Readings: Psalm 23, John, 10: 1-21 (Good as New)
I approach John chapter 10 and the 23rd Psalm with some trepidation. I confess this to you freely, since when I first looked at the Lectionary last Sunday afternoon and saw ‘The Parable of the Shepherd’ and Psalm 23, my first thoughts were ‘oh, good, that’s straightforward – I’m sure I’ll find something to say’. And then, as Sunday wore on, and then into Monday, an email confirmation from Brian that, yes please, could I take the service, I started to worry a bit, because if anything, this is a subject which is too big to get to grips with in one service, and most certainly at short notice.
And then, this is a subject that is also so utterly familiar to you – an intelligent, well educated congregation – yes you are – believe me. There’s no pulling the wool over your eyes (groan!), there’s no getting away with poor preparation, simplistic arguments and dodgy or half-hearted theologies. When a passage of scripture is so well known, when it is so much loved there is a lot which I could do wrong this morning, lots by which I could upset – or if not upset, certainly annoy or infuriate. Indeed, it really is more difficult sometimes to approach the familiar passages of our Bible and say something which is at the same time coherent and also ‘a word at the right time’.
The Hensons, together with Liz’s mum, Shirley, Grandma Jones, were sitting at lunch in the Woodman Pub in Swansea on Monday, having just been for a lovely walk in Clyne Gardens – beautiful in the spring when the trees and shrubs are in full bloom. Grandma Jones was telling me about the evening service at her church last weekend, at Sketty, and how it was beautiful in its simplicity, familiar and easy to follow, yet incorporating post-Easter renewal of commitment and forward-looking intent.
We were talking also of poetry – Isobel has her GCSE English and Welsh Literature exams this term, and Grandma was asking about the format, the poems etc which were on the syllabus. And a little thought occurred to me – very simply, the introduction to the 23rd Psalm as a favourite poem which formed the opening section of this service. It’s very natural, very ‘human’ to have favourite literature, indeed, that includes favourite sections of the Bible, psalms and parables for example. So why then might these passages about shepherds and sheep come to mind so readily, why did they become favourites of ours, and what is it about them which is so enduring?
I want to suggest to you a number of things, but they all arise from – or at least have a connection with something that Jesus himself says, and which we have in our reading from John chapter 10. To all intents and purposes, the focus of the imagery being used is on the sheep and specifically the relationship between the sheep and the shepherd. The passage in John 10 is, above all else, about the relationship between people – that’s you and me – and Jesus as ‘The Good Shepherd’. But I want you to zoom in and consider this one little phrase which Jesus uses, John 10 and verses 4-5 “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he gets them all out, he leads them and they follow because they are familiar with his voice. They won’t follow a stranger’s voice but will scatter because they aren’t used to the sound of it.”
So then, three small illustrations, inspired by and flowing from this: “they follow him because they are familiar with his voice….they won’t follow a stranger’s voice ..because they aren’t used to the sound of it”.
Illustration number one. Some of you will have heard me in the past talk about my university studies, years ago in Brighton. I consider myself to have been very lucky, because having gone on to work in education, I’ve been able to reflect on the education I received, the teaching styles as well as the content of the course. I think that it many ways I continue to learn from that experience as a result. You can call it the ‘university of life’ if you want, but we all of us, all the time, learn from our experiences – what we do next depends on what we have done last, how it went, whether it was a success, what sort of feedback we have received, etc.
One of the courses I did at Sussex was Aesthetics, or the philosophy of art. Part of my musing about what poetry we like, what music we appreciate or even what sort of films or TV we enjoy goes back to that philosophy course, because – and I generalize here perhaps – most philosophers agree that art is about communication, it’s about the transferring of feelings, emotions or ideas (often all three) through an artistic medium. Again, generalizing, whether you or I consider something to be artistic at all, or otherwise ‘good or bad’ depends very much on whether that communication has been successful.
Another way of saying this is to ask – has the artist used a language, a form or media which I understand, have we followed because we are familiar with the voice, or have we scattered because we aren’t used to the sound of it? In his book, What is Art, the Russian novelist and philosopher Leo Tolstoy basically says that if there is no communication from artist to audience, there is no art. A poem has to talk to you for it to be artistic. Tolstoy goes further still, and says that if there is no communication from God to the audience, via the artist, then even if it is art, it’s not good art. And so my first suggestion to you this morning is that Psalm 23, and parables of sheep and shepherds are favourites because, whatever else they may be, they are most certainly good ‘art’ – they speak to us, the audience understands what the writer is saying, and (using Tolstoy’s argument), God speaks to us through the psalmist or the gospel writer to communicate eternal truth.
And so to my second illustration, stereo-typically the very Welsh one perhaps, and that is to consider the nature of sheep and of shepherds. I wonder, what is it about sheep? I mean, they have this reputation don’t they, of being rather dull, and if not exactly stupid, certainly not very bright. When we talk of people acting like sheep, we mean that they just follow the pack, they have no mind of their own; calling someone a sheep is really quite an insult. I wonder, do you know why that is, where the reputation comes from?
Well, some believe that that it was a comment from the United States’ Founding Father, George Washington which first gave rise to the reputation, Washington reported to have said, of the importance of free speech: “If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter”. But even that seems to me to be a reworking or a borrowing of a quotation from the Bible, Isaiah, referenced again in the Bible Study which Philip had with the Ethiopian treasury officer in Acts chapter 8 “He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth”.
But if this is where the reputation of the sheep as an essentially dumb and docile animal has come from, the reality is actually somewhat different – as both a fuller look at today’s readings and for that matter modern scientific research suggest.
For a start, the psalmist places himself in the role of the sheep – the Lord is my shepherd and all the imagery which follows. Not dumb in the slightest, in fact, quite the opposite, articulate, poetic, and above all else fully understanding of the nature of the shepherd, of just what a shepherd means to his flock. And then back to John again, and Jesus’s words, the sheep recognize the familiar voice of the shepherd and are clever enough to know an imposter.
Modern research has backed up what I suspect the Biblical shepherds (and for that matter, shepherds down the centuries) have known without the science – that sheep are in fact really quite clever. Studies in the United States and in the UK (you can see references on BBC and other websites) have shown that sheep have distinct individual characters and that they can plan things, and work things out (such as escaping from a maze). More significant still, sheep have been shown to be able to recognize and recall the faces of up to 10 humans and 50 other sheep over a period of two years; they form social groups, and have demonstrated emotion, including mourning the death of a friend.
And so this second point illustrates that both the psalmist and Jesus knew what they were talking about – and that the relationships they talk of, whilst being metaphors, are founded on reality and on truth.
So first, we have language that we recognise; it’s poetic recognition of the authentic voice of the shepherd and of those who tell us of his care, that voice which speaks to us. And second we have evidence of an authentic relationship between shepherd and the flock, the thing which tells us not only of the shepherd’s care, but of the flock’s intelligent response.
Finally, what about us? Well for my third illustration, and without wishing to be party political at all, I want to talk briefly of a forthcoming election, because it’s the one chance I get to speak to you all! I repeat, no party politics, rather this is about a concern I have that as the sheep, so to speak, we are in constant danger of going astray – or to put it in metaphorical language of today’s readings, we are in danger of forgetting the voice of the shepherd.
I’m worried about this election. I’m worried that people are just fed up with politics and can’t be bothered. I’m worried that people think that because the press tell them it’s a done deal, they won’t go out and vote, or in Ponty, because we’ve elected a Labour MP since before Noah built the ark, there’s little point in coming out here to vote here either. I’m also worried because there’s a chunk of the media which is suggesting to us – very deliberately – that to take an alternative view on certain issues is somehow unpatriotic, unfaithful, or untrustworthy. ‘Saboteurs’ is what the Daily Mail called those who dare question the status quo.
In short, I’m worried that people will be like the proverbial sheep – that is, not the intelligent sheep we’ve been talking about this morning, with ears to hear the shepherd, the but that traditional ‘follow the leader’ creature.
This is however, deeply undemocratic, and it’s also an insult to your intelligence. Yes, that’s right – just as it is a myth that the sheep is a stupid animal, so too is it a myth that we cannot or should not think intelligently about matters such as politics or the society of which our politics are a part.
So my plea – for what it’s worth – is that you listen for the authentic voice, for the shepherd, if you like, who speaks language which you understand, and with a message which resonates with you. And, of course, having done so, please vote!!
I’ve just come to this conclusion by way of political comment, but don’t settle as if that’s the point, for in all honesty, this isn’t just or only a matter of political conviction, but also one of faith. Because it’s when we listen for the shepherd’s voice, when we are called by name, and receive the loving protection of the shepherd, that we also learn how to respond. David’s psalm is one such response; it’s a favourite of ours because we can respond in a similar way. Jesus encountered those who recognized his voice, and those whose ears were not attuned as they might be; some were able to respond, and others not. John mentions that people didn’t grasp what Jesus was saying, but tantalizingly also suggest that there are others out there who, when they hear the voice, will recognize it all the same.
Those of us who come to church week in, week out, those of us who come here to St David’s and those who have been at other churches or faith groups, have already recognised the voice. We hear it again, in our worship, in our life together as a church; we hear it at Christian Aid quizzes and in the Kids Club collection tins; we hear it in our songs and our prayers; and we learn how to respond.
And I hope and pray that people will always marvel at and appreciate the wonderfully rich word painting which David and Jesus shared, for this is timeless language, for timeless good news. Amen