Sunday, May 03, 2009

Fourth Sunday in Easter

John 10
11“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12The 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. 13The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16I 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. 17For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

Sheep smell.

I know this because I have met some, and I can confirm that sheep smell. The church, you see, decided in her wisdom to send new ministers to small far-off places where we could do minimal amounts of damage while to brought years of book-learnin’ to the people we serve.

For me it was three little churches: Althorpe, Bolingbroke and Calvin, in three communities that no longer appear on the map. The third, Calvin United Church, was also the location of a lovely Victorian manse, located directly across the road from a working sheep farm.

And so I can confirm that sheep smell. And just to reassure you, this is not the second sermon in a series called “smelly things in the Bible,” though it is awful tempting to follow Roman fish sauce and sheep with something equally smelly next week. Leave it with me.

There is another link, however, between fish sauce and sheep, and that would be in the area of ubiquity. Just as every table had a pot of garum, every field had sheep. The land was well suited to herding: too mountainous and too rugged for cultivation, but perfect for sheep. And like fish, sheep were so common that they were never far from the popular imagination, and a ready source for metaphor.

Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd.” And just to make sure they understood, he said it again. Jesus is speaking outside of time here, speaking to the disciples and explaining who he will be to them, and also speaking to the early church, beset as they were with wolves in the form of Roman persecution. And so the character of the shepherd becomes central to the community: trusting that “the good shepherd” will remain steadfast in a time of trouble.

But he says more. He draws a comparison between himself as the good shepherd and ‘the hired hand,’ the bad shepherd who runs off at the first sign of trouble. He makes it clear to the first readers that even death will not prevent him from guarding his flock, that as he laid his life down for the sheep, he has taken it up to continue to be a risen presence. We remain one flock, with one shepherd, and even in the valley of the shadow of death we have nothing to fear.


So we know that the Bible is a source of smells, but it is also filled with clues. The text of filled with allusions and links that range for the obvious to the hidden. Three times, in our eight verses from John this morning, Jesus uses the phrase ‘hired hand.’ As I said, he is making a point of comparison, but I think there is more.

The hired hand, it seems, was about the most common type of shepherd. It was an occupation for the landless, people who were not inheriting the family farm, which in the Ancient Near East described just about everyone. And so people would hire themselves out for this solitary life. And like most consultants, their prospects were directly related to their trustworthiness: do well this season and word would get around and the work would continue.

This, then, makes Jesus’ description of the hired hand even more mysterious. If they succeeded based on past performance and maintaining their reputation, we can assume they were doing a good job. So why the harsh critique? The clue may be in the other common type of shepherd: the youngest child. Some families, with a surplus of children, would simply put the youngest out in the field. Farming was hard work, which the youngest couldn’t handle, and so they found themselves among the flocks.

And this is beginning to sound familiar: that young lad out in the field, too small to be selected to take on the most onerous task, best left with the sheep. All the other brothers are present, but poor David, only big enough to watch the flock. If Jesus was unwilling to trust a hireling to do the work of shepherd, the first readers minds would naturally wander to the most famous shepherd in scripture, and that would be David.

David was the George Washington of the Hebrew Bible. There was the broad outline of his story, there was a list of accomplishments and firsts, and there were stories, some true and some dubious that made up his story. Such is the life of a national hero. His story was told and retold until it became hard to separate fact from legend, but the abiding point remained: there was no greater king than David, he was the one against whom all others were measured.

And he is also credited with writing the 23rd Psalm. The most familiar passage in scripture is the second way that early readers of John would naturally assume that Jesus was drawing a link to David. Psalm 23 was written to portray the kind of protection a good king would offer: prosperity and fruitfulness, protection in danger and membership in a household built on righteousness. It becomes another test against which shepherds are judged, a way to determine which shepherd deserves the title ‘good.’

But there is more. The prophets also weigh in on this question of good versus bad. Ezekiel 34:

The word of the LORD came to me: 2 "Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: 'This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? 3 You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. 4 You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. 5 So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals.

Suddenly it has become very political. The Kings of Israel, always known as shepherds, are not simply directed to care for the future of the nation but care for the most vulnerable, to heal the sick and find the lost. And in this we have circled back once more. Reading like a day in the life of Jesus, Ezekiel’s critique is a list of everything Rome was not, everything that Jesus did for those he met and everything he promised to do in his risen life.


So maybe it is time to look at the sheep themselves. Sure they smell, but we’re used to it now, and they are far too cute to let a little smell get in the way of affection. St. Augustine said, "By loving the unlovable, You (God) made me lovable." All we like sheep have gone astray, and everyone has gone his own way, but God insists on loving us and following us and finding us when we have wandered off. "By loving the unlovable, You (God) made me lovable."

God has made us lovable and promised the protection of a good shepherd. God has lifted up the ideal king for us, and we in turn know what to expect from kings and governments as they are confronted my injustice and the difficult life of the most vulnerable in our midst. And God has promised Jesus, crucified and risen, will walk with us and find us when we stray. We are lovable and ever loved, lost and imperfect, and the good shepherd remains, now and always, amen.


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