Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In his teaching ministry Jesus, like any good teacher, tended to employ images with which his audience would be able to identify. The only problem with this is that the context of his original audience would have been quite different from our own, so sometimes we have to do some work to understand what he meant.

The context of Jesus’ first audiences was that of an agricultural society, and for them the image of sheep and shepherd, the primary image in this morning’s Gospel, would have been an illustration with which the audience would have immediately identified. It is, for us, a bit harder to fully grasp. I, for one, grew up in a city and I have to admit to having never been on a real working farm (unless you count Bellwether, which I think many professional farmers would question) much less have I attempted to wrangle livestock myself. I knew that my primary exposure to the pastoral life in my youth, the Georgics of Vergil the elegies of Matthew Arnold, were probably too romantic to yield a genuine picture of the life and work of a shepherd. I did, however, see something once which made the image of sheep and shepherd a bit more real to me.

I was driving back from a meeting with colleagues through the countryside and noticed quite a bustle on the side of the road. As I got closer, it became obvious that some cows had escaped their enclosure and were running around precariously close to oncoming traffic. The cows’ handlers were trying their best to direct the cows back to their proper place, which task mainly seemed to consist in jumping up and down, gesticulating madly, to scare the cows into going back the right direction. The cows were, I assume, frightened, but not being rational creatures, they did not know how to get themselves back into a safe place.

I understand the herding sheep is much the same as herding cows, though those with more knowledge in this area can correct me. They are at least similar in that both professions are concerned with safeguarding the livestock against both external dangers as well as the animal’s proclivity to put itself into harm’s way. Like those cows wandering into the road, sheep would have been prone to wander off, to go astray, into danger. Far from being the romantic pastoral image some of us might have of the shepherding life, it was really a dirty, dangerous job. The shepherd often had to put himself into harm’s way to save the sheep from their own silliness.

Jesus may have seemed to be speaking in a manner not wholly complimentary when he referred to his disciples as sheep, but to get hung up on our assumption that sheep are just smelly, dumb creatures is to miss the point. We, like sheep—and like those cows I saw running dangerously close to the road—find that we do not have the wisdom and self-control to keep ourselves on the narrow path. We have something to learn from sheep, though. As smelly and dumb as they may seem, they know that their well-being is dependent on the shepherd. They are hard-wired, through their evolutionary history, to follow the leader. They “know” (insofar as an animal can be said to “know” at thing) that their safety is dependent on doing so.

We human beings have more trouble with this. Thanks to sin, we believe that we have everything we need within ourselves. Our own culture has exacerbated this fault of our nature. We believe in rugged individualism. We’ve learned to help ourselves, and seeking direction from someone or something outside of ourselves is reckoned a weakness.

Too often, religion (or at least certain types of religion) is little help. Too often, we get the message that the path to health and salvation, the pathway which leads us by green pastures and still waters where our souls are restored, are our own to navigate. It’s rarely said so explicitly, but religion can become all about being perfect or saying a certain prayer with somebody on television who has given us six steps to salvation. This might all be well and good, but if that’s all there is to faith, then it’s still about me doing my own private thing to chart my own path to salvation, a path which is ultimately more about myself than about God.

It is far more difficult for us to follow. On one level the sheep and the cows might have it more together than we do, because they know when they aren’t on the right path; that’s why they run around like they’re crazy and get into trouble. We humans are so smart that we can convince ourselves that we’re going the right way when we aren’t. We tell ourselves that on the path of life there’s no need to pull over to the gas station to ask for directions or to turn on the GPS device in our car, because we’re smarter than that, by gosh.

All of this is to say that the Christian life requires remarkable humility. The Good Shepherd is always ready to lead our unruly hearts, but we must be humble enough to receive his direction. Christ is ready to bring us to the heavenly banquet, his rod correcting us and his staff comforting us along the way, but we can’t be haughty or we’ll strike out on our own, thinking our own directions better. We already find ourselves in the flock, which is Christ’s Church, and the shepherd is leading us as we hear and experience his direction in scripture and prayer and in the breaking of bread. If, then, we are modest enough to listen, to listen carefully to the voice of the Shepherd, we may rest assured that we will be led to the springs of the water of life and will dwell with God in eternity.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.