Below is the sermon I delivered on Sunday, April 21st. We follow the lectionary at the Wesley Foundation at Tech, so the text comes from John as we continue to move through the Easter season. As normal, you’ll see my reminders to myself through the use of parenthesis, underlined phrases, bold phrases, etc.
(Ask the congregation to sit down to tell the story first.)
There’s this guy named Ralph. Actually, he’s a video game character. He had a unique job of wrecking this one building over and over again, so that this other guy named Fix-It Felix could fix it and be the hero. Thus, Ralph was always the bad guy. Ralph revealed to his Bad Guy Anonymous group members how he no longer wanted to be the bad guy. He sneaks out of his game and travels through the arcade subway system to get to a first-person shooter game called Hero’s Duty where he will be the good guy for once, where (in a game show announcer voice) he…will…win…a…medal!! *He does his best to plan everything on his own.* Well, Ralph leaving his game causes all sorts of chaos in the arcade world. In Hero’s Duty Ralph certainly gets the medal – doesn’t really win it – but in doing so hatches one of the Cy-bugs, the enemy of the game. Naturally, the bug freaks him out and he frantically stumbles into an escape pod that launches him and the Cy-bug into another video game called Sugar Rush, a kart-racing game. I won’t cover every detail but while Ralph is in Sugar Rush, the Cy-bug multiplies underground by what seems like the hundreds of thousands. Meanwhile, Ralph becomes friends with Vanellope Von Schweets and helps her enter and win a race that she actually had always been meant to be a part of. Long story short, after saving the entire arcade world after the hundreds of thousand Cy-bugs threatened to completely take over, Ralph realizes that he shouldn’t have tried to plan things out for himself. He goes back to his original game just in time before the arcade manager was about to completely pull the plug, ending the game for good. Ralph and the other characters of the game work together under a newfound respect for one another. The story certainly ends with positive resolution. Now I’m leaving out a lot of details here in respect of the time I have but what’s important from this story is that Ralph’s plans were, well, wrecked.
With this story now in the back of your minds, I invite you all to follow along as I read the Gospel lesson for today.
“At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’ Jesus answered, ‘I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.’”
So, are you a shepherd? Or are you a sheep?
We want to be the shepherd in our everyday lives, don’t we? We want to be the shepherd in the planning phases of our lives especially. We plan to take Job A because it will align us to receive benefits and salary A. And then we think further down the line that Job A puts us in a good position to eventually move to Job B where we’ll get even better benefits and salary B. Am I right? I know I have tried to be the shepherd of my life. After all, I certainly would rather be considered a shepherd than be considered sheepish. No one wants to be called sheepish. When comparing a shepherd to a sheep, the sheep is the lesser of the two, right? The sheep is the animal that is gathered and just follows orders. To be called a sheep or be called “sheepish” is typically not a compliment in our society. But this morning in conjunction with these texts, I encourage us to remember that we are actually sheep.
The shepherd-sheep metaphor is not an uncommon thing in the Bible.
I’m talking about something that is not new news. In the Old Testament, we see this metaphor referenced in the book of Jeremiah. On behalf of Yahweh, Jeremiah’s language is entirely the shepherd-sheep metaphor in 23:1-6, saying that there had been bad shepherds who had basically destroyed and scattered Israel but one day, from the remnants of the flock, Yahweh will “bring them (them being the Israelites) back to their fold and they shall be fruitful and multiply. Yahweh will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer or be dismayed.” In 31:10, we see that Yahweh will gather them and will watch over his flock like a shepherd. Furthermore in the OT, we see it in Isaiah 40, Ezekiel 34, and of course in the psalm for today, Psalm 23.
So, the sheep-shepherd metaphor is not uncommon. Now let’s move to the New Testament, specifically the Gospel of John where our text comes from this morning. Earlier, in John 10:7 and 9, we see that Jesus is “the door of the sheep” or the “gatekeeper” and then we see that Jesus is “the good shepherd” in John 10:11 and 14.
As the door of the sheep, 1. Jesus is the one who protects the sheep from harm in the sheepfold. As the door of the sheep, 2. Jesus must also lead the sheep from the security of the sheepfold into the danger of the field and countryside where the sheep must graze and eat grass to maintain life. In the countryside are the predators for which the shepherd must watch. But as the door of sheep, 3. Jesus is the way to know God.
And as the “good shepherd” Jesus protects his own and knows each sheep by name.
Now moving to this morning’s text, when Jesus is responding to the Jews who are questioning his identity, he doesn’t respond with a yes or no, in typical Jesus fashion. Instead he says, “The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me; but you do not believe me because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”
This metaphor still makes sense for our lives as Christians even today. But how? Well first of all, in having faith, we believe that the works of Jesus were thus the works of God. Also, we hear God’s voice. God knows us. So to have this faith means that we belong to God. Our security is found not in what we have or who we are but whose we are. We are God’s sheep and God is our shepherd.
Second of all, just as sheep are gathered in flocks by the shepherd, we are gathered in flocks by God. Our flocks are our communities, families, groups of friends, churches, etc.
Thirdly, as sheep we are to follow God as sheep follow their shepherd. If we are to follow God, we are to act in the world as Jesus did. It makes sense, right? If we believe that the works of Jesus are the works of God and thus we are called to follow in those ways, well, we are each supposed to do our part in the world. We are called to do the work of God with the gifts and talents God gives us but not out of guilt or for merit, but to display the love of God. You see, we are all missionaries of God. You may be thinking to yourself, “But I don’t want to be a missionary living in a foreign country learning a foreign language without the comfort of my things and my technologies. And I don’t think that is what God has called me to do!” That’s me, too. But we are missionaries of God in the sense that we are disciples of God. We can do God’s work by the guidance of the Holy Spirit through the gifts and talents we are blessed with.
So being a “missionary” can mean so many different things, like supporting a local non-profit organization by volunteering your time. It can mean going on a mission trip to the Bahamas. It can mean packaging food for those who need it most. It can mean doing yard work for your neighbor because he or she can’t do it alone. It can mean listening to a friend in need. You all know this and already do this, so continue to ask yourselves in life:
– What is my call to action in this world?
– How can I bring light to this world of darkness?
– How can I better follow the ways of Jesus as His sheep?
Remember that it is about doing what God is calling you to do, not what you think you should do.
Being like a sheep is hard thing to do.
I recognize this. What’s tricky is that a major part of being sheep means we must go out into the “countryside” where we know danger is present. That danger emits itself in acts of violence such as the violence we saw on Monday at the Boston Marathon. I expressed in a Facebook status after I heard the initial news that sometimes all we can do at that moment is throw our hands in the air and scream, “Why??” And in addition to that type of violence, violence emits itself structurally and inhibits people from their basic human rights, and we wonder, “Why?” That violence emits itself because our world can definitely be a dark place. So yeah it’s a hard thing to do, being a sheep because we put our trust in our shepherd even though we know our reality is paired with darkness. And it’s a radical kind of trust because one of the hardest things to do is live in faith and trust when we know of the hate, anger, ignorance, and injustices in the world.
But, don’t forget one thing about sheep. As I mentioned earlier, sheep live in flocks. God gathers us in our “flocks.” Our flocks are there for a reason. Amidst those tragedies and acts of violence, have you noticed what happens afterwards? We find a way to come together as a community.
– For a moment, all divisions are invisible.
– For a moment, our flocks emit hope and light in the most visible way.
Know your different flocks and take comfort in those flocks.
See, the good news is that the “why” is not it, the “why” is present but it doesn’t complete the circle, it is not the end. What comes after the “why” is the hope we have in Christ. Although Jesus’ death at that moment left his followers and disciples in a state of “why”, the resurrection of Jesus gave them hope. And it gives us hope today. We have hope, for Jesus is our shepherd. The ultimate shepherd.
Being a sheep means that we live out our lives with trust and confidence in God. We are to trust God amidst the danger and darkness that is out there in that “countryside.” Although sheep are seen as timid and are characterized as the lesser of the intelligent animals of the world, how a sheep stands in relation to its shepherd, the one who is basically in control of their lives, is an example of how we should stand in relation to God. This doesn’t mean we are to be complacent and lazy. We still must do our part in the world which is where the whole “disciple of God” thing comes in. But the trust sheep put in their shepherd when the shepherd takes them out into the countryside is an example of the trust we should put in God amidst our “countryside.
The shepherd is the one who promises us the most security and safety that we could never offer to ourselves or one another. Look back at verse 28. Jesus says, “I give them (them being Jesus’ sheep) eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.” If we trust God, if we know we are gathered together by God, and if we follow the ways of Jesus by pursuing our call to action, we are given something that we ourselves could never provide.
Yes it is true that this way of living, living as God’s sheep, is a radical way of trusting. But this radical trust and faith should empower us. It should empower us to believe that our lives as Christians have meaning. I encourage you all to remember that you are sheep, not shepherds. Know your flocks, know you are ultimately protected, and seek to follow Jesus by continuing to act in this world. AMEN.
Benediction – Remember the good news: being sheep to our Lord empowers us amidst the darkness of this world so don’t be afraid to do your part. Know you’re a sheep, know your flock, and pursue your call to action in the world.