First United Methodist Church
Plymouth, Indiana

Being Sheep

First United Methodist Church
April 21st, 2024
Rev. Lauren Hall

Testimony to the Resurrection

A few years ago I was stopped at a traffic light and the person behind me informed me that my brake lights weren’t working. I thanked this person for letting me know and assured her that I would look into it right away. When I had the chance to see the car’s reflection, I tapped my brakes, and the lights were fine. I convinced myself that this person’s observation was a fluke and carried on with life for several weeks, until another friendly driver informed me that I had no brake lights. I assured this person that I did, and continued to check my lights regularly, and most of the time, they were just fine.

Although I made a habit of checking my lights periodically from that time on, I knew that I had a problem, and I made a choice to ignore it. Eventually, as all problems do, the problem got worse, and the lights failed to work more than they worked. I finally admitted to myself that I was a liability on the road and if I didn’t get the lights fixed I might cause a serious accident. When the mechanic showed me the defective brake light switch, I was embarrassed that I had waited so long to take care of the problem.

I’ve mentioned before that one of my hobbies is looking at ordinary objects or life situations and asking myself, “What is Jesus teaching me in this moment?” And as I reflected about this particular situation, about the way I avoided looking into and dealing with this problem early on, I was reminded of the way many of us handle sin. How often do we avoid dealing with sin until we have drifted so far away from Christ that our actions become a liability? Let us pray…

“Lord, your voice is the one true voice. As we explore the scriptures today, may our hearts and minds be open to your message. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you, and to all who hear them. Amen.”

I want to tell you a story about three brothers who were really good basketball players. Two of them made it to the NBA, the third played in college and might have had an NBA career had he not ended up in prison following his conviction for vehicular homicide and driving while intoxicated. In addition, one of the other two brothers was recently banned from the NBA for gambling issues.

I don’t know all the family dynamics between these three men, but despite the fact that they are now on three distinctly different paths, and regardless of whether they agree with the actions of the other, they are still brothers. In fact, the one who remains in the NBA attended his brother’s trial, supported him through it and spoke on his behalf.

And if they were metaphorically in Jesus’ flock of sheep – oh wait a minute – they are in Jesus’ flock – when one of them strayed, Jesus would have reached out his shepherd’s crop and pulled him back in.

A person holding a sheepDescription automatically generatedSheep have a tendency to stray. The two scriptures we read this morning paint a picture of Christ as a shepherd. This is not unusual in the Hebrew Scriptures – Ezekiel refers to God as the true shepherd and Isaiah prophesies that God “feeds his flock like a shepherd” and promises that “he will gather the lambs in his arms and carry them in his bosom and gently lead the mother sheep.” When Jesus makes the statement, “I am the Good Shepherd,” the image that we resonate with is the image that we have from the familiar words of Psalm 23. Therefore, it is not surprising that early Christian artists depict Jesus in this manner. (show picture)

Our imagination takes us to a beautiful pasture with Jesus shepherding a flock of sheep who willingly follow him. He carries a lamb in his arms and a shepherd’s crook in his other. We see in this landscape the faithful shepherd who will take care of us and keep us from harm. If we place our trust in Jesus, everything will be all right.

But enter the real world. Even in Jesus’ time, there is no such pasture. Using familiar words that would conjure up the imagery of tenderness and safety, Jesus immediately moves to shatter it. In John’s gospel, Jesus is a defending shepherd. He speaks of wolves and of laying down his life for his sheep. He reminds us that hired hands, who have no relationship with the sheep, would flee at the first sight of the wolves, leaving the sheep to fend for themselves. But the shepherd, the one who has raised these sheep since birth, would sacrifice his own life to protect the sheep that he loves.

Take a look at this image. We don’t generally view Jesus like this. But J. R. R. Tolkien, who wrote Lord of the Rings as a Christian allegory, saw the role of Jesus as one who protects others from harm. Tolkien created the character of Gandolf to represent Jesus in a medieval world struggling to defeat evil. He interpreted the idea of laying one’s life down for his sheep, as one who would have the power and willingness to fend off all attackers. Time and time again, Gandolf risks his life to protect his “flock.” He cared about them, and this added to his passion for protecting them.

Just for fun, let’s take Gandalf into Psalm 23. The Lord is my Shepherd – Gandolf leads his team of hobbits, dwarves, elves and humans toward their destination, helping them to find the safe paths through the forest. I shall not want – when Gandolf is present, all needs are taken care of. He makes me lie down in green pastures – Gandolf leads them out of the dark woods into the light, open pastures. He finds safe river crossings for them. If you look for similarities, you can find them. But Gandolf isn’t a real person, so let’s get back into the Bible. [Let’s have the next picture, please.]

What are we looking at now? Is this a picture of the Good Shepherd? Why would he swing a weapon? “Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.” Both of these tools have a specific purpose. The staff is something you’ve seen many times: long and curved at the end, so the shepherd could rescue a sheep from a ledge it couldn’t escape from or pull back a lamb that was straying. But the rod was essentially a baseball bat with nails pounded through it.

The Good Shepherd “lays down his life for his sheep” because even the Holy Lands were a dangerous place for sheep, and anyone who tried to protect them. There were predators that would try to kill and eat the sheep, and so a shepherd didn’t only carry a staff to rescue the lost sheep. He also carried a rod so he could fight to the death when an enemy attacked.

The Good Shepherd is a provider who comforts his sheep. He is a provider, and every bit as much an armed guard who will be with his sheep in dangerous places and would rather die than see one of his little lambs harmed. When you visualize this image of Jesus, you might see a shepherd who is running toward the wolf – someone who is going to chase the animal away. He is aggressive and intentional. This is the image of the person I would want to protect my life. When we walk in the footsteps of Jesus, we also need to be prepared to stand and defend those who cannot defend themselves. But when all is said and done, I still want to get a hug from my Lord, and so I am thankful of depictions that allow me to see Jesus like this.

Our Resurrection story this morning reminds us that at the end of Luke’s Gospel, Peter and the other disciples are discouraged and feel alienated and abandoned by Jesus, who went willingly to his death and then disappeared from the tomb. When the resurrected Jesus appears to the disciples, he has to regain their trust before they will realize their potential for confident living and eternal life.

That’s why Jesus says, “Look at my hands and feet . . . Touch me and see.” Getting in touch with Jesus—through encounters with people who can physically illustrate the love and compassion that is the foundation of Christianity – will lead to a person to enter into holy communion with him through the spiritual disciplines of worship, prayer, fasting, Bible study, sacrament, and fellowship. And these are the things that enable a person to live triumphantly amid the meanness, madness, and misery of life in the modern world.

As the church, we are called to live lives of seeing and caring that stand in contradiction to everything that debases and diminishes human life. When I read books or see movies like the Lord of the Rings, I am reminded of how important it is that we confront evil head-on, immediately, before it takes root and grows out of control. When my brake lights first indicated that there was a problem, it was my responsibility to take care of it. If I had ignored it for much longer, I could have caused a major accident, even the death of another person.  When we witness evil in the world, it is our responsibility to face that evil with clubs drawn. The other sheep, the different sheep – they are also our responsibility. Jesus calls us to be one flock, with one shepherd. Our community is full of people who are not actively involved in a church. Jesus has given each one of us special gifts to go out and reach others and invite them to become part of the fold. When we share our faith with others, we make it possible for others to become aware of the abundant grace offered through Jesus Christ.

By our baptism, we are called to live as Christ in the world. We are not our own, we belong to Christ. But we are not just sheep; when we lead resurrected lives, we live the life of the risen Shepherd. Let us pray:

Gracious and loving God, we seek safety and peace in your presence. In this spirit, we have come to this time of worship, seeking to experience green pastures, and refreshing springs of water, places of rest. We seek offerings of quietness and comfort to flood our thirsting souls. In the midst of all that is difficult, Lord, lead us to these places where, when we have gathered strength and healing, we will be prepared to go forth in confidence to serve again. Give us the courage to reach beyond our comfort zones, to recognize others as sheep who need to be loved, and to love those who are different from us. Help us to build a home for all people, complete with the assurance of the presence of God and a beloved community.

We offer today the names and situations of illness, mourning, stress, and concern which touch our lives and our souls. Today we pray for: [names]. We have breathed our heart’s desire for their healing and restoration. May your love flood over in their situations and needs. And may you be with us, strengthening us, restoring us, healing us, challenging us, to witness to the Good News of Salvation in the name of Jesus Christ. Open our hearts this day, O Lord, and enter into our lives. In Jesus’ name, we pray. AMEN