April 22, 2018

Preached by Rev. George Yando on April 22, 2018.

Acts 4: 5-12
Psalm 23
1 John 3: 16-24
John 10: 11-18

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Sheep-like Living Doesn’t Mean Living Sheepishly

Today is widely known in the church as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” But it’s often been called – somewhat tongue-in-cheek –  “Sheep Sunday.”  That’s because on this fourth Sunday of the Easter season every year, the Scripture lessons are like the lessons we read this morning: John’s description of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, and the 23rdPsalm, “The Lord is my Shepherd.”   But you have to wonder, why sheep?

Why not eagles?  Why not think of you and me as eagles soaring in a gorgeous blue sky, instead of some silly sheep munching greens in a muddy pasture?  After all, Isaiah writes about those who wait on the Lord and says of them, “they shall mount up with wings as eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

Now you have to admit, doesn’t that sound much more ennobling and a lot more inspiring than being called “sheep?”  So why sheep?

When I start thinking seriously — and honestly – about the image, the metaphor of God’s people as sheep, I have to admit that perhaps the classic prayer of confession for this Sunday has it right after all — like the sheep of God’s pasture, “wehave gone astray . . . we have followed the promptings and temptings of our own hearts . . .” and so on and forth.

When it comes right down to it, we seldom soar like eagles; more often than not we’re more like sheep.  As the old song puts it:

We are poor little lambs who have lost our way,

Baa!  Baa! Baa!

We’re little black sheep who’ve gone astray,

Baa!  Baa! Baa!

            Some of you are old enough to remember that as the “Wiffenpoof Song,” popularized in the ‘30s and ‘40s by the singer Rudy Vallee.  It was based in part on a poem by Rudyard Kipling.  It might actually make a good prayer of confession, if we could sing it or say it with a straight face.  What do you think?

We are poor little lambs who have lost our way,

We’re little black sheep who’ve gone astray,

God ha’ mercy on such as we,

Baa!  Baa! Baa!

            On second thought, maybe not.  It may not work as a prayer of confession, but the reality is we haveerred andstrayed — like lost sheep.  When we think about it – seriously and honestly – we know it to be true. I know that.  You know that.  The Bible knows that, and it uses the image of sheep as a metaphor for the reality of our lives.  Lives we live together in our families, at our place of work, in our community, and in this church, every day.

And it’s in our life lived together that the biblical metaphor for you and me is “sheep.”  It’s a metaphor that works, on more than one level.  While it’s true that we have  wandered away, in the manner of sheep nose-down in the pasture, eating their way through the grass, with little or no notice of direction, it also speaks to our common life together.

The sheep metaphor also finds its meaning in the fact that “sheep are communal by their very nature.”   We don’t even have a word for one sheep.  The term is always understood as plural.

The meaning of the metaphor is simply that you and I together, like sheep – plural – are a community, a flock of the faithful in which we are cared for by God as a shepherd cares for sheep, and that’s what God intends. We’re in it together, and together we are shepherded by Jesus Christ.

That’s a good remembrance to take away with us this day.  It’s a good corrective to the excessive individualism of our age that leaves so many of us feeling at times very much alone, even in the presence of almighty God. More like a sheep at the mercy of a predator, than a lamb cradled in God’s arms of protection.   Protection provided for in Jesus’ story of the sheep being together in the sheepfold — not just in his willingness to run around gathering them up.

Many if not most of us learned early on a verse of Scripture we know as John 3:16, a promise that speaks of God’s love in providing for the salvation of the whole world through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The wonder of God’s saving grace revealed in that verse is that in Jesus Christ, God was saving the world, and not merely one individual here and there out of the world.  In Jesus Christ, God came as a shepherd, to all of God’s sheep, and willingly laid down for those sheep the life Jesus took on in human form.

Now, we could leave the passage there, sing another hymn or two and go home feeling good about the fact that God loves us, and as the Good Shepherd, cares for us, protects us, supplies our needs and leads us safely through the living of our days.  Except that doesn’t quite cover the reality that is ours living in the sheepfold, nor does it call forth the best that God would challenge us to offer in response to the divine grace and goodness that has been directed toward us. Sheep-like living doesn’t mean living sheepishly.

At first blush, a sheep’s life in the sheepfold seems pretty laid back, not at all demanding.  But does that describe what the Christian life, life in the church, life in this community of faith has been for you? Sheep spend a lot of time grazing, and church folk rarely have to be invited twice to get together for a good meal.  The difficulty of course is that it very quickly becomes much more than that, more than simple fellowship.  Once you become immersed in the life of the church, and take your place in the midst of the sheepfold, it’s easy to become overly busy, so much so that it becomes almost overwhelming.

Anyone here this morning feeling that way? If not, don’t stick up your hand, unless you want someone to ask you to volunteer for something that someone wants done, or thinks needs doing in the life and ministry of this congregation.

The fact is, if you’re notfeeling that way at the moment, you can no doubt remember a time in the past when life waslike that, when life becomes strained by a whirlwind of activity, the tension of countless jobs piled one on another, the sense that there seems to be so much to do, so few willing to put their shoulder to the wheel.

Sometimes our Christian life can feel that way, just one more set of tasks and concerns that, when added to all the rest you have, threatens to overwhelm you.  For some people, worship and Christian service and involvement in the life of the Church of Jesus Christ become simply another bunch of things that they feel they must do, one more drain upon their already scarce physical, emotional, and spiritual resources.

Granted, there is nothing really wrong with any of these things that occupy our time and energy; in fact there is a great deal of good that comes out of the efforts we expend in the mission and ministry of our church.  The danger, however, is that the good news of our faith, the gospel, sometimes gets lost, or forgotten in the midst of the busy-ness.   Too much stress can be placed on our knowing Christ and not enough on how Christ knows us.

It’s easy to become preoccupied with what it is that weshould do – or not do –  if we are to be Jesus’ disciples, so much so that we often overlook the wonder of what it is that God does for us if we simply trust in and listen for the divine voice speaking to us.  The risk is that the gospel becomes lost whenever our actions are stressed and the love and grace of God in our lives is downplayed or overlooked or ignored.

Let me invite you this morning to focus on re-framing the experience of  Christian faith and commitment in a way different from the same way we tend to experience so much of the rest of life, namely, the reality of Christian faith as a source of strength for life rather than as a drudge that depletes life. This morning, let’s reclaim an understanding of Christian faith as life-giving rather than life-draining. Otherwise, the gospel – the good news – is lost if and when our salvation and the salvation of the world becomes linked to ouractivity and to what we do and feel, instead of being grounded in the activity of God, and in what God does forus, and throughus.

The reading from the Book of Acts this morning follows the episode where Peter and John were arrested for healing a crippled man and then proclaiming to those who witnessed the event, that through Jesus, sins are forgiven and the dead are resurrected.  At the trial next day, the rulers and elders and teachers of the law question Peter and John about the healing they had performed.  They asked them: “By what power or what name did you did this?” Peter answers them saying: “It is by the name of Jesus Christ that we did this – salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to humanity by which we must be saved.”

It is by Jesus Christ and his love – a love shown on the cross –that we are saved.  It is by his name that we receive power.  All that we do that has lasting value is done not by us, working alone; rather, it is the Holy Spirit working through us and honouring the name by which authority we do what we are called to do.

Each of us faces many challenges in our lives, many demands upon our energy, and our time and our resources.  By ourselves, we could easily be overwhelmed by it all. But the good news is that we are not alone.  There is One who watches over us, and gives us the strength and the protection we need.

An old Chinese legend tells the story of a fox that was captured by a tiger.   The fox said, “You can’t eat me because the gods have made me the leader of all the animals.”

The tiger did not believe him, but the fox said, “If you don’t believe me, just follow me around and see if any animal challenges me.”

The tiger agreed to this and began to follow directly behind the fox as the fox started to walk through the forest.   To the tiger’s amazement it  turned out to be exactly as the fox had said.   Not a single animal they encountered challenged the fox.   In fact, every animal they met ran the other way, fleeing in sheer panic.  After several such encounters the tiger finally agreed that the fox was indeed the leader of all the animals because of all the respect he seemed to command and so the tiger let the fox go.

This story suggests of course that challenges fade away and obstacles disappear when we have a tiger behind us, watching our backs.  A similar thread of wisdom woven through all of our Scripture lessons this morning, a message of good news that resonates in all of the readings.  In the word spoken by Peter in Acts, by Jesus in the gospel lesson, and by the writer of the 23rd Psalm, all these lessons agree that it is God, walking with us, who overcomes everything that threatens to overwhelm.  It is Christ who heals and saves, not his disciples;  it is the Good Shepherd who offers protection, not the sheep over whom the shepherd watches.

Now I am not suggesting by this that we don’t need to help each other, or that we don’t have to help others in need.  I’m not saying that we don’t have jobs to do.  What I amsaying is that what we do should come somewhat easier to us than it often does.  I am saying that if we do not experience a measure of grace in what we do and a lightness of load, if our work is wearing us down rather than building us up, then perhaps we trying to accomplish what we are doing by our own strength alone. Perhaps we need to turn to our Lord for help and to rest ourselves in him and that which he provides us, rather than trying to go on and on by ourselves, as though all that we have to work with comes from ourselves alone.

Finally, the image of the sheepfold and ourselves as the sheep is not intended to make us feel sheepish, passive, timid or individually unimportant; rather, it’s intended to reinforce the importance of all of us to the Shepherd who is God in Jesus Christ.  The sheepfold may feel constraining and confining and sometimes crowded, but it’s not claustrophobic.  God’s plan for the sheepfold is that it be supportive, not restrictive.  Rather than setting limits on how far we can stray, and what can get to us, it frees us to live life as God intends: to live each day to the fullest — what Jesus meant when he said, “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10: 10)   Life in its fullest.

Recall that the Good Shepherd spoke of other sheep that were not part of his flock. His desire, his mission was to go to them as well, to gather them in, to make them all one flock.  It is into our midst that those other sheep are to be invited and encouraged and enfolded.  As we live the life that Jesus has given us, the new life, the abundant life, as we experience it in all of its fullness, the joy and gladness becomes the cause for sharing its reality as good news to those who so need to hear it and experience for themselves.

That experience emboldened Peter and John, and countless other disciples to share the power they had received, to wield it so to transform the lives of others and in so doing, give them a glimpse of the reality of which they would speak in proclaiming the good news.

I believe there is no better testimony of the good news than that summed up in the words of the 23rdPsalm. It’s ironic that so often when someone has died, a family member or friend will ask, “Please read that Psalm.”

What the Bible encourages us to do is to livethat Psalm — every day.  In this world where the closest most of us ever get to sheep is a picture in a book, the wool in our suit, or a meal of mutton on our plates, we still need a shepherd — to lead us and guide us and occasionally prod us in the way we should go. And the Good Shepherd, who gives his life for the sheep, for your life and mine, that we might live and have life abundantly, is Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God.

Amen.