29 April 2012  Easter IV (Crescent Head)

Acts 4:5-12, 1 John 3:16-24, John 10:11-18 

My firsthand experience of sheep is very limited. It was mostly obtained when we lived in Dondingalong. A neighbour called one day and remarked to me that she didn't know we had sheep. I replied that we didn't. And she said, "you have now, I saw some in your front paddock as I drove in". I rushed down and sure enough about four sheep were happily grazing in the front paddock. I ran around them and tried to guide them back through the open gate but they would have none of that. Every time we all came near to the gate they veered off in another direction. Eventually I contacted the owner and between us we got them out and across the road into his paddock. There was no way that the owner or myself could have got those four sheep out by ourselves—we needed a dog, or at least two people to control them! 

When the reading today talks about Jesus the Good Shepherd and the docile obedient sheep, I think it is describing some other animal. 

It seems that in 1st century Palestine the shepherd was able to lead his sheep down the road, calling them as he took them out to feed on the pasture. He spent all his time with them, 24/7, protecting them from falling down hillsides, getting lost and being stolen. At night he often herded them into a pen and then lay across the gateway to keep them in and predators out. The sheep I know would have seen this as an invitation to leap over him and escape! (I have had a sheep leap over my head when I was standing, when I thought I had it cornered!) 

If the shepherd was to control any of the sheep I have experienced, he would need a well-trained sheepdog or better still, a pig like Babe to talk to the sheep and persuade them to do as the shepherd wanted. Otherwise the Shepherd would need to understand how the sheep thought and acted and develop some sort of trusting relationship with them if he and they were to successfully work together. Jesus who became one of us understood from his experience the complexity of being a human with weaknesses and strengths. 

In the Old Testament a shepherd image was often used for rulers—like King David who was a shepherd and became King. It was supposed to reflect a leader who both protected their people from danger and cared for them, making sure they had food, and young and old were cared for appropriately. What do we expect from our political leaders? Probably we expect that our daily life is peaceful, with food, housing and employment available —we don't want, for example, to be caught up in drive-by shootings as in Sydney or break-ins and robberies as in Kempsey. We also want those who are young, sick, old, unable to care for themselves to receive health care, and social welfare payments, realizing of course that this requires taxes to be paid etc. 

In the Anglican Church we have bishops who carry staffs during services—it is a symbol of a shepherd's crook, used to hook around the legs of a wayward sheep and catch it or bring it back to safety. Do our church leaders today know us, protect and care for us? I wonder what is our contribution to this rather odd relationship? 

The model of the Good Shepherd can be seen as one of serving others, working for their good, even giving his or her life for the sheep. The 'hired hand' referred to in the gospel appears to have no relationship with the sheep or responsibility for them. He or she runs away when danger in the form of a wolf approaches. This all sounds as if the sheep passively stand around while others either protect and care for them or leave them to be attacked or get lost. 

What if we as Christians are called to be shepherds and sheep of one another? After all, the church is imaged as the body of Christ and we are called to follow Christ by showing love for God and our neighbour? We also know that Christ identified himself in Matthew 25:35 with the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the one in need of clothes, the sick and those in prison. This suggests that we all have responsibility for one another and need care from one another. Are we prepared to leave our comfort zone to serve another in need? Are we prepared to fight against an injustice that we recognise but don't really want to become involved in? Are we grateful to receive help from others? 

Our reading suggests that we are to choose between being followers of Christ or 'hired hands'. Being a hired hand may equate to only being a Christian if it doesn't cost us anything and doesn't demand that we have any responsibility for others. If things become difficult or anyone asks something extra of us, then we just drift off, no problem. 

In our reading we are told about "other sheep that do not belong to this fold" — they too will listen to the voice of Jesus so there will be one flock and one shepherd. Who, we might ask, are the 'other sheep'? Perhaps in the gospel they are meant to be later Christians, Gentile Christians, or people of other faiths or none but who act in a way that demonstrates God's love and care? 

Whatever is the answer, for us the boundaries of the body of Christ or the reign of God must extend beyond the church. We as the church have a responsibility for one another and also for those we live among. There are several thoughts that come into my mind in response to our relationship with these 'other sheep'. 

There are many people who would deny being Christians but who act in a way that follows the way of Jesus. They are not hired hands. They care about others, they put themselves out to help people in need and so on. Sometimes we can see these people building community and welcoming others to belong to it. Can we not say that these too are listening to Jesus' voice by showing love for their neighbour? After all, in the reading from 1 John 3 we are told that we cannot love God and ignore others in need. And again, that when we love one another we are abiding in Jesus and Jesus in us. There is nothing here about having faith in Jesus, it is about loving and showing that love in caring actions. These people are only concerned to help another person in need. The same action is seen in the parable of the Good Samaritan. 

As human beings we all have a common identity, we are all sheep of one flock or another, we belong to one another and have a responsibility for one another. There is an old story, I think from the Jewish Midrash. It describes God and the angels watching the exodus of the Hebrew people from Egypt. The waters of the Red Sea part and the people pass over. The pursuing Egyptians in their chariots begin to follow but the waters roll back and they start to drown. The angels begin to rejoice, but God rebukes them. God says, "This is not a time to celebrate. These people are also my children". 

I read in the December issue of the North Coast Anglican of seven parishioners from All Soul's, Bangalow who have formed a social justice group. They meet in a coffee shop every 3 weeks or so because they care about asylum seekers and their needs and lobby politicians on their behalf. Ideas for a letter arise from current issues and are tossed around. One person is designated to make the first draft which is sent to the others via email for comment. Finally it becomes a letter and is posted off to the relevant federal and local politicians. They thank politicians for decisions such as releasing detainees into the community on bridging visas, and ask for adequate mental health care in the detention centres, the end of mandatory detention and so on. 

This is the way they are being shepherds, speaking Jesus Christ's voice by caring for sheep from other flocks. It could also be done to urge the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions etc. 

So let us now return to those wayward sheep. We can never be their shepherds by trying to make them do what they don't want to. We are one with them, and must learn to work with them for our mutual benefit. We are sheep together, shepherds together, God's sheep and God's shepherds called to care for one another. 

Helen CSC, 29.4.12, preached to an ecumenical congregation at a small village church in Crescent Head, NSW.