Before we begin today, I have to point out straightaway that most of the sermon illustrations I get to use on Good Shepherd Sunday are not my own. The Rev. Leander Harding accepted a call to the seminary I attended, in part to help lift the liturgical flavor of the seminary. Leander came from a very high Anglo-Catholic parish. That he ended up at Trinity for a time is evidence again of God’s providence in our lives. Trinity sometimes made Virginia, the former “low evangelical seminary,” appear high Anglo-Catholic. While Leander was more liked/griped about for his liturgy, none could argue with his pastoral sensibilities. Well, one could argue, but he would gently lead one around to his way of thinking. Leander used to credit, in no small part, his first parish. He was very well read and studied all kinds of counseling materials. But one of the formative experiences of his personal ministry Leander was the time he spent as a bi-vocational priest in far Northern Maine. At that little parish, Leander served as pastor. His “other” job, though, was that of a shepherd.
I see the looks of astonishment. Yes, you heard right. Leander was a pastor of a church and a shepherd of a flock. You might say it gave him a unique perspective on some of the stories in Scripture. It certainly gave him tons of sermon illustrations. In the course of instruction and conversation and, later, advice, many of those illustrations were shared with his students. This week, a couple colleagues were not thrilled to be facing another Good Shepherd Sunday. How many ways can you say Jesus is a shepherd and we are sheep and offend our parishioners? As we got to chatting a bit, I realized that Leander was right yet again in his Facebook post this week. Many pastors try to be hopelessly romantic as they wax poetically about an activity that is closely linked to blood and death. The Scriptures, as so many of my professors taught, are very earthy, very real. Our translations try to remove some of the offensive or disgusting language often associated with the Hebrew or Greek. More difficult for us, because most of us are no longer associated with the agrarian heritage of our country, we do not even get the slightest sense of what is really being taught in some of our readings. Certainly the idea of the Good Shepherd means way more than we ever would have conceived. I know I would not have, had I not had a chance to listen to Leander’s stories as he trained me and other men and women for pastoral ministry. Wrapped up in Leander’s discussions of disease, poison, the stubbornness of sheep, and other examples point out why our Lord used that metaphor to describe Himself.
I caught some fun comments this morning. For the first time, my sermon has a title in the Order of Worship. I was complimented and told how glad people were that I was “finally catching up.” Some of my predecessors named their sermons before they preached and included those titles in the Order of Worship. You all have figured out I am a bit backwards. I tend to preach the sermon and then struggle for a title as I rattle my brain and write it down on the Monday and Tuesday after I give it. This may well be the one exception to that way of doing things, but hopefully you will understand why in a couple minutes . . . .
Anybody here ever shepherd a flock of sheep? No? I’m shocked. Let’s try this way . . . anybody here like to watch those sheep dog competitions on television? Ah, I hear we have some who have seen them live. Wow! Even in New Zealand, Scotland, and Ireland! Maybe you should preach Good Shepherd Sunday next year . . . If I told you that "Away to Me” was related to the sheepdog, would it mean anything to those of you who have watched them on television or those who have seen the dogs at work in person? No? I know many of us here today might think that the shepherd’s crook is the most valuable piece of equipment for a shepherd. You have seen bishops walk with them. The curved end can be used to pull or lift a sheep back to the shepherd, and the straight end can be used to force the sheep along their way. The straight end can also be used to whack a predator, such as a wolf or coyote, and protect the sheep. If we base the worth of an item on its cost relative to other things, a shepherd’s crook is not the most valuable piece of equipment for shepherding. If fact, the crook is relatively inexpensive.
Know something that is expensive? Yes, the land. Yes, the flock. No, what I was more focused on was the sheep dog. I see the nods. Those of you who have watched shepherds realize the value of a good dog. As with any living creature, there are degrees of excellence. I learned from Leander that a dog who can master certain commands are way more valuable than others. In fact, he claimed that among his colleagues in shepherding, a red ribbon dog was a fondest desire. Up in Canada, and I suppose along the border where there is intermingling of the populations, they give champions red ribbons. In the good ole’ US of A, we call them blue ribbons. One of the distinctions between a champion dog and a good dog is its ability to master some very difficult commands. Among the most difficult of those commands for a dog to master is “away to me.”
Basically, “away to me” tells the dog to go find the sheep and bring them to the shepherd. The dog will obey this command like you might expect. It heads out to the furthest sheep and then guides the flock back to the shepherd. The dog will make a generally crescent patrol, complete with growls and nips as necessary, and so herd the flock back to the shepherd. Dogs that can keep this command are a rare breed, indeed. The dog must be intelligent; the shepherd must be a good trainer and have time to invest in the training of the dog. Those of you who have struggled teaching spot to sit or roll over or shake can only dream of the ability to teach a dog to do this. As you might imagine, such a dog is the dream of many a shepherd.
The dog that could keep the “away to me” command was even more valuable in Leander’s neck of the woods. Those of you who have travelled in Maine or New Brunswick might have noticed those rocky islands just off the coast of the mainland. These islands might range from the size of a boulder to a few acres. Shepherds love to have friends that own these rocky islands because they can put the sheep there in the summer months and not have to worry about too much. There are no predators or these islands. The water naturally fences in the sheep. Except for the occasional trip to the island to make sure the sheep are doing well, have not been poached by other humans, and for shearing, it is really a nice way to tend one’s sheep. We might say it is a bit less labor intensive, though it is no less worrisome (that is for another day). Imagine now how valuable a dog that can keep the “away to me” command really is. When you go to the island for shearing, you let the dog do all the work of bringing the sheep to you. It is much quicker than going and getting them yourself! You tell the dog “away to me,” and the dog fetches your sheep for the shearing. It is pretty idyllic, is it not?
There is a problem with such a way of shepherding, though, and I think it beautifully captures our life in Christ on many different levels. Sheep are stubborn animals. Some people think they are stupid, but it is only because they are not familiar with sheep. Like any other animal, a sheep gets in its mind what it wants and works to accomplish it. No matter how hard the shepherd works, no matter how hard the dogs work, sheep will do what they want to do. Occasionally, when on those islands, a sheep may decide that Portugal is a great place to visit. You and I may think they are stupid because there is an ocean between them and Portugal, because they are wearing wool sweaters and trying to swim, because that water is so cold it probably requires a wool sweater, and because the island already has everything they need. Why would a sheep head for Portugal? Maybe the same reason we set our faces away from God and rush headlong into sin?
I told you that Fr. Leander worked hard to get a red ribbon sheep dog. If memory serves, he tried to train them rather than purchase one. Anyway, wouldn’t you know, on his first trip to the island with a dog that obeyed “away to me,” he had a sheep start swimming to Portugal. At first, Leander said, it is not that big of deal. He told the dog “away to me,” and the dog happily and obediently headed out in the surf to bring the sheep home. In very quick order, both were in over their heads, so there is a sheep sheep-peddling and a dog-paddling, the former with its face set to Portugal and the latter determined that it will not escape. Remember earlier how I mentioned that the dogs have growls and nips and other “tools” at their disposal to guide the sheep? When the dog and sheep are in the surf, many of those tools are unavailable. You can relate. It’s hard to growl louder than the surf. It’s hard to nip at the sheep when most of it is underwater. The dogs will, though, try and bite and grab the wool of the sheep in their teeth. You will see a dog with a craned neck heading for shore and a ship bound and determined to escape the dog and keep heading out to see. Eventually, it dawns on the shepherd that a tough call has to be made. Does the shepherd let the dog expend itself, to the point of death, trying to save the stubborn sheep? Does the shepherd call the dog to heel and let the sheep swim to its eventually drowning and death? Letting the sheep go has real consequence to the shepherd. That sheep that is about to be lost represents an investment of lots of time and care. The dog represents even more, especially the dog that has mastered “away to me.” There are shepherds who supplement their income by training sheep dogs.
Place yourself in Fr. Leander’s place. You have tried hard to train dogs. You finally have one. But you are a shepherd. The reason for the training, the reason for everything you do work related is the sheep. You are present for their birthing. You feed them. You water them. You shear them. Everything that you have is based on your ability to nurture your sheep. Eventually, they are sold and butchered. Letting one go is like one of us giving up a portion of our paychecks without a fight. What do you do?
Leander shared with us, in relating this stories and others like it, some of the depths of meaning in Scripture. We often miss it because we are disconnected from that society in which these examples were given. But our disconnectedness neither makes them any less true nor their ability to teach us about God’s heart for us any less potent. We prayed today that our Good Shepherd knows us and calls us by name. We read about the difference between the good shepherd and the hired hand. Perhaps, in this modern parable or modern illustration, you understand some of what God has been trying to teach you in your faith walk with Him.
For example, at one point, all of us were like stubborn sheep. All of us. Our Lord intended nothing but good for us and we rejected it. Even today, we sometimes turn away from Him or His ways because we think we know better, just like that stubborn sheep headed toward Portugal. And just as that sheep never really considered the consequences of its actions, often we fail to do the same. That sheep made a choice that will, if left with no intervention, cost it its life. Left to its own desire, that sheep head to Portugal will drown or get eaten by sharks. With the weight of wet wool and the distance, it really has no chance at the life it seeks. Similarly, our selfish choices lead to our deaths. We know this. Sin equals death, does it not? We may think ourselves better educated and smarter than sheep, but I sometimes wonder. As a guy why he cheated on his wife, or a wife why she cheated on her husband, and it is clear they were thinking only of one thing at the time. The thought of STD’s/STI’s, unplanned pregnancies, the dissolution of the “permanent” relationship, or even the breaking up of their family was not in their thinking. Outside the moment of their desire, though, each could have told anyone the possible consequences of infidelity. We know it, right? But now there are websites dedicated to adultery. Adultery is low hanging fruit. Take any sin that you willingly commit and ask yourself the likely consequences. Will those consequences convince you from acting on that sin? Probably not. Like sheep we are stubborn and determined to go astray. God may intend good things for us, but how often do we think we know better?
Yet, we are all here, gathered together on a foggy, cool Sunday morning in central Tennessee. Why? If we are the stubborn sheep headed toward Portugal, how did we all end up here? At various times in our lives, God has sent sheep dogs after us, each under the command of “Away to Me.” There have been people in our lives--family, friends, neighbors, strangers, teachers, preachers—people who left the safety of the Good Shepherd and worked to brings us back into the flock, back to His presence. Our faith, as John reminds us this morning, is not something to be professed by words only. Our faith is meant to instruct and to inform our lives, to cause us to action that reflects His love for all the sheep. How better can we reflect that love than by bringing them to the Good Shepherd?
But think of the transformation and training necessary to get us to that point. If, at one point in our lives, we were all sheep stubbornly headed our own way, now we have been transformed into red ribbon sheep dogs. We know that the point of our existence is to draw others into His saving embrace. As hard as it is to teach dogs tricks, and old dogs new tricks especially, how hard is it for shepherds to teach sheep how to be sheep dogs? We never hear of that. Ever! Yet our Lord, our Good Shepherd, takes stubborn sheep and transforms them, by His grace, into a sheep dog that works as the Master intends. Our primary desire, our driving impetus, ought to be the longing to bring everyone we know and meet to Christ. It really is that simply.
Brothers and sisters, think back on who you were before He got a hold of you. Would the you of that day recognize the faith of the you today? Would the you of that day ever imagine himself or herself working to bring others to the Good Shepherd? Would the you of that day ever consider laying down his or her life for the good of the sheep, certain that the Good Shepherd would not only redeem but glorify such a death? And yet, sitting here this dreary day, I daresay almost all of us would do whatever He asked. Let’s face it. Look around you. Not everyone decided to get out of bed this dark and damp morning to worship the Lord. But you did. You heard the voice, you accepted the grace and the training, and you brought yourself here to remember and celebrate what Christ has done in your life. You may not have thought yourself a sheep dog, you may not have thought of yourself as a sheep. But you heard the call and felt the tug and responded to His offer of love.
When Jesus reminds us that He is the Good Shepherd, He is not waxing romantically. I have shared only one story of Fr. Leander’s this morning, but think how it really relates to the Gospel of Luke the morning. The shepherd wants only to care for the sheep, to provide the flock with food and water and security. The sheep are stubborn. They may know the shepherd’s voice and the bark of the dog, but they still determine to do their own thing and reject the shepherd’s care. To better care for his or her sheep, a shepherd trains dogs to help. Dogs can make noise altering the shepherd that something is out there, or the dog can even fight predators to save the sheep. Think of that training. Think of the effort, the expenditure of energy, and the emotional toll. How would you respond to a lost sheep, a sheep headed for Portugal? Think of where you were and where you are. Think of the training that God has brought into your life. Think of the discipling. And think of the grace. Have you any more doubt that the Good Shepherd knows you by name?
At some levels, of course, metaphors and allegories and images break down. We are, after all, trying to grasp God. This image breaks down, but perhaps in ways you have never truly considered. When confronted with that decision of risking a valuable dog and possibly saving a valuable sheep or saving the dog and certainly losing the valuable sheep, Fr. Leander found himself in quite the quandary. He no more wanted to lose the sheep than his dog. Yes, he had invested much in the dog, but he had invested much in the sheep. In fact, the dog was an investment in the sheep. As he stood on that shore and had to make a difficult call, you and I are reminded that our Lord faces no such difficult task.
We do not talk much of really laying down our lives for others in the western Church. The residual Christianity that pervades society still makes our possibility for dying for our faith a bit more remote. Sure, we hear about teachers protecting students, loved ones protecting family members, and other great stories. More often than not, though, the press covering those events tries to ignore the faith element at play in those events. It is easy, in such a comfortable existence, to forget that the world has rejected the Light, its Creator, and chosen, instead, to live in darkness. Sometimes, though, our Lord calls for His dogs to lay down their lives for the sheep. Sometimes our Lord calls for His dogs to expend their last breath trying to fulfill His command of “Away to Me.” Unlike our human shepherd, who can do nothing to thwart death, our Lord has conquered death. Even better, He has promised that all who accept His call, all who come to His voice, will be redeemed and glorified in Him. Not even death can prevent that outcome now! Brothers and sisters, if you ever hear His command, “Away to Me,” even in the face of certain death, remember His promise. Remember His power. Most of all, remember the love He bears for you and all His lost sheep. Know that you can expend every last bit of whatever He commands of you, even to your last breath, and still you will share in His Resurrection and His glory. The Good Shepherd has invested too much of His own blood, His own sweat, and too much His own tears in your salvation ever to fail you. He has laid down His life for you and picked it up again, that you might know He truly is the Good Shepherd. All He asks of you in return is that you share that Gospel news with all those other stubborn sheep heading headlong into danger and death, that they might hear His voice in your life, turn to Him, and be saved!