The Sheep Whisperer
FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER, May 8th, 2022 JOHN 10:22-30
So, it is the Fourth Sunday of Easter, also known as Good Shepherd Sunday. Every year of the Fourth Sunday of Easter we read part of John chapter 10, where Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd, and we read Psalm 23.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of the same old Fourth Sunday of Easter sermon about how stupid sheep are. You know that sermon. It goes, “Sheep are not very bright, they wander around, following each other blindly into danger, enjoying their juicy green grass, ignorant of the wolf behind them or the cliff in front of them, or the pothole next to them. Then one falls off, or falls in, or falls prey, and they all follow, like the idiotic animals they are. And humans are like sheep. We’re stupid and need a good shepherd.” Sermon over, thanks very much, now it’s the Creed. Yes, that sermon. I know you’ve heard the ‘Sheep are Stupid’ sermon because I’ve preached it from this pulpit. Several times. But this morning I want to repent of my insulting attitude towards sheep. Because I’ve seen the light. The scales have fallen off my eyes, and I now understand the truth. Sheep are really, really smart.
No, really, I read it on BBC.com, and it must be true because it’s the BBC. And the stunning revelation is that sheep are like MENSA standard. How smart are sheep? Well, according to this study by Keith Kendrick, who is now at the University of Electronic Science and Technology in China, sheep can recognize and remember over 50 different faces two years after last seeing them. That is longer than I can. I won’t bore you with how Kendrick discovered this, but he also found evidence that sheep can differentiate facial expressions, and prefer a smile to a frown. He says: “The way the sheep’s brain is organized suggests they must have some kind of emotional response to what they see in the world.” I ask again, how smart are sheep? Well, enter, Caroline Lee of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Australia. Her research tells her that sheep can navigate their way out of a complex maze, and the sight of their sheep friends waiting for them at the finish helps them solve this puzzle.
Now, hear John Powell – a sheep whisperer. How smart are sheep? Well, smart enough to be trained. If you give lambs willow leaves then as they get older, they will follow you anywhere. Willow leaves are like chocolate in the sheep world, apparently. So, on his farm Powell just needs to show up and can herd as many as a thousand sheep at a time with no help from dogs or motorcycles or any of the other things that modern shepherds use to drive sheep. He just walks and they follow. It’s a gentler way of shepherding than the stare of a border collie. It keeps the sheep calm and happy, and calm, happy sheep produce better wool.
“My sheep hear my voice,” says our divine sheep whisperer. “I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand.” My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.
Being known. Truly known. For who I am. This feels like holy ground. The thought of being known, truly known, for who I am stirs up in me an uneasy cocktail of feelings. I like being loved; there can be nothing better in life than being loved unconditionally, but here’s the unpleasant part – I can’t be loved unconditionally without being known. The thing we’re made for, the thing we search all our lives for, the thing we’d trade all we have for – being truly known, is also the thing that scares me to death. Sometimes being human is tragic, and this is one of those times – the thing we crave is the thing we flee. Tim Kreider put it like this in the New York Times:
“Years ago a friend of mine had a dream about a strange invention; a staircase you could descend deep underground, in which you heard recordings of all the things anyone had ever said about you, both good and bad. The catch was, you had to pass through all the worst things people had said before you could get to the highest compliments at the very bottom. There is no way I would ever make it more than two and a half steps down such a staircase, but I understand its terrible logic: if we want the rewards of being loved we have to submit to the mortifying ordeal of being known.”
“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me”, says our sheep whisperer. In Christ we receive God’s full, complete and unconditional acceptance. Our Good Shepherd turns the ‘mortifying ordeal of being known’ into a joyful homecoming, with a new wardrobe, jewelry, and a banquet. If only human beings would not run from God out of fear, but let the Good Shepherd protect and nourish and accept us.
This image of the Good Shepherd, the sheep whisperer is deeply personal. So personal is it that for those of us who sometimes struggle with intimacy, the Good Shepherd can also be frightening. Psalm 23 shows us just how personal the Good Shepherd is. The entire poem is just 6 sentences long, yet it contains 17 first-person singular pronouns (I, me, my) – 17 of them. It’s not the Lord is OUR shepherd, but MY shepherd. Goodness and mercy won’t just follow her in pew 10, or him in pew 8, but me.
So, if this isn’t a ‘Sheep Are Stupid, And So Are We’ sermon. What is it? Well how about this – because this is what the Good Shepherd image says so loudly to me: ‘Sheep Are Vulnerable, And So Are We.’ Sheep have no natural defense mechanisms – no claws, no sharp teeth, no armor; they can’t dig holes to escape predators, they don’t climb trees to avoid becoming lunch, they can’t run fast, and their white coats in a lush green field must be the worst camouflage in all of creation. They don’t spray noxious substances like skunks. They don’t spit chemical weapons like llamas. They can’t overpower enemies by their sheer size and weight. The only thing going for them on defense is horns, and only half of them have those. And in my experience of walking in the English countryside even if a ram has horns, it will still run away when you approach it, especially if you’re walking a border collie at the time, which I used to do.
So when we graze the fields of scripture and discover the image of sheep and shepherds, as we do in this morning’s Gospel reading and Psalm, we get it, don’t we? Human beings are like sheep. We may be smart, but we’re vulnerable. Sometimes despite our big brains we need rescuing.
We’re born with fatal flaws. Puffed up with our own self-importance, we think we are in control of our own destiny, but it doesn’t take much to show us that we are, in fact, very small and very powerless. Just when we think we have the answers to life, the universe and everything something happens to show us the humiliating truth. We organize our lives to limit the risk of accidents, but we have no power over the laws of nature or the actions of other people. We can predict the weather, but we can’t control it. We understand how earthquakes happen, but we cannot prevent them. We can prolong life, but we can’t avoid death. We can create wealth but are unable to share it so that everyone on earth has enough. We can split the atom, but we are powerless to resist the urge to apply that knowledge in a way that can destroy the planet. There’s so much we can do, and yet we remain powerless over ourselves. We can conquer space but not our hearts. We are armed to the teeth yet imprisoned by fear of things we cannot even see. We can domesticate all kinds of animals, but we can’t tame our tongues. We perform heroic deeds of sacrifice and love, but also act with unspeakable cruelty.
We human sheep need a whisperer. A Good Shepherd. Someone who is not just powerful to protect us, but knows us by name, cares for us, loves us, even lays down his life for us. And the promise is this: “No one will snatch them out of my hand.” God’s promise to you is this: “No one will snatch you out of my hand.” When I was young in my faith, I used to lie awake at night worrying that I’d lose my faith. I made the adult decision to be a follower of Christ when I was fifteen. And that gave me some peace and some joy. But only ‘some’. My quiet moments, especially those in the middle of the night, were often noisy with worry. Am I good enough for God? Has God really forgiven me? Is my faith real or am I kidding myself? As the years passed, I learned that God would not let me go. I achieved some things, and I lost some things. I enjoyed pleasant circumstances and I endured times of intense suffering. One time, when I was a young adult, I experienced such despair at life that I tried to make a conscious decision to stop praying and end believing. But I found I couldn’t. Even when I tried to wriggle free from the Good Shepherd, this promise gripped me like a vice – No one will snatch them out of my hand. Even when I let go of God, God didn’t let go of me.
And this gives me hope. God’s keeps his promise and won’t let anything snatch me away, even if I think I want that. And so, when the people I care for make risky decisions or even become lost in this world of threats to their safety, I am able to remind myself of this beautiful promise, “No one will snatch them out of my hand.” And so let me encourage you, if there is someone in your life right now who is lost; a loved one who is wandering away from God, or from wisdom, or from love. Things may look bleak. You may be obsessed with all that could go wrong, but God’s promise is sure: No one will snatch them out of my hand.