Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter
Trinity Church, Mt. Airy, NC
April 22, 2018 8:30 AM
Ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ ποιμὴν ὁ καλός. ὁ ποιμὴν ὁ καλὸς τὴν ψυχὴν αὐτοῦ τίθησιν ὑπὲρ τῶν προβάτων·
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. (John 10:11)
We dreaded the sheep coming, but we knew they would. On one day all you could see across the Shephelah from the top of Tell el-Hesi were rounded hills with the wide green vein of the Wadi Hesi cutting through them. But the next day you looked, you would see the black tents of the Bedouin families that frequented that area, surrounded by puffballs of sheep waiting for their pasturing. By the next morning the adolescent offspring of those Bedouin would have those same sheep on the slopes of the tell and out in the surrounding fields. Israeli law permitted them to go where they wished in this region without respect for the boundaries of the moshav on which our archaeological excavations lay or without concern for the neat baulk strings and survey stakes we had so carefully applied to the landscape. We dreaded the sheep because they brought with them swarms of flies, flies that didn’t know the difference between the sheep and our food supplies, flies that made it impossible to concentrate in the archaeological squares, flies that were sometimes so thick that they made even a deep intake of breath hazardous. Flies simply made our lives miserable, so we dreaded the advent of the sheep and the flies they brought. Raising sheep must be a frightful business.
We call today “Good Shepherd Sunday” in deference to the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel; but I cannot read this passage without my mind taking me back to the sun-drenched slopes of Tell Hesi, to the sheep that dotted Hesi’s fields, to the swarms of flies that plagued us, and to the young Bedouin shepherds who tended that flock. So I’ve just given in to those images this morning, hoping to understand why Jesus would want us to think about him as a shepherd and what there was about shepherds that made the author of today’s psalm want to compare the Lord of Hosts to a shepherd.
Sheep aren’t all that cute, and they can be downright ornery at times. Just try to get one to leave your excavation area without ruining a day’s careful work. They’re not God’s most fastidious creatures either. Depending on the weather and terrain, their wool coats can get grimy, mottled and hopelessly unhygienic. When I think about shepherds, whose daily task involves caring for such animals, and imagine our Lord as the good shepherd, I get a different picture from the sanitized paintings of Jesus holding an adorable—and fastidiously clean—little lamb in his arms and picture instead the real-life shepherds that tended the flocks at Tell el-Hesi competently and well despite the flies, despite the willfulness of their charges, and despite the challenges of dust and heat. The Bible knows real shepherds, not the sterile images we non-shepherds have developed. The Bible knows them and finds them important models to use in thinking about God and our relationship to God.
Sheep require shepherds, of course, and the Bedouin that frequented the area of our camp entrusted shepherding duties to a young fellow and a girl that might have been his older sister. These youths exercised their duties mainly by sitting on the tell away from the diggers, overseeing the fields below, seeming to pay no attention at all to the sheep that were in their charge. They were used to the flies and didn’t fight them off the way we did. Flies went with the job. On rare occasions they intervened to extricate a lamb from a thorn bush or to keep the flock out of the watermelon patch, but mostly they languished on the hillside while the flock grazed. Their unhurried efforts contrasted sharply with the frenetic pace of excavation going on around them. It struck me that they intervened only slightly in the lives of their sheep. By their presence, they seemed to create a safe space for the sheep, but not a prison; and I wondered whether that gentle, unobtrusive creation of space for the flock to live might have influenced the psalmist and the evangelist to think of our Lord as a shepherd, who creates the space for us to live, to strive, to find nourishment, and to be what we came into the world to be.
The young woman often brought a musical pipe with her and regaled us with her sometimes-haunting music, lilting, soothing, and even mystical on those occasions when the prevailing winds let us hear it. The young man, though, had a transistor radio and a decided taste for loud, boisterous Israeli music; and no wind could protect us from its jarring clamor. We rejoiced and were sometimes known to cheer when his batteries died for the day. On occasion, either or both of them would come over to watch us dig, seldom saying anything. I imagine we were as exotic to them as they were to us. Suppose God had a divine life that included more, vastly more reality than you and I could imagine, and we could only know about that life in brief, mystical moments or in unsettling interruptions to our routines. The flock, after all, does not create the shepherd. It works the other way around.
On rare occasions one of the shepherds would pick up a rock and hurl it in the direction of one of a sheep, never striking the animal, but startling it into trotting back to rejoin nearby sheep. Rarely, one of them would have to extricate a hapless sheep from a tangle of reeds in the wadi bed. When it was time to go in for the evening, the mixed-breed mutt they had brought with them did the hard work of rounding up the sheep and yelping them into an obedient stream of mutton on the hoof headed back toward the black tents. The two youths had a kind of unfocused attention about them that appeared to take no interest in their sheep except when necessity demanded their intervention.
Does God demonstrate that same diffused attention toward us? Sometimes it seems as though God has no interest at all in our lives, in our struggles, in our daily decisions; and the author of Psalm 14 and 53 could understand how some people might wrongly conclude from that that no God at all existed in heaven or on earth. How two teenagers sitting on top of a tell a hundred meters away could be said to be caring for sheep is hard to imagine until you see them in action. God’s care for us does not have to be oppressive, and sometimes God can seem remote, uninvolved. Sheep might say the same of their shepherds if they could speak. How God can be present with us while the great unknowing cloud of everyday events occupies our attention may represent the genius of the Bible calling God our shepherd.
Shepherding didn’t look like hard work or dangerous work at Tell Hesi; but the Bedouin family’s fortunes depended in large part on the ability of those kids to take care of the family’s sheep during the daylight hours. You could never tell what prompted them to stand up and throw a stone or a potsherd at a misbehaving lamb since they never seemed to be watching the flock at all. And I could never catch onto what offense the errant sheep had committed to earn the shepherd’s rebuke. The sheep tended to the grazing, and the teens tended to their musical pursuits and their own thoughts; but beneath the nonchalance, the shepherds were ever watchful. The writers of the Bible knew the shepherd’s ways intimately and must have meant to credit God with the same kind of seeming disinterest that hides an acute awareness of the flock. Who knew that ruling a universe could be such hard work?
Sheep take no notice of their shepherds at all and hardly seem aware that anyone at all is shepherding them. Yet the reality is otherwise. The shepherds decided where the sheep wil pasture that morning and will decide when their day was done. And if you are a sheep of God’s pasture only rarely might the shepherd lob a stone in your direction to keep you out of the wadi or encourage you to return to the flock. You, the erstwhile sheep, though, would probably perceive the stone as more of an annoyance than pastoral oversight. The shepherds don’t romp with the sheep, don’t carry them around like rag dolls. Yet they are watching, caring very much about what happens to you, and have all the skill they need to get the sheep back to the sheepfold at night.
Jesus mentions in today’s Gospel why you don’t hire shepherds to watch your sheep. The two adolescent shepherds we knew season after season at Hesi were children of the extended Bedouin family, not hired hands. If a hired hand lost track of the sheep and lost a few, the worst that would happen to that lackadaisical shepherd would be getting a pink slip. The loss would be the family’s, not the hired hand’s. The sheep need to belong to the shepherd. Any other arrangement courts disaster for the flock.
And the shepherd needs to give the flock its freedom, freedom to scrounge for food, freedom to play, freedom to rest when exhausted, freedom to be, well, sheep. Without that freedom, penned up sheep produce little wool and die early. The shepherds don’t live through the sheep or even for the sheep. They live with them to protect what they have invested in them. And perhaps this freedom is the final and best meaning of the good shepherd image the Bible paints of God. God’s care for us, God’s love for us creates freedom or as the Bible calls it, דרור, “release” to live as fully and as completely as God has given us the ability to live.
 A tell is an artificial mound or hill created by successive human occupations of a natural hill by various peoples. Most often, such hills are located near sources of water, and in the case of Tell el-Hesi, that water source was the Wadi Hesi, a waterbed that is now mostly dry except in the rainy season.