Sunday, 11 May 2014

Sheep & Shepherds

‘The sheep follow (the shepherd) because they know his voice’,
… says Jesus, in today’s reading from St John’s Gospel (John 10:1-10).

I don't know about you, but these words always used to puzzle me. It just didn’t chime with my own experience.

I used help move sheep on my Grandfather’s farm as a child. Those sheep certainly didn’t recognise anyone’s voice, let alone mine aged 12! You couldn’t lead them. In fact it was the divil’s own job to stop them charging off the wrong way. We stood in gaps, we waved our hands and we hunted them as best we could to their new field of fresh grass, but they just wouldn’t follow! Surely, I thought, shepherds in Jesus’s time must have had a very different relationship with their sheep to us.

But then some years ago a wise farmer explained it to me. He was amused by my difficulty moving sheep. ‘I never have any difficulty getting my sheep to follow me’, he said. ‘I just carry a bag of meal with me, and they come running.’

There’s more than one way for a shepherd to lead his sheep - the sheep follow the shepherd they know will feed them!

‘The Lord is my shepherd; therefore can I lack nothing’.
So begins the 23rd Psalm we read earlier. We all love it, don’t we?. It is such a favourite because it is so filled with comforting images of God caring for us and keeping us safe.

This metaphor of the shepherd runs right through Hebrew scripture – our Old Testament - hardly surprising, because the Israelites were a pastoral people.

God is often likened to a shepherd in the scriptures, as in Psalm 23, or as Isaiah put it beautifully (Isaiah 40:11): “(The Lord God)  will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.”

But Ezekiel 34:2 applies the metaphor to the leaders of Israel, in a great indictment for their bad leadership and corruption: “Ah you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?”  They are bad shepherds. The same indictment might be made of some of the great and powerful of our society!

Jesus chooses to use the same metaphor in today’s reading.
It is the first part of a longer parable about his relationship with his disciples. In the very next verse, which the lectionary keeps for another day, Jesus continues “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” This image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is lovely and familiar, isn’t it? We have all seen the pictures of the strong self-reliant country man keeping his little flock safe from harm, carrying the lost sheep back to the flock on his shoulders.

In the rugged Judean countryside sheep had to be kept in a sheepfold at night to prevent them straying into the crops, and to protect them from wild animals and rustlers. In the two halves of the passage we have just heard, Jesus is probably talking about two different kinds of sheepfolds.

The first kind is a large communal fold near a village, surrounded by fences with a gate. The village would employ a gatekeeper to protect the sheep in the communal fold. In the morning the gatekeeper would open the gate to the shepherd who would call his own flock out. The other flocks wouldn’t recognise his call and would stay behind until their own shepherd came.

The second kind of sheepfold would be up in the hills, far from the village, and much smaller. It would be used in summer when a single shepherd would stay out with the sheep for days or weeks on end. To protect the flock at night, the shepherd would lead them into a small enclosure, perhaps just a dry-stone wall he had built. Instead of a gate, he would lie down to sleep in the entrance where any movement in or out would wake him up. I’ve found similar structures up in the Burren hills which may have been used in the same way. When Jesus said “I am the gate”, he meant it quite literally!

In the parable of the sheepfolds, and by calling himself the good shepherd, I think Jesus is quite deliberately doing two things:

Firstly he is promising his disciples - those who recognise his voice - that he will care for them. He will keep them safe and feed them. “Whoever enters by me will be saved”, he says.  They “will come in and go out and find pasture”. It is also a promise to us, today.

But secondly Jesus is implicitly accusing the leaders of his own day – the Pharisees he was talking to - of being bad shepherds, just as Ezekiel had done centuries before. “All who came before me are thieves and bandits;” he says, “but the sheep did not listen to them”. Today we must still be alert for thieves and bandits who try to mislead people, as much as in Jesus’s time.

Jesus’s disciples still need leadership today.
Jesus will always be our Good Shepherd, of course. We should hold on to that comforting, familiar image, and listen to his words as he leads us to find good pasture. After all he has told us “Remember, I am with you always.”

But Jesus has handed on a shepherd’s mantle to others too, starting with the apostles. John (21:15-17) tells us that Jesus said to Peter “Feed my lambs … tend my sheep … feed my sheep”. Bishops from that day to this have inherited the shepherd’s mantle.

Bishop Trevor will be retiring in July. When he leaves we will miss the wise and loving Christian leadership which it is a bishop’s job to give us. There are many challenges his successor must lead us to face. As a Christian flock we face schism in our Anglican communion. As a nation we struggle to build a just society as we emerge from the economic crisis. As a species we wrestle with resource depletion and global warming. The thieves and bandits are still about us.

Let us pray for those with the heavy responsibility of choosing his successor, that the Holy Spirit may guide them to find us a wise and loving Bishop, to lead us to pastures green beside quiet waters.

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