Monday, April 30, 2007

He Calls Us Sheep?

My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.

Is it a compliment to liken us to sheep? I hear they aren’t the brightest bulb in the barnyard.

What comes to my mind when I hear “sheep”? A sheepdog tearing circles around a scattered flock that starts rolling across the hillside like drops of spilled mercury on a countertop. If we’re sheep, does it take a sheepdog’s boundless energy to guide the flock?

That’s shepherding in the western world. I don’t know if shepherds have dogs in the Middle East, but I don’t recall that image anywhere in either the Hebrew scriptures or the Christian, so I’ll guess that wasn’t the way sheep were herded in 1st-century Palestine. As a pastor, I’m relieved. The hard-running sheepdog with its tongue hanging out of its mouth could have popped up in parables, as if to say, “Here’s what it means to lead the flock, to be an apostle, to be a pastor.” Run like the wind. In circles. Faster than the sheep. It’s all up to you. The sheep haven’t got a clue. Keep tightening that circle ‘til they’re in the pen. Whoops—watch the right flank! Now the left! Run, dog, run!

No. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. If you’ve done Bible study with this passage before, you may have read the same commentary I have, claiming that in a more communal interdependent first-century world several shepherds might pen their sheep at night together. Then, by morning light, the sheep would be released. The shepherds would place themselves apart from one another and with just their voices call out—and their sheep would come to them. If you think that overestimates the intelligence of sheep, take that up with the commentator. That’s how it was done, he claims, suggesting that sheep have (or in that culture had) a good instinctive sense of recognizing the shepherd’s voice.

In fact, we have that on higher authority in the opening verses of that tenth chapter of John’s Gospel

'Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate
but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate
is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear
his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought
out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him 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.’ Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did
not understand what he was saying to them.

Ah, yes. The sheep are doing fine recognizing the Good Shepherd. The human disciples are stumped. Hmm. Whose is the brightest bulb in the barnyard?

Shepherding is a metaphor for care-giving. In this tenth chapter of John, it gives Jesus—and John—the perfect setting in which to mount absolute diamonds of theology. Listen:

I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and
find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may
have life, and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays

down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own
the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf
snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does
not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me,
just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the
sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and
they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.

We may feel that being called sheep isn’t much of a calling. But we’d miss the point badly if we didn’t recognize that there’s no higher calling than to recognize authentic love, unconditional caring, the inviting voice of the Good Shepherd, God. If we develop this instinct, we’ll hear our truest calling. If we don’t, then we’re left dumber than sheep. The metaphor isn’t a passive one, as if saying to us who have come to church today, “You sheep are just on the receiving end here, so soak up the music, the message, the sacrament, and the coffee and go home.” The metaphor is an active one: “To be in this flock is to commit yourself to belonging, to keeping enough silence, investing enough discipleship, immersing yourself deeply enough in community that you develop the instinct to listen, hear, and obey the call of God to take care of one another and your world.”

Feed my lambs… Tend my sheep… Feed my sheep. We heard those words last Sunday as Peter the sheep was called into transformation to become Peter the shepherd. That he is the prototype of popes is not as evident as that he models the transformation required of all Christians: to move from being sheep to being shepherds.

If you can receive one more parable in this vein, remember this one?

Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the
ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he
has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he
calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have
found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over
one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no
. (Luke 15: 4-7)

I remind you of this to speak of transformation again, this time the attempted transformation of a society, South African society, from one of violence and degradation (as it was in the era of apartheid) to one of what South Africans call ubuntu, the interdependence of humanity. This transformation was a reclaiming of truly African heritage, detoxifying their culture from the poisons introduced by an oppressive (though ostensibly better-educated and more sophisticated) alien culture that made its way by intimidation and violence.

It’s one of the greatest stories of our time. In 1990, President F. W. de Klerk announced the end of apartheid, amazing the world. Four years later, Nelson Mandela was released from twenty-seven years of political imprisonment, the voice they could not silence. Another belonged to Desmond Tutu, Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town and Nobel Peace laureate. Together, these good shepherds led South Africa into a peaceful biracial future not by pretending that the monstrous abuses of apartheid had never happened, nor by trying and punishing the guilty, but by granting amnesty and actively forgiving all who would come forward, admit their guilt, tell the story and face their victims and their victims’ families. By ubuntu, perpetrators were understood to be victims also, because apartheid had poisoned their hearts and numbed their souls. Justice, ubuntu-style, is not about revenge and retribution, but about restoration and reconciliation.

From 1995 to 1998, Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission recorded the public testimony of twenty thousand South Africans, blacks and whites, the prominent and the lowly. It was all about hearing the voice of truth in order to find the voice of justice. Listening, hearing, recognizing the interdependence of humanity.

Which brings us to hear some words of Desmond Tutu:

The point is that, if perpetrators were to be despaired of as monsters and demons, then we were thereby letting accountability go out the window because we were then declaring that they were not moral agents to be held responsible for the deeds they had committed. Much more importantly, it meant that we abandoned all hope of their being able to change for the better. Theology said they still, despite the awfulness of their deeds, remained children of God with the capacity to repent, to be able to change…

In this theology, we can never give up on anyone because our God was one who had a particularly soft spot for sinners. The Good Shepherd in the parable Jesus told had been quite ready to leave ninety-nine perfectly well-behaved sheep in the wilderness to look for, not an attractive, fluffy little lamb—fluffy little lambs do not usually stray from their mummies—but for the troublesome, obstreperous old ram. This was the one on which the Good Shepherd expended so much energy.
-- from his book "No Future Without Forgiveness"

I expect you will go home today remembering that I worked the metaphor of sheep and shepherd like a sheepdog. I hope you’ll keep working it, too. Archbishop Tutu showed how it stands for unconditional caring, authentic love; how Jesus, calling us his sheep, calls us to be shepherds. To be in his flock is to commit ourselves to belonging, to keeping enough silence, investing enough discipleship, immersing ourselves deeply enough in community that we develop the instinct to listen, hear, and obey the call of God to take care of one another, to take care of ourselves, and to take care of our world.