Sunday 30 April 2023

Shepherds & Sheep

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

These words always used to puzzle me. It just didn’t chime with my own experience.

I remember helping to move my Grandfather’s sheep 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 farmer explained it to me. He was amused by my difficulty moving sheep. ‘I never have any difficulty getting sheep to follow me’, he said. ‘I just carry a bag of sheep nuts with me, and they come running.’

There’s more than one way for a shepherd to lead his sheep - the sheep follow the shepherd who shows them the way to food!

‘The Lord is my shepherd; therefore can I lack nothing’.

The opening words of 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. That’s hardly surprising because the Israelites were a pastoral people.

God is often likened to a shepherd, as in Psalm 23, or as Isaiah writes (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 in a different way, to the leaders of Israel, in a great indictment of their bad leadership and corruption: “Ah you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?” The same indictment might be made of some of the great and powerful of our society!

Jesus chooses to use this metaphor of the shepherd 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, I’m sure, 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 when walking up in the Burren hills. When Jesus said “I am the gate”, I think he means it quite literally!

In today’s reading, I think Jesus is quite deliberately doing two things:

Firstly he is promising his disciples - sheep 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 his promise to us, today.

But secondly Jesus is implicitly accusing the religious leaders of his own day for 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”. The thieves and bandits are surely those who mislead and oppress the people. As his disciples we must not listen to them, but rather we must listen to the gentle, loving voice of Jesus, our Good Shepherd, who leads us to green pastures beside still waters.

Jesus will always be our Good Shepherd, of course.

We should hold on to that comforting, familiar image, and listen to his words. After all he has told us “Remember, I am with you always.”

But Jesus has handed on his 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 a shepherd’s mantle, as Bishop Michael has.

We give thanks for Bishop Michael’s wise and loving Christian leadership which it is his job as a bishop to give us. We give thanks too for the appointment of the Rev Keith Barry, to whom Bishop Michael will delegate ministry in our Union of Parishes, when he is installed as our Rector on June 24th. They both need our prayers as they lead us to face many challenges. Because the thieves and bandits have not gone away, you know.

But shepherding is not just a job for those who are ordained. Jesus has commissioned each and every one of us - disciples who follow him – sheep who recognise his voice - to continue his mission to build the kingdom of heaven here on earth - as Fr Peter McVerry spoke so eloquently in St Mary’s last Monday.

So I finish in prayer with the Collect of the Word appointed for today

God of all power,
you called from death our Lord Jesus,
the great shepherd of the sheep;
send us as shepherds to rescue the lost,
to heal the injured,
and to feed one another with understanding;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen