Sermon transcript for May 18, 2014
5-18-14 Belmont UMC
Heather Harriss, preaching
Sermon transcript for May 11, 2014
“The Shepherd’s Voice”
5-11-14 Belmont UMC
We like the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, who knows us and calls us by name. We recognize his voice and we follow him. Where he leads us we will follow. It’s a comforting and idyllic image and one that we cling to in difficult and uncertain times.
The trouble is most of us do not know much about sheep or shepherding. I grew up on a farm but we never had sheep. We had cows and I know a little about cows. We had beef cattle on the farm and those cows were stubborn, they liked to be driven not lead. They could be very uncooperative, especially if we had a plan for them.
As a young pastor I made a home visit to see a man who had been in the hospital. The matriarch of this family was a woman named Gertrude, but everyone called her Pert, which fit her active personality. Pert was in her 70’s, still working and playing golf, and she owned about 100 head of cattle. During my visit, she came in the back door and said, “I’m glad you are here. I know you were a farm boy and I need you to help in a calf in a barn stall.” I looked down at my suit and knew I was not dressed for this. “Oh, just take off your coat and tie and roll up your pants. You’ll be fine.” An hour and half later I returned to the house, covered in sweat, manure and straw. Pert announced to the family, “The Lord has sent us a wonderful pastor. He can even herd cattle.” This was a successful pastoral visit on many levels.
I was always amazed at the cooperative spirit of my cousin’s milk cows. He owned a small dairy operation with an elaborate sterile milking barn. His cows wanted to be milked twice a day. He could stand on his porch with his coffee cup in his hand, making a whooping sound, calling the “ladies,” and they would come to the barn and line up. His cows were orderly and impressive.
Now I’m more of cat herder. I wake up every morning, make the coffee and begin herding cats. Cats do not like to be herded. I often wonder if Jesus knew anything about cats. If he had he would surely have given us some parables and metaphors about cat herding. But Jesus prefers the shepherding metaphor.
The Model Shepherd
The shepherding image is one that is used throughout scripture, from the Hebrew Scriptures and into the gospels of the New Testament. In Ezekiel we hear the promise that God will be a shepherd and will set a good shepherd over the people (chapter 34). King David of Israel is the heroic Shepherd King and represents a type (though flawed) for this model shepherd. The Psalm (23) exemplifies the relationship between the shepherd and the sheep that is knowing, loving and eternal.
It should be noted that the word we translated as “Good” as in Good Shepherd (kalos) does not mean the opposite of “bad” but it means “model.” Jesus is the Model Shepherd. This model shepherd’s task is to feed the sheep adequately, care for them in their suffering, keep them gathered together, and put their well being before his own. It might mean laying down one’s life to protect the sheep.
The Model Shepherd is one who develops a wonderful bond of trust and recognition between the sheep and the shepherd. We imagine ancient times when the shepherd would lead the sheep to a watering hole. There might be lots of other herds gathered there for the same reason (this would be disastrous with cows). The herds would mix together, but when the time came for them to move on, the shepherd would call their names and every sheep would know to follow. Sheep go where they are led. They develop a close bond with the shepherd. They hear the Shepherd’s voice, and the bond of familiarity calls them to follow.
The passages we have read today are among our favorites. They invite us into relationship with God, and remind us of one who cares for us and watches over us. Several years ago I conducted the funeral of the father of a church member. At the graveside we recited the words of the 23rd Psalm. Later my church friend said that moment brought her the greatest sense of peace and comfort—listening to the familiar voices of her friends and family affirming the presence of the one who would shepherd her through her journey of grief.
The Gospel reading suggests that it isn’t always perfect and idyllic. Sometimes the Model Shepherd would call after the sheep and they would be tempted to follow other voices. Some of those voices were thieves, fraudulent, and misguided. Some were persons who had no vested interest in the wellbeing of the sheep, but are more concerned with their own ambition. Some offered promises but could not deliver.
Over the years the sheep have been fleeced by false voices. From the Jim Jones types to those who promise shallow prosperity. The sheep have followed after voices that have led them to mistreat the Jews, justify slavery, advocate the abuse of women and children, and exclude certain groups from the fold. Sometimes those voices are not outside of our selves, but they are the voices of our own fears, prejudices and preconceived notions.
We like the image of the sheepfold. We like being inside the circle with other sheep like us and being protected by the Good Shepherd. But later in John 10 Jesus throws a wrench into the gears of this comforting image. He declares, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold.”
But how do we discern the authentic? How do we know that the voices we hear are the voices of the model shepherd?
Samuel Goldwyn, the great movie mogul, was quoted as saying, “The most important thing about acting is honesty. Once you’ve learned to fake that, you can do anything.”
How do we discern? It was theologian, Albert Outler, who noted that John Wesley, the father of the Methodist movement, taught us to look at 4 sources to discern the authentic: scripture, tradition, reason and experience.
Scripture: Wesley referred to scripture as the plumb line of faith. The scriptures contains God’s story, a story of God’s covenant keeping, faithfulness and love over a long course of time, among people who were at times primitive and other times quite sophisticated, among people who were sometimes obedient and sometimes impossible. God’s love remained constant.
It is true that we have often misused this story of God to justify our own misguided actions. One of my favorite cartoons depicts a young man who is flipping through his Bible. When his sister asks him what he’s doing, he says, “I’m looking for a passage to back up one of my preconceived notions.” We, too, have looked in the Bible to find verses to back up our preconceived notion. We quoted it out of context of placement, consistency and time. But in the broader picture of this story we come to know the voice of the Good Shepherd.Is what we are being told consistent with the story of God and the Jesus of the Gospels?
Tradition is about the way the church has understood our connection to God and our beliefs over a long period of time. Tradition gives strength and validity to those ideas.
Reason: We are to be thinking Christians. Reason allows us to ponder and question. Reason gives vitality to our faith and keeps us moving on this journey with a spirit of wonder and awe.
Experience: This is about our experience with God and an appreciation for the experiences of others. We ask ourselves if what I’m being told is consistent with these spiritual experiences. Tom Long writes, “Authentic ministry shares the cadence of Jesus’ own words, Jesus’ own work, and Jesus’ own promises and demands.”
“We are the sheep of his pasture.” And as the sheep we are to listen for the voice of the Good Shepherd and follow. And most of the time we do that. But the Bible also says that “all we like sheep have gone astray.”
Kathryn and I made a long westward trip in the years before we had children. We camped and hiked in some of the great national parks taking the southern trek through Colorado and New Mexico and up toward Montana and Wyoming. It was a great adventure. We had camped at Mesa Verde National Park. One day we were traveling back to our campsite after driving into Durango for supplies. The landscape was open and beautiful and we were the only car on the road that day. In the distance I could see a small boy riding on a horse along side the road. As we got closer, I could see that he waving a red bandana on the end of a stick and his facial expression was saying to us, “Slow down!” It was obvious that something was wrong. We did slow down and as we came over the next rise, we could see the reason--dozens of sheep in the middle of the road. We sat and watched the boy and his frantic family trying their best to move the sheep off the road. One stubborn sheep stood in front of our car as if to dare us to move forward. The whole scene would have been funny, except for the farm family’s predicament. At last the sheep heard the owner’s voice and made their way off the road and back toward their farm.
“All we like sheep have gone astray,” and we come to this place again and again to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd, and to hear the call to follow.