My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me — John 10:22-30
Scripture offers us many images of sheep. They were a part of the world of Jesus and his followers We hear of them being herded, getting lost, going astray, being found, and sometimes sacrificed and eaten.
Children see them as soft and fuzzy, easily identified amongst the other critters on the ark in our picture books. Useful, happy in herds, easily managed. In last weeks’ gospel, Jesus put Simon Peter in charge of Tending and Feeding the sheep. Protect the flock of current believers and encourage those new to the fold. They serve as a rich symbol in our Christian lexicon. Bach’s cantata sums up the 18th century imagery which still has meaning for us:
Sheep may safely graze Whilst the shepherd is watching. Where the wise and good rule Peace will also reign there .
But over time, we have incurred some negative connotations-to be a sheep is not to exercise one’s own thoughts but to follow the crowd. As our young people learn to discern whom to follow and whom to ignore, the kindly sheep may not help them. So we wonder, are the sheep blindly obedient or smart enough to realize they need leadership to protect them?
I know that I am guilty of clustering folks into groups, creating herds of sheep who seem to belong together, rowdy teens, homeless folks, others who do not match me. In my frustration at my inability to affect their lives, I unfairly group them into herds of mindless followers and determine that they are unable to break out and change their lives. I do them a disservice, perhaps, but then I am just another “senior citizen” to them.
There are times when it is wise to join a crowd, follow a leader, take an identity from a large group- we are Anglicans, part of the worldwide communion, we are proud of that. We want to be collectively cared for and hope, at the same time, that we will be known intimately by our shepherd. We yearn to let down our guard and be cared for deeply, singly by our God. We want someone to rescue us from the edge of the cliff, and place us on his shoulders to carry us back to the safety of the flock. It is tough going it alone.
Jesus is making the point today that God loves all of us, but he also cares about us as individuals. The trick is of course that we have to listen for the voice of God calling to us. The shepherd alluded to here knows his flock as individual sheep as well as a collective entity. I am sure that if you asked any teacher among us to tell us about their classroom and students, he or she would start off with a collective description and then begin to highlight certain students for a variety of reasons. For the shepherd, health of each one meant health of the whole flock .Trusting the shepherd to care for them as individuals and as a flock, produced a win-win for all. Healthy sheep meant a wealthy shepherd.
Sheep will not go to any one person who summons them despite being willing to follow along, they will only go to the person with the voice they know. Last week someone called me I had not seen or spoken to in years and just the sound of his voice reminded me of his generous nature and loving spirit. It was good to speak with him and share good news.
One quick story. Our middle child, Audrey, was/is a content complex person. She adapted well to middle child life and is a joy to her sibling. When she was a toddler, she would often awake during the night. Not in discomfort or distress, just awakened for some reason. (As an aside, she and I would later share a time of sleepwalking, processing our day with vivid night activity and so we had quite a busy night time household for awhile) The first few times of her arousal I would go into her room and hug her , soothe her with some words, lie her back down with some more kisses and hugs , rub her back, and she would ease back to sleep. Nights later I could somehow hear her before she really was fully awake and calling out for me, and could get to her and soothe her with a snuggle and back rub and shorten the event. As even more nights went by ,somehow, from our room, I could hear her stir and would call out to her the words I would have whispered in her ear. It’s ok, I love you, you are safe, go back to sleep. That voice in the dark seemed enough. The process from caress to voice comfort took time but it worked eventually and she got older and the events ceased.
So Jesus talks about the voice of the shepherd, his voice. Not just the words of wisdom he had brought to Galilee and beyond but also the timbre and quality of his speech. The audible comfort in his stories and parables have been replayed in peoples’ minds like loops of tape. We know that because decades later they were able to be transcribed into the documents we call Scripture.
We also hear a promise in this reading about safety and protection at a deeper level . Jesus tells the listeners that his sheep, his followers, “that no one will snatch them out of my hand”. That is a tremendous promise. It seems once we are God’s, once we hear his voice and come into his flock, there is no danger that can threaten us and separate us from his loving hand. Later on Paul will tell the Romans that there are no powers, not even death ” nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God”. I have a friend in recovery whose his credo which sustains him is that there is nothing he can do to make God love him more and there is nothing he can do to make God love him less.
I know I lose sight of how much God looks after me and take the credit too often for successes and assume that I can work out my problems for myself. Not so, as I can be reminded . Despite my skills I still need a shepherd to swoop me up from the edge of the cliff and bring me back to the flock. It is not only his desire and care for me that prompts the saving, but I am missed by the flock and their warm bulky bodies pressing up against me in joy at my return is love made manifest. The safety and warmth of a group is appealing and comforting. Finding a place of peace is invaluable as we hear in Hymn 692:
I heard the voice of Jesus say, “Come unto Me and rest;
Lay down, thou weary one, lay down Thy head upon My breast.”
I came to Jesus as I was, weary and worn and sad;
I found in Him a resting place, and He has made me glad.
The sheep can take comfort knowing that they are safe from predators while the shepherd is on guard over them. We too can rest that we will not come to harm while God is watching over us. Even if we stray and wander from the fold, the voice calling us back to his arms will pierce any darkness.
I found in Him a resting place, and He has made me glad.