The Fourth Sunday of Easter: April 17, 2016
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
So I just can’t help it. As I was preparing to preach on this fourth Sunday of Easter, Good Shepherd Sunday, I wanted to come up with something new to say about the sheep and the shepherd. This gospel piece we just heard is not one of the better parts with that imagery, at least partly because of the anti-Jewish tone – which is a sign of a painful split going on in the gospel community ages ago, but which has caused terrible problems in our relationship with our Jewish family throughout the centuries. I was debating what there could be to talk about in all of this that you haven’t all heard before. And I found I couldn’t stop thinking about Shaun the Sheep.
For those of you not yet acquainted, Shaun the Sheep is the main character of a series of short TV episodes and a few movies made by Aardman Productions, the stop-motion animation people who made Wallace and Gromit. If you still don’t know what I’m talking about, never mind. Suffice it to say that Shaun is the small and skinny alpha sheep of a flock of sheep in the pastoral English countryside, cared for by their rather dull and unsuspecting farmer and their slightly power-mad sheepdog Bitzer. The gist of each episode, done entirely without any spoken dialogue beyond bleats, barks, and grunts, is the flock of sheep, bored by their daily grind of routine as livestock animals, getting up to mischief in an attempt to add excitement to their lives. Shaun is the leader in these shenanigans, sometimes with Bitzer’s help and sometimes against him, and always against the Farmer’s efforts to keep a well-run and conventional farm. Everything goes wrong and then gets set right again in every one of the episodes. But the Farmer is never any the wiser, because whenever he is looking, the sheep behave only like, well, sheep.
A flock of sheep is, of course, a metaphor scripture is fond of employing for people of faith. If you look up ‘sheep characteristics’ on the Internet you’ll find one website on actual sheep and 99 on what to say about sheep in your sermons. In Hebrew scriptures God is often depicted as a shepherd who cares for the sheep; the ideal king, like David, is also a shepherd; and Jesus uses the image to refer to himself in John’s gospel. It is a tender and comforting image, and often we imagine it with the sheep being entirely passive while the shepherd does all the work of taking care of us. All we have to do is stick to our routine, fellow sheep, and the shepherd will do the rest. Whether unintentionally or intentionally, that is one image the church maintained for many years: get in line, be quiet, listen to the teaching and don’t ask questions. The shepherd will tell you what you need to know, and protect you from the baddies in the process.
Shaun and his friends present a different image, of course. Nearly every day they tire of their mundane life and engineer some harebrained scheme for shaking things up. Everyone has fun and no one gets hurt, though there are a few narrow scrapes. Being sheep, according to Shaun, doesn’t equal being passive and stupid; they are, in fact, the smartest animals on the farm. They make things interesting – though they do always look out for each other and make sure that everyone makes it home safely. The shepherd’s role is nearly entirely symbolic for this flock – they need him to work the mechanism on the gate, or at least they let him think so, but otherwise they know perfectly well where to feed and what to do next.
So, fellow flocksters, which is it for us? Are we a dull group of followers who need a leader to tell us what to do? Or are we an independently minded group, flirting with danger while we mostly ignore the shepherd? Well of course we want to think we’re the second, right? We’re smart and hip, not stinky and stupid. Nothing docile and ovine about us at all.
But I wonder if we dost protest our quirkiness too much. We talk a lot about how in the Episcopal Church there is room for questions, that many who are part of the church aren’t sure what they believe but are welcome anyway, that doubt is an essential component to faith. Here you don’t have to check your brains at the door. Here you can think for yourself. All of that is part of the gift of Anglicanism, the heritage we are part of that says we can disagree and yet still be in community, that instead of signing on to a statement of belief we pray together and find our unity that way. All of that an important part of who we are as a people.
But sometimes I see this tip over a little too far the wrong way. Sometimes we talk so much about doubt that we fail to emphasize faith. Sometimes we forget that we don’t really know our tradition and scripture all that well. We can have endless conversations about what is true about God and about Jesus and about human behavior, but never spend serious time in prayer and discernment to know what difference it makes in our own lives. We can get kind of stuck in our own heads, in other words.
The other day I was talking with one of the oldest of the sisters of the Community of the Holy Spirit, one of our Episcopal orders of nuns who are here in New York. She told me that she was raised Baptist – and that she’s so glad she was. Because, she said, the Baptists taught her scripture, making her memorize it so that to this day she knows it in her bones. It’s something I’ve heard others say too, that in other traditions or in other times, churches taught better. People were expected to commit scripture and teachings to memory and recite them aloud; people were expected to come regularly to church and be there by a certain time; people were expected to give generously of their time and resources; and so on. And when someone like Sr Elise says it, I know she’s not just waxing nostalgic. She was a lifelong teacher, she chose the Episcopal Church for herself, she answered God’s call by being part of a new monastic order that really lives out God’s way in the world; and she knows now in her 90s that memorizing that scripture made a difference for her through good times and bad, and that she has seen it do so for others.
Jesus says, My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. For all their shenanigans, Shaun and his friends know their farmer and they love him. At the end of the day, they want to be where he is, safe on the farm. And at the end of the day, I think each of us longs for that too – to be at home, to be known, to be loved. Which means we need to be able to recognize Jesus’ voice. Something that takes learning and attention and time. It means we need to learn the way God speaks in scripture by reading it and knowing it intimately. To understand the way God speaks in our hearts by taking time to be quiet, and time to talk with trusted companions about what we hear. To follow the way God leads in the world by thinking and praying and weighing our decisions with our community and with the teachings of our tradition. If we don’t take the time for God in ordinary everyday regular life, we won’t know God’s voice when we need it in the times of crisis and loss. Relationships, all relationships, take time.
Being sheep doesn’t mean we have to be blind followers. Far from it. Being sheep means that we know the shepherd’s voice and that we know the rest of our flock intimately. It may even mean that sometimes we find ways to spice up the daily routine so that we continue to stay alert and pay attention. All of that, at least for us human sheep, takes effort. All of it takes time and intention. The world is all too ready to lead us into other flocks, where, blinded and distracted, we can find ourselves following different kinds of shepherds indeed. Shepherds who do not have our best interests at heart – shepherds who want only our money and consuming power, or our vote and our blind allegiance. Jesus the shepherd doesn’t want us to be docile and stupid. He wants us to know him and to choose him, every day all over again, the way we choose our spouse every day all over again. God wants us to love fully, with our whole heart and soul and mind, all engaged.
So fellow sheep, listen for the voice of the Good Shepherd. Pay attention to what love really sounds like; care for other members of the flock; bring others in to know what love the shepherd has for us all. It is work that matters, and work that gives life, abundant life. May we listen and follow in the good way.