Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter

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

Two images have struck me this week as we are given our yearly reminder that Jesus being the Good Shepherd means that all we are like sheep (prone, as the Prophet Isaiah put it, to going astray). First, last summer Annie and I went to the county fair and saw one of her friend’s children showing a sheep. I’ve joked before about how I’m a “city boy”. I admit that I’d never seen anything like this before. I once saw a demonstration of a dog herding sheep, but I’d never seen a person dealing with livestock, and it became clear pretty quickly that some of the beasts were more inclined to being handled and directed by their young shepherds than others, to say the least.

The second image was from yesterday, at Bishop Jolly’s consecration. It was a beautiful liturgy with many moving moments. One of the loveliest elements was when all of the current and former bishops of Ohio presented Bishop Jolly with her crozier, the staff which symbolizes her role as shepherd of the flock which is this diocese. Most of you have seen a bishop with a crozier before, but one has to use one’s imagination to connect the symbol with the practical application of an actual shepherd’s crook. Well, not this one. You’ll get to see it when Bishop Jolly visits us in June, but I’ll tell you now, this is the first time I’ve seen a bishop’s crozier that looks like it could actually go round the neck of an actual full grown sheep, or the neck of a wayward diocesan priest for that matter. It recalled the moment a bit earlier in the liturgy, right before the consecration proper, when the co-consecrating bishop’s examine the bishop-elect. In response to one of the questions, pertaining to the bishop’s role as chief priest and pastor of her diocese, to which the ordinand answers “I will, in the name of Christ, the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls.”

If you’re anything like me, as I’ve said before on this Sunday, you probably don’t like to be compared to a sheep. But look again at what Jesus is saying. “The sheep follow [the shepherd] because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Perhaps we’ve underestimated the sheep. As smelly and dumb as they may seem, as prone to straying as they are, they know that their well-being is dependent on the shepherd. They are hard-wired, through the history of their domestication, to follow the leader. They know that their safety is dependent on doing so, and they’re smart enough at least to be able to discern between one who will lead them to safety and one who will steal them away.

I wonder if most of us are this discerning. Even those of us who are intuitive enough to discern someone who’s genuine from a con-man most of the time, can nonetheless throw our lot in with a sheep-thief. I don’t just mean that we can fall in with a rough crowd, though for some that is an issue. I mean we can totally misplace our confidence, failing to follow the Good Shepherd in favor of some other leader.

And it should be no surprise that for us modern people the most common thief one might trust instead of the Good Shepherd is none other than oneself. Thanks to sin, we believe that we have everything we need within ourselves, and our own culture has exacerbated this fault of our nature. We believe in rugged individualism. We say “God helps those who help themselves” (which I hope you know, comes neither from the bible nor from a Christian thinker), we say we must pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps and we believe seeking direction from someone or something outside of ourselves is a weakness.

It is far more difficult for us to follow. On this level the sheep might have it more together than we do, because they know when they aren’t on the right path. They can recognize the shepherd’s voice, and they know they’re in trouble when they don’t hear it. 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.

So, maybe, we shouldn’t get offended when we’re called sheep. Maybe there’s something we can learn from those silly beasts after all. Maybe we can learn that we should cultivate enough humility that we can be led by another. 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 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.