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Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Tuesday lectionary Leanings- Baa Baa Sheep Edition

Acts 2:42-47
Psalm 23:1-6
1 Peter 2:19-25
John 10:1-10

This week’s lectionary passages tell us about the early believers sharing everything they had in common. The Psalm is about following a shepherd, The Shepherd, Peter is about suffering, and in John, Jesus tells us what happens what thieves and bandits want to do to the sheep.

I am wistful about the passage from Acts, even though I know that it was a membership brochure. I cannot help but think how our world might be different if we shared a little more and were scared a little less.

What is it about us that keeps us from trusting and doing something new?

Which leads me to thinking about sheep. Silly, stupid sheep. Or at least I’d always thought…. Is it possible that sheep have gotten a bad rap?
A few (or seven) years ago, National Public Radio reported this story:

“…the lowly sheep may have gotten a bad rap. That’s the conclusion of a new study on sheep behavior by British scientists, who say the easily herded creatures may be smarter than originally thought.

A study published in the Journal Nature describes research at the Babraham Institute in Cambridge, southern England. In the research project, sheep were shown pictures of other sheep and rewarded with food if they moved toward a selected image.

As it turns out, the sheep quickly learned to recognize the face that produced a reward, and discriminated between that face and other sheep faces that didn't produce a reward. The research showed that sheep can get it right eight out of 10 times -- and the research showed the sheep remember faces for an extended period of time. Some sheep could remember up to 50 images for two years.

The study concluded that, like humans, sheep have special systems in the brain to discern between faces that are very similar in appearance. The results also suggest that sheep have remarkably good memory systems and are extremely good at recognizing faces. Both are signs of higher intelligence, says Dr. Keith Kendrick, one of the authors of the study.

Kendrick says the reason sheep may have a reputation for little intelligence is that they seem to be scared of just about everything. ‘Any animal, including humans, once they are scared, they don’t tend to show signs of intelligent behavior,’ Kendrick told Reuters.”

National Public Radio. All Things Considered. November 7, 2001

Sheep are intelligent? So maybe, when, Jesus describes us as sheep, it is important to realize that he is not telling us to be blind followers as the conventional wisdom has taught, Jesus is telling us to follow wisely, carefully.

Submission, surrender is not a popular thing to talk about. Because when we think about submission and surrender, it is usually in terms of an unhealthy relationship. The spouse who beats the one they have pledged to love. The boss who ridicules an employee. The cult leader who leads followers to spiritual imprisonment rather than freedom. Submission is a kind of surrender, and Americans are not typically thought of as surrender or submission prone.

I believe God invites us to a different kind of submission. One that is not chosen for us, but one that we are invited to choose.

J. Heinrich Arnold, the founder of the Bruderhof Community, writes this about submission:

“What is true and unconditional surrender? A person may yield to a stronger person, or an army to a stronger army. One may yield to God because God is almighty, or because one fears his judgment. None of this is full surrender. Only if one experiences that God is good- and that he alone is good-- is it possible to surrender to him unconditionally one’s whole heart, soul, and being. When a person has surrender to God with heart and soul, he will then seek other in whom the same love is clearly expressed and surrender to them also. But he can commit himself to others only if his first commitment is to God….

We have to give ourselves wholeheartedly to God, and if we fail, we must give ourselves again. We all need daily forgiveness for our sins and failures. But what matters is whether we want to be faithful—faithful to the end of our lives. This means surrendering everything- our self- will, our hopes for personal happiness, our private property, even our weakness- and believing in God and in Christ. That is all that is asked of anyone. Jesus does not expect perfection, but he wants us to give ourselves wholeheartedly.”

Arnold, J. Heinrich. Discipleship: Living for Christ in the
Daily Grind. Farmington: Plough Publishing House, 1994.

So. This is what I’ve been contemplating. How about you?


  1. wow, what great stuff, listing. Last night in worship, I simply wrote down this: "Radical trust --- following him in and following him out." Because the John text has the sheep going both in and out of the pasture.

    Also thinking about what it means to say that Jesus is "the gate" -- not just the good shepherd.

    and finally, about sheep: I remember reading a sermon by Barbara Brown Taylor once where she related the difference between cows and sheep: You herd a cow from behind, but sheep need to be led. So all of the talk about Jesus going before us... to the cross, to the grave, and to eternal and abundant life as well.

  2. I've been thinking a lot about HOW the shepherd leads. From my days in the Middle East, I watched a lot of shepherds and it was interesting to watch how they moved. They weren't out front or bringing up the rear--they were right smack dab in the middle of them. They walk WITH the sheep. Sometimes you'd see a sheep come up to the shepherd and just kind of walk with him or her for awhile, then move on with its sheep friends. I find that image quite comforting--the shepherd walking amoungst us, leading by walking with instead of in front of.

    From my clergy group that meets every Tuesday morning, we also had some cool discussion. A few gleanings...

    We & the sheep come in and we go out. We go out to find pasture, to find food. We have to go out to find food. If our spiritual life is sonly going in, we will starve. We have to go out into the world. The shepherd goes with us into the world and into danger. How you fend in the the pasture and in the world depends on how you follow.

    Another great thought (not mine): The disciples didn't understand. They're hearing the great word, but they aren't understainding it. Sometimes we hear the the voice, we know that we know it, but we don't understand exactly what it means. There is comfort in simply hearing the voice--we don't always have to have it all fleshed out.

    Abundant life is messy: think of the weeds in the side walk--they are life abundant, but there's so much growing it out of our control. True life abundant means that there is stuff out of our control, beyond our reach and that's ultimately good.

    A final quote that I just really like and suspect will make it into my sermon: John Shea writes: Theives are people who steel by craft and deceit. Robbers steel with violence. Both steel.

  3. Shepherd Sunday can be kinda interesting around here, with cattle-ranching being a huge part of the culture. I learned early on that there is quite a rivalry between sheep ranchers and cattle ranchers. On Shepherd Sunday a couple of years ago, one of our town's and church's patriarchs, a retired cattle rancher, whispered to me as he was going out the door "I have no use for sheep and sheep-ranchers!"

    In today's lectionary study group, I wondered as well about sheep being dumb, because John says, "the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers." That sounded pretty smart to me.

    Thus far, I'm drawn to the having life and having it abundantly aspect of the John passage. It seemed to me the Acts passage - which is one of my favorites - describes what abundant life in Christ looks like. One of my colleagues said in response to this - "We think abundant life is about collecting. The early Christians knew that abundant life was about distributing."

  4. I have always had difficulty dealing with the sheep/shepherd imagry--especially in Jn. Partly it is because I grew up in TX where being a "Sheepherder" was a dirty word. But because the idea of the Good Shepherd often meant that I was the dumb sheep. It is nice to hear that sheep are brighter than once thought.

    I have been told that the job of the shepherd was to gather brush into a small corral and then the shepherd slept across the "gate" to protect the sheep from being stolen by wolves or theives.

    But this sill doesn't help with this "sheepgate" motif we have in Jn's gospel.

    I think I am going to preach on the Acts passage about living in community--the longing to be connected in faith. The 1Peter passage is really awful--especially when we realize how many have been abused using this passage--read from 18ff rather than 19ff to get the real jist of the story.

  5. The Johanine message that one can only come through the gate of Jesus is not Helpful either.

  6. I like what rev kim says about Acts being what abundant life looks like: not collecting but distributing (or sharing, too). Really like that.

    muthah+, I hear you, but what if Jesus as the gate is about his kind of life? He didn't collect, but shared, as well, actually poured out his life.

    just a thought.

    I'm off to read this section in "preaching the gospel without blaming the Jews" to say what they have to say.

  7. I, too, like the collecting and distributing thought. I was going to blog a little today before I read and posted here, but the day is running away from me. I have a confirmation student coming in to talk shortly, so I won't have time for blogging before I go home at least.

    Anyway, I was going to run with the Acts passage. My congregation wouldn't know a "Good Shepherd" Sunday if it showed up so they won't miss it, but I liked the connection to the thoughts about abundant life as mentioned before. I'm going to play with this.

    Last week was sort of "Resurrection Community Part 1" when I talked a lot about the sacrament of community and how in the sharing of a common experience we are brought together as the community of Christ. This week I will be doing "Resurrection Community Part 2" and talk about what it is we do or in a different way how we live as community. We are about to have a huge turnover in our committee/ministry membership. A lot of folks who really stepped up during a LONG interim period are ready to step down and new folks or others who have been here, but less involved are really going to have take some ownership and an active role in the ministry of the congregation. It's time for all of us to hold this ministry and call from God "in common." I think that call isn't just about "stuff", but about all that we do as the body of Christ. This is a stewardship sermon in the broader sense. We're called to pool together all that we have (not just money and stuff, but ideas, time, talents, energy, creativity) for the good of the body of Christ and the good of the world. That's abundant life! God's abundant gifts being used in abundant ways!

  8. I think that I will be going with the Acts brings a good challenge..
    I do not have problems with the Johanine passage, Jesus as the gate for the sheep- but am glad to see that it has been acknowledged that sheep are intelligent; too often we see people who check out their brains at the door, and that can never be rught!

  9. I'm interested about the abundant life stuff as well. I'm really trying to preach an Easter Season and have resurrection and new life themes going through all the way to Pentecost.

    Particularly in the context of my congregation. I'm 25 and there is a two generation gap between me and 90% of the members. We are mission two-three whole generations of people. And so I've been thinking a lot about what new life means in that community.

    The stuff from last week on resuscitation vs. resurrection was really helpful. I'm trying to help them see that we can't just go back to the way things were - that we have to look forward and we are probably going to have to change.

    But the shepherd stuff isn't working so well for me. I've thought about using the Acts passage, but to be honest, we do have great fellowship, great sharing, prayer, etc... we just can't figure out how to get other people (other generations) to join us.

    I think I might actually spin the john reading a bit to talk about this. If we are the body of Christ, who are we inviting into the fold? in what ways are we keeping people out? are young people not coming to our church because, honestly, they don't like the looks of our pasture? they don't think they will find food there? and if so, what are ways that we can open our gate a little bit farther, or heck, even move the sheepfold a bit, reshape it, so that others will find a home there.

  10. muthah+, I think some of the problem with that piece, about Jesus being the only way, can be solved by looking farther down in the passage: "16 - I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd."

    as a friend from the church of the inspiration told me, they believe in the reconciliation of all things (heck, so do I as a methodist) - and so she thinks this means we shouldn't be so worried about those other sheep, or other religions, because they are loved by God as well.

    I'm still not sure where I stand on the whole "many paths, one mountain" thing. I guess I'm willing to say, I have witnessed God revealed in my life in this way, through the bible and the holy spirit and the gospel and such. But that doesn't mean that's the ONLY way that God is being revealed or that what I have seen is the complete picture. I think we might even have some things wrong. but who knows.

  11. Katie z - - I'm struck by your situation and am having brainstorms about where this fits in with John. Nothing is very concrete yet, but here are my initial thoughts - - Is the congregation being (on purpose or inadvertantly) a poor gatekeeper? In v. 3 the gatekeeper opens the gate so that the shepherd can call to the sheep. We think of the term "gatekeeper" as a negative job, keeping people out or judging. What if the gatekeepers' job is to keep the gate (church) open so the shepherd (Jesus) can get to the sheep? Then the question for the gate (church) is "How can we do a better job at letting Jesus do his job?" How can we essentially get ourselves (our agenda) out of the way so that Jesus' ministry can take place in and through us?

    Gotta run!

  12. I am not going with a sheepish sermon this year. I mean I know it is a classic image but do we really need it all 3 years of the lectionary cycle?????

    It's Acts for me. I like the collecting vs. distributing thought. But the passage is about more than things being held in common. Part of the communal support is in sharing worship and prayer as well. My early thoughts can be found here.

    Mind you, we are doing sheep and shepherds with the children's time. Just not sure what yet.

  13. Your discussion on local nomenclature reminded me of this: My brother tells a story about the time when he was living in a theological college residence (they had extra rooms for 'other students' -- he wasn't a theolog). In a discussion in the common room one night about things churchly he suggested that one problem was people's inability to distinguish between a shepherd and a sheepherder. Only one person laughed...and she was from Alberta -- naturally!

  14. I kept a hobby-sized sheep herd before seminary - enough that we had lambs in the spring and filled the freezer in the fall.

    In working with the sheep I realized the had an intelligence all their own. It didn't take long for us to jive.

    I can tell you sheep don't like to be pushed - you can do it with a hyper sheep dog. That's why border collies are so intense. But what is easier - at least for a small flock is to lead them. The sheep really do know their shepherd and the shepherd can not push them but they will willingly follow the shepherd they recognize.

    This worked even when I was anxious about the sheep getting out of the property and into the front yard and road and I needed to get them back.

  15. A friend from my church tells about how she grew up on her farm and they had a pet lamb called "baa baa" (I kid you not) for awhile. They had to give it to a sheep farmer. When her father went to visit, he called "Baa baa" and the sheep came running to him! He knew the shepherd's voice.

  16. J. Hienrich Arnold is not the founder of the Bruderhof movement...that would be his father Ebehard Arnold along with his wife.

    also, from a feminist perspective, consider the submission of women within the bruderhof communal movement.

  17. I am not preaching this week. We are going on vacation.

    However, I have been blogging about this Sunday on my sermon blog, "Preaching to the choir".

    Your welcome to check it out and leave your comments also.

  18. We've also been talking about following versus leading over at my blog too. The debate is sort of over whether there are regional differences in how sheep are shepherded, which I suppose there must be. Barbra Brown Taylor's comment notwithstanding, Western sheep are herded; Eastern sheep are led. I love the idea of the shepherd right in the middle of the flock. But what about Babe? Didn't any of y'all see that movie? Of course it must be true then that the shepherd stands off to the side and the dogs do all the work. possible great sermon titles suggested in worship planning yesterday: "I'm More Than Just a Sweater" and "Free Range Sheep".

  19. I confess that I am going a little outside the box this week...somehow. I'm planning to use John 10.11-16, the part after the lectionary passage, and then to talk about collective/communal memory. What are some things in our cultural communal memory? John 10 immediately brings up (for us as well as for original hearers) Psalm 23--it's one of the most memorized pieces of scripture (and one of our SS classes has memorized it for this Sunday's service). perhaps have people recite the psalm together. I want to talk about how maybe we don't all know all the words, but when we are together we can do it--ditto songs like Amazing Grace. We remember our story better when we are in community than when we try to do it on our own. It's important to be in the flock, not wandering the hills by ourselves. Etc.
    Is this going to work? I have no idea. but we'll see...(I also have the confirmation class retreat Friday and Saturday...ack!!!)

  20. I pulled my sermon from three years ago just for kicks. The late Bishop Stephen Plummer was both a bishop and a sheepherder. He said he always tried out his sermons on the sheep first. All he had to do was begin speaking and the sheep came to him. They do know the shepherd's voice. My dog knows my voice but will come to almost anyone who calls her name. Sheep avoid voices they don't know.
    I'm intrigued by the door/gate statement and I like what was said about needing to go both in and out to sustain life. I will likely stress that *Jesus* is the gate and not me, that I have no say over who Jesus lets in.
    Sheep are interesting but allowing God to form the community is more so for me.

  21. I'm sorry, you lost me at: I kept a hobby-sized sheep herd before seminary - enough that we had lambs in the spring and filled the freezer in the fall.

    City Slicker

    Anyway, really great thoughts here thanks LS and commenters. I am leaning in the direction of making the choice for ourselves of following the shepherd who provides salvation, nurture and abundant and fullness of life; rather than choosing the thieves and bandits of self-doubt and past wounds.

    However, I am trying to be very away of not manipulating the texts so this may not be where I go at all.

  22. Lots of good thoughts around here!

    I am not doing sheep stuff at all - I'm going with Acts 2:42-47. It's always been a favorite of mine, and I could've sworn I've preached it before, but I can find no actual evidence of that anywhere. I was really intrigued by the 2004 Interpretation article by Luke Timothy Johnson (linked from Text Week) about friendship with respect to this text. I am thinking of how we have relegated friendship to the secular sphere and how we use the more "spiritual" word "fellowship" instead - but I want to claim the power and sacred nature of friendship and explore what it might mean as a spiritual practice. I've got lots and lots of thoughts but no concrete direction yet.

    I'm kind of anxious right now, b/c dh leaves first thing in the a.m. for a preaching gig in Kentucky, I wasn't able to secure childcare for the day (nor can I afford it after the surprising news I got yesterday that we owe the IRS some bucks!), AND I have a wedding this weekend. I really need to get some serious writing done before Sat. morning....


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