Sunday, April 17, 2016

Shepherds and sheep

Acts 9:36-43; John 10:22-30
A few years ago, someone asked me what I liked most about preaching. I replied: working with a good story. This year, the stories from Acts are wonderful material for preaching. And they mix really well with the stories from the Gospel of John.
Since I didn’t get to preach last week because of the flu, I want to use those readings as well. The ongoing theme is shepherds and sheep, and followers of Jesus, whom we can think of as sheep and shepherds.
Last week, Jesus spoke with Peter, asking him to feed Jesus’ sheep. Three times, Jesus asks Peter to care for the sheep who follow Jesus. Peter is stunned by the repetition of the question, Do you love me? Yet, by the third time, Peter begins to understand that Jesus loves him. And Peter’s reply goes beyond the automatic “sure, I love you,” to something much deeper. Peter loves Jesus from the depths of his being. He is now ready to love the way Jesus loves.
An interpretation I like of this conversation is that Jesus is naming Peter as the new shepherd, called to lead the people/sheep. As Peter has been a sheep following Jesus, he is now also to be a shepherd leading the sheep.

This week, Jesus is interrogated by the Jewish leaders: tell us, Jesus. Are you the messiah, or not?! Jesus refuses to say. Instead he speaks of sheep who know the voice of the shepherd. If you are not in Jesus’ flock, you don’t know him. And, especially, you don’t know that Jesus and the Father are one – Jesus is God and God is Jesus. If you are part of the flock, you are blessed, indeed.

Last week’s reading from Acts told part of the story of Paul’s life-changing encounter with the risen Jesus. For many years, he has been persecuting those who believe in Jesus. After his encounter with Jesus he becomes a believer, and is both sheep and shepherd as he follows where Jesus and the Holy Spirit lead him. Ananias, it’s his home Paul is taken to, is also changed, and led to trust God’s plan to use Paul to reach many people.

In this week’s reading we meet a shepherd/sheep named Tabitha and Dorcas.  Her name in English is Gazelle. It also means beauty and grace. It seems she has used her own funds to purchase cloth and make clothing for the widows. She has given of her wealth to care for the sheep in her town, and as a shepherd led them to know Jesus better.
In the story, the widows are in tears, grieving, because Tabitha has died. For some reason, they have sent for Peter, who happens to be in a nearby town. Maybe he knows Tabitha, maybe he even was the first to tell her about Jesus. The scene in the room is tender, as the widows show Peter the kinds of things Tabitha made for them. Peter understands the need these sheep have of their shepherd Tabitha. He asks the women to leave the room, and just as Jesus had done, so Peter too raises Tabitha from death.
Peter and Paul and Tabitha are both shepherd and sheep. They are sheep, doing everything they can to follow Jesus the Good Shepherd, and live in his self-sacrificing way. They are also shepherd, leading the flock of believers under their care.
Every one of us is both sheep and shepherd, even if we don’t think of ourselves that way. We do our best as sheep to follow our Good Shepherd, to love as he loves. In following Jesus we are also shepherds. We lead others, officially, as the members of Council and as worship leaders, and so forth.
We also lead others by example. When we take time to worship and study, we demonstrate to others the value of spending time with Jesus. When we make quilts and mow the lawn, we demonstrate using our gifts and interests to serve Jesus. We are shepherds and sheep at the same time.

This week, I have been thinking about Helga. Helga was always busy doing something for her family and for church. She was an active member of Martha Circle, constantly making little things to decorate the tables for a party, making items to put in shoe boxes, and things to sell at rummage sales. And she was constantly making quilts.
I remember her ready smile, a warm greeting for everyone, and her determination to be here at worship if at all possible. She may have been more sheep than shepherd in her activity, but she has also been shepherd, because we still remember her devotion to Jesus, and to her family and to Hope. She is a role model for all of us, a shepherd to follow.

Scott Darling is the backup goalie for the Chicago Blackhawks. A little story about him has become big news. One day, an Uber driver (a kind of taxi driver, in case you don’t know) gave a ride to Scott and another man.
"I knew nothing about hockey until I gave Scott Darling a ride. He changed my life. When I picked him up he had a man with him. A man who had been through some really trying times and Scott just so happened to see him on the street and strike up a conversation. So he had me drive this guy to a hotel and he paid for him to stay at that hotel for an entire month until he got back on his feet, and even got him some groceries. I've never met anyone in my life who was so sincere. I later Googled him, found out who he was and now I think hockey is the greatest sport in the world."
President Obama heard the story and highlighted it when the Blackhawks were in the White House for a celebration of winning the Stanley Cup. So, now the story of a hockey player doing a Good Samaritan deed has been spreading. At first, Scott was just a sheep, following the Shepherd, Jesus, and now, because the story is spreading, he is also a shepherd, teaching others by example how to follow.  

We usually just live each day, thinking about what we have to do that day, and try to be a sheep, following the Good Shepherd. But others are paying attention to us, and we become shepherds, whether we intend to be or not. Pay attention this week to your sheep-ness. How do you follow the Good Shepherd? In what ways are you the shepherd others follow?

Please pray with me. Good Shepherd, lead us in right pathways. Teach us to follow you as obedient sheep. Send us other shepherds to show us the way. And help us be good shepherds, leading those who are searching for you into your fold. In your name, we pray. Amen