First Congregational Church
April 17, 2015
Fourth Sunday after Easter
“Time for the Sheep Talk”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
One day, I’m thinking that the phrase, “I’m bored” will be extinct. When the solitaire game won’t cut it, the electronic edition of the latest novel won’t do, and the weather is so bad, one can’t even drive over to the turnaround, there is the internet.
The site of the week was namibian.org, and the specific page was collective nouns. From it one can discover the somewhat obvious; it is a cloud of gnats, a kaleidoscope of giraffes and a crash of rhinoceros. Wrens and cranes come in herds, sparrows come in quarrels while owls come in a stare. Ducks are a paddling on water but a safe on land, sardines come in families and trout come in a hover.
In the less mundane column, it is a colony of badgers, cats come in chowders, clowders or clusters and fox come in an earth, a lead or a skulk. It is a raffle or rafter of turkeys, when swans are on land, they are a whiteness, eagles come in convocations, crows come in a clan, hover or murder and loons come in rafts. These things are important to know when conversing with other people, so you can say things like, “Yes, our pastor heard a raft of loons Friday night in Betsie Bay.” Not only would you sound cool, but you would be correct - in more ways than one.
In the just plain odd group, buffalo come in gangs or an obstinacy, turtles come in a bale or turn and swine come in a drift, herd or sounder. It is a troubling of goldfish, a brood, flutter or smuck of jellyfish and an erst of bees. They are a charm of finches, a bellowing of bullfinches, and a flurry, regiment of skein of flamingoes. Last but not least in this odd category are a pandemonium of parrots, a muster of peacocks, a congregation, flight, stand or wing of plovers, a drift of quail and an unkindness of ravens.
Narrowing in on the topic, camels, goats, lions, ostriches and sheep come in flocks. But camels also come in caravans, goats also come in trips, lions also come in prides or troops and sheep also come in mobs.
22 Then came the Feast of Dedication [That is, Hanukkah] at Jerusalem. It was winter, 23 and Jesus was in the temple area walking in Solomon's Colonnade. 24 The Jews gathered round him, saying, How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, [Or Messiah] tell us plainly. 25 Jesus answered, I did tell you, but you do not believe. The miracles I do in my Father's name speak for me, 26 but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. 27 My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no-one can snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no-one can snatch them out of my Father's hand. 30 I and the Father are one.
Thank you, Missi. Last week the church council had our annual visit from the church investment company, RW Baird. Usually, Ed Schindler and David Appleford come together, but this time, just David was able to come. It was an interesting visit; Ed usually does the talking, and David does the nodding. But this time, David stepped up to the plate and hit a good, long line drive. Like Ed has done so often, David had handouts to help engage his audience, and lines and red dots can do that.
But as he spoke, I realized that David was saying almost exactly what Ed might have said, “Don’t get concerned about the day-to-day; think about the long-haul.” David’s new news was that over the last five years that we have been with Baird, because of a generous gift from Ruth and Joe Deacon and some wise financial theory, we have made roughly 5.14% in interest, spent roughly $136,000 of accrued interest, and have still built up the base, as of last Wednesday anyway.
It struck me, in that meeting, how these two gentlemen come to remind us that we are doing well, of where to put our focus, to give the council members a real face to remember and to reassure us that their philosophy of investment hasn’t changed.
When I came across this morning’s scripture passage, I was struck with how this passage, that many of us have heard so often, is really a reminder that we, as God’s particular herd, are doing well, of where to put our focus, to give us a real sense of God’s personal presence and to reassure us of how God’s care of - and about us - hasn’t changed.
It is passages like this one from John that helps us discern our Shepherd’s voice from the other voices that clamor for our attention, many of whom claim to speak for God. Those voices are legion, but we do not always recognize how contrary they are to the voice of the Good Shepherd.
There are many voices that tell us how to grow closer to God: by having a prescribed religious experience, by believing the “correct” doctrine, by reaching a higher level of knowledge or a higher level of morality.
But here, God tells us that everything depends on belonging to the Good Shepherd. Never does our status before God depend on how we feel, on having the right experience, on being free of doubt, or on what we accomplish. It depends on one thing only: that we are known by the shepherd: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish” (John 10:28).
The voice of the Good Shepherd is a voice that liberates rather than oppresses. It doesn’t say, “Do this, and then maybe you will be good enough to be one of my sheep.” It says, “You already belong to me. No one can snatch you out of my hand.” Secure in that belonging and relationship, we are then free to live the abundant life of which Jesus spoke earlier in the chapter: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).
Most all of us know that the abundant life of which Jesus speaks is not necessarily about abundance in years, or in wealth, or status, or accomplishments. Every so often, actually, maybe every week, we need to be reminded that this life is abundant in the love of God - as we know that love in Christ, so abundant that that love can then overflow to others (John 13:34-35). We need that reminder that abundant life is eternal because its source is in God who is eternal (17:3), and in Jesus, who is the resurrection and the life (11:25-26).
Amidst all the other voices that evoke fear, make demands, or give advice, the voice of the good shepherd is a voice of promise - a voice that calls us by name and claims us as God’s own.
In picking up the baseball metaphor again, we come to the seventh inning stretch. What do you call a sheep covered in chocolate? A: A Candy Baa. Q: How do sheep in Mexico say Merry Christmas? A: "Fleece Navidad!” Q: What do you call a sheep that is always quiet? A: A shhhheep! Q: What do you get if you cross a sheep with a porcupine? A: An animal that knits its own sweaters.
We need regular reassurances to trust - trust that Christ is who he said he was. We can know the information, but putting that trust to the test - that’s different. It would be like driving on a brand new bridge for the first time. We could know that the steel, mortar and labor are of the best quality, but that is a completely different knowledge than the knowledge you would have after driving over the bridge and not falling through it. It takes a trust - of which no one can really convince you - despite all the right words and arguments.
Trusting that Christ will lead us and care for us and watches out for us is easy in one sense, but when our human timeframes and frailties and foundations come in to play, sometimes it’s hard to trust completely.
An archaeologist was digging in the Negev Desert in Israel and came upon a casket containing a mummy. After examining it, he called the curator of a prestigious natural-history museum. "I've just discovered a 3,000 year-old mummy of a man who died of heart failure!" the excited scientist exclaimed. To which the curator replied, "Bring him in. We'll check it out." A week later, the amazed curator called the archaeologist. "You were right about the mummy's age and cause of death. How in the world did you know?" "Easy. There was a piece of paper in his hand that said, '10,000 Shekels on Goliath'."
David Lose, president of Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia writes to pastors, encouraging us to encourage you. “There are so many times, Dear Partner, when life conspires to make us feel unsafe and unworthy and it is our job to proclaim in the face of these harsh realities the even greater reality of God’s undying, unconditional, and unyielding love. “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. No one will snatch them out of my hand.” There is no difference in those needing to hear this promise reminder.
How many situations can you think of that need that reminder - whether you could personally voice that assurance or not? Maybe it’s the student that has friends going through difficult times: God’s got you. Could be the one grieving so deeply that they wonder about the validity of any kind of future at all: it may feel like God is absent, but God’s got you in God’s hand. Maybe it’s the parent of the little baby screaming his or her lungs out in the emergency room: God’s holding you together, despite you feeling like your brain is going to explode. Might be all those so distressed by the disrespect and dishonor that seems to be winning the pre-elections: listen to God; turn off the tv, the radio and the internet, remember who you are and to whom you belong to. You are God’s flock - not God’s mob. So shall we pray.
Good and Holy God, we are grateful that no matter how crazy or difficult or stressful or scary our lives are, you choose us, love us, accompany us, and will hold onto us through all of life - even through death into the new life you have us. Help us to realize our part in our relationship with you - the trusting part - even when that trust seems illogical or insane. You know so much more so than we - of those who don’t have One that will offer such promises. Help us to offer those within our reach the grace of what belonging to you means and looks like. Help us to rise up as people of your flock - as people of the Good Shepherd. And all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.