Sermon for Good Shepherd Sunday

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

One of the most peculiar things I experienced during the eclipse a couple weeks ago was how it affected the wildlife. I knew to expect this, but it was still surprising. At one point I saw what I thought to be a bird flying past after all the others had gone quiet and hidden, but looking closer it was obviously a bat. We saw a rabbit emerge from a bush who became very confused once the sun came out. And most dramatically, a transformer exploded nearby and we later learned that a presumably confused bird had flown into it. Since Aristotle, we’ve said that the distinguishing element of humanity is that we are so-called “rational animals.” While scholars of comparative cognition will tell us, quite rightly, that we’ve underestimated the capacity of some beasts to be more adept at reasoning than they’ve historically been given credit for, complex (and especially moral) reasoning seems largely the domain of our species alone.

Thus it might have struck the disciples as somewhat rude to be compared with an animal often reckoned a rather silly, irrational creature – the humble sheep. This is an animal prone to going astray, wandering into danger, bred to be easily herded, but at a loss when shepherd-less.

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 dumb creatures is both to miss the point and, perhaps, to give ourselves too much credit. We, like sheep find that we do not have the wisdom and self-control to keep ourselves on the narrow path. Like the bat and the rabbit and the kamikaze bird I mentioned, we too are prone to following appetite rather than reason. We have something to learn from sheep, though. As irrational 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.