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Good Shepherding…

April 23, 2015

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I can’t tell you how many times I have preached on this passage and others that make reference to the Good Shepherd and sheep through the years! The study of sheep took on a whole new meaning when I first went to England with the USAF in 1994. RAF Croughton, a little Communications Station in Northamptonshire, was home to about 475 military members, their families and around 150 civilians who worked for an agency we don’t talk about if you know what I mean!

Back in the day (WWII), Croughton was home to a RAF Flying Training Squadron (bombers) and later a training base for RAF glider pilots. While the installation had concrete taxiways, the runway was all grass. When the USAF took over the base in 1950, it became a Communications base. During my tour there, that mission expanded a bit as other installations closed down in the post-Cold War draw-down. One thing was missing though… who mowed the antenna fields at Croughton? I remember at my first assignment, Sheppard Air Force Base (oh yes, the puns were prevalent at both assignments!) that we had Airmen (students awaiting training or students awaiting discharge) who mowed the grass. We didn’t have the luxury of available labor at Croughton. Instead, we had a sheep farmer who kept his flocks on the base and the sheep kept the grass cut. The picture above is one I took at Althorp House in 2010 (where Princess Diana was born and is buried). Sheep were used all over to keep the grass cut. Below is a picture from a web page about RAF Croughton and RAF Upper Heyford.

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I guess you could say that during my two tours (six years) in England I learned a lot about sheep and shepherds! One of the amazing things about the sheep we had at Croughton was their ability to recognize the “voice” of their shepherd. One day when some sheep got loose (a gate was left open by one of our Air Force folks) they wandered into the flower beds at the Chapel. We couldn’t do anything with them because they wouldn’t pay attention to us. They simply bleated and ran. Another time I saw a little lamb on the wrong side of the fence across from the Chapel and tried to herd it towards the hole in the fence (five feet away from where it was) so it could join its bleating mother. It wouldn’t trust me and it bolted. Mama was by the hole in the fence but neither one of them were able to get together. They didn’t trust those humans in uniform one bit.

However, I observed how incredibly responsive they were to the shepherd. At the sound of his truck approaching the gate, his flock would run from clear across the field (it was a very large field) towards the truck. The shepherd’s truck used the same road that our military personnel used to get into one of the secure facilities and they ignored us. Yet when the “food truck” came, they recognized the sound and knew who it was. Okay Padre, enough about the sheep! Sorry, but they were cheap entertainment and gave me pause for some good theological insights.

The sheep recognized their shepherd. And they knew that their shepherd would take care of them and protect them. That is the point Jesus is making in this Sunday’s Gospel reading. In the opening part of chapter ten, Jesus tells us that the one who enters by the gate is the shepherd. The sheep know his voice and will follow him, but they won’t follow a stranger. Jesus is the Good Shepherd and he willingly lays down his life for the sheep. (Jn 10:11) I wrote more about this in yesterday’s blog – (https://scotsirishpadreblog.wordpress.com/2015/04/22/how-do-we-know-love/)

There is another part of today’s reading that strikes me though. “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them in also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock and one shepherd.” (Jn 10:16) Yes in the midst of all the discussion about the shepherd being self-sacrificing and loving the flock more than the hired hand (who runs away and leaves the sheep at the mercy of the wolves instead of protecting them), we have this one verse.

Too many in the church focus on the “One flock, One shepherd” part of the verse and use it to beat people into submission. Oh if you don’t believe just like I do, you aren’t a part of the correct flock. And I know what is best for the flock. As our Sunday school teacher says when he reflects on his upbringing (not where he is now theologically) “if you don’t get right (with God), you’ll get left (behind)”.

Too many today get downright nasty in debates on FaceBook or Social Media. “If you don’t believe exactly as I do about biblical inerrancy or infallibility, you are going to burn in hell. Unless you pray the gay away, you are going to burn! Why? Because I have the truth and know it all together!” You know what the sad thing about that is for me? It makes me the very thing I don’t like about that attitude. It makes me judgmental! All I can do at that point is to confess my own judgmental attitude, drop the argument stones in my hands, and walk away. Because when I get into “discussions” like that, I nearly always hear (after my Scots-Irish temper and snarkiness has gotten the better of me) Jesus saying, “Let he or she who is without sin cast the first stone.” What happened when he did that? The woman in John 7:53-8:10 didn’t get stoned to death by the self-righteous crowd. Jesus loved her and showed her a way to live a new life. What happens for me when I remember his words is this: (1) I confess to my own snarkiness and temper; (2) I acknowledge that I am not without sin; and (3) I walk away praying for and trying to love all involved.

Today this argument seems to be the hottest when it concerns my LGBTQ sisters and brothers. People are so quick to bring out the clobber verses and beat the living tar out of people whom I know and love who are simply trying to hear the voice of Christ in their own lives. But they can’t hear the voice of Jesus because of all the vitriol and bile being thrown at them by “christians”.

In all of this, we forget that Jesus said “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.” (Jn 10:16) How is anybody supposed to hear the voice of Christ in the midst of all the name calling? How is anybody supposed to hear the love of God and Christ in Scripture when all they get is selected verses of the bible shoved down their throats? I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.

They will listen to Jesus’ voice! I know that I am not Jesus by any means. But I can tell you this. God didn’t send me into the world to judge the world, no matter how I may choose to mask that word (I’m not judging, I am sharing or teaching or admonishing). A major reason that the millennial generation is turning away from the church is because too often the church is bigoted, judgmental, mean-spirited, and hypocritical. I am thankful that this doesn’t describe the entire church, but it does give me great concern.

To be a good shepherd, we are called to do one thing. That one thing is to love as Jesus loved. Jesus is the Good Shepherd and we are his flock. But Jesus also spent his ministry years teaching his own flock of twelve how to be shepherds themselves. They didn’t always get it right, but they stayed on the path.

Dear reader, in this day and age where there is so much hatred, vitriol, and venom spewed, aren’t you tired as well? Do you wish for another way? Do you want to follow the Good Shepherd and be a good shepherd? I know I do. And I want to reach out to the other sheep and bring them into His place of safety. The place where, as my wife Denise says, Love Trumps.

I want to share with you this quote from Thomas Merton: “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy if anything can.” Frankly, our actions will not render us worthy. We can’t earn that love or salvation. But he is absolutely correct in this: Our job is to love without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy.

We are asked to love… simply love… “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” (1 Jn 4:7) And, in the words of Jesus, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (Jn 15:12)

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