Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 8th of Fifth Month, 2022
Speaker: Brian Young
Good morning, Friends!
22 At that time the Festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, 23 and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. 24 So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” 25 Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me, 26 but you do not believe because you do not belong to my sheep. 27 My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, in regard to what he has given me, is greater than all, and no one can snatch them out of the Father’s hand. 30 The Father and I are one.”
Some years ago, I was asked to help clerk a couple of meetings for discernment for a small Friends Meeting that was struggling. The meeting had had a long and significant history in their community, but their numbers were dwindling, and they were facing the possibility of closing their doors. They had asked members of nearby meetings to come and help them discern if there might be a way forward. Much of the responsibility for the decision lay upon the shoulders of the clerk and other members of the meeting, because the pastor had given them notice that her time of service would end in another year or two, and she had asked them to plan beyond her departure. Those of us who had been asked to come alongside were trying to proceed in that spirit—we wanted to help them discern the possibilities without directing them to any particular outcome; we hoped that the vision and the plan could emerge from the body of the church, rather than from the pastoral “experts”. In the second meeting we had, one member of the church had grown increasingly frustrated by this non-directive approach. At one point, I remember this man crying out, “we're just sheep!” By this he seemed to mean: this is too much for me, or for us; we're used to following, not leading; please just show us what or who or where we need to follow in order to get out of this tight place. “We're just sheep!”
In our culture, we often regard this tendency to follow in a negative light. We have this cultural trope of the “rugged American individual” which was so potent in the 19th and 20th centuries: pioneers, cowboys, captains of industry... And still today, we frequently elevate the individual above the ones who would prefer to stay in the crowd. We extol the tendency to strike out on one's own, to not take what anyone else says at face value, and to establish your own truth as the guiding light. In one of the more recent incarnations of this tendency, those who go with the conventional wisdom are derided as “sheeple,” as fools who unquestioningly follow what the powerful tell them, disregarding the evidence that is clearly in front of them. And of course in COVID times, we’ve seen this emerge in the debates around mask mandates and vaccines. Rather than trusting the best judgment of the scientific community, “do your own research” has become the watchword, when “research” increasingly seems to mean relying on YouTube videos and other unaccredited Internet sources. And, quite paradoxically, this has led some folks not to an individual discovery of new truth, but to some really dangerous conspiracy thinking. With movements like QAnon, we seem to have a kind of groupthink that makes me wonder what happened to making up your own mind.
So sometimes, the “rugged individual” follows a path off into the wilderness, and gets hopelessly lost. This is one way in which we are very much like sheep. In the Gospels, there are at least two places (Mt 18:12–14, Lk 15:4–7) where Jesus speaks of a shepherd with a hundred sheep going after one who is lost. He leaves the ninety-nine and searches for the one until he has found it. Jesus' audience could easily appreciate the idea of lost sheep because sheep tend to wander; not every sheep is going to stay with the flock all the time. The prophet Isaiah bears witness to this as well, in one of the passages that speak of God's anointed servant. Isaiah observes,
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. Isaiah 53:6, NRSVUE
The prophet speaks of an entire people wandering, each going after what seems right to him or her—an entire flock of lost sheep.
So in likening people to sheep, both in our tendency to follow, and in our tendency to strike out on our own and get lost, the Scriptures witness to our need for a shepherd. When Jesus speaks of his sheep in the passage we’ve just read, he casts himself as that shepherd: he says, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me” (v27). And if we had started reading earlier in John chapter 10, we would also have seen that he refers to himself as the Good Shepherd, who “lays down his life for the sheep” (10:11).
Why does Jesus evoke this image of the shepherd at this point? Remember who it is he is speaking to here—not his disciples or a crowd, but the Pharisees. They want to know, in no uncertain terms, whether or not Jesus is the Messiah—“enough with all this suspense, tell us plainly!” As Jesus often does, he gives them something of a sideways answer... but in speaking about the shepherd and the sheep, he was choosing a subject that had great spiritual resonance for people like the Pharisees.
The shepherd is quite a significant figure in the Hebrew Bible. Sheep-herding was a principal occupation of many of the early patriarchs, like Abraham, Moses, and especially Jacob. Beyond the actual occupation, the shepherd is a very potent symbol. In fact, the Hebrew Bible makes an explicit parallel between the shepherd and political leadership. Numerous places in the Hebrew Bible, it is kings and other leaders who are the ones who are supposed to care for the people, leading them as a shepherd leads a flock. You might remember that King David began as a humble shepherd boy, and he is known in the Psalms and elsewhere as God's shepherd. In chapter 44 of Isaiah, the prophet even refers to a foreign ruler, the Persian emperor Cyrus, as the shepherd of the Lord. This is because of Cyrus' role in conquering the Babylonians and allowing the Hebrew exiles in Babylon to return to Judah and Jerusalem.
Perhaps one passage that Jesus meant particularly to bring to mind when he was speaking to the Pharisees was Ezekiel 34. In that passage, Ezekiel speaks the word of the Lord concerning the shepherds of Israel, again meaning the kings. He indicts them for feeding themselves when they should have been feeding the sheep. These exploitative rulers are to be cast down, and replaced with a true shepherd. Rather than another earthly ruler, it is to be the Lord alone, the true shepherd:
I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strays, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.