and is urging you to follow. How do you hear his voice amidst the steady cacophony of sounds and influences that surround us today? To be sure, you can listen for the voice of the Lord in nature, culture, tradition, and family. But the real miracle occurs through Spirit. God’s intervention, God’s pastoral care, God’s diligent oversight of the sheep happens when the Spirit of God calls out to our spirits. God seeks to give you his indwelling Spirit. God wants you to have the implanted Word that has the power to save your soul.
Perhaps it’s true that everyone, merely by virtue of creation, is a child of God and has the indwelling Spirit, or the implanted Word, call it what you will. The sad fact is, sin still gets in the way and distorts our hearing and ability to grow into the people God created us to be. Thus, to become truly a member of Christ’s flock we need adoption and grace. Together we pray for an additional blessing of the Spirit through baptism and confirmation and the regular receiving of the Eucharist. Together we read and study the Scriptures, trusting that God breathes the Holy Spirit through them. Together we participate in the life of the Christian community. We come to church because where even two or three gather in the name Jesus, there he is in the midst of us, helping us to discern between the voices that give life, and those that steal, kill, and destroy. Today’s reading from Acts (2:42-47) is a powerful witness to the close, supportive fellowship that can happen between members of a church.
“William, do you belong to a church?” I asked the sobbing man on the phone. I had encouraged him to do several things, including calling the police, notifying his bank, and not sending any more money to a person he’d never met. But then I strongly encouraged him to find a church and become a member of Christ’s flock, where supportive people could help and guide him. We live in world full of predators. You don’t have to face them alone.
My prayer today is that William is safely in the fold, hearing the voice of the Good Shepherd, who wants him and us to have life, and have it abundantly.