We Are All Sheep

John 10:11-18 | April 25, 2021

Barbara Brown Taylor says she was talking with her husband, Ed, about the difference between a hired hand and being an owner. He told her about the time he and his good friend Tommy went out duck hunting on the Flint River. They had been out all day in Tommy’s boat, sharing in the enjoyment of hunting in his boat and it was getting late. So they pulled in the decoy ducks, gathered up their stuff, and put it all in the boat. They pulled up on the bank of the river and began to haul everything into the truck. But on the second trip back to the boat to get more of the stuff to load up, they realized the boat had drifted off out into the water. It drifted out ten feet, then fifteen feet, and then twenty feet out into the main current of the water.

That was the moment of truth. Someone had to commit to go out and get the boat. It was clear who would be the one who would have to strip down and jump in the freezing cold water and swim out the get the boat. It wasn’t Barbara’s husband, Ed who was merely enjoying the use of the boat, it was Tommy who owned the boat. Ed cheered him on as he tore off his jumpsuit, dove into the river, swam out, and got the boat.*

Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down His life for His sheep.” Three times in our reading, Jesus says that He is laying His life down for the sheep: once at the beginning of our reading, then in the middle of our reading, and once again at the end of our reading. Jesus wants to make sure we understand that what it means to be a good shepherd is to be invested enough to pay the ultimate cost for tending the sheep. The Good Shepherd is invested in the sheep; if it is personal to him. They are not just His responsibility; they are like family to Him. He knows each of them, can tell them apart; He knows their name, and they, in turn, know the sound of His voice.

That is different for someone who is hired to do a job. For the hired hand, it’s all a transaction. You pay me so much money and at the end of the day, I go home, take a bath, and forget about the sheep. Sad if something happens to a sheep on the hired hands watch, but it is not the same for the one who feels an ownership of the sheep. She is invested in a way the hired hand never will be. Good Shepherds and sheep stay together.

I remember going to Bethlehem to see what some say is the birthplace of Jesus. A church is built over a cave with all the bells and whistles of a church. Interesting, but only to a point. More interesting was having the guide take us to a field and show some shepherds watching their flocks by night. Our guide pointed out to us that, oftentimes, shepherds and their sheep gather together. You might see how this could be a problem with the sheep now all mixed together. When the time comes to separate the sheep, how are you going to divide the sheep? Fortunately, it is really not a problem. The sheep know the voice of the one who is their shepherd. A click sound or a couple of notes sung and they go and follow the one they have come to trust and not the stranger. Such is the intimacy of the shepherd and the sheep. They are like family.

When we are family, we stick together and we stand up for each other. A friend of Barbara Brown Taylor was visiting a friend in California. They were at the airport and getting into his friend’s car when he accidentally swung open the car door and it knocked up against the mirror of a fancy red sports car. The man who owned the sports car happened to be in the parked car when this happened and he jumped out of the car and started to yell at Barbara’s friend, “What the hell are you doing?”

At this point, his friend from California got out of his car and shouted, “Don’t talk to him like that! He didn’t do anything to your car. Look it’s all fine.” The man in the red car yelled back, “Stay out of this buster. This is between me and him.” And then Barbara’s friend’s friend said, “Well, when you are talking to my friend, you are talking to me.”**

That’s the way it is with people who are committed friends. You stand in solidarity with each other. “Every man, every woman for themselves” is replaced by “We are in this together.” The boundary that we normally like to maintain with each other breaks down at the sign of trouble. It is not because the person in trouble cannot take care of themselves. Maybe they can or maybe they cannot. The reason for this is the relationship of being on the side of your friend. If you are close enough, you take it personally.

I remember being in a group once where the group started to rain down insults and laughs about someone I knew and respected and I stopped them saying, “You are talking about my friend and it’s not ok with me.” Why did I do that? Because that is what good friends do for each other. We know that we no longer stand in this world alone. We stand together.

I was reminded this week of my supervisor for my practicum as a pastoral counselor, which I did at Fourth Presbyterian’s Church Counseling Center. Rev. John Boyle was then semi-retired from the counseling center which he had founded. He had fought in World War II, in Patton’s Army, and was a part of the push to rescue the troops who had been trapped in the Battle of the Bulge. In a sermon, he shared a story about one night when they were in combat. His infantry unit had been ordered to move out to another location when it became apparent that the area where they dug in had become infiltrated by the enemy. They were to proceed silently, single file, each one of us holding on to the ammo belt of the one in front of them. At one point, John stepped into a depression in the ground, lost his footing and his grip on the man in front of him, causing the man behind him to lose his grip on him. Suddenly, John had been cut off from his unit as it continued to move forward. He was isolated in what was now becoming enemy territory.

He was petrified with fear and panic. Mandated not to make a sound, he could not cry out. Suddenly he felt a hand grab his shoulder. Startled, he did not know whether the hand belonged to friend or foe, whether he was going to get a bayonet in his belly or a knife to his throat, and whether he should run or shoot or both. Then he heard a voice in a low whisper in his ear calling him by name, “John, it’s me, George,” and he knew he had become reconnected with someone who knew him, and that he was no longer lost. His shepherd had found him and had called him by name.***

“I am the Good Shepherd. I lay down my life for them. I know my own and my own know me. They know the sound of my voice.” The whole of our scripture this morning tells us of the devotion of Jesus to each of us. He is our Shepherd, who will not let us go. There is one often overlooked part of John’s gospel. When Jesus is being arrested, He tells His captors that He is the one they are looking for and to let His disciples go. Jesus did what He had said in a previous prayer to God, “Father, I have not lost one of those You gave Me.” Jesus reveals what true friendship means.

Ought we not love each other in the same way? We are all sheep together. We are gathered by the Shepherd who knows our name and we know His voice. We follow His voice and where He leads us. And we love each other with the same devotion that Jesus our shepherd has shown us. We stick together. When one suffers, we suffer with them. When one rejoices, we rejoice with them. I like a quote by Benjamin Franklin, who said after the arguments were done and the Declaration of Independence had been signed, “‘Well, gentlemen, we must now all hang together, or we will surely all hang separately.’”

This year we have been, out of necessity, hanging out separately and now today we begin to come back together. Doesn’t it feel good? Doesn’t it feel great to know that we are each in a flock and we are so much stronger together than when we are apart? Say what you like about sheep. They are mindless. They are lacking individuality. They can look so painfully passive. They all think alike if they think at all. But the one thing they know is how necessary it is that they have each other. They know they are better off together than apart. They stick together.

It is our deepest longing to belong, to be a part of something. It is what makes us human and to make living worth the trouble, to know that we are loved. To realize that we are cared for and there are those we care about, that in this cold world there is a place where people know my name and whose voices we recognize when they speak to us.

We are all sheep. And that is not such a bad thing.


* Barbara Brown Taylor, Bread of Angels, “The Shepherd’s Flute,” p. 80-81.
** Ibid, 82.
*** John Boyle, “Born to Lose,” a Sermon, May 15, 2011, Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago.