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The Shepherd, the Sheep, and the Sheepfold

Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 14th of Fourth Month, 2024

Speaker: Brian Young

"I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own, and my own know me, just as the Father knows me, and I do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father."

About once a month, when it’s time for this moment that we’ve just observed, when the children depart to go to children’s worship, I go along with them. Often, this is so that I can tell the story that will form the center of their worship time, which is either a story from the Scriptures or one based on Quaker faith. Most of you know that for the last couple of years we’ve been using the Godly Play method to structure the children’s program. (I should mention that Godly Play is the proper name for a particular curriculum, but we often use it a bit more generally, to refer to it and other programs that use the same methods.) We’ve all experienced how this works together here a few times, when we’ve had intergenerational Sundays, and the message has been a story told in the manner of Godly Play.

One of the unique things about Godly Play and its related curricula is that they are based on the Montessori educational philosophy. I was a Montessori kid, from kindergarten up to about third grade. So I remember having experienced some of the things that we today

are trying to do with the our program here. The Godly Play method emphasizes things like children’s independence and freedom to choose; also, tactile and visual materials, objects that children can access, interact with, and manipulate for themselves; there’s an emphasis on process, for example how the kids are supposed to go and get the materials, work with them, and return them to where they are kept; and finally, the method encourages non-judgmental, low-profile guidance from the adults in the room. As we were introduced to this philosophy and began to use it in the kids’ program, I thought to myself, “oh, this feels familiar... I’ve been on the other end of this, as a child.”

By the way, for me the Montessori method had somewhat variable results: as a child, I loved to read, and I didn’t like math, so I spent most of my time in the Montessori classroom with my nose in a book. And when I wasn’t reading, there was a certain amount of fooling around and not applying myself. This often enough the case that one of my most vivid memories of my schooling was when my teacher forsook her usual non-judgmental, low-profile guidance and confronted me, saying “Brian, so help me, if you don’t go do some math right now, I don’t know what I’m going to do with you!!!” And so at least that day, I applied myself to math skills—but that wasn’t enough to make up my deficit when I came to a more structured environment: when I entered fourth grade, I was one year ahead of my peers in reading, but two years behind in math...

Last Sunday, the story for children’s worship was based on the passage from John’s Gospel that we heard a little while ago—Jesus the good shepherd. This is an important story in the Godly Play curriculum, such that it is often told twice in a program year. The first time we tell it, it’s actually more of a presentation of the 23rd Psalm, with the shepherd leading the sheep out from the fold so that they may find green pastures and drink cool water; and then the shepherd also brings them safely through places of danger, back to the fold. The second telling adds the material from John’s Gospel about the hired hand, the wolf who scatters the flock, and the shepherd’s willingness to lay down his life for the sheep. Last week, we told this second version during children’s worship.

Now, one of the things that I struggle with as a storyteller is that the Godly Play stories sometimes have quite a lot of business that isn’t directly related to the Scriptural narrative—or at least not at first glance. This is especially true of the good shepherd sequence. The story requires the teller to begin by presenting each object used to tell the story, and wondering aloud what it might be—in this case, these are pieces of felt that represent a grassy meadow, a pond, some dangerous rocks, and finally the sheepfold. There’s a good reason for this; one of the aims of the program is to inspire a sense of wonder in the children, to encourage natural curiosity, but also to give a sense of sacredness to these narratives. So in asking, “I wonder what this is...”, the storyteller is modeling an attitude that we want the children to adopt. (And this past Sunday, this was really evident—for every piece of the story that I brought out, a certain three-year-old made her own suggestions for what that object might be...)

But for me, I find all the introductory stuff kind of off-putting. Is this really the point? Shouldn’t we just get to the part that is based on the Bible? That’s what I really want the kids to learn! And this past Sunday, I was particularly impatient with the sheepfold. For this part, there are twelve strips of felt that one has to arrange in layers to make a square, kind of the way that Lincoln Logs work (who remembers Lincoln Logs?). Now, in my impatience, I think, “Do I really need to make three layers? Couldn’t I just use four strips, make a square, and go on to the part that’s really important?” I did resist that impulse, and I followed the script, and I used all the pieces the way that the story lays it out. And of course the whole process probably took less than two minutes. But I still didn’t have much patience for it.

Until I was thinking a bit more about it later... one of the things that the storyteller is supposed to say as you are adding layers to the walls of the sheepfold is, “Now, this is getting stronger...” So the walls need to be strong; one layer isn’t really enough. And that led me to think of something Dan Kasztelan told me a while ago. Some of you know Dan, who is the Director of Communications at FUM, and also a pastor in Wilmington Yearly Meeting. If you know Dan, you might know that he and his wife Suzy also keep sheep on their farm in southern Wayne County. To hear Dan tell it, keeping sheep is not all peaceful green meadows and cool still waters. There’s a lot of struggle involved in it. He particularly mentioned the difficulty he was having in keeping them inside his barn. Some of the sheep don’t like being inside, so much so that they actually had been breaking through the walls in places where they were weak. That, of course, wasn’t good for the barn, nor for the sheep—I think some of them probably injured themselves in their efforts to break free. Dan had tried several ways of reinforcing the walls, adding layers to make them thicker and stronger, but at least at the time he told me this story, he hadn’t prevailed.

So if I were really building a sheepfold, one layer for the walls wouldn’t be enough. They would need to be high enough and thick enough to hold the most strong-headed sheep. Now in Jesus’ time, I think this was less of an issue; sheepfolds in the first century CE were usually stone enclosures, sometimes even caves. For example, many scholars think that the manger in which Jesus was laid as a baby was likely in a cave, rather than a wooden stable, as we usually think of it.

So in John 10 when Jesus speaks of the sheepfold, it is as a place of safety; to paraphrase Psalm 4, this is the place where the flock can lie down and sleep In peace, for God alone makes them dwell in safety. Some of those sheep may not want to stay in the fold; some of the strong-headed ones might want to get out to the green grass ahead of the others. But the walls are strong enough to keep them all together, until the shepherd calls them forth.

This passage contains one of the many “I Am...” statements that Jesus makes in John’s Gospel—you probably remember some of the others: “I am the way, the truth, and the life;” “I am the bread of life;” “I am the true vine.” Of all of these, “I am the good shepherd” is the one that most tells us about Jesus’ active care for his followers. Jesus' identity as the good shepherd is worked out in his actions—it's not just who the good shepherd is; it’s what the good shepherd does. Earlier in the chapter, he mentions leading his people and providing them with abundant life; the part of the passage that we read focuses on his laying down his life for the flock. No hired hand is going to be willing to die for his or her sheep. Only the true shepherd is willing and able to do so. And we are assured by the way that the rest of the Gospel story unfolds that Jesus truly was the good shepherd.

One of the offices of the good shepherd is calling the sheep out of the fold, bringing them out of the place which keeps them safe, and leading them to find abundant life: sustenance and purpose in the world outside. And the sheep follow the good shepherd because they know his voice and trust in his protection.

So, meditating upon these images of the good shepherd, the sheep, and the sheepfold leads me to think about our community. Now, it may be a bit trite to say that we as Jesus’ followers are like sheep. Like any metaphor, this one has its limitations. But we are meant to be a community, rather than a bunch of individuals. And in that way at least, the image of the flock is apt.

So as a community, as a flock, the meetinghouse, and our meeting for worship, are a place of safety like the sheepfold. In our community, in our flock, some of us are strong-headed and may want to break out of the place of safety when the time is not right. On the other hand, some of us may want nothing more than to dwell in safety, to stay here where things are known and familiar and predictable.

As the shepherd of our community, Christ wants us to hear his voice, and to follow as he guides and directs us. He wants to call us forth from our place of safety, to life and ministry in the world beyond. He wants us to trust that he will be with us, protecting and seeing us back to safety when we are tired from our labors.

When we tell the story during children’s worship, we always end with a period called “wondering.” Again, this is to inculcate both curiosity and sacred awe in the children. The storyteller always asks several “I wonder...” questions, and the children are encouraged to add their own. So—

I wonder: are we, as a community, too strong-headed to flock together?

I wonder: are we, as a community, too willing to stay in our place of safety?

I wonder: what keeps us from hearing the voice of the good shepherd?

I wonder: are we willing to trust the voice of the good shepherd, and to follow?

I wonder: how do we hear the voice of the good shepherd, here and now?

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.

This document is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States license, available at You are free to copy, distribute, display, and perform this work, as well as to make derivative works based on it, as long as: 1) you attribute whatever part of this work you use to the author, Brian Young, by name; 2) you do not use the work for commercial purposes; 3) you distribute your resulting work only under the same license or a license similar to this one.

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