Well, many of you know that before I became a pastor, I was a high school English teacher, and to this day, I just love playing around with words. I especially love “mash-up” words, which is when you put two words together to create a new word.
Most of you are familiar with mash-up words like “brunch” (which is a combination of breakfast and lunch) and words like “smog” (which is a combination of smoke and fog).
More recent mash-up words are “blog” (a combination of web and log) and “dramedy” (which is a combination of drama and comedy).
These new words are being created all the time, and they are so clever. I just heard a new one the other day. Someone said that when your theology causes harm to others is not evangelism but eVANDALism.
Now last year, during the election season, we heard another new mashup word called “SHEEPLE.” Sheeple is a combination of “sheep” and “people.”
During election season, people on the right began calling people on the left “sheeple,” and visa-versa. The word got used so much that it’s now in the dictionary!
Dictionary.com defines the words “sheeple” as: “People who tend to follow the majority in matters of opinion, taste, etc.” And WordSpy.com defines “sheeple” as “People who are easily persuaded and tend to follow the crowd.”
I believe that many Christians in America today behave like “sheeple.” There seems to be this herd mentality – this herd behavior – among many Christians. They believe what they’re told to believe, and they behave how they’re told to behave.
Now, I share this with you today, because in the gospel passage from today’s lectionary for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Jesus referred to himself as the shepherd and us as the sheep, but he is in no way, shape, or form calling us to be sheeple.
As I told you a few Sundays ago, people who simply follow without thinking for themselves belong to CULTS. Jesus wasn’t forming a cult. In fact, he wasn’t even forming a church.
What Jesus was doing was teaching people to attune themselves more fully to the “Voice of the Shepherd,” the Divine voice within.
He wanted his students to stop following the outer voices of religious and political authorities, and to start attuning themselves to the inner voice of God.
That’s why he said, “The Kingdom of God is within you.”
Jesus was a remarkable teacher. He knew that his students were not well educated and that most of them couldn’t read. So, Jesus used metaphor and terms with which his students were familiar, like the imagery of a shepherd and his sheep.
Now, most of us love the image of Jesus holding a cute baby lamb in his arms. It is so very comforting to us.
But, you know, in Jesus’s day, sheep were considered UNCLEAN by the religious authorities. Therefore, being a shepherd was not a very well-respected profession back in Jesus’s day.
Being a shepherd was kind of considered a last-ditch option for men who couldn’t find any other ways of earning a living. Shepherds smelled and they were dirty, both literally and morally.
And, that is why it is so remarkable that Jesus refers to himself as a shepherd, not a king. He, once again, is aligning himself with the “outcast,” with the “least of these.”
And, notice in today’s Gospel story, the writer of John’s gospel says, “Jesus used this figure of speech with his disciples, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.”
The disciples, you see, were still expecting a messiah, a king. But, by referring to himself as a shepherd, Jesus was trying to let them know that he was a different kind of king: not a worldly king, but a spiritual one, proclaiming that the Kingdom is not outside you, but it is within you.
That’s where the voice of the shepherd dwells.
When Jesus says to “follow my voice,” he means for us to go within. This is the INNER WAY, the way of which the Christian mystics speak.
In today’s lectionary, we also hear Psalm 23 - the Way of the Shepherd – and how following the shepherd’s voice will lead us to pastures of plenty where our souls will find rest.
One of my favorite contemporary spiritual books is called, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, which was written by Philip Keller, who, himself, was a shepherd.
Keller tells us from his experience that in order for sheep to find rest they must meet four requirements. He says, “It is almost impossible for sheep to lie down unless these four requirements are met.”
He says, “They must be free of fear. They must be free of friction with others of their kind. They must be free of pests. They must be free from hunger.”
My friends, our souls will never be at rest if we’re fearful, agitated, resentful and discontent.
When we are feeling these things, we are not listening to the voice of the shepherd – the inner voice of love – but to the outer voices of others, whom Jesus calls “thieves and bandits,” because they rob us of our peace.
Scripture tells us to be still and know. In the quiet of prayer and meditation, we attune ourselves to the voice of the Shepherd.
Some have referred to this voice as your inner GPS (your God Positioning System). Just as the voice of the GPS in your car will lead you to your desired destination, the Voice of the Shepherd will lead you to pastures of plenty, where your soul will find rest.
Jesus wasn’t the only spiritual teacher to speak of the inner voice. The Sufi poet, Rumi, wrote: “There is a voice that doesn’t use words. Listen to it.”
And, Buddha wrote: “Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it."
And, the late visionary, Steve Jobs, a student of Buddhism and Hinduism, wrote: “Don't be trapped by dogma - which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of other's opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most importantly, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”
We, in the United Church of Christ, say, “God is Still Speaking.” That’s why our logo is comma, not a period. God is still speaking, but are you listening?
Are you attuned to the Divine voice (the voice of love), or are you attuned to those other voices, the voices of fear, resentment, anxiety and lack?
When you follow those other voices – those of the world, the voices of the ego, those bandits and thieves – your soul will never find rest.
But through the practices of mindfulness, prayer and meditation, you can become attuned to the shepherd’s voice –to that still, small voice within you. The voice that says, “I have come so that you may have life, and have it more abundantly.” The voice that says, “Come, follow me, and I will give you rest.”
So, this week, my friends, I encourage you to find time each and every day to attune yourself more fully to this voice of the inner shepherd. The voice of wholeness and peace.
When you allow this voice to lead and to guide you, you, too, will experience pastures of plenty, where your soul shall find rest.
Rev. Salvatore Sapienza
Words of Integration & Guidance by Philip Keller
In Psalm 23, the Good Shepherd makes the sheep lie down in pastures of plenty. The strange thing about sheep is that because of their very make-up, it is almost impossible for them to be made to lie down unless four requirements are met. Owing to their timidity, they refuse to lie down unless they are free of all fear. Because of the social behavior within a flock, sheep will not lie down unless they are free from friction with others of their kind. If tormented by flies or parasites, sheep will not lie down. Only when free of these pests can they relax. Lastly, sheep will not lie down as long as they feel in need of finding food. They must be free from hunger. It is significant that to be at rest there must be a definite sense of freedom from fear, tension, aggravations and hunger. The unique aspect of the picture is that it is only the shepherd who can provide release from these anxieties. It all depends upon the diligence of the owner, whether or not his flock is free of disturbing influences. When we examine each of these four factors that affect sheep so severely, we will understand why the part the owner plays in their management is so tremendously important. It is actually he who makes it possible for them to lie down, to rest, to relax, to be content, and quiet, and flourishing. A flock that is restless, discontented, always agitated and disturbed never does well. And the same is true of people.
What did you think?