Sunday, April 26th, 2015 – the Fourth Sunday of Easter
Gower Christian Church, Gower, MO
Scripture: Luke 15:4-7, John 10:11-18
Hymns: “The Church’s One Foundation”, “Standing on the Promises”, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”, “Surely the Presence of the Lord”, “Savior Like a Shepherd Lead Us”, “We Come As Guests Invited”, “Everlasting God”
Special Music: “Leaving 99”, by Audio Adrenaline
A couple of weeks ago, Mary Watkins left a little devotion of sorts on my desk called “A Sense of a Goose”. It’s about the nature and dynamics of a flock of geese, and how each goose in a flock has its own part to play. It talked about how geese have to stay in formation, because if they fall out they will lose the draft from the geese ahead of and behind them, and will probably not be able to keep up. It also talked about how the point goose sort of serves as the shepherd of the flock, but from time to time, has to take a little break.
That devotional came to my mind a week ago Friday. Caitie and I were down in Overland Park, having dinner at Carrabba’s, and when we walked out, there was a lone goose in the parking lot, honking rather plaintively. It appeared to have lost its flock, and unlike most geese I’ve seen, was not interested in fending off people and cars. Instead, it looked scared and alone. As we got in the car however, there was a honk far off and overhead. The goose honked back, and the honk overhead got closer. The point goose had led the flock back to Overland Park to find that one missing goose and reunite it with the rest.
It’s funny how very much like a shepherd that point goose was.
Shepherds seem to show up a lot in the Bible, don’t they? Throughout the Scriptures, we see shepherds appear over and over again, usually as symbols of goodness or proclaimers of the Good News. Isaac and his son Esau were both shepherds, as was his son Jacob’s father-in-law, Laban. King David was a humble shepherd before he was anointed king. When the heavenly host appeared on the evening of Christ’s birth, they didn’t appear to the intelligentsia or the clergy – they appeared to a group of humble shepherds in the fields.
And how often have we heard the Scriptures about God being the shepherd of all of God’s people? Surely we’ve heard where it is said that the shepherd would, with a flock of one hundred sheep, leave ninety-nine behind to find one that has strayed. In today’s Gospel reading from the tenth chapter of John, we see Jesus refer to himself as the “Good Shepherd”, and says that like any other shepherd, he would lay down his life for one of his sheep.
Being a shepherd was (and still is) a tough job. In Biblical times, it meant being out in the fields for weeks or months at a time. You had to herd obnoxious, easily irritated, stupid animals (if you herded sheep – goats are at least somewhat intelligent). It meant you didn’t get good meals or the opportunity to bathe for long periods of time. It meant fending off villainous robbers who would seek to steal your boss’s sheep or goats and leave you, at best, stuck with the responsibility of those animals being gone; at worst, they would leave you dead.
Being a shepherd today is relatively similar. If you go to Australia, shepherding is actually still a fairly commonplace job. The primary differences between a modern Australian shepherd and an Israelite shepherd of Biblical times are that 1) today’s shepherds get to use computer technology, trucks, and dogs to round up the animals, and 2) today’s villains are usually armed with enough weaponry to field a small army.
And realistically, being a shepherd of people – i.e. a pastor – isn’t that terribly different. Sure, we’re not out in the field for weeks or months at a time, but sometimes we do have to take on long, unprecedented stretches of responsibility that leave us exhausted (and depending on how much we’ve gotten to eat and shower, possibly kind of hungry and smelly). We have to herd people, and while y’all are generally far smarter and better natured than sheep, pastors do sometimes encounter issues with their flocks that they were not expecting. And while I don’t foresee a small army of villains attempting to invade the church anytime soon – if for no other reason than I’m pretty sure the membership of this church has more than sufficient armament to fight off a small army of villains – the amount of slings and arrows that pastors take from today’s world is outrageous, with venues such as Twitter, Facebook, and blogs giving every single person in the world a hunting blind from which to anonymously snipe at those of us who just want to preach God’s word.
Y’all see what Jesus meant about the shepherd laying down his life, right? Pastors make sacrifices on behalf of their flock that are often unknown and unrecognized. And of course, for Jesus, that sacrifice was significant, and has, in the centuries since, become quite known and recognized.
But inasmuch as the shepherd recognizes the risks inherent in leading his or her flock, so too do they have confidence that their flock will follow. “I know my own, and my own know me,” Jesus says of his flock, and the same must be true of pastors the world over in order for them to be successful. If Jesus did not know his sheep, they would not know him. It’s one of the biggest points of Christian faith that we recognize – the idea that though Christians are many, each of us knows Christ and in turn is known by Christ. For pastors, we must come to know our own in order for them to know us. And it’s not easy – speaking to one hundred, one hundred fifty, even two hundred people by name on any given Sunday is taxing. But pastors can do it. Pastors DO do it, on a regular basis, in churches around the world, every week.
One of the biggest challenges in this passage, though, is the idea that there are other sheep that do not belong to the same flock, but they are still Jesus’ sheep, and they will still follow his voice. One of the most significant problems with Christianity today is that we focus on doing things bigger or better than another church. We believe that if they have more people than we do, or a higher budget, or a better building, they must be doing something better. Why can’t we be like them, we ask? What’s wrong with our shepherd?
Nothing’s wrong with the shepherd. Jesus recognized that within people of faith, there would be some differences, but that they would all hear his voice and follow him. It’s a call from hundreds of years ago for cooperation within Christianity. It was Jesus’ way of basically saying, don’t fight with the Baptists, the Catholics, the Methodists, and everybody else, but instead, embrace them, recognize them as fellow Christians, and ask, “What can we do alongside you to further the cause of Christ on this earth?”
Of course, sometimes the shepherd has to think smaller. The shepherd can’t always think about what the church of Christ as a greater whole does. As a matter of fact, the shepherd can’t always think about what his or her own flock does. Sometimes, the shepherd has to leave the ninety-nine behind, trusting that they will be able to take care of themselves for a little while, and goes off to find that one that has strayed. Sometimes, the shepherds have to go find those individuals who have walked away from the flock and either invite them back into the fold, or find a new flock to be part of. Yes, it happens that sometimes, when a pastor realizes that somebody in the congregation just isn’t content there any longer, they will help them find someplace where they CAN be content. Again, the job of the pastor as shepherd of the congregation isn’t to build numbers, it’s to make sure that each of the people is receiving the word of Christ.
But the shepherd must strike an even balance. The shepherd cannot always focus just on working with other flocks, to do the work of the greater church, and forget about his own flock, both as a whole and as individuals. The shepherd cannot always focus just on his own flock, forgetting about the work of the church of Christ, and forgetting about the individuals who make up his own flock. The shepherd cannot always focus just on the individuals in his flock, forgetting about the flock as a whole and about the greater church. When that happens, that’s when the wolf can sneak in and snatch and scatter the sheep, and so the shepherd must establish boundaries – something that many of the shepherds in this congregation have learned much about in the last couple of weeks.
And for the pastors who serve as shepherds, sometimes they have to take time away. Laying down your life for the sake of others – even metaphorically – can be exhausting. You need to recharge and renew. It is partly for that purpose that I spent this last week in Tampa.
Over this last week, I spent a great deal of time meeting with other young ministers from around the country – about two-thirds Disciples of Christ, with the rest coming from the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the Southern Baptist Convention. We spent this time working and talking with one another, learning about what we do in our congregational settings, discussing strategies for church, and figuring out what we can do as congregations to work with one another toward the goal of shining the light of Christ on all people. But that’s not all I did.
Over this last week, I also spent a great deal of time unplugged from the rest of the world. I turned off my computer, my iPad, and my phone and went out into nature. Call it a little bit hippie-esque, if you will, but being out in nature without technology has always made me feel closer to God, more open and receptive to hear the call of Christ on my life. As I made circuits around this Florida lake that was populated by alligators, herons, cranes, ducks, turtles, frogs, and all sorts of creatures, I felt myself beginning to recharge, to be renewed. And that’s a good thing, because looking back, I really haven’t had a break since the week after I got married. Sure, I was away for seven weeks last fall, but I wouldn’t say that being under the loving care of a Marine gunnery sergeant was a break, per se.
But this – this gave me the chance to be refreshed. And having experienced that, I now find myself once again well equipped for the challenge of being shepherd to this flock, of bringing the one back to the ninety-nine, of taking the flock out to work with the other flocks in following Jesus. With the summer ahead where I will be putting in a great deal of time and energy working for both our flock and the larger flock, it’s good to be re-energized once more.
It’s something for all of us to bear in mind, because really, in our own way, we’re all shepherds. Each one of us who is called to be a Christian is a shepherd to others, whether it’s to a whole congregation, an entire denomination, or just a few. And each of us, from time to time, needs to take a time out to be renewed, lest we become like that lost goose in Overland Park, separated from our flock, alone and afraid.
But if that does happen to you, fear not. Like the great shepherd, yours will come for you. The ninety-nine will follow. Together, they will find you and bring you back into the flock.
The good shepherd knows you, and you know him. May you listen for his voice in each part of your life, remembering that he has laid down his life for each of you.