The Voice of the Shepherd

A Sermon Preached by the Rev. Claire Nevin-Field on the Fourth Sunday of Easter

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The little village in the north east of England where I did my early growing up had more sheep than people. We lived in the Rectory, just across the street from my Dad’s 11th century church and behind us was a field-full of sheep. Beyond the field was the Fell—a several square mile wild place, shared by the villagers for centuries for grazing sheep and Fell ponies—the stark landscape punctuated by pigeon crees with old men sitting outside them, smoking pipes and discussing upcoming pigeon races. The sheep field behind our house was used by Farmer Corner—he kept his sheep on it through the winter and during lambing. He was a man of few words who was never seen anywhere without his sheepdogs. One day my father noticed a lamb, crying pitifully on the outside of the field wall—not the safest place for a lone lamb. Its mother was in the field, apparently unable to get across the wall to her lamb, and frantic. My father figured he was the man to fix this, and I was his trusty sidekick. So, fancying myself as sheepdog to my father’s shepherd, I headed out to the field on a rescue mission—and hit an immediate snag. Despite her clear desire to be with her lamb, the sheep was having none of us. We lunged, she dodged. We sneaked, she ran. We lured, she laughed. Hours later, sweaty, covered in grass stains and worse, we were completely and utterly defeated; the mother sheep still in the field and the lamb still crying relentlessly from the Fell side of the wall. And then, like the cavalry at the end of the movie, Farmer Corner showed up. He ambled over, dogs beside him and asked what was going on. My father explained. Farmer Corner gave us a look of pure pity, turned to the mother sheep, spoke softly to her, and whistled. She stopped dead in her tracks, the dogs deftly brought her over to the wall where she patiently waited while he grabbed her neck and rear end, and then cooperated as he got her over the wall to her lamb. Then he whistled again and the two of them sailed back over the wall and calmly went about their business in the field, eating grass and bleating to each other.

“I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me”. Earlier in John’s Gospel Jesus had pointed out that the good shepherd will go so far as to lay down his life for his sheep, because he is invested in his flock—he knows each one by sight, by sound and by name. He knows Edna who spends most of her time butting heads with Mildred, he knows Flossie who is constantly wandering off and getting lost, and he knows little Amy who was born with one leg shorter than the others and walks a little funny. He knows each of these sheep; he owns them.

Ownership, particularly when we are talking about living things, creates an immediate level of intimacy. You own something and on a deep level it is yours—a part of you. Think of your dog, your cat—they are probably more than just animals or pets to you, they are your soul friends. Ownership is not about possession or legal title, it is about relationship—about being bound to something beyond ourselves. Bound to the point that if it is threatened, we are threatened—bound to the point that it becomes part of us and we will defend it, defend it to the point that we sometimes get into trouble.

Conventional wisdom warns us from getting too involved in other people’s problems. Just stay away from her, we hear, she is trouble. Don’t get involved, he will bleed you dry emotionally.

Psychologists point out that we can over—identify with those with whom we are in relationship. Boundaries can become blurred. And that creates all sorts of problems for everyone involved. We can wade too deeply into others’ lives and find we are all in over our heads.

The flip side of that, though, is that we all need to have someone who will stand up for us. Someone who has our back. Always—no matter how unworthy we are of having a champion, no matter how screwed up we are and what a mess we have made of our lives. We all deserve to have someone who demonstrates the self-giving love, the constant care, of the good shepherd. The one who is willing to lay down life for a band of scruffy, sorry looking, rock-headed sheep. The alternative kind of shepherd is the one who takes off at the first sign of trouble, much more interested in self-preservation than in protecting and caring for the sheep.  The one who would disappear at the first distant howl of a wolf, perhaps throwing a “God be with you” over his shoulder as he disappears off into the distance and the howl of the wolf grows closer. The kind of shepherd who really doesn’t want to get involved, certainly not if involvement includes any kind of risk.

“I know my own and my own know me” is first century Palestinian for “I love you and I’ve got your back.” And even after the shepherd is apparently dead, he has our back. How do we know this? Well, as Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “On the night before he died, they all fell asleep after a big meal, with the sound of the shepherd’s flute in their ears. And as they slept, they shared a terrible dream of wolves with clubs and torches who came out of the woods, led their shepherd away, and tore him to shreds on a hillside outside of town. In the dream they huddled for safety, unable to think, unable to move, and they stayed that way for three whole days, wondering if they would starve to death before the wolves came back to finish the job. But then on the third day, they heard a flute, far away at first, then drawing nearer—that woke them from their sleep, and they stood once again in the presence of their good shepherd. Everything was the same again, but everything had changed. Looking around at each other, they saw what had happened. They had fallen asleep as sheep, but they had woken up as shepherds. As they slept, every one of them had been changed into the image of their master, and as they stood there staring at one another he handed them staves like his, and flutes, and sent them out to gather their own flocks. “Do for them as I did for you,” he said, and played them a little tune as they set off to do just that.”

And since then, many have heard the sound of the flute and have danced to it, have walked in the footsteps of the shepherd, carrying staff and flute. Cared for each other, with a particular eye to the poor, the sick, the defenseless, the immigrant and alien in the land. Stretched themselves and taken risks. Learned all they could about God through learning about and loving the world that God has created. Lived lives grounded in prayer, rooted and anchored in the love of God. Have been, in other words, disciples, like you and me—those who try, try and try again to follow in Jesus way, to recognize the image of their master in them and in everyone else they meet. Sometimes we screw up spectacularly. And then we take comfort in and rely on the knowledge that the good shepherd loves all the sheep all the time, even when the sheep are butting heads or scattering in fear. In knowing that the good shepherd loves and trusts us enough to have made us shepherds of each other. And so we can pick ourselves up, pray some more, and try again.

“My sheep hear my voice, I know them, they follow me and nothing can snatch them away,” The flute keeps on playing and the dance goes on.

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The Rev. Claire Nevin-Field

The Rev. Claire Nevin-Field is the rector of St. Peter's Church.

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