Back in 2014 I had the pleasure of preaching to my entire family in at a special service in a very special place. It was in a little church on Colonsay, an island off Western Scotland where my ancestors had emigrated from.
I confess I was not very keen on the idea of having to write a sermon while on vacation. And I was even less excited about preaching one in front of my family who disregards pretty much anything I have to say. But my mom had her heart set on attending Sunday service. And unless another minister washed up on shore...well, the responsibility was all mine.
This is not to say I didn’t try to get out of doing it. I told my mother that it’s not very kosher to just wander into a church and use it like we owned the place. She reminded me that we are family here, and then pointed to the church sign that said, "welcome all.” When I pointed out the large heavy chain that locked the giant wrought iron gate blocking the front door of the church, my mom just calmly said, “That’s just to keep the sheep out.”
If you were to visit this island, you’d instantly notice the abundance of sheep that roam everywhere. Without any real threats of danger on the island, the folks of Colonsay have taken the concept of free-range to a whole new level.
Now, whenever you vacation in a place where the sheep out-number humans 25-to-1, there are some things you need to know.
First, going barefoot really isn’t an option. Second, sheep are shy but not in the way we think. They don’t like humans walking up to them, but have no problem walking up you and taking whatever they want.
I also learned that sheep have no sense of personal space. They will stick their nose into everything – they are forever curious to see what a Scotsman wears under his kilt.
Another thing about sheep is they are not as dumb as we make them out to be.
Which brings me back to what my mom said about the giant chain wrapped around the heavy wrought-iron gate. Somewhere in the church’s 200-year history, the sheep had figured out how to unlatch the old wooden door that leads inside. So they put up a gate to keep them out.
Let that sink in. The sheep recognized the church as a sanctuary, a safe place to seek shelter from the heavy storms that frequently passed over the island. But for those who like to have a nice and pretty church, did whatever they could to keep them out.
The Bible offers so many allegories about shepherds and sheep. The most well-known is probably the 23rd Psalm.
In John’s gospel, Jesus builds upon this poem to describe himself to his trusted disciples. Click here to read John 10:11-18.
This reading is part of a series of seven "I Am" statements in John’s gospel that Jesus says to reveal his true self to his disciples. There’s the I am the true vine, I am the bread of life, I am light, I am the way, and today’s "I am the good shepherd."
Most of us live in cities and big towns. That means we are far removed from the rural pastures where sheep are often found. However, in 1st century Palestine, sheep and shepherds were a part of the landscape like billboards are today along our highways.
Just as it is on Colonsay, it would have been impossible not to notice them. Even a blind person could tell they were there from their sounds and smells. Thanks to all the sheep, shepherding was a common occupation. A humble one at that. But it could prove to be physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting work. It was certainly no 9-to-5 gig.
As John points out, it takes a to truly special person to fully commit to the duties of the position – to be away from home for weeks on end, to keep track of each animal, to chase after them and lead them away from unstable cliffs and dark ravines. And there was always wolves, thieves, and other threats that might require the shepherd to put his life in harms way to protect the flock.
Not everyone is willing to do this. But Jesus says, “I Am.”
He says, “I am the good shepherd. I will lay down my life for my sheep.” Five weeks into the Easter season, we know what that means. But imagine hearing it for the first time, and then seeing it come into being on the cross. You see, Jesus was not only the good shepherd. He was also the sacrificial lamb.
How do Jesus’ words speak to you as a follower, a disciple?
Perhaps you see yourself as a sheep? Or maybe as a shepherd?
But do you see yourself as both?
Hold on to that thought as I tell you a few more things about sheep. They are nothing like cows. Physical differences aside, cows are herded from the rear; often with the ranch hand shouting and prodding them along. Sheep, on the other hand, prefer to be led.
Unlike cows, they do not follow blindly as the old maxim suggests. They will only follow the voice of their shepherd.
The sheep will follow willingly because the shepherd has built a relationship of trust with them. The shepherd knows which sheep are cranky in the morning, which ones will occasionally bite, lag behind or wander off.
He knows this because he’s chased after them; fallen in the mud with them; picked thorns from their hoofs. He has learned to love them in spite of their smell, and all their constant noisy bleating and baaing.
Many years ago, Pope John Paul II said, “God has thought of us from eternity and has loved us as unique individuals. He has called every one of us by name, as the Good Shepherd calls His sheep by name.”
When Jesus says, "I am the Good Shepherd" he is telling us that he cares for us like God has cared for him. We know that we can trust him and follow him, because we know what he is willing to do for us.
He understands what we are going through because he has also gone through it himself.He knows what our dark valleys are like, because he has walked through them. He knows how easy it is for us to be scared and scattered by the wolves of this world, that even the most loyal sheep can stray and fall into dark ravines.
Though we are not perfect, our Good Shepherd is always ready to come to our rescue.
But here’s the thing. Jesus is telling this to his disciples, not only to reveal who he is but to inform them of who they are being called to be. Those who follow Jesus’ voice are also called to be like him – to be both a sheep and a shepherd. To be loved and the one who loves. Like Jesus, we are called to lead others to God’s redemptive grace, and to do by abiding in the will of God. That is to say, to love others as God loves us.
To be like the Good Shepherd, we must be willing to set aside our self-interests and help others find quiet waters and green pastures. We must be willing to lay down our differences and lead our enemies to the table of peace.
We must care for all of the sheep – feeding them, tending to their needs, and guiding them safely through the darkest valleys. Giving until their cup overflows.
This is the life of sacrificial love, the starting point of our Christian identity. This is what it means to live Christ like, in imitation of the One who came to bring us home to God. Through him, goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives.
Mahatma Gandhi famously said, “Where there is love there is life.” Perhaps this is why being a sheep is often more attractive than being a shepherd. A sheep just has to love the shepherd enough to follow him. But the life of the shepherd requires one to love the sheep, no matter the cost.
As C.S. Lewis reminds us, “To love at all is to be vulnerable.” No one knows this better than Jesus, our Good Shepherd.
Everything Jesus has done for us is born from the love that he has for us. If we are to be like him, to truly follow him in all the ways of love, then we must resist the urge to live for ourselves, to set aside our own wants and desires in order to help one another; even if it means one must preach a sermon while on vacation. And so I did.
As I stood, facing my family sitting in the worn wooden pews of that beautiful old church, a summer storm blew over the island. Outside the window I saw a bunch of wet, smelly sheep moving towards the church...looking for shelter.
A strong wind blew hard against the building - causing that metal gate to slam shut. It sent a loud clang reverberating throughout the sanctuary. In it echoed my mother’s words “it’s there to keep the sheep out.” No church should keep the sheep out. Instead we are called to be out there with them. The church isn’t a building. It’s people loving one another.
Sometimes you are the sheep, on the receiving end of that love. Other times you are the shepherd - loving those around you. Just as God opened the Easter tomb, revealing to the world the real power of love, so too has Christ opened our hearts.
So as you leave here today, as you go out into the world, remember that you are more than just a sheep. You are resurrection people. And in us, and through us, Jesus lives. He lives every time love is manifested through us. And there are so many ways to do this.
He lives every time we mask up and help our neighbors struggling through the pandemic.
He lives when we march on our streets, demanding justice and equality for all people.
He lives when everyone of God’s sheep are valued no matter who they love, or who they vote for.
He lives when we welcome the stranger among us, and whenever we care for those lost and frightened sheep we encounter along the way.
Whenever we make love come alive in the world, Jesus lives. And so do we.
For that’s what happens when sheep and shepherd become one - one flock dwelling in the house of the Lord all the days of our lives.
Adapted from a sermon given on May 3, 2015 which you can read here.
An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"that they all might be one" ~John 17:21
“Prius vita quam doctrina.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
* “Life is more important than doctrine.”