Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
American University
Psalm 23; John 10:11-18


Psalm 23A psalm of David. The LORD is my shepherd. I lack nothing. He lets me rest in grassy meadows; he leads me to restful waters; he keeps me alive. He guides me in proper paths for the sake of his good name.
Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no danger because you are with me. Your rod and your staff— they protect me.
You set a table for me right in front of my enemies. You bathe my head in oil; my cup is so full it spills over! Yes, goodness and faithful love will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will live in the LORD’s house as long as I live.

John 10:11-18 • “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 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. He’s only a hired hand and the sheep don’t matter to him.
“I am the good shepherd. I know my own sheep and they know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. I give up my life for the sheep. 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.
“This is why the Father loves me: I give up my life so that I can take it up again. 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.”

Sheep are stupid.

Well, There’s a lot of debate that, actually, but we certainly perceive them as stupid. We don’t perceive them as the brightest animals in all of God’s creation, and we’re inclined to think of them that way—as dumb, sort of going along with the crowd, not really thinking independently. There are all kinds of fights on the internet as to whether this is true. There are arguments like “well I worked with sheep for 27 years and saw them open up fences with their lips,” and, “of course they flock together, that’s how they protect themselves.” And the battle rages on as to whether sheep are in fact dumb or not. But it’s fair to say that we don’t call people sheep as a compliment. And there’s certainly something about that aspect of being dumb and going along with the crowd that certainly informs our understanding of that term.

Which is why it’s challenging when we come across scripture lessons like the ones from tonight. They’re beautiful, they’re familiar to us, but when we stop and think about them all kinds of questions are raised. That first one, from Psalm 23, probably among the first passages of scripture that anyone here had to learn in Sunday School or was made to memorize, or you maybe had on a little prayer thing by your bedside at night. It’s one of the most familiar passages.

“The Lord is my Shepard.” Traditionally, “I shall not want.” I lack for nothing. He makes me to lie down beside green pastures. He leads me besides still waters. He keeps me alive.”

It’s a beautiful, bucolic, pastoral image of the relationship between God and the psalmist. As one who is taking care of the psalmist, taking care of the individual.

“Even when I walk through death’s darkest valley, yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, even then I won’t be afraid because your rod and your staff comfort me. You are with me.”

It’s a strong, powerful image of the sheep and the shepherd—the shepherd protecting the sheep. Then we get the passage from John’s Gospel, where Jesus is saying to the disciples, “I am the good shepherd. I lay my life down for the sheep.  The hired hand doesn’t do that, the hired hand doesn’t care about the sheep, it’s just hired to watch them, and then when things get tough the hired hand takes off and leaves the sheep for the wolves, but I don’t do that. I won’t do that for you. I am the good shepherd, and I lay my good self, my life down, for my sheep.”

Powerful, moving images, strong and imaginative metaphors that bring the listener into this powerful image of the one taking care of the sheep and the sheep themselves. But when we stop to think about it that the question of “are we really sheep?” comes up. I bring that aforementioned “sheep are dumb” thing. Are we really just sheep in God’s eyes? Are we really just sheep in our own eyes? That illustration makes us uncomfortable, it makes me uncomfortable. The last name in my job title means shepherd in both German and Latin respectively. And yet, there’s something about thinking about you all as sheep that doesn’t sit well with me. Perhaps, it’s because we talk about sheep whether or not they’re dumb as if they were, as if they weren’t the brightest animals in God’s good creation. And we don’t like the association that we’re simply dimwitted animals. And we don’t like the association that sheep have with just going along with the flock, even if it’s just for self-preservation. We value independence, we value our own thinking, our own intellect, our own ability to decide, so branding us all sheep seems like an insult to that notion, to that self-understanding that we have.

Sheep also get fleeced easily. Literally, they get fleeced. You know, the shepherd comes along and takes all their wool and sells it for a profit and the poor sheep is just there and grows more wool. There’s a lot of these images that don’t sit well with us when we try to self-identify as sheep. In fact, sheep is something that you can use to insult other people. There’s a brilliant XKCD cartoon in which someone is sitting on a subway—actually there are 4 people sitting on the subway—and they are all simultaneously thinking: “Look at all these people, glassy eyed automatons, going about their daily lives, never stopping to look around and think. I’m the only conscious human in the world, sheep.” And certainly that idea of “sheeple” is that idea of both critics of group think and it’s a word that shows up all the time, it used to show up all the time on militia websites, anti-government sites, accusing the rest of us of being “sheeple,” just going along with the crowd. And in fact you can find that same word on a lot of things online about 9/11 conspiracies, false slag operations, and all kinds of things that tell us that we’re just sheep being led along, that we can’t think for ourselves.

So there’s a lot of reasons why we would look at a passage like this and be concerned with the application of “sheep” for the faithful. And a lot of people have pointed that out. There’s a lot of criticism of pastor’s willingness to embrace this metaphor. There was this one site I came across, and they said “why do Calvinists seem to like this dumb sheep metaphor so much?” And there was a whole rant about this one pastor who really liked the dumb sheep metaphor a lot, and said it’s precisely because it sets himself up for authority over these dumb sheep. So even if he says “well, I’m a sheep too,” he’s the lead sheep and he’s in charge. And certainly there are those who view unfortunate incidents in Christian history where certain pastors have certainly fleeced their flocks, as yet other evidence as to why this metaphor is troubling and problematic. And it seems to suggest, they continue, that the faithful are on some level, morons. That they need a shepherd to tell them what to do, that they need to be corralled and shorn every so often for their own good. And so the presentation of the Christian Faithful as sheep is not a positive or easily affirmed one.

But let’s ask ourselves something, and be honest. Are we sheep? Are we the brightest animals in God’s creation, or dumb? Because there’s an awful lot of evidence to commend us to the fact that we are not the smartest animal in God’s barnyard. I mean look at how easily we adopt all kinds of ignorance. Look at how easily we reinforce our own prejudices in spite of facts. Look at how easily fear controls us, how easily we want to give up rational discourse for impassioned argumentation, how easily we accept simplistic framings of the world, how easily we are likely to just want to be told something simple. Keep it simple! Sound bites. Six seconds or less. If you can’t explain this issue to me in the time it takes to ride up an elevator, give the elevator speech, then it’s not worth my time. Anything, if I have to sit down with Noam Chomsky for twenty minutes and have him explain how the world works, that’s just too complicated for me. I don’t want to know that.

How often are we like that? How often are we led along with the crowd? How often do we subsume our own values into the broader group, led along? You know the sheep do it because there are predators out there. We do it because someone tells us that there are predators out there. All too often, giving up our sort of independent thinking and freedom just to go along with the group for safety’s sake. And, in an interesting note from the scripture, we often imagine that our sheep pen is the only one. There’s that little line of Jesus, “I have sheep who do not belong to this fold and I have to go look after them.” That so often goes overlooked. Who are these sheep? Who are these other sheep that Jesus is talking about? See, we think we’re the only ones, what do you mean you have other sheep, Jesus? We’re your sheep! Us, the chosen flock. Maybe we’re too inclined to think that the world ends at our sheep pen. That our community of faith ends here. So I’m not so sure, as much as it pains me to admit, that sheep is not an appropriate descriptor of us from time to time. It makes me wonder what the sheep insult each other with. “You’re such a human!” “C’mon Phil, stop acting like a human!”

I think the reality is that the scripture isn’t really talking about us. The scripture here is talking about the shepherd. And that’s something we can too easily lose sight of, because the shepherd loves us anyway, whether we’re dumb or not. The shepherd leads us in love, whether we strike out on our own or whether we need to go along with the community. And the shepherd has other sheep pens. I was interested to note that in the prayer tonight when it said “help us to see those who are in need as other sheep,” how that speaks to our fundamental failing as the church as how often we tend to see people outside as some other people rather than as us, as our fellow members of the flock. They’re “them” out there, rather than part of who we are. I think the great lie that’s been given to us is that there’s an “us” and a “them.” There’s only an “us.” There’s only a “we.” And yet we persist in this behavior, this sheepishness, in thinking that it’s just about us here in our little safe place. And Jesus himself is telling us that “I have other sheep who don’t belong to this pen.”

Now ultimately, a metaphor can only be taken so far. We can’t take metaphors too far. It’s not a statement of our ontological being, it’s not describing us in essence—we are not sheep, in fact, sheep—the metaphor’s main point is about the identity of Jesus. Here’s the thing, here’s the clue: if you’ve been reading the gospel of John at all, you’ll notice that Jesus has a phrase that he uses a lot in that gospel. That phrase is “I am.” He uses it all the time. “I am the true vine. I am the door. I am the bread of heaven. I am the resurrection and the life. I am the good shepherd.”

Scholars will debate the meaning of that. Some of them will say that “it’s an illusion to the “I am” of the old testament, when God identifies God’s self as the “Great I am, I am what I am”’. And there are others who say “yes, but the way it’s phrased in Greek is interesting.” If you were just going to say “I am” in Greek, you don’t actually need the “I” part. You just say “am” and that means what you want it to mean. The fact that Jesus says “I am” seems to suggest less that he’s evoking the Old Testament but saying I am the good shepherd, I am the true vine, I am the bread of heaven.” That all of these metaphors are pointing to him, they’re pointing to who he is. He’s telling us who he is. It’s been said that in Matthew, Mark, and Luke he talks about the Kingdom, and in John he talks about himself. And here he is saying “I am the good shepherd.”

What is he saying? He’s saying “I am the one who takes care of you, I am the one who leads you, I am the one who protects you from wolves. And in case you missed it, I do have other sheep pens, there are others whom I care for as well. There’s more than just one fold, I belong to more than just you.” See there are a lot of things we get wrong about our faith, there are a lot of ways in which we all, like sheep, have gone astray. And one of the things we get wrong the most is this idea that we are somehow more than one flock. Here it is our shepherd brings us back, that there is one flock and one shepherd. And to echo the words of the prophet Malachi, “have we not all one father? Did not one God create us? Do we not have all one shepherd?” And to add to that, “Are we not all one flock?

Maybe the image here is meant to remind us that we are a flock, all of us. Not to evoke images of dumb animals following along in a herd unthinkingly, but of animals in need of protection, animals in need of love, and animals especially in need of each other, of community, of common fellowship.

One flock. One shepherd.

So maybe being identified as a sheep isn’t so bad after all, if we use it to remind ourselves not of our common “sheepleness” but of our common humanity, of our common need for love and guidance, our common need for protection, and our common need for each other. In so doing, we then can embrace with pride the words that we are one flock, with one shepherd.

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