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.
In Ezekiel’s words we can hear so much of the mission of Jesus as he has been living it out: seeking the lost, binding up the injured, strengthening the weak, inviting all to feed on justice at the Lord’s table. Thus, Jesus does not only speak of the true shepherd, he lives out what it means; in his ministry, he has been showing the people who the true shepherd is. And, he says, he has been showing the Pharisees, but they do not believe. To them, Jesus’ claiming the shepherd role for himself is blasphemy, or even madness.
There’s one other dimension to John’s passage I want to mention today, which is the setting of Jesus’ exchange with the Pharisees. It’s on Solomon’s Portico, an outer area of the great Temple, and John says it takes place at the time of “the Festival of the Dedication” (v22). This is the festival that we know of as Hanukkah today. While in American society Hanukkah has become kind of the Jewish counterpart to Christmas, in Jesus’ time it was a remembrance of a military victory of the Maccabees some 150 years earlier. In that context, it was in part a memorial to the last time in which the Jewish people had been able to assert their independence by military means. In Jesus’ time the festival was directed mostly toward the Temple (the Temple was re-dedicated each year in memory of the Maccabean victory), because Israel had once again come under the sway of empire—to assert any kind of political focus to this holiday would have been dangerous. Rome was watching. So in this setting, Jesus still chooses to use the potent image of the shepherd—which likely would have made his opponents even more determined to do away with him.
We began worship this morning with the 23rd Psalm. This, of course, is another one of the places where the Hebrew Bible portrays God as shepherd—perhaps the most widely known place. This Psalm is perhaps the pre-eminent expression in the Hebrew Bible of God's abiding care, accompaniment, and provision for each one of us. We see God as an abundant provider; a soul-refresher; a sure guide; one who ensures safety and dispels fear in the presence of darkness and enemies; one who blesses abundantly; and one whose goodness and covenant love are present forever for the one who trusts.
But we don’t often read this Psalm in Sunday worship, at least not here at West Richmond; it’s much more common to hear it at funerals and memorial services, whether here or in many other churches. In that context, it has become associated almost exclusively with the hereafter—the life following our earthly lives, whatever that might turn out to be. I think a lot of that comes from the final phrase of the Psalm, which in older versions is “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever”; the version we heard today has changed that to “my whole life long”, but we’re used to hearing “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever”, and many of us, I think, associate that with a heavenly existence.
But when these words were first put together, it’s very unlikely that the Psalmist was trying to describe a heavenly existence. The Psalms almost always convey the urgency of present experience, whether that is sadness or joy, danger or deliverance. And so for the Psalmist, “dwell[ing] in the house of the Lord forever” was likely a commitment to being in the Temple always, to be near the God who has provided so amply; to stay in the presence of the shepherd who protects the sheep.
This life in the presence of the shepherd is the eternal life that Jesus speaks of in John 10:28; he says, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish;” notice that he says he gives, not that he will give; this promise begins in our present, and extends into God’s future. This is what it means to be shepherded by God: a present experience of care, accompaniment, provision, and protection. It is not something the sheep can only hope for after death. Eternal life begins now, as we turn towards Christ as our shepherd, begin to learn to listen for Christ’s voice, and to follow after.
One of our touchstones as Friends is that conviction of George Fox's that “Christ is come to teach his people himself.” We trust that Christ leads us now, by means of the Holy
Spirit and the Light that God has placed in our consciences. And so we believe that “my sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me” is not simply a saying from the Scriptures, but a present reality. The tricky part of this is always discernment; how do I know when God's voice is speaking, and not my own? If I am not careful about asking myself this question, then I will very quickly end up on a path into the wilderness, and get lost soon afterward.
One way that Friends try and address this problem is our practice of group discernment. When we gather as a community under the authority of Christ, we are committed (or are supposed to be committed) to listening for the Shepherd's voice together. If we can't hear it, we wait. If we’re not sure we’ve heard it rightly, we wait. Sometimes we wait for months, or even years. If someone expresses a leading, we test it. This whole process can help to subvert the individualism of our culture—we hope to find a way forward together, rather than “each of us turn[ing] to our own way.” At the same time, being gathered under God's authority guards against the process degenerating into groupthink or a herd mentality. This is one way that the Shepherd continues to lead us as a people.
Our meeting is in the midst of a complex and difficult season of discernment in our corporate life. We shortly expect to form a group of Friends who will be looking specifically at what we can say as a body about marriage and the meeting’s place in supporting marriages. I pray that in this process, this group will be listening for the voice of the Shepherd. And here and now, in this time of open worship, let us return to that listening, trusting that Christ, the true shepherd, will let us hear his voice, that we might follow after.
New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition. Copyright © 2021 National Council of Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
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