April 24, 2021
The Rev’d Charles W. Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
Since Easter Day, we’ve been exploring Jesus’s post-resurrection appearances. On this Fourth Sunday of Easter, the focus shifts to reflecting on who Jesus is and what that means for his followers. Throughout the centuries, the Church has used a variety of images to express Christ’s identity to the faithful, and the image of the Jesus as the Good Shepherd has been an enduring one. While some of you may have grown up in a part of the world where shepherds and sheep are commonplace, my suburban Johnson County upbringing wasn’t one of those places. Frankly, one of the first things I thought of upon reading this passage is a recent use of the word sheep in modern, civic discourse I occasionally come across online in the dreaded comments section, particularly the comments posted in response to news articles. The term is actually sheeple, and according to Urban Dictionary, sheeple is a combination of the words sheep and people meaning that the person or persons are acting as a group, or only to behave based on what’s trending. This modern metaphor implies that sheep are dumb.
Apparently, according to those who know more about these things than I do, sheep are not dumb. It was cattle ranchers who started that rumor as sheep do not behave like cows. Cows are herded from behind with shouts and prods from the cowboys. But that doesn’t work with sheep. If you stand behind sheep making noises, they will just run around behind you. They actually prefer to be led. Cows can be pushed; sheep must be led. Sheep won’t go anywhere that their trusted shepherd does not go first, to show them everything is alright. They seem to think that shepherds are part of their family, and the sheep and shepherds develop a language of their own that outsiders are not privy to.
Of course, when Jesus spoke of shepherds and sheep, he was speaking to people who had everyday experiences with them. They knew about a shepherd’s unique relationship with his flock when Jesus said, “I know my own and my own know me, just as my Father knows me and I know the Father.” Yes, Jesus knows humanity intimately because he became human and dwelled among us. But, in the words of the opening prayer today, he also calls us each by name. Thank God, for just like sheep, we are prone to go astray. We may get distracted and stop listening to the shepherd’s voice, or wander off because we are tempted to go graze in what looks like a greener pasture than where the shepherd is leading us. As the prophet Isaiah foretold, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way.” The Good Shepherd, unlike the hired hand, sees the wolf coming long before he arrives, and protects his flock, even those who have gone astray.
What comfort this gives us! But just as the sheep and shepherds develop a language of their own over time, so too do Jesus and his followers get to know one another more intimately over time. This doesn’t happen overnight, or without deliberate effort. As Christians worship and pray together, as we immerse ourselves in the Scriptures, the liturgy of the church, and receive grace and nourishment from the Sacraments habitually, by God’s grace, God slowly conforms our will to his will and our desires to his desires. We learn to recognize the voice of the shepherd little by little over time. I received Jesus’s call to holiness of life very differently when I first started being intentional about private prayer and communal worship than I do today. Of course, this doesn’t mean that I don’t go astray. The wolves come after me today just as they did when I was a much younger Christian, but the practice of intentional daily prayer, and frequent reception of the Sacraments over many years has helped me to recognize the deceptive mirage of the “greener grass elsewhere” more quickly than before.
Jesus’s followers had grown up telling and re-telling the story of Moses and the flight out of Egypt. Each year they heard the call to “take a lamb for each family” and prepare the Passover meal. But in this metaphor, the shepherd intentionally becomes the sacrificial lamb. Not so with the hired hand who runs away because a hired hand doesn’t care for the sheep. The Good Shepherd willingly lays down his life for his sheep of his own accord in order to take it up again. Jesus’s death, as the ultimate expression of the love relationship that exists between the Father and the Son, extends that love to each of us who choose to follow him, and Jesus’s resurrection from the dead seals for us his promise to defend and protect us from every enemy, even death itself.
Friends, we are not “sheeple”, blindly following our shepherd, even if that means following him right on over a cliff. We follow where he leads, with a deep and abiding faith that he will lead through death to resurrection. Let us build strong spiritual habits by immersing ourselves in Scripture, both private and communal prayer, and so listen to the voice of Jesus, our Good Shepherd; and when we hear it, may we know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads. Amen.
 Most of this paragraph is from David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Louisville (Ky.): Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 450.
 John 11:14-15.
 John 1:14.
 Isaiah 53:6.
 Exodus 12:3b
 NISB 1929.
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