A Theology of Sheep
My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.
Our lectionary reading today returns us to events preceding Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is a response to mounting questions about Jesus identity originating from the act of healing a blind man on the Sabbath. Jesus’ words and actions have become a threat to the religious leaders who question him. Jesus responds to the investigation with familiar statements about who he is: “I am the good shepherd.” “I am the gate for the sheep.” Some amount of time passes before today’s reading when he is asked directly if he is the Messiah. Once more he evokes the metaphor of the good shepherd.
When I was eleven years old my father brought me two lambs to raise for the 4-H fair. After brief instructions about how to feed and care for them he said, “don’t get attached.” Ever the obedient child, I promptly named them, “Fluffy” and “Frisky.” They became comforting companions for a school year, companions at a difficult time during my parents’ separation.
By coincidence the lambs’ names matched their personalities. Fluffy was larger and woolier. Frisky had a mind of his own, he was the one who escaped my arms in the blue-ribbon round of showing at the fair. I stood helplessly in the middle of the arena while several farmer fathers comically corralled him.
Sheep or shepherds are mentioned a hundred times in the Bible, often as a metaphor for God’s relationship with humanity. Sheep have the unflattering reputation of being hapless followers, with no mind of their own, and in constant need of rescue.
However research on their memory and behavior offers a different perspective. These creatures are capable of solving complex mazes and bypassing devices designed to keep sheep out of people’s yards. A delightful afternoon’s worth of videos showing sheep leaping, sidestepping, and even rolling over cattle guards can be found on Youtube.
Sheep are also gifted with excellent memories: some studies show that they can remember the faces of humans and fellow sheep for up to two years.
Sheep however do not possess the ability to fight off predators. Flocking together and or fleeing are their primary means of defense.
In Jesus’ words from today’s reading we infer that sheep are known to have the ability to identify human voices, especially that of the good shepherd’s, the voice which leads to the green pastures and still waters sung of in Psalm 23, places of safety and care.
At the same time that I was caring for my sheep companions I began to raise questions about Bible passages like this reading. I bristled at being compared to an animal with a reputation for lack of intelligence. Even more concerning for me were verses that seemed to exclude people from community: “you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep,” at first reading, Jesus seems to reject those with questions and doubts. A science loving kid, I had multitudes of questions about the miracles Jesus performed. I kept my doubts to myself. Living in a small town I feared that asking too many questions might make me stand out more than I already believed that I did.
Who am I? Who is God? What flock do I belong to? Questions of identity and inclusion often arise during life transitions. They arise for middle schoolers whose minds develop complex reasoning skills seemingly overnight; they arise for teenagers who are preparing for life after high school; and for young adults entering the world of work. They may arise for those of any age who in the process of coming out, especially those who have heard the Bible’s words used to condemn. Deep questions arise around the decision to become a parent or not, they arise when we reach mid-life however one defines that, and retirement. Is there anyone among us who has not wondered who we are and whose we are at one point or another?
In this beautiful and messy life, how often do we insist of God like religious leaders in today’s text, “Tell us plainly” the answers to our deepest questions.
When I became a parent my unresolved adolescent questions of identity and community reappeared in a new form. I both loved motherhood and was challenged by it. There were countless decisions on everything from what to eat, to what potty training advice to follow, that made parenting seemed like an endless test. Yet there was no feedback on whether I’d gotten the answers right. Despite the questions and doubts about faith that had lingered since childhood our new family found our way back to church. Over the years my husband and I served on every church board and committee and gave countless hours to mission and outreach often with the girls in tow. Like a momma sheep I knew the far off sound of my daughter’s cry when she broke her nose while running down the hallway during a church board meeting.
The same desire to work for justice on behalf of children that had led me to pursue my master’s degree in elementary education from Northwestern early in my career so that I might improve urban classrooms, transformed into an unrelenting inner voice telling me that there was something I was supposed to be doing for others. The challenge was that I could not discern what the “something” was. When I found the courage to share my experience in a prayer group in an effort to find support and guidance, I was told more than once, “you are a mom, that is enough.” This statement left me feeling both frustrated about my inability to hear what God was calling me to do and guilty that my identity was complex and multifaceted expanding beyond the role of mother.
Though I was heavily involved in our church and community I often felt alone. I feared that it was my fault that I was unable to quash my doubts. I believed my questioning nature was keeping me from knowing the voice of the shepherd. I longed for true community.
Raymond Carver’s poem, “Late Fragment,” summarizes the universal human desire to be known, to have purpose, and to be in relationship in just six short lines:
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
A theology of sheep is a relational one. The assurance of being known and loved and called by the Good Shepherd is located in the second half of today’s reading, after the questions, the doubts, the disbelief, and the investigation. After the verse that seems to exclude which I now believe must have come from a place of exasperation—Jesus having to explain once again that he is the good shepherd.
In these later verses we find grace abundant. “My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.” John’s gospel speaks to the heart of our most pressing questions about identity and—answers with the abundant life found in relationship with God through Jesus.
Scholars believe that the Gospel of John was written 40 or more years after Jesus’ death at a time of conflict between and among Jewish communities and controversy around Jesus’s identity as the Messiah. John’s Gospel is written for a community that knows estrangement, exclusion, and division. Ironically a text meant to shape a new community has been used for exactly the opposite. The dramatic plot device that casts, quote, “the Jews” against Jesus has been misused as a justification for anti-Semitism. We must reject and resist such harmful interpretations in our polarized society in which incidents of hate crimes are on the rise.
For John’s audience and for us living in today’s polarized and uncertain world, Christ assures those who recognize and follow him that he is the source of eternal life, not just life after death, but abundant life in community with God and one another here and now. One commentator offered a contemporary explanation of abundant life that includes, “purposeful vocation that serves the common good, participation in a generative ecclesial community, delight in sustaining relationships, and a sense of security in Christ no matter what comes.”
The origins of Mother’s Day can be traced to just such an understanding of abundant life that includes vocation, community, and the common good. Anne Reeves Jarvis created Mother’s Day Work Clubs to teach women how to care for young children. The relational nature of these clubs became a unifying force when the United States was still divided at the end of the Civil War. Since that time other women leaders have set aside “‘Mother’s” days to work for the common good, to promote peace, to bring awareness to the needs of children, and to promote equal rights.
On this Mother’s Day may we pray and act on behalf of woman and children around the globe in need of refuge, healthcare, safety, justice, and mercy.
Perhaps you are wondering how a young mother, who once raised sheep named Fluffy and Frisky, who wrestled with doubts, but also convinced she had a purpose found her way to this pulpit.
While serving as a Children’s Minister at a local church a friend suggested I go to seminary. I stifled a laugh and politely said, “no thank you,” because I believed that seminary was only for elders or pastors; this was not who I was.
A few days later I had lunch with a clergy candidate who told me about the call of the deacon which is often described as a bridge between the church and the world. Hers was a ministry of justice and compassion rooted in faith. Driving away from the restaurant, the connection between my faith and the unrelenting voice urging me to seek justice for children fit together in a sudden realization, “I am a deacon!”
Since that recognition of my identity six years ago, I have completed numerous papers, interviews, fitness tests, and other clergy candidate requirements including theological studies at Garrett Seminary in Evanston, all while juggling the demands of parenting two teenagers. This June I will be commissioned or provisionally ordained as a deacon, in a denomination in desperate need of inclusive, and affirming voices.
Here at Kenilworth Union I am privileged to live into my call, leading ministries of faith formation that nurture followers of Christ who know God, love God, and seek God’s kingdom of justice and peace. I experience the richness and fullness of life abundant as we work together to re-imagine a new era of children’s ministry that equips today's families to practice faith while remaining grounded in the rich traditions of this church and rooted in community with one another and with Christ. Each day I experience the joy of responding to the Good Shepherd's voice.
Rachel Held Evans, a Christian writer and kindred questioner who passed away last week had this to say about a theology of sheep:
“For all our lofty ruminations about God, for all the symphonies and theologies and liturgies for the divine, I’ve yet to find a more profound expression of God’s nature than the one that begins, ‘Once upon a time, there was a shepherd and a lost sheep….’”
Whatever part of the shepherd’s story we find ourselves in today, may we know our identity as beloved sheep. May we find our flock in our community of faith. May we know and answer the call of Christ’s voice.