Shepherds and Sheepdogs

Preacher: The Rev. Dr. Donna Ialongo

Preached on: May 7th, 2017

Easter 4, Year A


No recording

Scripture Text:

John 1:1-10


About 17 years ago, I was standing at the base of some hills on the Ring of Kerry, which is a peninsula in the west of Ireland that juts out into the Atlantic. It was May and it was lambing season, that time of year when lambs are born on the sheep farms that cover Ireland.

I was watching a shepherding demonstration and, oh, I was mesmerized. The big black and white sheepdog, a border collie, did whatever the shepherd wanted him to do. But I had no idea how the shepherd was making him do what he did.

The shepherd didn’t move.
His hands didn’t move.
His shoulders didn’t move.
His eyelids didn’t move.
He used no words.

He would tell us what he was planning to have the dog do in a soft voice when the dog was far away, out of earshot. Not close at all. The dog couldn’t hear him or see his face.

And then the dog would do it.


I imagined that it was all a trick. I was quite suspicious, quite cynical. I thought that, perhaps, the dog was programmed to do what he did. I surmised he had a regular routine imprinted on his brain, and he executed it flawlessly. So, I decided he was a very smart dog. I gave him that. Very well trained. It was clear to me that he wasn’t really responding to any signals from the shepherd, no matter how subtle.

That day, somehow, the shepherd sensed my incredulity. He turned and looked at me and said, “And darlin’, what would you be havin’ the dog do now?”

So, I looked at him. The dog was far away, almost on the other side of a hill.
I made no gestures and said, “I want him to take the sheep to the top of that other hill, the one by the road, and to bring them back down again right in front of us.”

He smiled with confidence, and then the dog did just what I’d asked. He raced the sheep up the hill and then down the hill to a stop right in front of me.

At no time did the shepherd move or say anything. There was nothing about him that indicated he might have been signaling the dog at all. It was wonderful. It was magical.

I returned home soon after, and I asked my good friend, Jan Harris, who grew up in Australia on a sheep ranch, “How in the world was that done?”

And she paused, took a deep breath, and said, “Donna, I have no bloody idea.”

She did tell me, though, that when she and her brothers were children, they watched their father carefully in hope of catching him signaling his sheepdogs in some explainable way.

But they never saw him do anything. They never figured out how it was done either. They’d even hide and spy on him, hoping he would give away the secret — but to no avail. It remained a mystery.

And right now I am going to disappoint all of you as I confess that I still do not have the answer. I do not know what shepherds do to make their dogs do what they do.

There is a story about Jan’s father and his dogs, however, which she did remember. She told me about the way her father trained the sheepdog puppies.

After a pup had been weaned, he or she was brought into their parlor where her father placed a collar attached to a long leash on him or her. The first training objective was to get the dog to come when it was called. He’d place the puppy across the room, move to the other side holding the leash, and call the dog by name.

It would never move. So he’d tug on the leash just a little and drag the puppy ever so gently a few inches toward him. Then, he’d pause a couple of seconds and start over, calling the dog by name again. The puppy would often snap at the collar, bite the leash, resist as much as he or she could. But Jan’s father would tug gently and patiently on the leash, always pulling the dog a bit closer.

He repeated this procedure over and over — often taking hours with this phase of the training — until the puppy was finally in front of him. When the dog arrived he cuddled the puppy, played with it, showered it with kisses, gave it all the love in the world.

And Jan told me that, within a day, the dog would come whenever her father called. In fact, within a day, the puppy, and every other pup Jan’s father trained, was hopelessly devoted to him.

So, a shepherd in Ireland, a shepherd in Australia, and a shepherd in Palestine 2,000 years ago.

It’s likely that dogs were also used by shepherds then — used to control the sheep, taught to follow commands, and bonded to the shepherd. We know that dogs were domesticated for herding about 14,000 years ago.

In our Gospel today, Jesus uses the metaphor of the shepherd to tell the people of Palestine about himself, to show them who he is. As a shepherd, Jesus tells us he knows all the sheep by name, and they know his voice. They know him. They follow where he leads.

At first, Jesus’ listeners don’t seem to understand his story, probably because many of them are Pharisees, and part of the story has to do, as you probably remember, with thieves breaking into the sheepfold. In the Gospel, the Pharisees don’t seem to understand that part at all or the uncomfortable truth that Jesus is alluding to them as the figurative thieves.

Then, Jesus adds a second metaphor. He says he is the gate as well as the shepherd. He is the way to enter. Jesus also asserts that the sheep will not listen to those who break in, the strangers. They will follow him because he protects them; he leads them to green pastures and still waters, and gives them abundant life.

His listeners would have understood that he was telling them that he was the fulfillment of the 23rd Psalm, in which we say: The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want. He leads me to green pastures, to still waters where he revives my soul and he leads me on the right path. Even when we walk in darkness; even in the face of death, the shepherd is with me, guiding and comforting me, understanding my pain and suffering. Strong with his shepherd’s rod and staff, he gives me abundant life, a sumptuous banquet, my cup always full. And he anoints me with precious oil.

We are all sheep extravagantly taken care of by our generous shepherd who loves us beyond any love we can imagine.

I know we are expected to think of ourselves as the sheep walking behind the Good Shepherd when we read this passage, but I’d rather think of myself as Jesus’ sheepdog. Perhaps because I have a collar around my neck, but actually because I would like to understand as clearly as the sheepdog does what Jesus wants me to do.

I’d like to respond so willingly to God’s will. I’d like to love Jesus as perfectly as a sheepdog can love her shepherd.

But what does this mean for us as a community? What are the implications? How are we to live our lives knowing we are loved by the shepherd who calls us by name?

Well, I believe we are all called into this vision. To know we are loved and to return that love by seeing and knowing Jesus the Shepherd in one another and by going beyond these walls to see and love Christ in everyone we meet.

The green pasture that Jesus the Shepherd is leading us to is abundant. There is more than enough for everyone.

Jesus is calling you and me by name.

We see the gate.

We know whom to follow.

To follow and to love: that’s all he ever asked of us.

Uploaded on May 8, 2017 in by

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