This weeks sermon by Pastor Dylan Parson explores the concept of intelligence and obedience in dogs and applies it to the Gospel reading of John, where Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd and his disciples as his sheep. The sermon suggests that obedience and intelligence are often separate qualities in dogs and that the same applies to humans as followers of Jesus.
The sermon emphasizes the importance of dependency and trust in Jesus, as well as the need to listen to his voice and follow him as the shepherd who leads his sheep to green pastures and still waters. The sermon also notes that being called a sheep is often viewed as derogatory, but in the context of the Gospel reading, it is a positive quality that reflects trust, obedience, and reliance on Jesus.
I read a few years ago, I remember, about whenever we were adopting beans, that there is this authoritative list of the smartest and, you know, accordingly dumbest breeds of dogs. It was developed by a canine psychologist about 30 years ago who knew there was a profession called canine psychology. As anyone who’s ever had a dog, or more appropriately, more than one dog, so you can compare, as you would know, there’s an extreme variation in dog intelligence. Growing up, my family always had golden retrievers, and that was kind of my baseline, and they tend to be extremely smart.
My dad has always said that whenever you look at them in the eye, you can tell that they’re thinking, that they’re looking back at you. Not all dogs are that way. He’s He’s in the same way, he’s half beagle, he’s half Australian cattle dog, those ones are up there on that list. He is very, very smart. He’s almost certainly the most intelligent dog I’ve ever had.
He learned to roll over in like two minutes, I’ve never had a dog that can roll over before. He was potty trained pretty much instantly. He knows how to let himself out the storm door and into the backyard, he does that all the time, and I’m pretty sure he could learn to reliably operate a doorknob if he wanted to, and that’s really scary to think about. Pretzel, on the other hand, our big, sweet, gentle boy, is simply not very smart.
His mother’s very smart, he’s not very smart. If we have a gate up between rooms, you know, we like to block off the kitchen sometimes, and crack it open for him to come through, and he’s still behind the bars, he cannot figure out how to get around it. He’s fled in fear at the sound of a Dollar General plastic bag, smack-knacking against the fence, he’s unable to figure out what’s going on, and if you sit him down and say “Paw,” he’ll just lick your fingers. He has no idea.
Here’s the thing about smart dogs and dumb dogs, that standardized list that categorizes breeds by their intelligence heavily waits not just their understanding, you know, they’re learning a new word or a command, but their obedience to ranking dogs in large part by how often they obey a command the first time it’s given, not just that they can learn it, but then that they can actually do it. My experience with dogs is that obedience and intelligence are often two completely separate things, maybe even opposite things. Beans is brilliant, but he is not particularly obedient if he knows there’s no treat in your pocket. He’s gonna lay in the sun in the grass until he’s done, unless you physically go and move him inside.
You know, Finn, whenever we had him a few years ago, every single morning I would lose my mind, he would sit at the top of the stairs and look at me, and I would call him to come down to go outside to eat breakfast, and he would just stand up there and look at me as I just slowly got angrier and angrier. And Pretzel on the other hand is dumb, right, but if you walk him into the yard and say “Go pee, immediate, he does it,” call him to come back in, and he does. And if we were to go on a walk through unfamiliar woods without a leash, I would prefer to go with Pretzel any day, because he’s way less likely to get himself into trouble, not because he’s smart, because he’s not, but because he listens to my voice. Beans being smart means that he’s much more likely to put himself in danger, actually, in almost any circumstance, whether that’s by tracking an animal down way out there and running away, or by figuring out how to open a locked garbage can to eat a ball of tinfoil.
He’s smart, and it gets him into trouble. And so you see where I’m going with this, with the Gospel reading today. John describes what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. The sheep belonging to the Good Shepherd know his voice.
He calls them, and they follow him out of the gate wherever he leads. He sets the boundaries, because he is the gate, he’s the shepherd of the sheep and the gate of the sheepfold. And the sheep come and go and graze in peace and then sleep in safety so long as they listen to his voice. Jesus tells of thieves and bandits who have come, seeking to steal the sheep away, but because they know his voice so well, they aren’t led astray.
They know him, they trust him, they love him. And in turn, he leads them to these green pastures to feed their hunger. Besides still waters to quench their thirst, he restores their soul, he leads them in paths of righteousness for his namesake. And this is a vision of what being a follower, a sheep of Jesus should look like.
There’s this real sense of dependency, one that’s really counter-cultural. We don’t like to speak of ourselves as dependent, but that is what sheep are. If you’ve ever spent any time on Facebook or in the comment section of any online news article, you know that calling someone a sheep is like the most derogatory thing you can call them. They don’t have a mind of their own.
They’re a follower. You’re too dumb to chart your own way, right? For Jesus and for Christians, behaving like a sheep is not a bad thing at all. It’s recognizing who we were called to be, who we were created to be. From the very beginning, Adam and Eve first brought harm on themselves when they decided that their judgment was better than what God told them to do.
Don’t eat the fruit. Okay, we’re going to eat the fruit. And if there’s one thing that we’re prone to, it’s being too smart for our own good. It’s devising ways to live out of harmony with God’s justice, love, mercy, and wisdom, while also justifying how we’re doing the right thing.
We move first, and we take God’s leading into account afterwards. That’s not what sheep do. Listen again to verse 4 here of John chapter 10. “Whenever he has gathered all his sheep, he goes before them, and they follow him because they know his voice.” Is that what you do? Does he go first and you follow him? Is that what we do as a church? He goes first and we follow him.
“Whenever we come up with new ideas or continue old ideas or make any sort of decision personally or together, is it because we’re obedient or because we have a good idea?” In today’s Acts reading, we’re given a concrete vision for what a church full of obedient sheep looks like, who hear their shepherd’s voice, who follow his leading. So listen to that Acts reading again. This is from this common English version. “The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals and to their prayers.
A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs for the apostles. All the believers were united and shared everything. They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. Every Every day they met together in the temple and ate in their homes.
They shared food with gladness and simplicity. They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everybody. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.” It’s a short, sweet, simple way of living that they had. The people trusted God.
They trusted each other and the body of Christ. They trusted one another to the point that they totally gave over their own comfort, their own desires, their own possessions even, to the greater good of building God’s kingdom among them. And how did this come about? How did they get to this point where the church was growing by leaps and bounds? That God was doing miracles among them all the time.
And that’s because they spent time seeking to learn from the apostles God sent them. They devoted themselves to the church and to the world around them. They ate together and they prayed together all the time. And in turn masses of new people were joining them every day.
God added daily to the number of them that were being saved. And they weren’t impressing all these new converts with their wisdom or their power or the cool stuff that they were doing or their knowledge or philosophy. They were just obedient to God and things fell together. The world opened up before them.
And it almost looks too easy as we read about the church in Acts. They let the Holy Spirit roll among them, ready to do whatever God wanted to do with them. And lo and behold God did. God gave them everything they needed to thrive, to survive.
God changed their lives. God did miracles and wonders among them constantly. And let me suggest something to you. And I want you to try it on and see whether I’m right, but see whether this feels right.
Right now in this very moment, as you have heard this story about the Jerusalem church in Acts, you are mentally working out some reason why a mighty act of God, why an outpouring of the Holy Spirit like that can’t happen for you and for me and for us. I strongly suspect that you’re doing that because I know that I do that every time I read this story myself. There’s some rational reason why that happened then, but can’t happen now, right? Maybe the Holy Spirit doesn’t do that anymore. Maybe the early church had a special thing that we don’t have anymore.
Maybe you just don’t fully believe this story happened the way Acts says it did. Maybe you think where you and where we are right now is good enough anyway. You’re as deep as you want to go and following God in a nice comfortable place. And something as radical as what we see in Jerusalem there is just far too much anyway.
And so answer me this too, if that is the way that you’re thinking. Are you, are we too smart to be obedient? Are you Finns at the top of the stairs, carefully ignoring God’s clear command to come down and and get going? Are we beans sitting in the yard remaining right where we want to be until we’re really sure God has a treat for us to make our obedience worthwhile? Are you a sheep who obeys and knows the sound of the shepherd’s voice or do you hear it and know how not to obey? I guess that’s why English and Spanish and so many other languages have two words that superficially seem to mean the same thing but are really quite different. Hear versus listen. Maybe you and I know the shepherd’s voice just fine and we hear him but we’ve got good at tuning it out so we can just carry on our business, just letting that voice blend in with all the others within and around us.
Listening to Jesus’ voice results in this radical transformation of our daily lives as individuals and together. We can see that very clearly in Acts. Look at how those in that church who heard their shepherd’s voice dropped everything to follow him in a way that would have looked bizarre to the people around them. Is that what happens for you when you hear Jesus’ voice? You start making decisions that are completely out of character, that are completely on faith? Is that what happens in this church when we hear Jesus’ voice? It is extremely scary to follow the shepherd out of the sheepfold, out of the gate and into the world.
It’s scary to read about this church in Acts that as inspiring as it is, is so totally devoted to Christ that they shared everything. They spent all their days in community and service and prayer and had to constantly adjust to exploding numbers. They regularly witnessed miraculous signs and wonders. That might throw us off a little bit.
That would really disturb things. And yet Jesus promises in the uncertainty of total obedience to lead us beside still waters, to feed us of green pastures, to restore our souls. He promises to lead us on right paths, to protect us in the darkest valleys, to set up a table of grace for us even in front of our enemies. He promises to overflow our cup with goodness and mercy.
This is something I love about the CEB translation of Psalm 23. It says that God’s goodness and mercy will pursue us all the days of our lives, not just that it will follow gently behind, but it chases us down all the days of our lives. This is what lies on the other side of that sheepfold gate. This is the life that the shepherd calls us to.
He has come that we might have life and have life to the fullest. They hear his voice calling you, calling us, and maybe for the first time let us truly live. The name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.