Monday, May 4, 2020

Who wants to be sheep?

Sermon for Easter 4A, preached on Sunday, May 3, 2020.

    Lets be clear about this.  Jesus is not waxing romantically about sheep and Himself as the Good Shepherd.  There is no compliment in being called sheep.  Sheep led to the slaughter.  You know the phrase.  Sheep are herd animals who follow and because of that they are weak and vulnerable.  The wolf is the smart one.  He knows that sheep are easy targets.  Peel off one sheep from the flock and you are no longer hungry.  So sheep require a shepherd, somebody who will lead them where they need to go, guide them around danger, and defend them against their enemies.  Does that sound familiar -- perhaps like a favorite Psalm?

    When Jesus calls us sheep, He is not speaking particularly of Christians.  We all follow the crowd and go where the crowd goes, buy what the crowd buys, believe what the crowd believes, and say what the crowd says.  It has been that way since we traded freedom for fear in Eden.  Social media has proven we are not independent thinkers but sheep who follow the strongest voices we hear – no matter how stupid they are or what they say.  Have you actually followed a conversation on social media?  Read all the comments?  You know exactly what I mean.  There are not billions of voices on social media but a much smaller number of strong voices whom we want to follow or who bully us into following the political line. 

    The Church is no different.  So much of Christianity has been led by the voices of culture until we find it easy to forget what Jesus has said and done.  We willingly exchange the Gospel of the cross for a gospel of acceptance without judgment -- where nothing is condemned because nothing is really wrong.  From sex to violence, we have followed the voices of the enlightened ones who claim to know better than we know and better than God knows.  If not them, we have followed the desires of our hearts and done what is right the way we see it.  And, as they say, “How is that working out for you?”  Are we actually living in a better world because of our technology, social media, prosperity, and morality free environment?

    At this point some of you are nodding your heads thinking that Pastor is right, he is talking about people I know.  But not me.  Well, that is not true.  I am talking about you and me.  We are not above peer pressure, not above being influenced by iconic personalities, not above heeding fad or trend.  Look no further than your wardrobe.  You may think you are immune to such pressure, that you are not a sheep, but you are.  And so am I.  We are not leaders and movers and shakers but followers.  We are only heroes  in our own minds.  We are sheep, not sheepdogs, and we are not the Shepherd.

    The good news is that Jesus is the shepherd, the Good Shepherd who lays does His life for His sheep, who gives abundant life to those captive to death, who leads us out to the rich green pastures and still quiet waters, and whose voice summons us to Him.  The good news is that Jesus is the Good Shepherd who knows and calls us by name, who leads us out of the old herd and into the new flock of His Church.  He is not some stranger who dazzles us with eloquent words or lofty wisdom or curious signs and wonders.  He suffers.  He dies.  For His sheep.  That is why He is the Good Shepherd and that is why we hear His voice and recognize it and follow it.  Jesus is the gate and there is no future apart from Him or no peace without the cover of His saving love.  He is our Good Shepherd and no one else.  We are and always will be herd animals, sheep who follow, but Jesus has come to lead us in truth to the place where death reigns no more, sins no more accuse, and life is filled with joy.

    Jesus contrasts Himself with the thieves and robbers who came before Him.  This is where it becomes personal for pastors.  Their evil was that they substituted their own ideas for His Word, they did not warn the sheep who wandered away, they did not provide the good food He had prepared, and they left the sheep alone and vulnerable in the face of danger.  Those whom they deceived were not listening or they would have heard the difference.  In this way Jesus not only grounds Himself and His shepherding ways securely in the Scriptures but calls us to know that Word so that we will not be deceived. In this way Jesus not only claims His superiority but demonstrates that He is the one and only Good Shepherd because He is at the gate of sin and death, He is the way to forgiveness and life, and He pays the price to rescue us with His own blood on the cross.

    It happens all the time.  Good Lutheran people listen to other voices and before long they are ready to surrender their baptism as no big deal or explain away Jesus presence in the Sacrament as mere symbolism.  Good Lutheran people who claim to know the Word listen to the voices of those who speak another gospel that appeals more to their feelings and they drift away from the flock.  Good Lutheran people who sing the hymns that tell Christ's story begin to hum ditties about our feelings without mention of the cross.  Good Lutheran people who were confirmed in the faith and pledged fidelity to this Word and confessions forget their promises and drift away to the next and newest thing on the block.

    It happens to Lutheran pastors as well.  We get all this mail that promises secret ways to succeed, to grow the congregation, to be a mighty leader who influences people and it all appeals to our egos.  We watch the church down the block through up a giant building and draw people in by giving them what they want.  We drift away until we no longer note the difference between God’s Word and our words, until we dismiss the Sacraments are no big deal, and then the herd leads us away from Christ, from the rich green pastures and still quiet waters and we lead them away as well.

    We are sheep but we think we are sheep dogs.  We think we are independent thinkers.  We think we have discerning minds.  We think we are strong.  But we are just sheep.  Our only strength is the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for His sheep. Our only hope is the Good Shepherd who defends us against all our enemies of body and soul.  Our only life is the life secured by the Good Shepherd at the cost of His own life willingly offered on the cross.  Our only food is the food the Good Shepherd gives – His own body in bread and His own blood in wine.  Our only confidence is the Word that the Good Shepherd speaks because this is the only Word that endures forever.

    Do not be deceived.  Do not be ignorant of His Word.  Do not live on the fringes of His pasture.  Do not listen to the fake voices of truth that speak only falsehoods and lies.  There is only one who is the door and only one voice who speaks life and hope and forgiveness.  There is only one Gospel and not many versions.  You are sheep but at least be wise sheep.  Listen to the voice of Your Good Shepherd.  Live in the presence of that Shepherd where He is, right here in this Word and in this Eucharist. 
    Jesus has come to give you abundant life, not abundant things.  Abundant life is not defined by stuff or experiences or even life without viral threats but life with forgiveness which gives you a clear conscience, with peace that passes understanding, and with love that seeks what is good, and right and true and not just what is easy.  Jesus may not give you what you want but what you need.  Jesus gives you not an image or a symbol but what is so real death cannot erase and the devil cannot corrupt – the Word of Scripture, the living water of baptism, the blessed food of His flesh and blood, and the absolution that sets you free from your past to live the future God has designed. 

    This is what we celebrate on Good Shepherd Sunday.  Hear His voice for He calls you by name.  He will cull you out from the herd that is headed to death and will set you on the path of life.  He will wash you clean in the living water and give you to drink of this living water so that you will not grow weary.  He will feed you on the way with His Supper in anticipation of the eternal meal to come in heaven.  And when all others will flee, He will be with you always.  Christ is risen.  He is risen indeed.  Alleluia.  Amen.

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