A Sermon from the North Yarmouth Congregational Church
A sermon offered by the Rev. Nancy J. White in the public worship of the First Congregational Church of North Yarmouth, UCC of North Yarmouth, Maine on the4th Sunday of Easter Worship, April 17, 2016. Principal reading John 10:11-18
Throughout the Bible the image of the shepherd is used for God and for the leaders of the church. The image of the sheep is used for God’s people.
As I was contemplating this idea of being one of God’s sheep, it made me think of all the different clichés I have heard all my life about sheep. Sheep are dirty. Sheep are stupid. Sheep follow blindly. So how does it feel to be called a sheep? Do I like being called dirty, stupid, without common sense?
Not particularly. No where in the gospels does Jesus ever call his sheep stupid or dirty or any other names.
Unlike the hired hand who cares for the sheep because he is paid to do so, Jesus, the Good Shepherd, cares for his sheep out of an abounding love.
An unconditional, loves his sheep, bad breath and all, kind of love. He loves his children so much that he will not just protect them from danger but indeed he will die for them so that they might live. This contrast of the hired hand’s motivation and the love of the Good Shepherd is what is described for us this morning.
The sad attributes of sheep with which we are all familiar are related to how the hired hand would feel about the sheep. This is not how the Good Shepherd feels about the sheep. I know a little about this because we had a sheep named Dougal whom we loved very much. We did not think of Dougal as a hired hand would, but more like how the Good Shepherd looks on all his sheep.
Dougal was a black sheep – by far the biggest sheep I have ever seen.
At first glance, Dougal was indeed dirty – he had bits of hay tangled in his wool and sometimes even some chicken poop and it looked filthy. Dougal’s filthy-looking gray wool would have been about six inches long this time of year. For it grew for a full year and now is time to shear him for summer.
The first time I watched this event, I was amazed as a man, very skilled at his craft, turned Dougal on his back and with electric clippers, sheared off all of Dougal’s wool so that it was all in one big piece – it took him about five minutes and he apologized that it took so long because Dougal is such a big sheep.
I was amazed at the process but what really surprised me was the unbelievable beauty of his wool. For underneath the filthy outer layer exposed to the barnyard and elements for a full year, was the softest, shiniest, loveliest pure wool I had ever seen. It was almost silver with its sheen and when I touched it, I could feel the lanolin it left on my fingers. What was hidden underneath was very different from what I could see.
And isn’t it the same for us? We make judgments of one another based on outward appearances and what we see but Jesus looks at what is inside each of us waiting to be born. In the rebellious teenager Jesus sees the teacher. In the drug addict Jesus sees a preacher. In the tax collector Jesus sees an apostle.
Sheep are also said to be stupid. But I tell you, I know there were two locks on our barnyard gate because Dougal is smart enough to have opened it on numerous occasions. He was smart and had a will of his own. He wanted to be out eating the forsythia bush. He didn’t realize that we kept him in for his own good. It was a never ending battle because Dougal refused to give up. He wasn’t stupid; he was willful.
Again, isn’t that just like us? Aren’t there times when a friend or family member tries to tell us that something we are doing is not going to work or will cause us harm and yet we continue to do it the way we want to because that’s the way we want to do it! We are willful and prideful and we don’t want to take advice from others or maybe we are embarrassed to admit that there is a better path than the one we have been traveling on. Parents tell their children not to text and drive and yet many think their parents are just out of touch with today’s world and sadly we hear of car accidents caused by this. Through the words of others, we feel God prompting us to try a different way or to do something new in our personal lives or in our church lives and we ignore God’s call to us because we like the way we’ve always done it and we don’t like change.
Then there’s the old cliché that sheep are also said to follow blindly. There was a study done once where individual sheep were brought into a room with three pictures on the wall – one was their own flock, one was a strange flock of sheep and one was a picture of a ram. The sheep always picked their own flock. Sheep do follow other sheep. They follow the sheep of their flock – this is where they know they are safe. They need to be part of the flock – God made them to live in community. Just like sheep, God has made humankind to be in community. The entire Bible is stories about people in community. Our vision of God as triune – as three persons, one God – is all about community.
We are a community here at NY Congregational Church. How do we model the community God intends for us? We do it every day in many ways. A phone call, an email, a card, the touch of another’s hand, prayers, fellowship together, the list goes on.
A really good shepherd knows his sheep as we knew and loved our black sheep, Dougal. But it didn’t always feel that way to Dougal. He didn’t like being shorn but he would have been unbearably hot in the summer if we didn’t shear him. He didn’t like having his hooves trimmed but he walked all the easier for it. He didn’t like having the vet come but he was healthier for it.
The Good Shepherd knows us. God knows our weaknesses, our faults, our fears, our dreams, our desires. God knows us inside out. And for all our faults, all our foibles, God loves us yet.
But we’ve all gone through times when we’ve thought God was not there because we didn’t see God’s hand at work in our lives or at least not in the way we wanted or envisioned. Those are the times we need to look to the cross. God loves us so much that Jesus lived and died for us.
So, the next time you are called a sheep, think of the love and compassion that’s in that word.
Doesn’t it make you want to follow the Good Shepherd? It should. Amen.