Adapted from a sermon

Delivered April 17, 2005

Immanuel Presbyterian Church


Psalm 23

Acts 2:41-47

John 10:1-10

Sheep Vs. Shepherd: A Dilemma

            Good morning. It has been a difficult week for me. The weather has been gorgeous, but my spirit has been in utter turmoil. A good part of this is probably due to the change of seasons, but also because our daughter has been stressed out over an impending biopsy of a strange mass found in her chest cavity. After two weeks of testing of one kind of another, she had the biopsy on Friday. Everything looks fine - initial results are good, and a full report will be available tomorrow or the next day.

            The problem for me has been the effort to "practice what I preach" and "give these things over to God." I've been a hospital chaplain for a good many of the past 15 years. I can't tell you how many times I have read or recited the Lord's Prayer or the 23rd Psalm for patients as they have prepared for surgery. This week, I've also reflected on how many times I've read the 23rd Psalm, in particular, when all medical intervention has failed, and the patient has died. Baa! Even, humbug. I was not interested in reading about "valleys of the shadow of death" or even "Death Valley", not this week.

            I was talking to Mary Jane earlier this week and said something to the effect of, "I just can't get into this sermon - too many sheep. Just too many sheep."

            I don't like the image of sheep anyway. I don't like to think of myself as a bleating, four-legged animal being herded around in a large group. I don't like to think of myself as being in need of protection from various ferocious animals or forces of nature or maybe even, protection from my own on-going stupidity. Sheep are not noted for their personal intelligence.

            Jesus as the Good Shepherd was not doing it for me. And the passage from the Gospel of John about trying to enter the sheepfold and following the shepherd's voice was falling on deaf ears. If I were a sheep, I decided, I would go hide behind a rock so I could have a little privacy.

            And that's pretty much what I did. I hid out for a while.

            I decided that part of my problem was that I wanted to be the Shepherd, not the Sheep. I was used to being the Shepherd, darned it. If there was a ferocious micro-organism or a rampant crazed cluster of cells stalking my child, I should be able to raise up my staff - scream bloody murder -- and beat them off. Not sit around by the telephone waiting - helplessly waiting. Waiting for someone else - some doctor I don't even know - to take care of my child. Waiting for some young man - whom I barely know - to drive my daughter to the hospital and to call me later to tell me that my child was okay. Humph.

            For the last couple of weeks, we've been talking about the development of the church after the Easter experience. Last week we talked about the Road to Emmaus and what the disciples may have learned from that experience - the gifts found in the study of scripture, the breaking of bread, and the fellowship of the church.

            I got to sit in with the LOGOS group this past Tuesday and do a little bit of Bible study around the purpose of the church. It was fun. "Okay," I said, "so we believe the message of the Easter story, now what? What's this church business all about?"

I asked the kids why they came to church or the LOGOS group and if they had children of their own, would they bring them to church? They all pretty much said, "yes" - so I asked "why?"

            They had some good answers. Friendship/fellowship. Learning the rules, like the Ten Commandments, for living successfully together as a community. Helping each other - like taking up the collection to buy an airplane ticket for Donovan. Helping people in the community that we don't even know personally - like entertaining 65 kids at an Easter Party a couple of weeks ago, or collecting personal supplies like shaving stuff for people at the 4As. Did you know our kids were doing these things?

            As our time was drawing to a close, we starting talking about another good thing about church - it was a safe place to talk about God, who or what was God? What did we really believe about God? What about Life? What was the real Purpose of Life? What was the purpose of Our Life? And what about Death?

            We didn't get too far with all this in one week, which was probably a lesson in itself. It takes time. The questions are never fully answered. But it's good to have people with whom you can safely talk about these things - when you are a kid, when you are an adult, any time.

            The Acts passage this morning talks about Life Among the Believers, after the resurrection. Their life wasn't that much different than ours - except perhaps in degree.

We're told that after they heard the words of Peter, the first converts devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. We talked about this last week.

            In addition, we learn today that the first converts sold all their belongings and held everything in common - distributing the proceeds to all as they had need. The kids and I decided that while we aren't that drastic, we do share what we have and try to help others when they need our help.

            The first converts, and those of us who have followed during the past 2,000 years, have become The Body of Christ, the Shepherd, each doing our part to care for our families, our community, and our world. As the Body of Shepherd, we can and do collectively express the commitment, the caring, and the courage of Christ the Shepherd.

            As it turns out for me, I've decided that we are both sheep and shepherd, sometimes doing the caring and sometimes receiving the caring. And this is as it should be. At different times in our lives we have different needs and different responsibilities. Some of us are fitted best for bringing prayer and compassion to the scared and lonely. Others of us are fitted best for fighting social injustice on a worldwide level. Some of us are better at figuring out the meaning of parables or the historic context of the Book of Revelation. Working together, we are all a part of the Body of Christ, the Body of the Good Shepherd.

            It's okay, I've decided, that one part of the Body learns to perform biopsies and another part of the Body drives his girlfriend to the hospital. And it's okay that yet two other parts of the Body - the mother and father of the girl, in this case -- are assigned the worry and prayer work that day. We are all participating in the work of the Shepherd.

            And I'm reminded that yet other parts of the Body of Christ the Shepherd formed a prayer chain to let the mother and the father know that they were not alone in their concern for their child. Everyone has a job. And the amazing thing is that we've been doing these things for each other for 2,000 years.

            So, again, the Christian message is a paradox. Sometimes we are part of the Good Shepherd and sometimes we are the sheep.

            And I've decided that being the sheep isn't such a bad thing after all. Much of the time we are out there in the pasture, doing our own thing - chomping grass, jumping over rocks, milling about, perhaps aimlessly, or maybe quite purposefully - if we're heading for some particularly tasty clover across the creek. It's good to be out in the sunshine with the freedom to look around and even get into a little trouble here and there.

            But when the storm clouds begin to gather, and the lightening flashes, it's good to be part of a flock. And it's downright comforting to hear the voice of the Shepherd - and to know that even if you are hiding out behind that rock, he'll come to find you and bring you safely into the fold.

            Storms come and go - they are part of life. Wolves appear and circle around us. And then they retreat into the darkness. We are not meant to stay huddled in the sheep pen. That's not the point. There is an ebb and flow to life: Time to spread out, seek our own corner of pasture and kick up our heels; and a time to gather close for mutual warmth and protection. All the time knowing that the Shepherd is watching. A whistle or a call is a sign to look up and pay attention.

            Jesus says that he acts like the gate to the sheepfold. The gate swings both ways - the people come in and they go out again. There are dangers in life. But the people who hang together, listen for the voice of the Teacher and follow Him will find pasture, protection, and life abundant.

            Perhaps I'm ready to hear the 23rd Psalm again.

Praise Be to God.


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