Sermon for May 7, 2017
Fourth Sunday of Easter
Ps. 23; John 10:11-18

Holy Spirit, fill these words, and our hearts, with the power of the Risen Lord.  Amen.

You, Me, and Sheep

“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27).

Perhaps this Sunday should be designated in the Church Calendar as “Official Sheep Sunday.”  I can guarantee that pastors around the world are sighing with relief at the opportunity to talk about sheep instead of the betrayals of Holy Week, the mysteries of Resurrection, and the uncomfortable intermingling of hope and disbelief.  Lambs, which we associate with children and fuzzy golden chicks, with sunny green valleys and nursery rhymes, and with Jesus Christ, the good shepherd, are a much-appreciated reprieve. . . unless you are familiar with Phillip Keller’s telling book A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23.  Then the reprieve is short-lived.

No one knows sheep better than a shepherd, which is what Keller is.  He writes, "It is no accident that God has chosen to call us sheep.  The behavior of sheep and human beings is similar in many ways.  Our mass mind (or mob instincts), our fears and timidity, our stubbornness and stupidity, our perverse habits are all parallels of profound importance."  Not a very flattering comparison, is it? 

Then Keller goes on to relate how his own sheep have eaten poisonous plants despite his efforts to direct them elsewhere; how they will not lie down to rest unless completely assured of their safety; and how nasal flies and ticks will drive his flock to distraction unless he diligently keeps them free from these insects.  He describes the frustration and hard work of keeping his sheep from foul water and leading them to pure streams.  Keller writes about cast sheep, sheep that forget they cannot lie on their backs because sheep cannot roll back over, and how he must keep careful watch to help put such sheep back on their feet.  He talks about lost sheep, wandering sheep, sheep that will not stay with the flock and so become injured and easy prey for coyotes and wolves.  Keller very clearly makes the point that sheep are trouble.

Here is the list of sheep characteristics that Keller describes.  Since God has chosen to call us sheep, we should be able to pick a few that apply to us:

1.    timid, fearful, easily panicked
2.    stupid, gullible
3.    very vulnerable to fear, frustration, pests, hunger
4.    stampede easily, vulnerable to mob psychology
5.    little or no means of self-defense; can only run
6.    easily killed by enemies
7.    jealous, competitive for dominance
8.    have very little discernment in choosing food or water
9.    perverse, stubborn - will insist on their own way, even if it is harmful
10.    frequently look for easy places to rest
11.    don't like to be sheared, cleaned
12.    creatures of habit; get into "ruts"
13.    need the most care of all livestock

If we are honest, we can admit that, in our sinful and imperfect state, we sometimes are indeed like sheep.  That is the language of Scripture: both the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament.  We just heard the proclamation that “The Lord is my shepherd” and if “the Lord is my shepherd,” then I am one of the sheep.  So are you.  You, me, and sheep.  

Let’s face it.  We are sinful and imperfect and in need of someone coming to our rescue.  We have heard that message for years from Sunday School teachers and pulpit preachers.  We are sinners totally reliant on grace.  I doubt any of us is surprised to hear that news, which may be the one message all denominations most consistently get across to their flocks.  While it is true, though, it is only half the message.

Author and poet Brennan Manning examines this message in his book The Rabbi’s Heartbeat.  He writes: “One of the most shocking contradictions in the American church is the intense dislike many disciples of Jesus have for themselves.  They are more displeased with their own shortcomings than they would ever dream of being about someone else’s.”  The theme gets pounded into us that we aren’t living up to our potential, that we need to try harder, that there’s something wrong with us.  Some of us drift away from church because we are weary of hearing how sheep-like we are, or we nod and agree with the preacher that, yes, we are sinners so what else is new, or we get so turned off by the prayer of confession that we cannot even hear the good news in the assurance of pardon.   

But there is good news!  There is another way to look at sheep, a very sacred truth that could transform our whole lives if we really grasped its meaning. Remember what the sheep meant to the average Israelites who raised them for their livelihood.  As a commodity, sheep provided income, food, milk, and clothing.  They were valuable and valued by their owners who thought them worth the intimate care and effort they needed.  Even more, sheep were the chosen animals offered in sacrifice at the temple, the animal God made sacred at the Passover.  Ordinary, clumsy, and stubborn creatures which required great care, sheep were set apart as holy.  

So are you and I.  We may be a lot of trouble, yet we, too, are considered valuable and valued to Jesus Christ.  We, too, are considered worth his intimate care and effort.  We, too, ordinary, clumsy, and stubborn in our humanity, are set apart from all other creatures because we are lovingly made in the image of God.  The image of God lies within us.  We live, move, and have our being in God.  We, too, are holy.  You and me and First Presbyterian Church, Huntsville:  the sheep of Jesus.

Imagine the change in our lives if the Church reminded us more often of our own holiness.  Imagine how different we could be if we were able to set aside guilt, shame,  and remorse and respond to the truth that each one of us is holy in the eyes of the very Shepherd who “lays down his life for the sheep,” and who does not give us over to a hired hand but cares for us himself?  Would we embrace this good news, or would Jesus’ words to the Jews be leveled at us:  “I did tell you, but you did not believe” (Jn. 10:25)?  

In his book The Art of Christian Listening, Thomas Hart explains the hope that Christ has for us, sheep that we are, this way:

"It is as if Jesus surveyed the religious scene of his day and said to himself:  These are good people, but they are all confused.  They think God wants religious services, tithes, and the strict observance of law.  In fact, he wants their hearts.  They think he wants religiosity, complete with sackcloth and a daily regimen.  He would much rather see them love one another and share what they have with another, so that everyone has life.  They think he wants them to live in fear, fear of going wrong and fear of him, when in fact he wants them to live in joy and freedom.  They think he wants them to walk about with their heads down because of all their failures, when in fact he wants them to trust like children in his forgiveness and the dependability of his love.  They think they have to earn their way with him and win a reward if they can, when in fact he wants them to accept his acceptance of them as a gift quite undeserved."  We are given the opportunity, time and again, to believe the Good News and to accept Christ’s acceptance of us.

Scripture teaches us that there are times when we are indeed weeds, and times when we are wheat.  If we are only weeds and shadows and wandering sheep that have to fear the fiery furnace, why did Jesus tell the story of the Prodigal Son, who was welcomed home by the embrace of his loving, joyous father?  Why did Christ come in the form of man and dine with sinners and chastise the religious leaders?  Why did he forgive the woman at the well, choose Peter as the rock of his church, and promise the thief crucified beside him that that very day he would be with God in paradise?  Why did God create night and day, shadow and light, and call both good?  Because the story of sheep, as so beautifully proclaimed in Ps. 23,  is a love story, a story of a loving creator who takes the lost and makes them into great lights, who changes death into life, who offers a way of light, redemption, hope, and healing.

If we claimed our holy nature, other people’s negative thoughts and opinions would not define us.  Our focus would not be on achievement and social status and worrying about what the neighbors think.  Our past mistakes would finally be let go.  We would actually love and honor ourselves, if we truly believed we are holy and sacred.  We would find a new peace, the peace of Christ.

And imagine how different our lives would be if we looked at other people, especially those we see as nothing but tiresome sheep, as holy and sacred to God.  We would begin to love and honor them with patience and compassion instead of avoidance and gossip.  We could learn to respond in truth instead of react in fear.  We could build each other up, instead of tearing each other down.  We could quite literally change the world, which I believe is what Jesus was hoping for when he came to shepherd his scarred but sacred sheep.


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