March 11, 2018
Fourth Sunday in Lent
“The Down-Side of Having a Good Shepherd”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
The devout cowboy lost his favorite Bible while he was mending fences out on the range. Three weeks later, a sheep walked up to him carrying the Bible in its mouth. The cowboy couldn't believe his eyes. He took the precious book out of the sheep's mouth, raised his eyes heavenward and exclaimed, "It's a miracle!" "Not really," said the sheep. "Your name is written inside the cover."
There was a little spoiler alert in last week’s message, that this week would be another one with a sheep theme. But there’s more than just a sheep theme to this morning’s message, and I thought a little visual aide might be less boring.
A lot of times, I think about sermons as a soup or hot dish, as casseroles in MN are called. This morning’s soup has various ingredients that make for a richer, heartier soup. So we have “I AM” pods.
In Hebrew, I AM who I AM is the name that God used at the burning bush when God told Moses to go to the Egyptian Pharaoh and say, "Let my people go." Moses asked whom he should say sent him, and God responded, "Eh-heh-yeh ah-sher Eh-heh-yeh." This usually translates as, "I am that I am." God, offering up God’s own name is as personal as when we offer our name to someone we meet. I Am that I am is one way how we can know God. That is a big deal, because I AM is naming God’s own self - a present identity, in the moment, not in the past like I was, or the future like I will, but I am - now.
In Greek, I AM is ego eimi, which is not the same as lego my ego. It is, however, the exact same tense that God used back in Moses’ day, and in this simple useage, Jesus is claiming equality with God. You can’t claim to be a Viking if you don’t have Scandinavian blood running through your veins, so you can’t say I AM if you don’t have deity running through your veins. I AM - not I was, not I will, but I am. Right now, and right now, and right now.
Next into the pot goes slices of Jesus’ I AM - like I am the Bread of Life, I am the Light of the world, and I am the Gate. We spent some time over the last weeks, looking at these specific I AM statements that are found only in the book of John. The books of Matthew, Mark and Luke hold the parables, but John holds the I Ams. Bread is sustenance, light is truth, and gate is sacrifice.
Last week, in speaking about Jesus being the gate and laying down his life for us, a differentiation was made between shepherds and sheep herders. Shepherds lead, sheep herders drive. The sheep that belong to shepherds are healthier, freer and have some control over their own beings. Sheep that belong to sheepherders are less healthy and are controlled through fear and have no control whatsoever.
Before getting to this morning’s passage, we need to add a dash of stereotypes and reputations. Shepherds and wolves and thieves and even God have their own reputations, some undeserved. And, of course, each of us is a stereotype with a reputation, too.
11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. 13 The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.
14 “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. 17 The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”
Thank you, Denis. Because the introductory story may not have been everyone’s cup of tea, what do you call a sheep covered in chocolate? A Candy Baa. And what do you call a sheep with no legs? A cloud. And what do you get if you cross a sheep with a porcupine? An animal that knits its own sweaters.
In some ways, this is a rather innocuous passage; most of the things in it are rather normal and things that we already know. Hired hands aren’t going to have the investment in cattle that the owner has. Jesus made his own decision to lay down his life for us. No one coerced him. All of that seems rather ordinary.
I don’t know the answer to this question, but I wonder if part of Jesus’ point - the part about the hired man running away - is really about us; if it’s a point about our reflection of following God. Do we “run away” too easily when we become afraid - run away from God? Do we forget that God is with us when the doctor says more tests are needed? Do we “run from God” when the funds get low and we forget that God is with us? I’m not trying to imply that any of these things are as bad as a hired hand running from responsibility, but perhaps there’s room for reflection on our own lives and actions.
Without thinking too hard, who is the person that is hardest for you to tolerate? And don’t try to avoid the question, “Who, me?” Yes, you. You don’t need to say the person’s or persons’ names out loud, but I know you can say them in your head, because all the while this sermon has been ruminating in my head, I’ve been doing just that: saying the name of the individuals that rub my fur the wrong way. And we all have someone that can get under our skin faster than others. By the way, my fur-rubber-the wrong-wayer is not anyone here today.
The cold, hard truth is that Jesus said that he must bring them into the fold, too. Not that you are necessarily going to be the one to do it. But, as Jesus said, he has “other sheep that are not of this sheep pen.” And he laid down his life for them as much as for us.
I think that’s where we find the idea of agape love. The bible talks about different kinds of love - in Greek terms. Eros is sexual love, from which we get the word erotic. There’s philia love, which is deep friendship love, from which we get Philadelphia - the city of brotherly love. And then there’s agape love, which is self-less love. When agape is translated into Latin, it becomes caritas, from which we get the word, charity.
That self-less love for you is what prompted Christ to lay down his life. And it’s the self-less love for the person or persons who irritate you to no end that prompted Christ to lay down his life for them. Spend some time thinking about that this coming week, and I guarantee that you will be spending some time with a heaping cup of humility.
Being likened to a sheep is not one of the best compliments that can be bestowed on any one of us. In fact, the down-side of having a good shepherd implies that we are, indeed, sheep. But remember that ours is the Good Shepherd, not the Good Sheepherder. We get to follow Jesus, which means we can stop and smell the roses and look at the pretty butterflies and then run to catch up to where he is. Christ doesn’t force us into situations with whacks to the side of the head from the rod and staff that he carries.
So we will make mistakes. We will wander off sometimes and get caught in places that will play out like Jesus leaving the 99 other sheep to come and find us. Our Good Shepherd doesn’t lead us only when times are good or even peaceful and uncontentious. Our Good Shepherd leads us right now, and right now, and right now.
So here’s the thing: if we have a Good Shepherd, then we are sheep. And we are our best when we live as sheep following the Good Shepherd. I know, it’s not very sexy or stylish or hip. But looks can fade, styles and fads will change. But our Shepherd never changes. In a world where your smart phone is outdated before it leaves the production warehouse, there is a deep need for a foundation, a surety and safe trust. And we have that - in Christ. The problem is that sometimes we forget to live like that.
When we live as sheep lead by a Good Shepherd, we are more cognizant that we are all in this sheepfold together. I know, some of you thought I was going to change the metaphor and say that we are all in this boat together. But, I just wanted to make sure at least some of you were still with me.
So when we are on the way out of church, and we’re just dying to get home and get ready for the game to start, perhaps we listen and heed God’s voice, to ask the visitor to coffee downstairs and sit with him/her/them for a few minutes. Maybe it’s listening to God’s voice, to not give a pat answer to someone who’s grieving, but to simply say, “I’m sorry,” and let the silence after that be okay. We can say, “I don’t know what to say,” when it is the truth, and let those who are hurting know that you “get” where they are, without piling on heaps of meaningless platitudes.
Deep inside each of us, I’m guessing, is a place where we want safety and comfort and security and satisfaction. The Good Shepherd is all those things, but sometimes we forget to live that way. Sometimes fear and loneliness and anxiety and insecurity and a host of other malevolent monsters can lure us from the sense of Christ’s sheep pen of peace of mind and stability. It doesn’t mean that the corral of comfort has disappeared, just that we’ve forgotten about it or that it doesn’t seem to fit the present situation.
This whole I AM series is not just about Jesus’ identity, but that where Jesus goes, there goes God. When Jesus goes to the cross, God also goes to the cross. There is no situation or event or personality that God hasn’t encountered, so God knows about each of our situations, events and people. God is with each of them as much as God is with us - regardless of how cognizant we are of Christ; Son of God and Son of Man. So let us pray.
Gracious and Good God, thank you for giving us your Son, that we might know you and trust you and live in your presence more and more. Forgive us when we forget that we live in your kingdom, sheep of your own fold. Help us to remember that there really isn’t a down-side to having a Good Shepherd, but that ours is to remember to live into that reality more and more. For those who need us to call them into the fold, help us to hear your call. For us, when we need to heed your call, help us to hear. And most importantly, dear God, thank you for loving us to such depths that you would send us not just Christ, but your Holy Spirit, too. In the name of the holy trinity, all your people say, Amen.