Sheepishness

Ascensioncast

Sermon by The Rev. Sara-Scott Wingo, May 12, 2019

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The Psalm: Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd; * I shall not be in want.

2 He makes me lie down in green pastures * and leads me beside still waters.

3 He revives my soul * and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake.

4 Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; * for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

5 You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; * you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over.

6 Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, * and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

The Gospel: John 10:22-30

At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.”

The Sermon

Easter 4, 2019 Ascension, Knoxville The Rev. Sara-Scott Wingo A couple of years ago, the casting director for the Christmas pageant at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Richmond, VA invited Bella Wingo, my curly coated dog to play a sheep.  Knowing that the casting director has a knack for recognizing real talent, Bella was honored and quickly agreed to study her part.  Bella had almost everything needed for the role: a curly coat, the size and build of a growing lamb, and the cuteness factor.  But she also had some challenges.  Naturally dog ears are not shaped like sheep ears, so the sexton made a cap with sheep ears on top and a strap to fasten around her neck so it wouldn’t fall off.  We thought that the ear cap would make up for her other deficits, one being her tail that a sheep would not be caught dead wearing.  The other being that no matter how much Bella practiced her lines, she could only say “arf” and never “baa.”  The highly regarded casting director felt that in spite of all these things, Bella could definitely pass as a sheep if she kept her ear cap in place.  Well, the cap just didn’t work.  The ears kept sliding off to the side.  When it came time for the performance,  it turned out that the curls, the build, and the cuteness factor were not sufficient to pull off the sheep impersonation.  I’m afraid her semblance to a sheep was lost on the congregation when she went she trotted down the aisle tail wagging, doggie ears flopping, and arfing.  They must have thought, “I don’t remember the part of the story where a little dog visits the baby Jesus.” Clearly a dog, even a curly coated, cute as a lamb dog, is not much like a sheep.  However, for round about three thousand years, ever since the time of Israel’s King David, people in our faith tradition have identified with sheep because in fact we are very much like them.  Pslam 23 is attributed to David who was shepherd boy before he was King. He must have known everything there was to know about sheep.  He knew that they will graze a pasture until they have consumed everything even the roots, and that no matter how hungry they get in the barren dirt they will not leave it for the green pasture just next door.  They need the shepherd to lead them there.  Sheep are also afraid of running water.  They can be utterly dehydrated and yet absolutely unwilling to drink from a babbling brook.  They need the shepherd to lead them to still water.  Further, sheep have no natural defenses.  No claws, no fangs, no fighting instinct.  Their best chance for survival is to stay together.  A wolf might be intimidated by a a large flock but would have no qualms about picking off a lone sheep.  Basically, a lone sheep is a dead sheep.  So they need a shepherd who will use the rod to strike a predatory animal.  Once David described his shepherding experience this way: “When there came a lion, or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after him and struck him and delivered it out of his mouth. And if he arose against me, I caught him by his beard and struck him and killed him” (1st Sam 17:34-35).  Shepherds had another mechanism to protect the sheep.  When one started to wander, he used the crook of his staff to hook the neck of the sheep and bring it back into the fold. David knew sheep, and he realized that he was just like them.  He knew what it was to follow God and find blessing in God, and he knew what it was to turn his back on God’s goodness and to behave as if he had to answer to no one, not even God.  Some of his deeds and created terrible suffering.  At one point he became the kind of person that we would think of as being absolutely undeserving of God’s love, grace, and mercy.  But God got David’s attention through a prophet:  and proud, arrogant David responded by saying, “I have sinned.”  Then we learn that God put away David’s sin.  (2 Samuel 12:13). Just like that.  David still had to live with the consequences of his behavior, but God forgave David; and David came to know in a deeper way than he had ever known before of God’s steadfast love.  So David wrote:   The Lord is my shepherd… He makes me lie down in green pastures, and leads me beside still waters. He revives my soul.. Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and you staff they comfort me.   He had come to understand that he had no life in himself but through God. His selfish behaviors would never be life giving.  He had come to see himself as a sheep who had wandered far from the flock.  He had entered the shadow of danger and certain annihilation, utterly helpless; and in this place of being unable to save himself, he found God powerful to save.  In the valley of the shadow of death, he encountered God’s mercy and goodness.  This journey led him to believe that he could trust God with his life no matter what he was facing.  He trusted in God’s staff to bring him back when he stumbled.  He trusted in God’s rod to ward off the power of his greatest enemies: the enemies of sin and death.  It came to mean everything for David that God was with him, God whose mercy and goodness was utterly reliable.   These are truths that did not come immediately or easily to David.  We see the same was true for the disciples. In this 4th Sunday of Easter, we are not far from the story of crucifixion, of the disciples who were shattered by it and were left convinced that sin and death were the most powerful forces in the world.  We are not far from the story of resurrection either.  Jesus appeared to the disciples in this valley of the shadow of death, and they too, like David came to know that they did not have to fear any evil.   Every 4th Sunday of Easter, our Gospel reading proclaims Jesus as the Good Shepherd.  He is not simply “A” good shepherd.  I imagine there were many good shepherds: ones who did their best to give life to the sheep, to ward off danger, to bring them back when they wandered.  And I imagine that every good shepherd lost some sheep.  Think of what those shepherds faced. Sheep who had no sense whatsoever and needed the shepherd to guard their every move.  But the gospel proclaims Jesus is THE good shepherd, the one who is able to save without fail.   These truths did not come easily for David, nor did they for the disciples, and I imagine nor do they for most of us.  The dark valleys can be desperate and lonely places.  They can be places where we seek with all our might and do not find.  However, if the witness of David has anything to say to us,  or the witness of the disciples, or the witness of Jesus himself, it is this: God’s goodness and mercy will find us in the valley of the shadow of death and we will emerge with life and hope.   We’d rather not be sheep.  We’d rather be like my curly coated Bella who can escape the comparison.  But we can’t shrug off our sheepishness, and that’s okay.  As is true for David and the disciples, recognizing our own inner sheep opens a new pathway, the pathway of the good shepherd who will lead and guide us to green pastures and still waters, who will revive our souls, who will show us we need not fear anything. By following, we will come to know just how good the shepherd is.  His goodness mercifully never fails, and by this goodness we lack for nothing.