Our Gospel lesson appointed for this morning speaks of entering the sheepfold. This sheepfold was a type of corral used in Jesus' time to keep the sheep safe during the night. This enclosure was usually made of 4 simple stone walls, often with thorns on top to keep thieves from crawling over the wall. Often, different flocks would be put inside the same community sheepfold, with one attendant assigned to watch the gate all night. In the morning, the attendant would allow the shepherds he knew to go into the fold, and call out their sheep. Each flock recognized the voice of their shepherd, and would follow him out of the sheepfold.
It appears that Jesus is suggesting that those listening to him were the sheep, and the kingdom of God is the sheepfold. That means that we are the sheep. This is not a very complimentary role for us to play, is it?
I’ve heard it said that at the heart of every Scanadanavian there is a viking, under the surface of an Englishman one uncovers a philosopher king, and Americans fancy themselves as cowboys. But when we look at the stories told by the Israelites, we find their identity symbolized by a wooly sheep. Maybe they are on to something. Maybe humans are indeed much more like sheep.
Sheep are not known to be the most intelligent animals God ever created. They will follow one another right off the edge of a cliff, if they don’t have someone to watch over them. I’ve been told that if you place a stick before a line of sheep, the lead sheep will nimbly jump right over it and continue walking. If you then remove the stick, the rest of the line of sheep will also leap at the same place the stick had been. Are we like sheep?
I recall years ago a time when I took my four children to the store. My oldest daughter must have been about 8 years old. It was a Saturday, and the parking lot was full, with cars darting about competing for the limited parking spaces. As we started to get out of the car, I said, “Now, you all stay with me.” By the time I got to the other side of the car, my oldest daughter had already started for the door of the store, and the other three children were following right behind her, like a flock of mindless sheep. I saw them headed right into the path of a car, and shouted “Stop!” My oldest came to quick halt, and the other three almost bumped into each other. My children had followed one of their own, one of the sheep, instead of their dad, who was acting as their shepherd that day. Yes, I think sometimes there are similarities between humans and sheep.
The 23rd Psalm reminds us that it is the Lord who is our shepherd. Our Gospel passage ends with verse 10. In the next verse of that chapter, Jesus tells us, “I am the good shepherd.” We hear many voices calling us with promises of greener pastures. The temptation is strong for us to follow some of these voices. It is important to remember whose flock we belong to. We belong to God. We must be careful that we don’t mistake one of our own, one of the sheep, for the voice of God.
In today’s world we are bombarded by many voices calling for our attention. In the midst of all this noise, can we hear the call of God? The television, the radio, the internet, all try to get our attention. And these voices are often successful. Today, the people who seem to know human nature better than any other group are not the psychologists, or even the psychiatrists. The ones who know us best are the advertising agencies. Every day we hear and see hundreds of messages, many intended to entice us to buy a particular product, with suggestions that we will be happier, look better, or live longer if we answer their call. I think that often we are as helpless as sheep because the advertisers are so clever. The messages are so well packaged that sometimes they stay with us, at least in our unconscious, for much longer than we think. We still remember jingles from 30 or even 40 years ago.
Pop pop, fizz fizz...
Ring around the collar!
I’d like to teach the world to sing...
Add to this the voices we hear from Hollywood...the image of John Wayne, for instance, the rugged individual who doesn’t need anyone, who can take on any challenge all by himself. Or Frank Sinatra, so proud that he did it his way. And then pop music, which often includes subtle messages of anti social behavior that we often never object to, because it is an art form, after all. And the internet, putting an overwhelming amount of information at our disposal, but with very little accountability as to its accuracy, and little or no censorship of the negative messages that can suddenly appear on the screens in our homes by the simple click of a mouse.
We have an unbelievable amount of information available to us today. But, it seems to me, we often fail to help each other learn how to use this information, how to think about all this data. Sometimes the amazing number of choices we have today can overwhelm us, even paralyze us.
Every day, we are bombarded by so much data that we can’t take it all in, or we will overload and blow a fuse. In a desperate act of self preservation, we develop filters, which screen out much of this data. Over time, if we are not careful, we can even filter out the voice of God, the One who calls us to lie down in green pastures, leads us beside still waters, and invites us to dwell in God's house forever.
When I was about eleven years old, I went to the county fair with my cousin’s family. My cousin Art and I had worked hard moving lumber for my uncle at a penny a board. With our pockets full of what to us was a small fortune, we wander through the game booths, with the carnies calling out for us to come play their games. The temptation was strong, and the prizes seemed to promise true happiness. We were completely caught up in the noise and the excitement of that moment, and ended up responding to the call of one of the carnies, laying down our hard earned money, lured by the promise of an easy prize. Just then, we heard a voice rise above the din of the carnival. It was my Uncle Dale, calling us back to the family. We immediately followed him, and so were spared losing our fortunes to a slick talking hustler.
We may not like to admit it, but we are very much like sheep. We need a keeper. We need a shepherd. We need God. In this noisy world we live in, how can we hear the voice of God?
In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus also refers to himself as the gate. You cannot enter the sheepfold, you cannot enter the kingdom of God, except through this gate, except through Jesus Christ. In other words, we might say that Jesus is the filter. As we are bombarded by messages each day, we can run these messages through the filter of Christ. We can ask ourselves, “Is this message of Christ? Is this information something that is worthy of God’s kingdom?”
In order to use this filter, the Christ filter, we must continue to grow in our knowledge and love of God. Such spiritual growth usually doesn’t just happen. For most of us, it requires discipline. We set aside a time for prayer each day, time to be still before God, to listen to God’s voice, to hear the spirit of God within us. We study the bible, allowing God to speak to us through the holy scriptures. We are faithful to our community, to our Church, and listen for the voice of God from our brothers and sisters in Christ. We respond to the needs of others by willingly becoming the healing hands of Christ in the world today.
As it turns out, in the eyes of God, we are very much like sheep. We cannot save ourselves. If we try, we will wander off, and get lost, fall off a cliff, or be overcome by wolves. God loves us, and will keep us safe, if we listen for his voice....if we heed his call. We need not be afraid of the cliffs, or the wolves. The Shepherd we follow offers us not only life, but abundant life, a life full of God’s goodness and mercy.
Let's try to shut out some of the noise in our lives, and listen for the voice of our Good Shepherd, who will revive our souls, and guide us along right pathways.