April 26, 2015
Rev. Michael F. Bailey
“Sheep of Other Pens”
11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 When the hired hand sees the wolf coming, he leaves the sheep and runs away. That’s because he isn’t the shepherd; the sheep aren’t really his. So the wolf attacks the sheep and scatters them. 13 He’s only a hired hand and the sheep don’t matter to him.
14 “I am the good shepherd. I know my own sheep and they know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. I give up my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that don’t belong to this sheep pen. I must lead them too. They will listen to my voice and there will be one flock, with one shepherd.
17 “This is why the Father loves me: I give up my life so that I can take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I give it up because I want to. I have the right to give it up, and I have the right to take it up again. I received this commandment from my Father.”
Ministers, like many of you, are required to take regular continuing education. We have to report this each year to the Annual Conference. Now your staff is filled with loving, joyous folks always laughing together. Also, some loving joshing marks our weekly meeting. Some of this occurred recently when Louis was outlining a couple of days he was going to be out of town. You see, in the UMC, for three years after seminary graduation, you’re considered a resident in ordained ministry; rather like residency after medical school. The residents have to meet for a full day once a month under the guidance of a trained facilitator. Louis has to do this. More, though, the Annual Conference selected him for a special leadership-training program. (I feel so blessed to be on a team with someone so outstanding as Louis). Nonetheless, this continuing education leadership program requires that he go to Charlotte for training one day a month. After he’d outlined his programs, Mark Vickers said something to the effect of, “you young guys sure need more training than folks like me. You’re going the be the most educated minister in the conference.” To which someone across the room said, “The conference just doesn’t want him to turn out like you, Mark!” Taking this as a good cue, I told them of my continuing education plan, which I went to this past week. I said something like, “Folks, let me tell you about my continuing education plans. I am so thrilled about it from the soles of my feet to the top of my head. I can barely wait for it to happen. I’m going the NC Festival of Preaching!” Their response was what you can imagine – blank stares about my enthusiasm and a couple of slack jaws! One team mate, I’ll tell you, it was Cathy West, said with dripping sarcasm: “that sounds fun.”
It was a great week though! One of the reasons was the appearance and teaching of one of my favorite writers: Lillian Daniel. Lillian is a UCC pastor serving outside of Chicago. I find her writing, humorous, accessible and yet significant. I must admit to a little apprehension however; many of us have looked forward to hearing a hero or guru in our field; someone whose work we’ve appreciated, and then been disappointed by them in person. But that wasn’t the case with Lillian! Lillian was brilliant, funny and spoke a word of life! And, in a blessing to all of us “working preachers” in the crowd, one of her teaching sessions was on this very passage! She said much but you’ve probably experienced how certain phrases from speakers grab your attention and continue to speak to you, well, Lillian had one of these, she said, “this passage is life changing and makes sense only when Jesus is the shepherd and we all are the sheep.”
I began to wonder and muse why she would offer such words and I think I know some of the answer: in our churlishness, our fallen-ness, our very sheep-like-ness, we rebel against the teaching of Jesus that we are sheep! Oh, we don’t do so overtly and out loud, but in our attitudes and actions, we really don’t like the idea of being sheep.
After all, there aren’t many opportunities for career-advancement for sheep; once a sheep always a sheep! In contrast, our way is to achieve, to advance, to distinguish ourselves, to climb out, up and over others! And sheep just aren’t that way, are they? So, we rebel at being sheep.
And the some of the worse folk doing this in the church are ministers! Ministers make the leap from sheep to shepherd, blithely and easily. Though it’s a noble biblical image, we preachers begin to talk about how we’re the shepherd and lay folks are the sheep. And then, some of us run to be super-shepherd, bishops and our bishops even are given shepherd’s crooks! Then too, there are always lay folks in the church who fan the flames of preachers being elevated to shepherds. But the fact is, there is only one shepherd, and we all are sheep, preachers included, maybe even more so for their tendency to usurp the Good Shepherd.
But those of the “cloth” aren’t the only ones! Any of us who have spent any time in the life of any congregation know that church members don’t much like being sheep any more than preachers do. So, church members build a hierarchical pyramid of respect and act on it! “I’m at least a senior sheep or a junior shepherd because I’m the largest donor!” Or, “I’m at least a senior sheep or junior shepherd because I chair an important committee!” Or, “I’m at least a senior sheep or junior shepherd because I’ve been here so long and by the way you’re sitting in my pew!” But the fact is, this passage is life changing only when we know and act on the fact that there is only one shepherd and we are all sheep.
And here’s the situation, if we are spiritually honest, if we allow the Holy Spirit to hold up the mirror of truth for our lives, if we admit how we really are and then couple that with a little bit of knowledge about sheep, we’ll also admit how much we’re like sheep and how dependent we are on the Good Shepherd.
Sheep are frail. Aren’t we frail too? An accident can take our lives in a split second. An unkind word can cut us to the quick and damage our emotions. And despite our veneer of invincibility that we wear particularly around the church, we are weak and frail.
And sheep don’t even know when they’re sick. The sheep ranchers say, “A sick sheep is a dead sheep.” Because a sheep doesn’t even know it’s ill, it will keep on going until it just drops dead. How many of us live lives marked by illness in our souls, sin-sick, illness in our relationships, our view of the future, our being dragged down by the failures of the past? And the sheep need a shepherd to come to them and heal them. And we need the good shepherd, Jesus, to come to us and heal us and because he loves us, he does.
Here’s another fact we don’t like but is so true: sheep are NOT very intelligent. This works out mainly in that sheep see only one way out of anything that holds them. If you have a three sided pen a sheep will go to the fence and try to get out by pushing against it, when all they have to do is turn around and walk out. But they only see one way out. Aren’t we like that too? We see only our way and are captured and held back. Sheep need a shepherd to turn them around and set them free. The Good Shepherd does that for us.
Sheep are followers, but indiscriminate in what they follow. One rancher ties a goat to his tractor and the sheep follow the goat. Goats in another of Jesus’ teachings were those who went the wrong way in life. And oh, how we are so often indiscriminate followers: the latest thing that comes down the pike, the latest weepy eyed TV talk show host; we’re indiscriminate followers. But we have a good shepherd to follow who will lead us into life.
Here’s the problem: sheep don’t know they’re sheep: and if we don’t know we’re sheep, we don’t know we need the Good Shepherd and that is deadly.
Then, Jesus makes one of the most intriguing statements he ever made: I have other sheep not of this pen. Some have said he meant Gentiles and that’s it, that he meant nothing else by this statement. But is it? He said he had other sheep not of this pen; how hopeful that is for all the people of the world! Not this pen? What’s that mean? Christ Church? United Methodism? Christianity? One things for sure: it means is his voice is heard outside our sheep pens! Let us praise God for that. The Good Shepherd is seeking and speaking and yearning for all to turn and follow outside our pens!
And all we have to do is share our experience of the Good Shepherd – not sell other sheep on the benefits of our sheep pen; just share our experience of the Good Shepherd.
So what does that mean for you? What difference has Christ made in your life? Has he given you all you have and made you more generous? Has he loved the rough edges from your personality and made you gentle? Has he been compassionate to you when you were at your lowest and made you caring and yearning for justice for all? What has your experience of the Good Shepherd been? Share it, in word and deed.
- Share with your group if you have ever been in a position that required continuing education events.
- Share with your group if you have ever been delighted or disappointed when you heard/met a person you admired.
- Share with the group why you think we might secretly rebel against being called sheep.
- Share with your group how you think people are like sheep.
- Share with your group your experience of the Good Shepherd.