MEMBERS OF THE FLOCK Sermon Preached by the Rev. Dr. Lindley G. DeGarmo

Union Church of Pocantico Hills

May 8, 2022

Psalm 23

John 10:22-30

Today is the Fourth Sunday of Easter, known traditionally in the church as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” The texts of the day speak of God and Jesus as the shepherd and of us as the sheep. It’s a familiar biblical metaphor. Shepherding, of course, was one of the earliest occupations, and flock and herds were a prominent feature in Palestine and other Near Eastern societies. People kept cows and goats, horses, asses, oxen and camels, too, but the principal animal—owing to size, abundance and usefulness—was the sheep. It’s not surprising, then, that sheep are the most frequently mentioned animals in the Bible, referred to over four hundred times in Scripture.

We modern suburbanites, by and large, don’t have much to do with sheep. The children at my church in Baltimore were always fascinated when we would have one or two live specimens visit during our annual Lenten Festival. But whether or not you’ve actually been around sheep, you may suspect that being called “sheep” is not necessarily a compliment. Sheep get shaved or slaughtered and are notoriously dumb. So you might not like it when I, or Jesus, refer to you as sheep, members of this ragtag flock we call the church.

My youngest brother, Jim, raised sheep on his farm in Columbia County, New York for a number of years. When I first preached on these shepherd passages, I called him to ask whether sheep are as dumb as they say. “Well, they’re not very smart,” he told me.

“Are they worse than cows?” I asked. I know something about cows, from spending many summers on my uncle’s dairy farm.

“Not really,” Jim said, “but they’re different.” Cows, you see, are herded from the rear with lots of shouting and prodding, but that doesn’t work with sheep at all. Stand behind them making loud noises and all they will do is run around behind you, because they prefer to be led. You push cows, he said, but you lead sheep, and they will not go anywhere that someone else does not go first—namely, their shepherd, who goes ahead of them to show them that everything is all right.

Sheep tend to grow fond of their shepherds, my brother went on to say. Jim could walk right through his sleeping flock without disturbing a single one of them, while a stranger couldn’t set foot in the fold without causing pandemonium. Sheep seem to consider their shepherds part of the family, and the relationship that grows up between the two is quite exclusive. They develop a language of their own that outsiders are not privy to. A good shepherd learns to distinguish a bleat of pain from one of pleasure, while the sheep learn that one tone of voice means food, while another means that it’s time to head for the pen. They know whom they belong to; they know their shepherd’s voice, and it is the only one they will follow.

Jesus used this image of the bond between a shepherd and his sheep to explain to the Jews why he would not answer the question they put to him in today’s lesson from John’s gospel. It was the feast of the Dedication, John tells us—a feast better known to us as Hanukkah, that day in late December when Jews celebrate the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem. Jesus was walking in the portico of Solomon, the oldest and most revered part of the Temple, when the devout Jews who had gathered there for the festival asked Jesus the same question they had been asking him all along. “How long will you keep us in suspense?” they asked him. “If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” They wanted a definitive answer, but Jesus would not give it to them for at least two reasons.

In the first place, he knew what “Christ” meant to some of them: a warrior king, a political messiah who all of a sudden would throw off his meek disguise and grind the Romans into the dust. To say yes, I am the Christ, would only add fuel to that fire, and he did not want to do that. That was not the kind of salvation this Messiah was to bring. But Jesus also seemed to know that the question itself was a problem, that if they had to ask it at all then they would not believe the answer. If they had not been able to read the signs he had already performed, if they had not been able to understand the sermons he had already preached, then they would not be able to believe a simple, “Yes, I am the Christ.” He seemed to know that they were not asking because they wanted to believe, but because they wanted to debate, talk, argue, accuse. Jesus’ breath would have been wasted, and so he declined to answer their question. They could not hear him, he told them, because they were not in relationship with him. “You do not believe,” he said, “because you do not belong to my sheep.”[1]

Well, this is an interesting story, but obviously, it isn’t about us. We are members of the flock: baptized, no doubt all up-to-date on our pledge payments, and here worshipping God on a beautiful Spring morning when we could be out enjoying the sunshine and cool breezes. We know the Apostles’ Creed by heart. We work hard on the Spring Fair, and we take our faith into the world with us every day, seeking and serving Christ in everyone we meet. If we are not Jesus’ sheep, then who is? We hear his voice, and he knows us, and we follow him, and he gives us eternal life, and we shall never perish, and no one shall snatch us out of his hand. This is the Lord’s flock, and we do believe because we do belong to his sheep.

Or are there some impostors in here? Are there some of you who really do not belong here, who go through the motions but who cannot say what it is you believe? You want to hear the Lord’s voice, but you cannot quite make it out. You wind up at the watering hole at the end of the day and you do not know whom you belong to. There are so many flocks to choose from. Some of them look fatter, some look better bred, all of them look like they know what they are doing but you. You wonder if perhaps you are a stray sheep who has somehow gotten mixed in with them, and you wonder if you would not be better off going back to the wild.

Then comes time to go home and the shepherds begin to call their sheep. You listen to their voices and you wait for that moment of recognition, for that inner voice that will tell you whose you are and where you belong, but it does not come. As the sheep move off in their tight knit flocks, each led by its own shepherd, you stand there feeling lost and you wonder, “Which one is mine? Where do I belong? What do I believe?”

“You do not believe,” Jesus says, “because you do not belong to my sheep.” What a chilling verdict that is! Barbara Brown Taylor muses, “I wonder: on what grounds do most of us doubt our membership in Christ’s flock? Who keeps us out? Is it the Lord himself, blocking our way with his shepherd’s staff? Or do we do it all by ourselves, disqualifying ourselves from the flock because we do not believe, or believe enough, or believe in the right way?”

“Most of us,” Taylor says “have pretty firm beliefs about what it means to believe.” One common belief is that believers are never at a loss for words. They can say what they believe and why, and they speak about their faith in ways that move and convince others. They are never embarrassed to be asked what they believe or shy to answer; they are always articulate, and eloquent, and wise.

Then there is the belief that believers are in constant touch with God, so that they understand what happens to them every day, or at least have enough faith to accept it gracefully. Consequently, believers are never doubtful or afraid. They live in total confidence that they are in God’s hands, and when they say their prayers at night God talks back to them.

Another popular belief is that believers invariably find worship a meaningful experience. They act on what they hear from the pulpit, they mean every word of the Nicene Creed, and their hearts are strangely warmed whenever we share the bread and grape juice. Believers never lose their places in the service and they never feel bored, or cranky, or left out. They have an unfailing sense of belonging, to God and to one another.

Have I gotten to your belief about believing yet? What is it that you hold over your own head? What golden ring is it that you place just high enough so that you can never quite reach it? Is it that you do not pray enough, or witness enough, or read enough theology? Is it that you are not knowledgeable enough, or enthusiastic enough, or sure enough about what you believe? Whatever it is, please stop it. Please stop exiling yourself from the flock because of your beliefs about what it takes to belong and see if you cannot allow yourself to belong simply because God says you do.

“You do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep,” Jesus says, but listen to what he says. He does not say that we are in or out of the flock depending on our ability to believe, but the exact opposite, in fact. He says that our ability to believe depends on whether we are in or out of the flock, and there is every reason to believe that we are in, my woolly friends, if only because we are sitting right here with the flock this morning.

If that is the case, then chances are that the way true believers believe is the way most of us believe: valiantly on some days and pitifully on others, with faith enough to move mountains on some occasions and not enough to get out of bed on others. Since we believe in what we cannot know for sure, our belief tends to have a certain lightness to it, an openness to ambiguity and a willingness not to be sure about everything. Our belief is less like certainty than like trust or hope. We are betting our lives on something we cannot prove, and it is hard to be very smug about that. Most of the time the best we can do is to live “as if” it were all true and when we do, it all becomes truer somehow.

Our belief tends to show up in our actions more than in our words. Sometimes even we have to look at what we do to understand what we believe. We are not, at heart, believers in an institution or an ideology but in a relationship that changes from day to day and year to year. Just because we believe does not mean that we are not afraid of what might happen to us; it just means that we believe we know who will be with us when it does. Some days we are as firm in our faith as apostles and some days we are like lost sheep, which means that we belong to the flock not because we are certain of God but because God is certain of us, and no one is able to snatch us out of God’s hand.

So, if sometimes you have trouble hearing the voice of your shepherd, be patient with yourself—because some days it sounds like a whistle and some days like a cluck; some days it sounds like a love song and some days like a curse. It is not a voice that always speaks in words, much less complete sentences, but it can usually be heard sometime between your getting up and your lying down each day, leading you beside the still waters, restoring your soul.

Be patient with yourself, and while you are at it, be patient with the rest of us too. You cannot follow a shepherd all by yourself, after all. You are stuck with this flock, or some flock, and everyone knows that sheep are, well, sheep. They panic easily and refuse to be pushed. They make most of their decisions based on their appetites and they tend to get into head-butting contests for no reason at all. But stick with the flock. It is where the shepherd can be found, which makes it your best bet not only for survival but also for joy.

Above all, understand that you belong here, as part of the flock. If you do not believe anything else, believe that—that whether you are here because you believe or because you want to believe, you are here because you belong to God’s sheep just like the rest of us. And because we do, we hear his voice, and he knows us, and we follow him, and he gives us eternal life, and we shall never perish, and no one shall snatch us out of his hand. Believe it or not, here we are, and here we belong.

All authority and power and dominion to the name that is above all names—Jesus Christ our Lord—now and in the age to come. Amen.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Voice of the Shepherd,” The Preaching Life (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1993), 141-142.