John 10:1-10; Acts 2:42-47
My son Aaron and I are reading a favorite book together: The BFG by Roald Dahl. In case you’ve not read the book, BFG stands for Big Friendly Giant. At the beginning of the story, though, you don’t know that the giant is friendly. The first chapter has one of the scariest scenes. The young girl, Sophie, wakes up in the wee hours of the night: “the witching hour” when you are all alone because everyone else is asleep. She sees the shadow of a gigantic figure coming toward her house. The enormous, tree-like figure turns to see her at her window. She scrambles to her bed, hiding under the covers, and a long-fingered, giant hand, reaches in through her window and snatches her from the safety of her bed!
The fear of some unnamed terror, stealing us away from the safety of home, of security and love and familiarity—it strikes us to the core, doesn’t it? Locks, alarms, security businesses, government agencies, police forces are built on this fear.
In fact, this week, as I was studying and contemplating the passage from John, about the “thief and robber stealing the sheep from the sheepfold,” I had a nightmare myself. The part I remember, is my door being ripped off the hinges, and there being confronted by a large, scary-looking man, holding a mostly-drunk bottle of vodka. Invasion, lack of security, theft and loss . . . These are fears that we wrestle with as vulnerable children. And, maybe, buried a bit deeper, we experience them at an unconscious level as adults.
But sometimes fears of loss arise because of the simple fact of change. I like to think that I’m a person who enjoys change. But honestly, when change comes, especially change I didn’t choose–despite my best intentions, sometimes, fears arise. The “what-ifs” begin to stream through thoughts and conversation. Worst-case scenarios begin to play out in brilliantly colored high definition on the screen of the imagination. I’m not alone in this, am I? You can fill in the blanks: What if I made the wrong choice about _______? What if my child’s illness takes a turn for the worse and ___? What if I don’t find another job and ____? What if the outcome of surgery isn’t what we hoped and _____? How will life change for me, and for my loved ones? What if my new boss and I don’t fit? What if the new pastors don’t want to continue something I care about? Or worse—what if they don’t like me?
Take a deep breath. It’s normal. It’s part of being human. Changes large and small may make us feel just the same as we did as children: we long for the security of our own small room, or even the safety of being under the covers, where we think we can’t be seen or threatened.
Every week our staff studies the coming Sunday’s scripture. This week, we noticed a couple of problems with the passage. One is that like other parts of the Gospel of John, it can be read as “us versus them”. Yes, the writer of this Gospel was addressing a community that had essentially been expelled from the synagogue. . . There is an echo of defensiveness that can come through the text, centuries later. Another problem for readers today, is that most of us don’t have experience with sheep. And truly, isn’t it a bit offensive, to be compared to sheep?
Melissa Olmsted shared a book with me that helped in this regard. Scouting the Divine: my search for God in wine, wool and wild honey, by Margaret Feinberg is about a real-life shepherd in Oregon. The author visited the shepherd, Lynne, to learn what sheep and shepherding is really like.
She wrote, about sheep: “From the outside, a lot of sheep’s behavior looks dumb. And it’s true that they aren’t always aware of the consequences of what they’re doing, but to describe all of their behavior as dumb is a broad generalization. They aren’t dumb. They’re defenseless. There’s a big difference. . .”
And apparently, it is true that sheep know the sound of their shepherd’s voice. The author describes how Lynne, the shepherd, goes out into the pasture and calls “Sheep, sheep, sheep.” Piaget, and Manuel, Mario, Dove, Opal, Iris and Meggie come running, expecting food, and attention. These same sheep do not trust the author, Margaret, a stranger, until it is clear that she is with Lynne.
Lynne said that being a shepherd has taught her about compassion. She says, “Generally, even if a sheep is aggressive or a total brat, you still provide and care for it. You don’t give up. You persist. You accept the differences between the sheep.” Her favorite qualities of her favorite sheep are those who“. . .come when I call their names. They love me. They paw me and want my attention. They are responsive to me.”
Which makes me wonder about our own “sheepliness.” How responsive are we to God’s voice? How do we hear the voice of Jesus?
In a world where even computers generate letters and phone calls in which we are addressed by name, always seeking to gain something from us, there is a promise here that when God calls to us through Jesus we dare to trust that we will be fed and that we will be loved.
We are here, because somehow, God’s voice has gotten through the static of our hectic, noisy, modern lives. We are part of the flock, because the “still, small voice,” of God has slipped in underneath the busyness of our existence has whispered, gripping our attention and moving our souls.
Perhaps our faith is not so much a matter of believing certain things as it is of hearing Jesus’ voice and trusting it with our lives. Jesus calls to us in the Scriptures, “Come to me all who are heavy laden and I will give you rest. . . I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. . Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.”
Jesus entered the straw and mud of our world for one reason: Love. Love alone is what makes the shepherd good.
The passage in John warns of bad shepherds, those who would leave the sick or injured sheep in distress or allow the flock to fall to predators. Shepherd Lynne said “I’ll have people tell me they want to buy a sheep to cut their grass. I’ll ask if the person has a barn and they’ll say they have a tree. Or the man who kept sheep for tax profits. They’re not bad shepherds. They’re non-shepherds. The good shepherd cares for the sheep because she cares. The good shepherd lays down his life because he loves.
Love alone is what makes a shepherd good.
The crooked shepherd’s staff is still a symbol used by churches for the pastor.
Which makes it so appropriate now, as Westminster stands poised to call new pastoral leadership, next weekend. In my time here at Westminster, I’ve noticed some parallels between ministry and shepherding. David and I and the other staff who minister here are constantly scanning “the flock”—looking for absences, changes in behavior, sickness, vulnerability. It teaches us to pay attention to a lot of different things. Caring for a big, multiple flock multiples the need for many skills, including learning to anticipate, schedule, organize and strategize.
Lessons from Shepherd Lynn also suggest that:
“Shepherding teaches you to lead from the front rather than the back. Whenever the sheep are pushed, they’ll respond with fear or anxiety—even when their shepherd is doing the pushing. . . Pushing a sheep produces agitation. But when I go ahead of the flock and call them by name, they follow me peacefully. They trust me and they want to follow. Anyone can lead by agitating, but leading in such a way that those behind you want to follow is an art form.”
We are community about to choose and welcome new co-pastors. Our elected Pastor Nominating Committee chose the Neels because they have discerned them to be pastors who will lead with care, love and joy. In the coming months, if the congregation affirms this choice, a big part of our life in ministry will be getting acquainted—knowing and being known. And our mission as a congregation will flourish as we are able to trust them, and one each other. We may be nourished and we hope to nourish our community and world in brand new ways.
Writer Sarah Heinrich tells about a preacher in Africa who told about how the people of a village knew each other’s sheep the way we might know one another’s children. As he sat in a group in the village, a person would stop by, “Have you seen my sheep so-and-so,” identifying his own sheep by name. Through the dark night he heard villagers calling out names. “They are calling their sheep,” one of the locals told him. “They will all find each other.”
This image of the villagers finding and caring for one another ties into another reading for today, from Acts 2:42-47:
42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
43Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
I wonder if our faith is not so much a matter of believing certain things as it is of hearing Jesus’ voice and trusting it with our lives.
How do you hear God’s voice? How do we hear Jesus speak to us? It’s the same voice that speaks through the Scriptures and through the liturgy and through hymns and through the choir anthems. It is sometimes what we hear from the sermon, not the preacher’s voice, but that Holy Spirit in us, allowing us to hear God’s voice. It is the voice of deep crying out to deep, of Christ’s spirit seeking out our spirits and calling us home.
A while ago, after graduating from school in Chicago, I spent some time working for an educational foundation in Hyde Park. It was an intensely lonely time. I was seeking community but had many reservations about the institutional church and about God. One of my friends put it like this: “Jesus and I were on the skids.” Despite my questions, doubts and fears, University Place Christian Church welcomed me. They took the time to get to know me well. No snap judgments. There were members of the church who were transparent and honest with their own questions. They did not make me ascribe to black and white doctrine. The church had the compassion to see that I was on a journey, and they were open to the Holy Spirit working in that unknown part of me. After a class and discernment with the pastor, the church welcomed me into membership with the same words that we use in welcome to our new members. And they called me by name: “Welcome, Laurie! You are one of us!”
Jesus calls us by name, to abundant life: a life directed, not toward fear, but toward love. A life in which our cup is running over with an awareness of the goodness of God so much so that it naturally spills out and spills over and intersects with every aspect of our lives. Abundant life, means quite simply, a life full of God: a life full of love!
What if Jesus, the good shepherd is speaking to us today? What if he is opening the gate of our hearts, what if he is opening wide the doors of Westminster, spreading his arms wide and his heart and saying: I love you! Follow me! What then?