29 April 2007

Sermon for the 4th Sunday of Easter - "Sheep"

Preaching Texts

Loving and Wondrous God, in humility and faith we offer the prayers of our hearts and the needs of this day. We give thanks for the blessing of this day and for the gift of knowing that in all our joys and trials, we are not alone. We thank you for one another, and for the courage of those who act as shepherds of faith, guiding us toward a deeper knowledge of you and your way of love, justice and peace. We pray for all who are named in this place today and for all whose needs are known only to you. God, bless and keep your beloved children – grant comfort and peace where it is needed and strength to face each new day with just a bit more faith, just a bit more light. God, walk with us through whatever valleys we find ourselves navigating. Take us by the hand and lead us toward each new day, with the hope that is ours in Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.[1]

I always thought it was a good thing when Jesus called us "his sheep." That is, until my dad got us some sheep. Sheep, as we discovered, are not the white, fluffy cuties you see in children's books and promotional videos for Scotland & Ireland. My brothers and I discovered sheep are messy – their wool catches every last thistle and dirt clod, not to mention other stuff that we won't discuss here. My brothers and I discovered sheep are stupid – we spent most of one fine summer weekend fixing fence because one of them stuck his head through to get to the grass on the other side and panicked when he couldn't back out of the fence. My brothers and I discovered that sheep are stubborn, too – that fine summer weekend was the first time I fixed that fence, but it wasn't the last.

So, when Jesus calls us his sheep, it's not some lovely pastoral image or a disguised form of flattery for those who follow Jesus. It's a description of the work Jesus has to do as shepherd, and it ain't pretty work, either. We are, after all, a messy folk. We aren't always a joy to be around. Much of our living is rough, dirty and smelly, but we're so used to it that we hardly ever notice. We also tend to be less than intelligent about the blessings around us – I'd be willing to bet that all of us have chased after what was out of our reach, gotten stuck and panicked. Finally, we are also a stubborn lot – we have a long history of chasing after stuff on the other side of the fence, and that chasing will continue into the foreseeable future.

But the funny thing about sheep is that they do know when they've got a good thing going. When it was feeding time, all we had to do was holler and they would come running. In fact, our sheep would follow us anywhere if we carried feed with me and kept calling them along. You could say they understood that if my brothers and I made a promise to them, they knew we would keep that promise. We were, after all, the ones who provided what they needed. They didn't always understand, but they knew our voices, they knew the things we brothers had done, and they followed us, even when things around them were uncertain. Our sheep knew our voices, and they followed us. This is where we are this morning, too. You are the sheep who know the voice of your shepherd, and you follow Him.

How do I know you hear Jesus' voice? I know you hear Jesus' voice because you're here this morning. "Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them," Jesus says. We gather here to hear the voice of Jesus, to be shepherded and kept by the one who joins us hers. The Spirit has called us here, as it calls the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps us united with Christ our shepherd in the one true faith. We are here because the good shepherd called us in to be fed by his Word and his promises. We hear Jesus' voice and come running to be fed.

I know you hear Jesus' voice because I know that you trust and follow him also. The world can be an uncertain, frightening place. But Jesus promises us this morning that nothing in the worls will be able to take us out of his care. We confessed it in the psalm we sung this morning: "Though I should wander the valley of death, I fear no evil, for you are at my side; your rod and your staff, my comfort and my hope." That beautiful song helps us to confess to Jesus that we are uncertain but trusting ourselves into his care. Of course, the fear still lurks within us, but we believe more boldly still because we know the voice of the one we follow through the darkness into the light. We trust Jesus' voice in the shadow of death itself.

I know you hear Jesus' voice because your works tell the world whose voice you follow. In fact, the depth of our faith in Jesus is far more evident in how we live outside of this building than what we do and say inside this building – just as the trust of the sheep is revealed far more clearly when they follow their shepherd through the wilderness. But this is there the metaphor ends and the actual living begins. Sheep do not call other sheep into their flock, nor do they tend to members of other flocks, yet we believe we are called to do so. We believe that good works flow from faith in Christ, that faith without good works is not faith at all. We believe in Jesus' voice and obey, and we obey because we believe. As God's sheep, we are given the opportunity to be public witnesses to Jesus Christ, whose voice we follow, and we are called to be shepherds to one another as well, to be the voice of Christ to one another as we follow him.

It turns out that it is a good thing when Jesus calls us his sheep. It's a good thing because it's Jesus who's doing the calling, not because we are any better than sheep. To be a member of the flock is to know Jesus, to trust him, to hear his voice and follow where he leads. Peter followed and found a woman named Tabitha who needed resurrection. John followed and found a vision of how faith in Christ can survive a host of threats and dangers too great to be understood by mortal minds. We follow today and see the hands of Jesus holding out the promises of forgiveness, life and salvation to the flock he has called together today. May you be blessed to listen to his voice, to follow his call and be found in his keeping, now and forever. Amen.

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