All we like sheep

A sermon preached at St. Paul’s Church Connecticut by Christopher L. Webber on May 15, 2011.

Several years ago I got into a conversation somehow about the relative intelligence of sheep and cows. Cows are smarter.  They know when to come home and they know their own stall. Sheep are not smart. Jesus used them as an example because they have tendency to err and stray from their ways.  The cowherd claps his hands and calls Bossy and gets a response.  The shepherd needs a crook to pull the sheep back from danger and with a pointed end to prod the sheep and a good sheep dog if possible to run around and bark at the sheep and nip at their heels to get them moving the right way.

Jesus chose a relatively stupid animal as an illustration of God’s love for us – and it isn’t a compliment! Jesus is saying we are like sheep: wandering, without much inner guidance, with a tendency to get lost, with a tendency to get into trouble. It’s not, as I said, a compliment, but it is probably a fair assessment. Yeah, human beings are like that. I know myself well enough to recognize the appropriateness of the illustration.

But the other side of the coin is that for all of that, nevertheless, God values us.  The shepherd would not exert himself for the sheep if there weren’t some value there: wool, mutton, chops.  Very few people raise raccoons.  The sheep have a value to the shepherd. And the implication is that we have a value to God.

Is that obvious?  Probably not.  When you stop to think of the billions of people crowding the planet, living very often in conditions that no self-respecting sheep would put up with, and put that in the perspective of a span of creation in which the human lifespan is insignificant and a span of space in which this earth is a grain of sand, who could imagine that a Creator would care?  And yet, the Bible makes that claim.  It goes far beyond that: it says that we are made in the image of God; we are in some essential way like God. Sheep are not much like the shepherd; they’re a different order of being. No number of sheep can change a light bulb; they can’t even find their way home. But the Bible claims that we are like God in some essential way. And therefore God values us as we would value our own children. The Bible speaks of God as loving us, yearning for us, grieving over us and finally entering into our lives and living here among us and dying for us.

Now what that also means is that God in some essential way is like us. It always surprises me when I have the chance to speak with a couple planning to be married and find out that they haven’t the foggiest idea what God is like.  They have some vague idea of a distant, impersonal power – what the movies call “The Force” – which is not something I much relate to. “The Force:” can you fall in love with a Force or imagine a Force that sees you as anything more than an insignificant force to be absorbed or manipulated or annihilated?  We use force ourselves – sometimes well, sometimes badly – but force is a tool and our relationship with force is to control or be controlled. The Force is a tornado destroying homes, a military invasion, a cancer.

A force is many things but none of them loveable. God is not like that.  Nor did Jesus ever use language like that. God in Jesus’ teaching is sometimes a powerful king but more often a forgiving father, a careful housewife, a hen with chickens, a shepherd with sheep, one who cares for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field and knows our needs and loves us.  It’s not a particular compliment Jesus pays us in comparing us with sheep but it is a wonderful gift: God cares; God values us; God loves us.

Now that’s good to know but it’s not enough. It comes with a job to do. The Gospel speaks of other sheep who must also be brought so that finally there is one flock and one shepherd. I’ve had many a disagreement over the years with well-meaning Christians who wonder why we should spend our time worrying about foreign mission and trying to convert people to our faith when they have a perfectly good faith of their own.  Well-meaning but totally confused.  Does it make a difference to you to know God loves you? Wouldn’t it matter to someone else as well? Someone once described the church’s mission as being like that of hungry beggars who know where bread is to be found and tell others.

Is there really no difference between Christianity and Islam, between a religion of submission and a religion of freedom, between a religion of a distant God and the knowledge of a close and loving God? Yes, we have things in common: one God, a God of mercy. But also vast differences. There are people who think it’s fine to get all the marbles and keep them. There are others who know instinctively that gifts are given to be shared. The Gospel surely, is a gift to be shared.

In the early hears of the Christian Church there were people called Gnostics who believed that there was secret knowledge available only to insiders and initiates. You couldn’t be given the secret knowledge unless you proved yourself worthy over a long time of training.  Gnosticism won a good many followers for awhile; it’s nice to think you are in on a secret and that you have earned the right to special status. But Gnosticism was condemned as a heresy.  Christianity is not like that. Christianity is about a love that needs to be shared with everyone, no holds barred. It’s open and available and there for the taking and if that means that the church is filled with people who don’t seem quite nice or quite as deserving as we are – well, that’s the way Jesus and his disciples seemed to a lot of people in that time also. “Why does your master eat with publicans and sinners?”  “If this man is a prophet, how come he’s doesn’t know what kind of woman this is that he’s talking to?” That was the criticism. And Jesus accepted that criticism.  He said, “The well have no need of a doctor but only those who are sick.” Jesus told his disciples to go into all the world, not stay home where it’s safe, not keep it a secret, but go find those other sheep who are no more or less sheepish than you are; find them and bring them home to the God who loves them and wants them to know that love.

We are members of a church that balances the budget and has all too little left for others. It may be that we have our priorities wrong, that we need to get mission into our budget first and then see whether we have anything left for ourselves because the job isn’t done just because the doors are open on Sunday.  Jesus did not say, “I’m waiting here with the door open.” The Good Shepherd doesn’t stand there waiting for the lost sheep to come back but goes looking.  There’s work to be done and we have barely begun to do it.

So there’s good news in today’s gospel but a challenge as well: God loves us – but not just us. Our God is the Good Shepherd who loves us all and seeks to bring us all home. God call us to help make that love known.

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