John 10:11-18 4th Sunday of Easter
Elizabeth M. Deibert 25 April 2015
How many of you have cats? How many have dogs? I know you have heard about the difference between cats and dogs. Dogs have masters. Cats have servants, or staff. It’s a personality thing. Dogs get excited to see you and let you know it. This is our excited dog, Banki. He was so happy the last time he got to hang out on the church grounds, like you get to do today. Banki is running from me to Richard with the great camera. Dogs get excited. Cats are more aloof. They may be happy to see you but they would never be so demonstrative about it. Dogs want to please you. Cats want you to please them. But the thing is, both cats and dogs have shepherds. You are their shepherds. You feed them. You take them out for walks or clean out their litter boxes. You give them safe shelter from the storms of life. You are there for them when they want some affection. They can count on you, even when they do bad things like this little Maltese did yesterday. He rolled in the neighbor dog’s poop. What the heck, Banki. Now the Good Shepherd must wash and sheer the sheep. So I picked up Banki and put him in the sink – not his favorite place, but he tolerates it and we get the job done. Largely Banki trusts me, but every now and then, when he gets annoyed with the bath or the hair cut, he bears his teeth and growls and sometimes tries to bite the scissors. But deep down, he knows that his job is to trust us his good shepherds.
Hear how Jesus uses the people’s understanding of sheep and shepherds to describe his attentive care for humanity.
11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one take it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”
Good movie. Good dog. Good meal. Good weather. Good. What does good mean? The Greek adjective translated “good” means more than pleasant or enjoyable. It means “right, proper, honorable, beautiful” The Good Shepherd is the honorable one, the one who makes right choices.
The Bible is replete with images of good shepherds and bad shepherds. In Isaiah 56 God describes the rulers of the people as shepherds who care only about themselves, and who get drunk when they should be watching their flock. In Jeremiah 10, God refers to Judah’s leadership as “stupid” shepherds who have allowed the sheep to become scattered. In Ezekiel 34 the shepherds of Israel are accused of feeding themselves and not the sheep. They do not care for the wounded or sick. They do not love the sheep; instead they rule over them with harshness and violence. (from Scott Black Johnson, The Lectionary Commentary) Bad shepherds. According to Luke, the good shepherd goes after the one lost sheep, even leaving the flock behind.
The Good Shepherd is marked by willingness to sacrifice, even life, for the sheep. Care for the sheep. Knowledge of the sheep – relationship. Eagerness to welcome outsiders, other sheep into the flock. In our modern world, there are still shepherds, but in our culture, shepherds would often have fences and four wheelers and blue spray paint on the wool. We do not spend much time thinking about the life of a shepherd leading sheep around an open field.
So we cannot relate to taking chances for sheep, but we can imagine that we might dash out into the road in front of a car to save our dog or cat. We can imagine feeding our pets before we prepare food for ourselves, even when we are hungry. We can imagine being awake most of the night when a dog or cat is sick, especially near the end of their lives. We can imagine loving other dogs and cats, even ones that were not ours from the beginning. So let’s shift to imagine ourselves as the sheep and Christ as our Good Shepherd, whom we can trust. Our dog, Banki, does not have evidence to know for sure that we will feed him twice a day, but he doesn’t seem to worry about it. He has experience with us, and we are reasonably reliable. He sometimes gets hungry and has to pray/whine to us to feed him, but we always do, even if not always on his schedule.
Today’s lesson distinguishes the good shepherd from the bad one. The hired hand is the bad shepherd because the hired hand does not care about the sheep. The bad pet owner is the one that does not provide regular food, does not train the dog, does not provide a helpful routine or good shelter. Let’s stop for a minute on that thought. We don’t always appreciate God’s discipline or structure in our lives, but we need it, just like a puppy. If you let a puppy do whatever he or she wants, you end up with a badly behaved dog, who is a nuisance to everyone. So it is with us. We do not need the freedom to eat everything in sight. We make ourselves sick – quite literally – by eating too many sweets and meat fats. Don’t give me the crunchy, healthy stuff, we say. We want people treats that are tasty.
When we are healthy we like to take walks like a good dog. When we have been well-trained, we go willingly into our secluded space (our crate) and have some quiet time of meditation away from the busy-ness of life. When we are obedient and know how to follow our master, we do not even need a leash, but most of us are easily distracted, so God puts some negative consequences in place to keep us on the path.
Our Shepherd simply wants us to be the best sheep, the best dog, the best person we can possibly be. And if we are fearful, running to hide, barking all the time, growling at those who pass by, nervous, we are not being our best selves. Most of all, the Good Shepherd wants us to trust that all will be well. Because the Shepherd is in charge, not us. Yes, I think if Jesus had been born in our time, the example would have been pets, not sheep. It would have been something most of us could relate to. Jesus used an image of the Shepherd and the sheep to make the message clear to people who understood that relationship.
Our dog gets very anxious whenever he sees the suitcases. He will leave our side. He is so scared of being left. Equally, he gets very excited when he sees Richard collect the floor, the measuring cup, the milk, maple syrup, and butter in a blue bag to go to church to make communion bread. He knows this means he gets a fun outing to a special place. He gets to hang his head out the window and breathe in all the smells of the night air. But what Banki loves best of all is just to be near us, his reasonably trust-worthy Shepherds. He just wants to sit quietly, feel our presence beside him, and believe/trust that all will be fine.
Banki was not even our dog from the beginning. He was Emily’s dog, bought in Korea, named for the Korean Ambassador to the United Nations, Mr. Ban-ki Moon. But he teaches me so much about trust, like the analogy of sheep to shepherd taught Jesus’ disciples and still teaches us, that we can trust Christ our God.
With Banki’s example, I can build my trust in the Good Shepherd, such that I do not worry about the future. As Shepherd of this flock, I am having to learn a deeper trust in God as we struggle together to get to our building vision finish line in God’s time. I have to trust God that it will work out (being the sheep in that case) and then I have to act as Shepherd of this flock called Peace and push you sheep a bit in the direction we need to go. The pledge pages are in your bulletin today. We really hope everyone will participate in this act of trust in God for your own sakes because of the joy and once-in-a-liftime legacy – to build a church sanctuary. We also hope you will participate for the sake of the church – to say we are together on this thing. We are not asking you to starve or to risk being free to pay your bills.
When Richard and I completed the pledge page several weeks ago, we put down an amount that we knew we could do. The point was to take a step in trusting God. Maybe your situation is challenging, maybe you are living tightly month by month or your kids need your help, and so from now to 2018, you know you are not going to have much extra income to help. I invite you to relieve yourself of the pressure to give more than you can. No guilt for what you cannot do. Just put down what is possible for you – maybe it is $5 dollars/week –the cost of one drink at Starbucks or that one extra thing you buy at Publix that wasn’t on your list. It adds up to $260 for the year, and over three and half years, you will have donated over $900 to the Peace Building Fund, and that means a lot. If twenty-five of you decide to take that step of faith today, and promise $1000 as your pledge from now –end of 2018, then we are getting somewhere. If you can give two cups of Starbucks each week, then you are approaching $2000. This is how trust begins. It is taking a step in the right direction.
It’s like Banki and me. I’m holding him tight, and rubbing his belly and telling him it’s going to be all right, and then I come in with the scissors and take a little snip at the hair. He doesn’t mind it too much if it’s just a little hair at a time. He doesn’t mind if there are treats mixed in with being still for the trimming. But if I force him, “Banki, you are going to be still while I cut all your hair off in the next half an hour, he would be upset and rightly so.” I don’t like to upset Banki or any of you by asking too much of you, but most of us don’t miss money that is given a little at a time.
Peace gives you plenty of opportunities to give because we know that our Good Shepherd had a lot to say about our need to be generous. The early church lived with a deep sense of community and we try to take our relationships seriously too. If you are in a difficult situation and need help out, this church will be there for you – whether it is a casserole, a prayer, a listening ear, or a check for several hundred. You are not alone here. You are part of the flock. If you haven’t been with us long, trust us on this. We are here for you.
Peace asks a lot of you in terms of time and treasure too. We push you a bit further out in the field than you want to be pushed, because we believe it is the path to faithfulness. But I’m not claiming Good Shepherd status. I am just an ordinary pastor. I could be wrong. Christ is the only Good Shepherd. But we offer these opportunities for involvement/ministry because we know that studies show that people who are involved build connections and sustaining friendships. So we are trying to your faithful shepherd. We are trying to help you have a meaningful church experience, when we ask you to be involved. When we offer you multiple extra offerings, we are just making it possible for you to support one another, to help the poor, to make a difference in the world because we believe it not only helps the ones we are helping, it helps us. If you don’t give to every special offering because your finances are tight, that is normal. Pick the ones that mean the most to you. Others will give to projects that mean more to them.
This Christian life is a challenge, because we are following the One who sacrificed his very life for us. We are called to trust this Shepherd and go where He goes, even beyond our comfort zone into mingling with sheep of other flocks, because there is just one flock, one Shepherd. Little by little, we too can give our life away, as He did, but it is not easy. We need to curl up beside the comforting, providing, nurturing presence of our loving Shepherd to have the courage keep going on these faith journeys with Him.