April 17, 2016 sermon (Easter 4)
Shepherd of my Soul
Today’s topic is sheep. I’m a city person so we all know that I have no experience with animals other than cats and dogs. Growing up listening to the parables about Jesus being the good shepherd didn’t really do much for me. Yeah, yeah, shepherds take care of sheep so Jesus takes care of us; big deal. But then in the theological school, I had a professor from a rural village in Ghana, who told us one day about the relationship between sheep and their shepherds. After that day, Jesus the good shepherd started feeling much more differently than before.
The first thing I learned about sheep is that they are, how should I put it delicately, “highly unintelligent”. They are a simple animal, which makes them easier to go astray; hence the parable of lost sheep. But on the other hand, being simple means they are easier to take care of. It’s like me and young children; I know how their minds work, so usually my tricks work. Older children are more difficult to handle because they have more ability to think for themselves, and are less gullible. Now, a shepherd’s staff; it is used differently during the day than during the night. During the day, the shepherd has it on his or her shoulder so the sheep can SEE where they are going. During the night when they cannot see, the shepherd walks while tapping the staff on the ground so they can HEAR where they are going.
In John chapter 10, Jesus is compared to the gate for the sheep and a good shepherd. What I learned about the sheepfold from my professor is that it doesn’t have a door. So the shepherd literally sleeps at the entrance of the sheepfold at night watching over the sheep. If thieves or wolves come to take the sheep, the shepherd is there to defend them with a humble staff as a weapon. As it says in verse 11, “the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep”; you see, fighting wolves alone with a staff can be dangerous. And as it says in verse 3, yes, the sheep recognize their shepherd’s voice. This makes it easier for these “highly unintelligent” creatures to follow their shepherd and not get lost, or follow a stranger who might be a thief.
Isn’t it fascinating that these “highly unintelligent” creatures can recognize their shepherd’s voice? Now that’s more than what the Little Red Riding Hood was capable of. When I read verse 4 (“the sheep follow him because they know his voice”), I think of the Little Red Riding Hood who was fooled by the wolf. “Grandma, why do you have such a deep voice?” “The better to greet you with”. Come on, give me a break! Even the stupid, no I meant the “highly unintelligent” sheep know their shepherd’s voice! What’s wrong with this girl?
In the first half of chapter 10, Jesus compares himself with the good shepherd and explains the relationship between the good shepherd and his sheep. The shepherd of the sheep enters through the door, instead of climbing over the wall. The sheep knows the shepherd’s voice so they only follow him, as opposed to the Little Red Riding Hood who couldn’t tell the difference. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep, because sometimes bad guys come to attack the sheep whether they are human thieves or hungry wolves.
In today’s gospel text, Jesus is rejected by the Jews. But it feels more to me like it is Jesus who is rejecting the Jews who don’t follow him. “You keep asking me who I am, but I’ve already told you that. If you were my sheep, you would know me. The fact that you don’t know me proves that you don’t belong to me”. Jesus gives the Jews the analogies of sheep and shepherd to tell them that they are not his people. We might think like the Jews in the story and ask, “how can we know who you are if you don’t tell us in plain words?” Bear in mind that Jesus in the Gospel of John is esoteric and exclusive. John’s community was esoteric and exclusive in general; also pretty anti-Jewish and anti-Jerusalem church, which was the mainstream church in the early Church era. John’s community was a small sect not recognized by the Jerusalem church authority led by the direct disciples of Jesus. In this scene, Jesus is not only rejecting the Jews who reject him, but he’s giving this “You-are-ignorant” speech at a Jewish celebration. In our culture, it’s like flipping someone off. But John’s gospel, like any other books in the Bible has an agenda, and we should learn to read between the lines; take the contexts into consideration.
But enough of that. To be continued, lessons on the books of the Bible. Rather, let’s focus on the analogy of the good shepherd itself. As I mentioned earlier, learning about the relationship between sheep and the shepherd changed my understanding and feelings about this analogy. Think for a minute what I have told you about this relationship. The shepherd is like a loving mother who protects and takes care of her children. The shepherd protects the sheep from harm, sometimes risking his or her own life. The sheep know their shepherd and his or her voice, and don’t follow anyone else. Now this is a relationship of deep deep love and trust. I think this is the highest degree of love and trust that can be manifested in a relationship.
In today’s gospel text, Jesus is saying, this is the relationship between him and his followers; that’s us! Do you have anyone in your life you can trust and follow as the sheep do their shepherd? Maybe, maybe not. But we are learning today that this is our relationship with Jesus and God. There is a song I used to sing with my children when I was a Sunday school pastor; it’s called “Shepherd of My Soul”. It goes like this; “Shepherd of my soul, I give you full control. Wherever you may lead, I will follow. I have made a choice to listen for your voice. Wherever you may lead, I will go. Be it in a quite pasture or by a gentle stream, the shepherd of my soul is by the side. Should I face a mighty mountain or valley dark and deep, the shepherd of my soul will be my guide”. I won’t burden you with my mediocre singing, but instead we will listen to this song at the end of the sermon.
We are still in the season of Easter. Ever since Jesus died and rose again at the end of last month, we have been going through a sort of “discipleship training”. First, the messengers at the tomb told us to move on and look to the future as disciples, instead of wallowing in the past and present. Then the risen Christ came to us, gave us the Holy Spirit and sent us out into the world to live as disciples. Then he came to us when we went back to fishing instead of living as disciples, and told us to tend his sheep. Today, we are hearing Jesus say, “I am your good shepherd. I know you and you know me, so you only follow me. I love you enough to lay my life down for you. I guide you, and you trust me enough to follow”.
How wonderful is it to be loved and taken care of like this! I pray that you will be able to feel this overwhelming love and blessing while we listen to the song “Shepherd of My Soul”, jump for joy and thankfulness (though maybe not literally), and receive the strength and courage to go out and live as disciples.
Rev. Sunny Kim