April 22, 2018: "God's Flock"
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK April 22, 2018
I’ve heard the Good Shepherd gospel reading all of my life. Even before I could understand this gospel lesson, I can remember contemplating Jesus as the Good Shepherd. You see, the window at the front of the sanctuary of the church were I was raised shows Jesus, robed in white and flanked by the disciples, with a little lamb curled around his neck. That is the image most associated with Jesus the Good Shepherd—a plain and peaceful Jesus, dressed in heavenly garb, with a little lamb perched on his shoulders. We gravitate toward that image because it is comforting, a powerful reminder that when and if we lose our strength to carry on, Jesus will carry us as he has promised to do. I wonder, though, after all these years of contemplating the image of Jesus the Good Shepherd if that is all there—is peaceful, heavenly arrayed, sheep-on-shoulders Jesus the only Jesus we read about in this gospel text?
As I sat with this familiar text and prayed and studied through it this week, something stood out to me that had never grabbed my attention before. Jesus makes a bold assertion when he says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” Have you ever noticed that before? Have you ever given any thought to what Jesus might mean when he says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold”? When Jesus says ‘this fold’ does he mean the cohort of the original disciples or is he talking about a much larger, much broader collection of people? When Jesus uses the word ‘belong’ is he implying that there is more than one household of God and no one single way to be ‘in’? Who are the ‘others’?
It is likely that Jesus spoke these words about a year before his death and resurrection. The disciples had watched him heal and preach and teach and rub the religious establishment the wrong way; they also listened as he told them over and over that he would be betrayed into the hands of sinners and crucified. The disciples never really got it, though. They never understood that Jesus came into the world to save sinners, sinners of every kind and every time and place. They were always questioning Jesus when he talked to people they didn’t like or understand. The disciples thought Jesus was just for them and people like them. The woman at the well is a good example: the disciples chided Jesus, questioned him, when he talked to the Samaritan woman at the well. To them, she was outside the gates, she didn’t fit their definition of a follower of Jesus, she was not part of the ‘in’ crowd. The disciples were not unintelligent people—they lacked imagination. Without a vibrant and wide-open imagination the disciples lacked the ability to really take part in God’s work in the world. Jesus told the disciples about these other sheep to spark that imagination.
Very generally, I believe Jesus is saying that God’s flock isn’t what the disciples imagine it to be or even want it to be. That seems simple, but it strikes at the very heart of what it means to be human. Human beings really like cut and dry, black and white, and Jesus really doesn’t. We thrive on definitions and delineation and a certain amount of separation—we are wired to look for gender and ethnicity and clothing style and body language and property lines as a way to distinguish between what makes me me and what makes you you, what belongs to me and what belongs to you. This helps us to understand who we are, who we are in relation to each other, and where our place is in the cosmos. These things also help us to sense and navigate the presence of danger in the world. Without this stuff, we would not be the thoughtful, free creatures that God has created us to be. There is nothing bad about any of this. But you and me and the disciples run into trouble when we think that God thinks the same way we do. We are not unintelligent people, but we do lack imagination sometimes. When it comes to God’s flock, who and what it is and what it can be, we need to spark our imaginations. Consider a few things with me.
First, God calls people from all walks of life, from every nation on the face of the earth, and from each and every generation across the nearly two thousand years since Jesus first said, “I am the Good Shepherd.” We know this is true because we are here today. We did not come to faith on our own. If you’re like me, your parents carried you into a church even before you could walk. But even if that wasn’t your experience, God called you here…you did not come on your own. And we did not build all of this ourselves; we are here because of a long line of faithful people throughout time. And look around. We are a pretty similar group of people racially speaking, but we are quite different. We were raised in different places, attended different schools; we vote differently and we think about the world differently; we like different foods and entertainment and we even believe different things about God, the Bible, and our Lord Jesus Christ. But here we are. We are in one place today worshipping the one God of heaven and earth with one united voice. We are here giving our lives to the task and joy of proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The pool of humanity from which God calls his people is broad and wide and deep.
Second, though God calls people from all walks of life and from every generation, God has never called us to uniformity. Instead, God calls us to unity, and those are two very different things. Uniformity, above and beyond even the politics and the controversies, is why the church in America has been hurting since the 1980s. Somewhere along the line Christians started thinking that everyone had to think the same and believe the same and live in the exact same way in order to be considered a good follower of Jesus. Believe me, we do like a little uniformity—all of us make and live the confession that Jesus is Lord and Savior. But we took it to the extreme and started to build these congregations where everyone in the pews had to be identical: in thought, belief, politics, and ideology. That’s a cult, not a church. The tragedy of all of it is the countless numbers of people who were turned away, pushed away, persecuted, and literally and spiritually murdered because they didn’t fit the mold.
God’s dream is unity. That is such a hard thing to achieve and maintain is that it requires us to rise above the chaos and see as God sees. Specifically, it requires us to see one another as God sees us. The truth of our faith from the Scriptures and our tradition is that each one of us is formed and fashioned in the image of God and filled with the same Spirit that God used at the beginning to create all things. Full stop. Period. There just isn’t another thing that needs to be said after that. That is who we are. When we define ourselves as bearers of the sacred image of God in one breath, we cannot in the next breath say that someone else is not. Well, actually, we can do that and we do it all the time. But when we do we’ve stopped speaking for and about God and we’ve fallen back into Adam and Eve’s sin. When we understand that all people are created in the image of God, sacred and worth so much, we begin to achieve unity. When we recognize the baseline in every person is the very face of God, all that other stuff—all those other labels and definitions and biases—all that other stuff is revealed for what it is: nonsense that has no place in the church.
Third, and coming from the first two, we do not yet know the people that will make up God’s flock tomorrow, or next week, next year, or in the next 100 years. And here is the good news: we don’t have to worry about it. There is a tremendous expansiveness to Jesus’ statement, and we do not know and probably will never know the limits of the flock Jesus calls to himself. All we know is that Jesus is still calling, God is still searching, and in time, as Jesus says, we will be one flock under one shepherd.
That’s great news and its filled with hope. I’ve told you before about how I was warned against pastoral ministry. I was told early on that I should think about preaching as just a side job, and find another job that would actually pay the bills. The Church I came into as a new pastor—and by Church I mean the universal church throughout the world—was riddled with fear and anxiety. I even heard a few times that the church is dead. But it is not, my friends. Smaller than it was before? Sure. Different looking than it was before? You betcha. Dead? Nope. And I know that because the Lord we proclaim, the Lord we serve, is not a Lord who dwells in the realms of death, but sprung to life after putting the powers of death to shame. The Lord we proclaim, the Lord we serve, told his disciples and us that there will be a family of God, a flock of God even when we can’t or don’t want to see it. The Lord we proclaim, the Lord we serve, has promised to draw all people to himself into one new humanity of peace and justice, and though we might not see it before we leave this earth, God is faithful.
I don’t serve a dead Savior, and neither do you. I serve the risen Jesus of Easter and you do, too. He calls us to put aside our fear, for the world and for the church, and live into the reality that life and love is stronger than death. He calls us to put aside our petty disagreements and minor squabbles and recognize the sacred image of God in each person. He calls us to remember his faithfulness and put our faith and trust in that and in nothing else. He calls us to live and love as abundantly and freely as he did, confident that God is at work in and through everything we do and say. He calls us to a new way of life where we stop forming God in our image and allow God to be God. And Jesus calls us to expand our imaginations when it comes to the flock of God. No more saying who is in and who is out; no more having the last word; no more self-righteousness and no more thinking that our prejudices and biases are approved by God, because they are not. We are called to be faithful stewards of the good news of God and the church…stewards—not gatekeepers, not toll-collectors, not ticket-takers. Stewards. And proper stewardship of the Good News and church begs us to open our doors and hearts to welcome the flock of the Good Shepherd.
Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd, the one who laid down his life for the sheep. The good news of the Gospel today is that he laid down his life for all the sheep—me and you and that neighbor you can’t stand and that person you have not met yet. The Good Shepherd was raised to new life and he takes us with him into this kingdom where God, and only God, has the final word on who and what we are. If we want to fully enter this kingdom, where there is true life and freedom and joy, we must let the Shepherd do his work. Open your hearts and minds to the flock that God is calling because, after all, you are a part of that flock now and always. God is not done yet—with me, with you, with the church, or with the world. And for that we can say nothing but, “Thanks be to God!”. Amen.