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 the 4th Sunday of Easter Worship, May 7, 2017.
Principal reading John 10:1-10
As I was studying this passage, I was all over the place. The image of God as our shepherd and the 23rd Psalm has sooooo many messages in it. There is the thought of resting in God, of God providing what we need, of the shepherd leading us and caring for us. The idea that God is with us always even in our darkest moments. And then there is the whole notion of ‘is Jesus the only shepherd, the only way to God’? And what about the idea that we are a flock and what does that mean for us as a faith community? And what about the sheepfold? Is that a structure or a metaphor for something else? I could go on and on and I must tell you that my first draft did just that and I know none of us want to be here for more than hour today. And so I thought, what is the message that God wants me to bring to you this day? And what does this passage from John say to us?
We opened our worship today by reading the 23rd Psalm. And in John’s Gospel, we learn that Jesus has come to fulfill the scriptures, and in this passage we learn that Jesus is indeed the Good Shepherd. Most of us don’t know all that it implies when we are told Jesus is the Good Shepherd because we no longer live in an agrarian society where flocks of sheep were so common that shepherds combined flocks at night in a sheepfold and took turns guarding the flock against predators and thieves in the night.
Sheep did know their shepherd’s voice and come morning they had no problem dividing themselves up and following their own shepherd to pasture where they would spend the day grazing. Shepherds did have names for their sheep. They knew all their little quirks, all the ways they would try to push each other aside to get to the best grass. The shepherd watches out for those who are weaker and makes sure that they get the nourishment they need.
The image of God as shepherd and us as sheep is not a new one. Some take offense at this comparison as they think of sheep as dumb animals who just follow without any independent thought. I disagree. Sheep are not stupid, in fact they are very smart. They recognize their own flock. A study was done putting sheep in a room with three doors. On each door was a picture of other sheep – one of the pictures was of their own flock. Without fail, each time, the sheep recognized their own flock and went through that door.
We had two sheep for a time. They were named Dougal and McDuff. McDuff and Dougal were always trying to edge each other out of the hay or feed. They had their share of scuffles. Dougal was a very clever boy and knew how to open the gate of the sheep pen. And he did it on a regular basis because there was yummy looking green bushes in the yard. He was not stupid, he figured out how to open the gate – he was willful. Even though he was well fed, until we put a lock on it, he repeatedly opened the gate putting himself and all the other animals who also got out in danger. The dogs and the cat had quite a time chasing chickens and ducks and nipping at sheep’s feet. They ultimately didn’t like the adventure of being outside their pen but sometimes they ignored us when we tried to get them back to safety. They knew our voices, they knew their names but sometimes they chose to not to listen for the pursuit of one more juicy leaf on the forsythia bush. But always when the day light faded, they came back into the pen because that was where they were safe. They even knew that we had lost track of time if it was past bedtime and baahhhed their heads off till we came out to close them in for the night. We loved our sheep. We cared for them, provided them with food and water and shelter. We knew each of them and their unique personalities. They were each lovable in different ways.
It is like that with Jesus our Good Shepherd. Jesus knows each of us by name. When I was little I learned a song that I still know by heart to this day, ‘Jesus loves me’. Most of you know it too. When I became a minister and started giving pastoral care, one thing that surprised me was the look of astonishment on someone’s face when I said to them, ‘God loves you.’ Utter amazement was often accompanied by tear-filled eyes. This is something we learned as little children and yet do we believe it? Truly believe it? Or do we just think it applies to others? God loves everyone but not me. I am not worthy. I know what I have done. I know how I have fallen short. I know how I have not fully loved others as I have been taught. So God couldn’t possibly love me. So many times, people just burst into tears when I assure them that indeed God does love even them.
God knows each of us by name. Do we follow the voice of the one who loves us so much that he is willing to give his life for each and every one of us? Or are we willful, ignoring the voice of love because we perceive something better somewhere else? Even if we have followed the wrong shepherd God will rescue us and welcome us home in love. There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God ever.
Sometimes we don’t feel like God is with us or that God loves us. If we listen closely for God’s voice, we will hear God calling out our name. Even in danger, doubt or confusion, God’s voice will bring comfort to us. Jesus came to Thomas in his doubt. Jesus comes to us wherever we are. Whether we are willfully disobeying the call of God’s voice or just missing it because we are focused on the sparkle of worldly desires, God will keep calling us – calling each of us by name to come home. Because God loves us and wants us to be safe and nurtured and find rest for our souls. Listen. You will hear God calling you and even if you have never heard God’s voice before this day, you will hear God calling you by name because God loves you. Amen.