Meditation on John 10:1-10
April 30, 2023
First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown
Pastor Karen Crawford
I wanted to know more about the life of a shepherd. I wanted to better understand Jesus, our Good Shepherd, and his love for us—His sheep. So, on Friday, I watched “Heart Valley,” Christian Cargill’s documentary on a Welsh shepherd named Wilf Davies.
The 19-minute film won the award for Best Documentary Short at the Tribeca Film Festival and was released online by The New Yorker in December.
Wilf has lived in the Teifi (TI’-vee) Valley in the parish of Cellan (Keshawn’) in West Wales all his 73 years. He speaks a mix of English and Welsh. His boyhood was spent helping out on the farm that has been in his family for generations—and dreaming of working the farm when he was grown. He has never wanted to live anywhere else or do anything else for a living.
Most people work 8 to 5 or so and are always looking at their watch, he says. “I never look at my watch…The word shepherd means you’ve got to look after the flock, no matter what the weather,” he says. “The sheep have to have their feed on Christmas Day.”
He has never gone away on vacation. He doesn’t want to. His works makes him happy. The farthest he travels is when he takes a bus to go grocery shopping on Fridays at Lidl (LEE’-dal), a few hours away.
“The sheep,” he says, “are MY holiday.”
Wilf has 70 sheep—50 of them lambs, less than a year old. The breed is white with black noses and other bits of black on their faces and legs. “All the sheep have different characters,” he says. He goes up to have a look at them every day, making sure they have food and water and leading them safely to pasture. He checks to see that nothing has happened to them—that they are all on their feet.
The documentary follows a typical day in the life of the Welsh shepherd, beginning with porridge with oats, butter, egg, and milk, eaten right out of a saucepan at sunrise. For lunch, he has four sandwiches with salmon paste and a few “biscuits.” For 10 years, he has had his favorite dinner of fish, onions, beans, and an egg.
He rides to pasture on an old tractor. What he likes the most is when the sheep give birth or “bring lambs,” as he says, laughing. “They are a part of the family.”
When he reaches the sheep, “They are always there waiting for me at the gate,” he says. “The sheep really like me. Especially when I have brought feed for them.”
They recognize his voice. “Come on! Come on! Come on!” he calls. “Come. Come. Come. Ho! Ho! Ho!” And they come, he says, “guaranteed.”
The image of his sheep, waiting at the gate for him, stays with me when the film ends. I think of Jesus saying to his disciples, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved and will come in and go out and find pasture.”
Jesus says this parable immediately after a different sheep/shepherd parable that the disciples didn’t understand. Shepherds were common in their day and age on the hillsides of the Sea of Galilee. The life of shepherds and sheep was something Jesus knew, even as a carpenter’s son! This was something everyone knew, including the disciples who had been fishermen when Jesus said, “Follow me!”
“I am the gate for the sheep,” Jesus says now. “Whoever enters by me will be saved and will come in and go out and find pasture.” This gateway to salvation is open to all people! It’s not exclusive. It’s not works-related. It doesn’t depend on where we were born or what we do for a living. Everyone is invited to come by the gate. “Whoever enters will be saved,” he says. No one will be barred from the way—in and out and to find pasture, where there is food and water to be nourished to abundant and everlasting life.
Many shepherds in Jesus’ time “grazed their flocks in nearby pastures and brought them to a common pen for protection overnight.” (Sara Lewis in These Days, April 28, 2023) “The folds were often four walls exposed to the sky with one entrance. Some gatekeepers slept across the threshold to guard the sheep, thus becoming the gate. Only through this portal could the sheep enter and exit.”
In the earlier parable, Jesus said, “The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.”
Like the sheep in the Good Shepherd’s flock, the sheep in Wilf Davies’s flock know his voice. And he knows them well, having known them since their birth on his farm, and calling them by name.
He brings them nourishment with buckets of feed and cares for them when they are sick. He regularly checks their teeth to see if they are rotted or broken. When they lose their teeth, they can no longer graze. They will starve. In the film, he marks the head of one of the sheep with green paint after he discovers that her teeth are rotting away. Sheep marked with green are sold to the slaughterhouse for meat—meat that Wilf does not eat!
He hates the thought of losing any of his sheep. “I’m always sorry to see the sheep going,” he says, as he gently strokes the one with the green marking on her head.
A year ago, Wilf thought his shepherding days were over. He suffered a stroke and was unable to move for weeks. “It was real agony,” he recalls. “I didn’t believe I’d ever be well, again.” He starts to cry. “I wanted to go back to the sheep.”
Every evening, before he goes to bed at 9, he takes a long walk to the top of the hill and looks down on the sheep in the valley as the sun sets. While he walks, he thinks how the world is changing, how the farms and shepherds are disappearing. He thinks about the sheep and the shepherd’s life, which is lonelier than it used to be. “We used to do everything together,” he says. Earlier that day, he had waved and called out to each of his neighbors as they passed him on the road in their old tractors.
As I watch Wilf on his walk, I think about how the Lord, our Good Shepherd, also calls us to be a community of good shepherds, caring for the sheep whom God loves. For the risen Christ told Simon Peter, “Feed my sheep,” and “Tend my lambs,” when they ate breakfast on the beach. This was after Jesus asked him three times, “Peter, do you love me?” Peter remembered, then, with sorrow, how he had denied Jesus three times before the cock crowed.
This love is a love that forgives and is merciful. This love moves forward and doesn’t get stuck in past regrets or mistakes. This love is shared with others in grateful response to our receiving the everlasting, unconditional love of our Risen Lord.
We are called to be like the new faith community in Acts chapter 2, after the Spirit came on Pentecost. The growing community “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers…” They shared so that no one went without. It was as the psalmist cries in 23, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” or as some translations say, “I shall lack nothing.”
Maybe we can learn from Wilf Davies’ way of loving his neighbor—to “be present, polite, and always helping somebody,” he says. He is never looking at his watch when he is with the sheep or talking with someone, just as our eternal God is fully present with us, no matter what time we are waiting at the gate, calling on the Lord. We will find nourishment and rest for body, mind, and soul.
Another image that stays with me from this short film is Wilf smiling and saying that he never takes a vacation. He never wants to. The sheep make him happy, he says! They are his holiday.
This is true for the Lord, as well. God doesn’t desire or need a vacation from God’s work—caring for us. God is available 24/7. Dear friends, we make the Lord happy, when we allow Christ to be Lord of our lives and rely on God for everything. We who are Christ’s sheep are God’s holiday. What a beautiful thought!
Wilf calls his sheep by name and goes ahead of them to bring them to green pastures, beside still waters. Just as the Lord will always guide us, calling our names.
May we always seek to be obedient to the Good Shepherd, as the 70 sheep—50 of them lambs—are obedient to the one who loves them and feeds and waters them daily—Wilf Davies.
“Come on! Come on! Come on!” he says. “Come. Come. Come.”
And they come, “guaranteed.”
Let us pray.
Good Shepherd, thank you for being the gate for us and all the sheep—for making a way for all people to be saved—to come in and go out and find pasture—nourishment for body, mind, and soul. Help us, Lord, to experience your peaceful presence with us and your loving provision when we are in need. By your Spirit, build us into a community of good shepherds, serving in Christ’s name, caring for one another, sharing with those in need. Help us to hear your voice, know your will, and trust you with our cares and prayers. Thank you that you never take a day off from nourishing us to eternal life—and that we are your holiday! In the name of our Triune God we pray. Amen.