We Are Sheep, Not Elephants

Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year C, RCL

Psalm 23, Revelation 7:9-17, John 10:22-30

Peter Raises Tabitha (Dorcas) from the Dead, mid 12th century mosaic, Palermo Italy. From Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

We are not elephants. Elephants have an incredible memory. They can remember where they have been even if it was decades earlier. When times are good it’s easy for them to follow the paths etched in their minds to where water and food is; to where they have been in the previous years. When times are bad and they can’t find food and water, they look to the matriarch, usually the oldest elephant in the herd. She sometimes has to go to the deepest recesses of her memory; back to a distant land; to a place that she may not have experienced since she was a baby herself. She somehow follows a path that was etched in her mind decades and decades earlier; trusting more on instinct than memory how to get there. It is true that some elephants will not be able to keep up and others will die along the way, but the vast majority will persevere, following in faith the matriarch of the herd.

It would be great if we were elephants. We would not be concerned about what path we are on. We would be confident that our memories will keep us on the right path. We would not question who we needed to follow for our leader has the confidence when we do not. Life would seem so clear. But we are not elephants, we are sheep.

Sheep are smart animals. They follow a lead sheep and stay close together. But more important than following the lead sheep, sheep know the sound of their shepherd’s voice. When called, they will return to the shepherd and because each sheep is a bit quirky and different from another, the shepherd knows each of them. Even though sheep are smart they don’t always act so smart. Some are prone to distraction and wander, to get lost, to head into danger. Even though they have a head sheep, and a shepherd, they are prone to go their own way. It’s no coincidence that the Bible uses sheep as a metaphor for humans.

Today’s passages are full of sheep and shepherd imagery. “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters.” From Revelation we have “the Lamb at the center of the throne [who] will be their shepherd.” And in John, we have Jesus as the Shepherd who says, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” Jesus is the Good Shepherd who ultimately protects his sheep even at the expense of his own life.

John sets up this story making it sound like the small group of Jews are the wolves surrounding Jesus the Lamb. It is possible that the writer felt that his community of sheep were being snatched and scattered by some of the Jews or false shepherds and hired hands. But since we have two thousand years of perspective and the other gospels to compare with; I think we can understand that the Jews are not wolves or even bad sheep.

These Jews know their shepherd thought the scriptures that have been handed down from generation to generation. They do their best to follow their shepherd and like any of us, they occasionally go astray. The issue may be that these Jewish sheep have trouble understanding this new shepherd. Jesus’s voice often sounds similar to the one they follow and know yet is very different. The path Jesus wants to lead them down is different than the ones they have known. This new path seems so unfamiliar so much so that they may wonder if it could possibly lead to the same pasture.

Let’s face it, it is hard to listen to a new shepherd; a new voice that tells us something new or different from the way we were raised. It is also true that in our day and age we have all kinds of voices telling us that they are our shepherd; that they know what is best for us. Each day we are bombarded with voices that tell us they will keep us safe through the purchase of security systems for our homes or our country’s foreign policy. We have voices telling us we can have better lives through advertisements for things we really do not need. There are voices that tell us that we can be better through nationalism or even prejudice. And of course we have the voices of the people we know, the ones we work with, live with, or just hang out with. Many of these voices have been with us our entire life and it can be hard to know which of these competing voices can be trusted, or followed. Which voice is the voice of our shepherd and which voices are distracting us or trying to snatch us away?

Knowing the Shepherd’s voice out of the many others becomes much clearer through prayer, studying scripter, and worshiping together. And even when we know Jesus voice, following his voice is a choice. We choose to listen to the Shepherd’s voice or not. We choose to trust and follow Christ or follow others who may lead us astray. We may even choose to follow the most familiar path, one where we find comfort, even if our shepherd clearly tells us not to go that way.

Most of us choose to believe. We choose to believe that our shepherd will keep us safe; will lead us down the right path, will bring us to green pastures and we do our best to listen to our shepherd. Obviously, there are other sheep and we sometimes get distracted by what they are doing. We may criticize them if they are following a different shepherd or no shepherd. Of course, we can tell other sheep about our shepherd, how wonderful he is. How much we are loved by our shepherd. But this shouldn’t be our primary concern. Our primary concern is to make sure we are listening to, and following, our shepherd above all the other competing voices. Trusting that our shepherd loves us, protects us, and will find us when we stray. This is the wonderful freedom that we have as sheep of Christ’s fold.

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