|Union University Church|
By Reverend Laurie DeMott
March 16, 2008
years ago, our Senior High Youth Group did a Sunday School unit in which
they spent several Sunday mornings worshiping at different Christian churches
in the Alfred area in order to learn more about the variety and similarity
between denominational expressions of the faith. After their visit to one
local church (whose minister is now long gone), I asked them what they thought
of the sermon. They said, "It was weird. He just talked a lot about
"Sheep?," I asked.
"Yeah, sheep. He talked about how sheep act and told some sheep stories and some really stupid sheep jokes."
"What was the point of the sermon?" I pursued.
They looked at one another and shrugged. "No idea," they admitted. And one added, "After a while I stopped listening because I never really liked sheep anyway."
I assume that the minister had been preaching on this passage from John 10 because there is something about this passage that makes all preachers pull out their encyclopedias and begin to delve into the mysteries of sheep behavior and the art of shepherding. In a desire to illuminate the metaphors put forth in this passage by Jesus, we preachers can quickly get sidetracked into interesting factoids about rams and ewes -- made today only worse by the wealth of material available to us via Google -- with the result that our attempt to illuminate Jesus' metaphor only makes it muddier. Congregations too often walk away from this passage confused by a lot of sheep facts and wondering what they have to do with faith.
So, in the interest of escaping the fate of so many preachers to precede me, I will put aside the amusing sheep stories and see if I can do what just doesn't come natural to preachers and skip right to the chase.
Because here is the most important fact we need to know about John 10: this passage isn't really about sheep at all. The main subject of this passage is not sheep; it is us. Augustine said, “Oh God, you made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” We are the ones who are wandering through our lives trying to find the place where we can rest, where we can be nourished and made whole, not knowing where that place is or how to get there. The main point of this passage is not a lesson on shepherding but is a reminder that when you are feeling restless, when you are feeling weary and wondering if you can possibly go on one more day after the fatigue of all of the long days that lay behind, when you are filled with anger and you know it is eating you up but you just can’t seem to find a way to rid yourself of it, when you are trying so hard to do the right thing but nothing seems to be working out, or even when you are walking steadily along doing what you have always done and you know it is right and you know it is good but somehow it just isn’t filling that deep hunger within, Jesus comes to you and says, “Listen to my voice. I am the way. I am the one that you have been yearning to hear. Listen, I am the bread of life and can give you the nourishment you seek. Listen; I am the living water that will refresh your thirsty soul. Listen; come to me and I will give you rest.”
To teach a dog to come at the sound of your voice, you have to teach the dog that coming to you is a desirable thing and so before you can convince the dog to trust you, you first have to get to know your dog. You have to discover who your dog is and learn what it is that your dog most desires in life.
Let me show you what I mean: My last dog, Bronte, was a Springer Spaniel, and Springer Spaniels apparently have bred into their genes this overwhelming desire to play "keep away." Bronte loved nothing better than to grab a glove or a shoe of mine as she raced through an open door daring me to chase her. The first time she did this, I scolded her with a stern voice. “Bronte, you bring that back here now!” I called out the door but this only drove her further away. Quickly I learned that I had to entice her back to the house, promising lavish affection if only she would come to me. “Here, Bronte,” I would call in a most endearing voice. “What a good dog you are! Come to me, my sweet dog so that I can show you how much I love you." Hearing such promise of affection, Bronte would finally decide that my praise was worth much more than an old shoe and she would return to my side to receive my fond attention.
In the passage from John, Jesus says to his disciples, “The shepherd calls his sheep by name.” This call from Jesus is not some general invitation posted on the bulletin board; Jesus calls you by name. Jesus knows the hungers of your heart, knows what it is that frightens you and what it is that will heal you. There are many of us who are more like Bronte than we always want to admit. Sometimes we do silly things to get attention because our loneliness is so profound that we would do anything to get someone to notice us. Or, maybe like Bronte, we are unsure that we are loveable and so we shrink at the sound of a harsh voice, we wither under criticism, we run away and hide even from those who may be trying to help us because we are afraid to trust. Sometimes these reactions are born in us and it takes years of nurturing to convince our reluctant genetic makeup that it is OK to trust the love that is offered us. But more often reactions of fear and mistrust are learned from too many years of people who have disappointed us or wounded our hearts until we are so fragile and uncertain that we run away from any voice in fear. If you are one of those who, like Bronte, hungers for a voice that promises only love and acceptance instead of judgement, Jesus knows you and knows your fear. Jesus calls you by name, and speaks to you with a voice that is soft and gentle. Jesus opens his arms to you and calls with tender tones, "Do not be afraid. Come to me and be made whole.”
I have discovered, however, that not all dogs are made alike. After Bronte, I got Zack, the English Cocker Spaniel so many of you have come to know. The first time Zack wandered too far from safety, I tried to call him back to me with that same affectionate promising voice I had learned to use for Bronte. “What a good dog you are, Zack,” I crooned. “Come on back, sweet dog.” Zack, however, did not come running immediately to me ready to be lavished with love; instead he sat down in the yard and looked at me with curiosity. His eyes said, “Well, duh, I’m perfectly aware that I’m a good dog. In fact, I’m pretty content with who I am and I’m content with where I am, and if you don’t mind, I think I shall just stay right here in my contentedness.” No amount of sweet-talking could move him and finally, in exasperation, I blurted out, “Zack, you get over here right now!” And to my surprise, he got up and came immediately into the house.
Bronte feared chastisement and hungered for love, and so I called to her in a way that spoke to that need. But Zack is a different dog, apparently more secure in himself and secure in my affection for him. I have had to learn that what Zack fears most is not that I won’t love him – he is confident of my love – but what he fears it I will be disappointed in him. The voice he responds to is a voice that challenges his contentment: “Stop what you are doing, Zack, and listen to me.”
Some of us are more like Zack than we are like Bronte. Some of don’t really need Jesus to praise us or to speak tenderly to us because we are fortunate to be confident in the love we have experienced: with friends to support us and family to hold us and a lifetime of caring people around us, we are secure in who we are. And we don’t really need Jesus to comfort us because we are really pretty comfortable right now. Sometimes our contentment with who we are and where we are is born in us – maybe your genetic inheritance has left you with an independent streak and a can-do attitude that has made you pretty self-sufficient. Others may have come to this comfortable place through hard work or through the deep and constant caring of those around you. But for those who find themselves for whatever reason in a place of easy contentment, Jesus knows that the voice we most need to hear may be a voice that challenges us to wonder if contentment is enough.
In the sequel to the famous book, Pollyanna, Pollyanna Grows Up, Pollyanna goes to Boston where she encounters urban poverty for the first time, and with typical optimism, she tries to help the people she encounters. In one attempt to alleviate the misery of a young woman named Sadie Dean, Pollyanna brings Sadie to the rich widow, Mrs. Carew, assuming that Mrs. Carew will be more than happy to open her large home to this poor young woman: "I'm so glad I found her ...." Pollyanna says exuberantly to Mrs. Carew. ".... I've found somebody else for you to love--and of course you'll love to love her...."
The author says, “Mrs. Carew drew in her breath and gave a little gasp of exasperation. This unfailing faith in her goodness of heart, and unhesitating belief in her desire to "help everybody" was most disconcerting, and sometimes most annoying. At the same time it was a most difficult thing to disclaim--under the circumstances, especially with Pollyanna's happy, confident eyes full on her face.”
Pollyanna’s belief in Mrs. Carew’s desire to share her resources with others and her belief that Mrs. Carew will want to be challenged to create a more meaningful life, draws the woman inexorably into Pollyanna’s vision until she to her surprise, her easy contentment is not enough and she finds new ways to give and love.
Jesus calls you with the voice you most need to hear. To some of you, he calls with a voice of tenderness that promises healing for the loneliness of your heart. To some of you, he calls with a voice of forgiveness that promises mercy for your guilt-ridden spirit. To some of you, he calls with a voice of peace, that promises rest for your weary soul. To some of you, he calls with a voice of challenge that offers more than easy contentment with your life, but promises the adventure of finding new ways to give and to love.
He calls us by name and leads us out. And when he has brought us, he goes ahead of us to show us the way, and we follow him because his is a voice we have come to know and come to love and come to trust. It is a voice of healing and promise.”