Here’s my sermon for this Sunday, Good Shepherd Sunday.
Every year on this 4th Sunday of Easter we keep what has become known as Good Shepherd Sunday. Now, since we kept Good Shepherd Sunday last year it’s not been a good year in the sheep world – for on the 4th Jun 2011, that great icon of sheepdom, Shrek the sheep, passed away.
You may remember the big news about Shrek the sheep. Shrek, who lived in New Zealand, missed his shearing and ran away from home in 1998 and went into hiding in caves on the South Island. He was hardly seen for six years – just the odd fleeting glimpse once in a while – but was subsequently spotted and brought home in 2004 by which time his fleece had grown so much there was enough wool to make 20 large suits. Having come into the limelight he pursued a high profile career. After being sheared live on TV, he went to Parliament to meet the Prime Minister. Much in demand on the celebrity circuit – at one stage he was earning more for a public appearance than the All Blacks – he pursued an active career raising funds for charity. To celebrate his tenth birthday, two and a half years after his big shearing, he was shorn again – as a special treat, this took place on an iceberg floating off the coast of Dunedin.
Sadly, old age caught up with him, and he died on the 4th June. His owner said, “He had an unbelievable personality – he loved children and he was really good with the elderly in retirement homes.” Josie Spillane of the charity Cure Kids, for whom Shrek raised over, £75,000, said of Shrek, “At the end of the day it is the death of an iconic Kiwi – he just happened to be a sheep.” After a period of lying in state at his sheep home station he was cremated. His funeral service was held at Lake Tekapo at – would you believe it – the Church of the Good Shepherd. His ashes were scattered on a nearby mountain.
Why did Shrek run away? Who knows? Perhaps he didn’t like his shepherd!
Today’s gospel reading pictures Jesus as a shepherd leading his people like a flock of sheep. Perhaps when we think of Jesus the Good Shepherd we recall those Sunday School pictures of days past, those posters of Jesus carrying a lamb over his shoulders – and it is easy to dismiss this picture as too childish or old-fashioned to help us in our understanding of God. But Jesus’ words are full of greater meaning than our mental pictures might grant us and greater truth than we realise, when we look more closely at them. The shepherd knows his sheep and they, in turn, know his voice and follow his call. In Biblical times every sheep in a flock had a name by which only the shepherd called it. If a robber attempted to lure the sheep away they would not follow unless their name was used. Whether Shrek actually knew his name we don’t know – and he doesn’t seem to have shown much inclination to come when he was spotted. But perhaps sheep at the time of Jesus were a little more intelligent. At any rate, they knew their name and would come when the shepherd called them.
In a way Shrek is a symbol of the way we behave in our modern society – he wanted to go off and do what he wanted to and not fit in with the rest of the flock. He wanted to be an individual – just as most of us do – and just do his own thing no matter the consequences. Jesus used the image of knowing the sheep to stress the intimacy in the relationship between himself and us, to encourage us to recognise his voice and strive to follow him. For only the shepherd knows each sheep and cares for them. And we can be confident that he knows our name, that he cares for and understands our individual personalities and situations.
In the ancient world a shepherd’s livelihood depended upon his flock and their fate determined his own. Unlike the sheep we saw in Wales on our recent break – and there were thousands of them – which are left out scattered widely across the fields, sheep at the time of Jesus had the privilege of their shepherd actually living with them. If they starved, so did he. If they were under attack, so would he be. In the same way Jesus came to share our fate as human beings. To demonstrate the perfect relationship between us in being one with him, inseparable forever. A shepherd guarded his flock with his courage and strength and even as they slept he would lie across the gap in the sheepfold which acted as a doorway, creating a gate to keep danger out. The shepherd would be prepared to risk his life to protect his sheep. But Jesus went even further than this. Although he leads us like a shepherd, he also laid down his life for us. A shepherd who was prepared to lay down his life for his sheep so that they might be safe. Perfect God, perfect man, perfect sacrifice – all for us.
When Shrek was found it inevitably meant that the time had come for him to be shorn. But what was interesting was the concern that his owner had for him. They were going to shear him with hand clippers. When our children were young we had several holidays on a farm in Wales and we were always there when they hosted the annual sheepdog trials. During the trials they would have sheep-shearing competitions – who could shear a sheep the quickest. Some of these were with electric clippers, but they would also demonstrate shearing the old-fashioned way, with hand clippers, which were like a huge pair of scissors. Far slower, but actually rather more gentle. And this was the way Shrek was to be shorn. And instead of shearing him right down to the skin, to get all the wool they could, they left him with a short coat so that he wouldn’t feel the cold. Rather touching really – instead of being cross that Shrek had gone astray for so long, the farmer who owned him actually showed that he was very fond of him and cared about him. And just as Shrek reminds us of ourselves and our own desire to be individuals, so the farmer reminds us of Jesus.
Jesus compared himself to a loving shepherd and us to his sheep. When we think of ourselves as sheep we must never forget how valuable sheep are to the shepherd. Each animal has worth, none more than the others. When one is hurt, it is carried and nurtured, not cast aside. When one is lost the shepherd searches faithfully until he finds it and brings it to the fold. Jesus came to share our fate not because we are weak and easily led astray, but because he loves and values us. Jesus is the shepherd who cares for us – who values us and feeds us – who comes looking for us when we go astray. The shepherd who holds on to us and prevents anyone from snatching us away. The one who calls us by name and lays down his life for us. Now he is risen and we need, day by day, to listen to his voice when he calls us.
whose Son Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd of his people;
grant that we may hear his voice,
know him when he calls us by name
and follow where he leads us;