A couple of years ago I had the pleasure of preaching to my entire family in a private service. It was in a little church on a small island in Scotland where the Macdonald clan had emigrated from a century ago. Now, if you were to visit this island one of the first things you would notice is the abundance of sheep. They are everywhere. Because there are no real threats of danger, the islanders have taken free-range to a whole new level.
When you are vacationing in a place where the sheep out number the locals 25-to-1, there are certain things that might surprise you. For example, sheep might be shy but they also have no sense of personal space. They will sneak up behind you and try to see what a Scotsman wears under his kilt. Trust me, on the Isle of Colonsay, you have to be on alert at all times...especially if you like to roam barefoot.
I confess I was not very keen on the idea of having to write a sermon while on vacation. And I was even less excited about preaching one in front of my family who disregards pretty much anything I have to say. But my mom had her heart set on attending Sunday service. And unless a minister washed up on shore...the responsibility was all mine.
Trust me, I looked for any excuse I could think of. I tried to convince my mother that it was improper for us to just wander into a church and use it like we owned the place. She said we're family and pointed to the church sign that said "welcome all."
When I pointed out the large heavy chain that locked the giant wrought iron gate in front of the door to the church, my mom quickly dismiss my observation saying, “That’s just to keep the sheep out.” I still wonder if she saw the irony.
As it turns out, somewhere in the church’s 200 year history, the sheep had figured out how to unlatch the old wooden door. Apparently they are not as dumb as we often make them out to be. In fact, I'd say sheep are pretty smart. They recognized the church as a sanctuary, a safe place to seek shelter from the heavy storms that frequently passed over the island.
It’s funny how similar certain behaviors are alike between species. Perhaps that's why the Bible offers so many allegories about shepherds and sheep. The most well known is the 23rd Psalm. It's filled with beautiful imagery of God as our loving and protecting shepherd.
This is carried over in the gospels, too. Jesus borrows from this metaphor announcing to his people that the Old Testament promise of God coming to rescue his sheep has been fulfilled through him. John’s particular gospel takes it a little further; revealing Jesus as both the good shepherd who will lays down his life for his sheep, and the sacrificial lamb who takes away the sins of the world.
We could spend hours talking about all the ways Jesus fulfills God’s promise to us, but instead I’d like us to think about who we are as followers of Christ. Today's reading is part of a series of "I Am" statements Jesus makes. He says, "I am the good shepherd. I will lay down my life for my sheep."
The question I ask this morning is: who are we? Are we sheep or are we shepherds? Perhaps we are called to be both?
I am not embarrassed to say I am clueless when it comes to shepherding. And not much smarter when it comes to sheep. But with a quick online search, I found some interesting facts that might trick you into believing I know more than I do. For example, did you know sheep are nothing like cows? Physical differences aside, cows are herded from the rear; often with the ranch hand shouting and prodding them along. Sheep, on the other hand, prefer to be led. If you yell at them, or startle them, they might run crazy for a moment before they regroup behind you. Unlike cows, sheep will not follow just anyone. They will only follow the voice of their shepherd.
Like human beings, they can be stubborn, skeptical and even a bit paranoid. Yet somehow they are able to rationalize that unless the trusted shepherd goes before them, they will not give an inch. You can't fool sheep either. They know the shepherd’s voice. It's a voice they can trust, because the shepherd intimately cares for them. Together they create a special bond that allows the herd to be led safely from place to place. The sheep and the shepherd are what form the fold. Instinctively they become a family.
Last week we talked about being welcomed into God’s family. In spite of our sinful nature, God creates a special bond with us. We are his beloved children...the sheep of his pasture. Our Holy Father sent us his only begotten son to leads us to quiet waters when anxiety and fear overwhelm us.
Through Christ, God’s grace and love flows freely long after our cup overflows. He anoints our heads with oil and sets a table for us in the presence of our enemies. What God has promised to Israel God through Christ Jesus has given to all. As we follow in his righteousness, goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives. And with our Good Shepherd we shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Jesus said, "I am the Good Shepherd." And by this simple phrase we know He cares for us. And looks out for us. He gives us his light and peace to guide us through a world still plagued with darkness and violence. He understands us because he intimately knows who we are. He knows what our dark valleys are like, because he has walked through them himself. His life and death is a reminder for us all of what human beings are capable of doing to other human beings. Both good and bad. Yet Jesus is always the Good Shepherd.
He is always ready to defend us when predators seek to victimize us, even if it means he must lose his own life. He is the true Shepherd who intentionally and willingly became the sacrificial lamb,...the very hope of our salvation. Jesus is the one we follow back to God, because He is the one who has been there before us He created the way!
This is the Easter message that always bears repeating. Even the most loyal sheep need constant reminders because we all tend to go astray. Sometimes we wander off and fall into dark ravines. Too often we follow the strange voices vying for our attention; distractions that attempt to lure us from the right path.
If you struggle to be faithful as I am apt do, the good shepherd is calling for you. If are in need of rescue or care…like I have from time to time...Then the good shepherd is calling for you too. If you feel like one of the forgotten and overlooked by society…made to believe you have no place or no voice... then listen up... the Good Shepherd is calling you by name. He has come for us all.
Even a black sheep like me receives the assurance that all who follow the good shepherd to the Father will become his forever. But those who follow Jesus’ voice are also called to be like him. That is to say, to be both a sheep and a shepherd. We have to put our faith into action...and lead others by example. We lead by the way we follow Christ.
This means we must be willing to set aside our self-interests and help others find quiet waters and green pastures. We must be willing to lay down our differences and lead our enemies to the table of peace. We must care for them, feed them, and guide them through the darkest valleys.This is the life of sacrificial love, the starting point of our Christian identity And what it means to be children of God. To be a follower of Christ, to bear the name Christian, means we must learn to resist the urge to live for ourselves; even if it means one must preach a sermon while on vacation.
As I stood, facing my family sitting in the old wooden pews of that beautiful old church, the rain began to fall. Outside the window I saw the sheep scattering about...looking for shelter. A strong wind blew across the island, causing the metal gate to slam shut; awakening each of us with a jarring clang. A stark reminder for all disciples that we are not called to hide behind locked doors, but instead open our arms and open our hearts to the world. We have to let the light of Christ shine from within us. And we must allow the Shepherd’s voice to speak through us so He might reach the lost and frightened sheep we encounter along the way.
Lord God, help us hear your voice so we may follow you down the paths of righteousness and walk in the glory of your Son, in whose name we pray. Amen.