Are you a good shepherd or a straying sheep?

Sunday 15th May was Vocation Sunday and the theme for the week’s lectionary was distinctly pastoral!  A member of the congregation counted over 35 references to matters ovine, not including my sermon, the gist of which is set out below:

SERMON 15 May, 2011

I don’t know much about sheep and the closest I have ever come to a shepherd is a shepherd’s pie – so I was not immediately excited about the prospect of preaching on sheep this Sunday.  But sheep and shepherds were an important part of the world of the Bible and in order to understand what these lectionary readings mean entails understanding something about being a shepherd in Palestine two millennia ago.

I have discovered that it was not as we know it from “One Man and His Dog” – where foolish sheep are left abandoned on a hillside until clever sheepdogs “fetch” them back but rather the sheep constantly followed the shepherd, responding loyally to his familiar voice, as he looked after them on a day-to-day basis.

I think this helps us better understand the familiar shepherd/sheep metaphor in Psalm 23 (The Lord is My Shepherd)

It also underlies the Gospel passage  John 10:3-4  “[The shepherd]  calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.”

Another thing I learn about Palestinian sheep is that they are rather small and weak making them vulnerable to attack from predators,  from disease and, in biblical times, from bandits.  In order to stay safe the sheep need to stick together and stick with the shepherd; when they stray they place themselves at risk.

Furthermore the shepherd would gather the sheep into a pen or sheepfold at the end of the day to keep them safe from attack.  The shepherd would then lie down at the entrance to the sheepfold to make himself a human doorway.

This principle underlies the two famous “I am sayings” in John 10.  First “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

Secondly just after our Gospel reading: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.  The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away.”  (John 10: 11-12)

So what do these references mean for us today?

I think we know what it is to be a lost sheep

To be alone, isolated, frightened.  This often comes after a period when we had set out on our own to do something and found ourselves separated from those who are close to us.  We long to return to the safety which Jesus offers in the sheepfold of his love

I think we know what it is to hear God calling to us

We know when we are being shown the right way, the way that leads us to be the best that we can be,  following in the footsteps of Jesus

I think we know that we are strongest, best and safest when we are together.
When we go to Church regularly and are in good communication with our friends and family.
It is not an accident that the root of our word Congregation is the Latin  grex, gregis (m) – a flock

I think we know what it is to be a good shepherd
– to be a leader – to lead in caring  – to put yourself at risk to help others.

On this vocation Sunday let us therefore pray that we all hear the voice of God calling to us and that, rather than leaving it to others, we all take a lead in response


Dear Lord God, God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people:
Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name,
and follow where he leads.
Keep us strong by keeping us together
Lead us back to safety when we stray and
Give us courage to lead others in your service

We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ, our lord,
Who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns,
One God, world without end.


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