Wolves in Shepherds’ Clothing: Sermon for May 7, 2017

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John 10:1-10
10:1 Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.

10:2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.

10:3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.

10:4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.

10:5 They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.”

10:6 Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.

10:7 So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep.

10:8 All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them.

10:9 I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.

10:10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

So, I don’t know about you, but I don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about sheep and shepherds. I don’t own sheep, I don’t know what they eat, how they spend their days, or what they like. I think they are kind of cute from afar, with their fluffy coats and their “baaing”, but that’s about it.

I don’t even really like wool sweaters, because they make me itch.

And I also don’t know much about being a shepherd, I wouldn’t know how to take care of actual sheep. I think you have to sheer them, and feed them, and keep them safe from wolves, but that’s about it. I’d make a lousy shepherd.

So, all this sheep language in the Bible is over my head sometimes. Even though I love the beauty of the 23rd Psalm – the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want – I can’t really relate to it from my 21st century context. And that’s true even though I am a pastor, and the literal meaning of “pastor” is shepherd, or keeper of the flock. And, truth be told, you might not like being called sheep all that much either.

But today’s is a sheep-heavy Scripture reading. Jesus is teaching his disciples about these sheep who are penned up behind a gate. And he’s talking about the shepherd, who comes in through the gate and takes care of them. But he’s also talking about others who are not the shepherd. He calls these people “thieves” and “robbers” and talks about how they sneak in to destroy the sheep.

Jesus finishes by telling them that he is the real shepherd, the one who not only comes through the front gate, but who is the front gate. And he says that because they know the shepherd’s voice, the sheep will follow him, and not the voices of the thieves and robbers, and they will have abundant life.

So, I did not major in sheep studies in college. But I did major in English. And if my English major taught me anything, it was that sometimes a sheep is not just a sheep.

pexels-photo-227691The reality of the Bible is that it is a deeply metaphorical book. Jesus taught the people using examples from the life they knew. They understood the metaphor of a shepherd and sheep. But had Jesus lived today, my guess is he would have told this story using completely different metaphors, ones that we could relate to better.

So hear this story not as one in which Jesus is a literal shepherd and we are literal sheep, but as metaphor. Hear it as Jesus, who loves us so much that he wants to keep us from being destroyed. And hear it as one about the forces of destruction in this world, which too often come to us as wolves dressed in shepherds’ clothing.

Jesus tells us that he comes through the front gate of the sheepfold, which is where the sheep are gathered. He does not sneak in under the railing. He doesn’t pretend to be what he is not. Instead he is authentically and fully who he is. And because of this, we learn his voice, and when he leads us out of the gate, out of our safe places, and into the world, we follow.

But there are others who want us to follow them too. Jesus calls these the thieves and robbers. And I at first though these were the same thing, but I learned that they are not. It’s not important to remember the details here, but I found this interesting. In the original text thieves is κλέπτης (kleptes) which is where we get the word “kleptomaniac”. These are the stealthy ones who take by deceiving us. And then the robbers are λῃστής (lacetase). These are the ones who take by force through overt, violence.

And here is where I believe we 21st century people might understand this metaphor a little better. Because the reality is that we live in a world of modern-day thieves and robbers. Some do come like robbers, trained in violence and trying to steal away our peace through overt threats. But too often they come as thieves, the wolves in shepherds’ clothing, luring us away from what is good and using us for their own ends.

Too often we live in a kleptomaniacal world. Anything that can be used for good – our hearts and minds, our time and money, our love and health, our understanding and compassion – are stolen away by those forces that enter our lives not through the front gates, but by crawling under fences, and blending in, until we think they are supposed to be here.

Jesus calls these things “the strangers”, or ἀλλοτρίων (allotpeon). And I want to be sure to emphasize that he doesn’t call them this because they are unknown or different from us. Jesus always told us to welcome the stranger in Scripture, but when he did that he used the word ξένος (xenos), or other. It is the rejection of these people that he warned us against. We call that xenophobia, or fear of the other.

That’s not the kind of stranger Jesus was talking about here. This is about the other kind of stranger, not the one who is unknown to us, but the one to whom the values Jesus taught us are unknown. Things like goodness, love, mercy, and grace. Things all the major faiths of this world teach. Instead, the strangers to these values – including some who would even call themselves Christian – serve not the forces of life, but the forces of destruction. They wish us harm.

Jesus says, “the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

Jesus wants us to have abundant life. He wants us to thrive. But in a world where we are promised everything if we just pay enough money, or cast the right vote, or sell out for just long enough, the thieves and robbers have somehow convinced us they want that abundant life for us too.

They don’t. They don’t love us and they don’t want abundant life for us. And, truth be told, even if they did, they wouldn’t know the first thing about how to deliver it, even if they did.

Instead, it is our shepherd who can bring us to the place of abundant life. And here is where we have to think with 21st century minds. Because while we may not have had literal shepherds in our lives who have guarded us from evil, and guided us to green pastures, we have had both protectors and encouragers. Maybe they were parents or teachers, coaches or mentors, friends or good neighbors. Whatever they were, they loved you enough to keep you safe, and lead you on.

And so, the Lord is my shepherd. But the Lord is also my parent, my teacher, my coach, my guide, my protector, my encourager.

And I need all of those in this world. And my guess is you may too.

160829_a20072

Copyright, Paul Noth, The New Yorker

We need those because, as Jesus says, the sheep will not follow a stranger because they do not know their voice. But my fear is that these days the thieves and robbers are so familiar that we just might mistake their voices for that of God. And I’m afraid that we just might unwittingly follow them out of the sheepfold, and into destruction.

And so that’s why I want to learn to know my shepherd’s voice when I hear it. And I want to know when I’m hearing a bad imitation, and I want to stay away, and reject the powers of destruction.

I want to learn my shepherd’s voice because I want to follow that shepherd when I hear it. I want to follow because Jesus doesn’t tell the disciples that he is going to keep them there in the safety of the sheepfold forever. Instead, he wants them to follow him out into the world. He wants to become the gate through which they walk, and he wants to lead them into the places that the world needs them.

And yes, sometimes that will even mean that we will “walk through the valley of the shadow of death” but even in those places we “shall fear no evil” for the Good Shepherd is with us.

This world needs people who will follow the shepherd and be shepherds for the world. We live in a time with more than its fair share of thieves and robbers. And we live in a time that requires deep moral courage.

Now more than ever, we are called out of our places of safety, and into the world. And so now more than ever, we must reject the voices of the wolves in shepherds’ clothing, and learn to listen together to the voice of the only shepherd who truly wants us to have abundant life.

Shepherds and Sheep Dogs: Sermon for April 25, 2015

When I started seminary years ago, I never expected that as a minister I would spend so much time thinking about sheep.

More Bible passages than I ever realized have to do with sheep. “The Lord is my shepherd…” Jesus separating the sheep and the goats. Jesus as the lamb of God. Jesus leaving the 99 sheep behind to go after the one that is lost. The prophet who said that we were all like sheep who had gone astray…the list goes on and on. There are literally dozens of Bible verses about sheep.

Fiber artwork by Kathy James.

Fiber artwork by Kathy James.

And here’s the thing about sheep…they’re not that bright. They sort of follow the leader and do what they’re told. There’s a reason that when we are talking about people who blindly follow others we say that they are like “sheep”.

And that’s why sometimes all this talk of Jesus as the “Good Shepherd” bothers me. Because if Jesus is the shepherd that means that we are sheep. And, really, I don’t want to be a sheep. Do you?

To put it in context, in today’s Scripture Jesus is doing a lot of talking about sheep. Jesus says the sheep will follow the shepherd. And he talks about how a good shepherd is unlike a sheep thief. A good shepherd guides us, instead of devouring us. A good shepherd cares for the sheep, even putting themselves at risk to save the sheep. And Jesus says that this is what he himself is: the Good Shepherd.

So, for those of us who do not want to be sheep, how do we wrestle with that? Do we accept that we are, at least metaphorically, these sort of not-so-bright animals? Or do we reject all of this “Good Shepherd stuff?

And there’s another layer to this has always bothered me too, and that’s that the “shepherd” language doesn’t just stop with Jesus. Christian ministers are often referred to by this title of pastor. And if you go back to the roots of that word, “pastor” has a very particular meaning. It’s a derived from this Latin word: pascere, which means to shepherd. In other words, in a congregation the pastor is the shepherd and the people are the sheep.

You might be feeling a little offended by that right now. That’s okay. I would too. You probably don’t want to be sheep anymore than I do.

But I tell you this because it was in wrestling with what it meant to be a pastor that I came to understand what it meant to follow Christ as a “shepherd”.

And that’s because, despite the title, it is Jesus, and not the pastor, who is ultimately the “Good Shepherd”. It is God who leads us through the valley of death to safety. It is God who makes sure our cup runs over. It is God who brings us into green pastures and leads us beside still waters. And it is God’s house, not the pastor’s, in which you will dwell forever.

In other words, it’s not about the pastor, or anyone else who claims to be the shepherd. It’s about Jesus Christ.

When my old conference minister in Vermont, Lynn Bujnak, was called to her ministry there she wrote something interesting in her candidating materials. She wrote that she didn’t see herself as a shepherd, because in Christ we already have one of those. But she did see herself as a pretty decent sheep dog.

A sheep dog can do a good job gathering us in. They can find the ones around the margins, and help lead them back to crowd. They can guide the way. They can push us forward. They can sound the alarm is something is wrong. And they can be pretty useful and helpful.

But as good as they are, they are replaceable. And they should be. In the 375 years of this church there have been a lot of pastors, a lot of sheep dogs, but there’s only ever been one Good Shepherd. And that’s good news.

Almost a year ago to the date, I stood at this pulpit for the first time and preached my candidating sermon for you. And then I went over and sat in the church offices while you prayerfully discerned whether or not you wanted me to be your new sheep dog.

And when I went home to Vermont, back to a church I loved filled with people I loved dearly, I told them I was leaving. And then I opened my lectionary for the next Sunday and found that, like today, it was Good Shepherd Sunday, and this was the passage. And so that Sunday I preached about the Good Shepherd, and how I genuinely believed that he was leading me in a new direction. And how I genuinely believed that he was guiding them into something new too.

“You’ll get a new sheep dog,” I told them. “But I’ve always just been the middle man. The Good Shepherd was here long before me and will be here long after I am gone.”

A year later, I truly believe God meant for me to come to this place. And I see God doing new things with my former congregation, and I rejoice for them. And I am reminded once again that there is a Good Shepherd, and it is not me.

But in the moment, in those days of saying goodbye, and saying “yes” to something new, it wasn’t that easy to trust in that truth. I genuinely felt called here, and yet, it was scary. I liked my old pasture a lot. I wondered if I would like the new one. I kept saying to myself, “I think this is God’s will, and I don’t think I’m making a mistake…but what if I am?”

Maybe you have been there. Maybe you have felt led in a new direction. Maybe you have felt God calling you to something new. And maybe you have been scared to death, and unsure of yourself. Maybe you’ve wondered, “God, what are you doing? Why are you moving me somewhere else? I was just getting comfortable in this pasture!”
You are not alone. I think we’ve all been there. We have all been nudged by God out of our comfort zones and into the unknown. And that can be incredibly hard.

Jesus is the Good Shepherd. I really believe that. And he wants what is best for us. But wanting what is best for us does not mean that Christ always want what is easy, or comfortable, or convenient for us. In fact, often what is best for us is none of those things.

And so, God guides us. God nudges us out of what we’ve always known, through the gates to something new, and into new pastures. And, here’s the catch: unlike sheep…we have had a choice about whether or not to follow.

But in some ways, that makes it even harder. I was saying at the beginning that I never knew how much I’d have to deal with sheep as a pastor. Because sometimes I literally have to deal with sheep.

This past Christmas was a good example of that. A few weeks before Christmas we realized that in all the transition, we had forgotten to order the sheep for the live nativity out front. And so, we got a hold of the shepherd and we scheduled them, and on the night of the nativity we waited patiently out front…and we waited…and waited.

It turns out that the sheep were stuck in traffic, and then lost. And right as we had given up hope, and the shepherds and angels and wise men were coming out on the grass, the truck turned into our driveway, scraping the curb as it went, and parked.

And then the shepherd got to work. She put this fence up in no time flat, and she opened the back of her trailer, and all the sheep, entirely unaware of the rush, filed out in this orderly line and went right into the little pasture she had made for them without a second thought. And at the end of the night they went right back in. That whole preconceived notion of the sheep being mindless followers? Those sheep proved it for me.

And there is something about that that just is so much easier than what it’s like for us. Sheep have no real choice in the matter. They go where they are told, they eat what they are fed, and they stay within the fences that their shepherd puts up for them. You don’t have to make a lot of decisions as a sheep.

But you and me? That’s different. We are more than sheep. We get to make choices. And if we are too cautious, if we are unsure, if we want to stay put out of either fear or stubbornness, we can do that.

But, when our other option is to follow the Good Shepherd, why would we want to stand still?What do we have to lose?

The reality is that I think we all choose to follow something, whether we admit it or not. We can follow Jesus, and we can dare to break out of the pastures we have always known and into something new. Or, we can follow something else, or someone else. We can follow popular opinion. Or, we can follow fear. We can follow uncertainty. We can follow negativity and self-doubt. We can follow comfort and complacency.

But no matter what we do, even if we are just standing still, we are still followers. Because even if we are leaders, we all still follow something. And here’s the most important part: we are defined by what we follow.

And so, how are you going to be defined? Who or what are you going to follow? And who or what deserves that kind of trust or loyalty?

In the end, I know I am more than a sheep, but I also know that there is no other way I want to be defined than as a follower of the Good Shepherd. I know this because every time I have willingly followed, even when I’ve been afraid, he has led me to something better than I could ever imagine.

My hope is that if you choose to follow the Good Shepherd, that will be true for you too. My hope is something will catch you, and connect with you, and lead you to go deeper, and to follow the one who will never forsake us. My hope is you find Christ, or at least a glimpse of him, in prayer and song and silence. And my hope is that this community will help you to find Christ’s love in a new and uplifting way, and that we may be fellow followers, and fellow travelers on the path.

Because we are not sheep. But we do know a pretty Good Shepherd, and he’s holding the gate open for us to follow. Amen.

The Good Shepherd: Sermon for May 11, 2014

Scripture: Psalm 23 and John 10

If you ask people to tell you their favorite Scriptures, or even just list a few Scriptures they know, there’s one that always seems to come up: Psalm 23. You likely know the words: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

We read it at funerals. We read it to give us comfort in anxious times. We read it when we are sick. In fact, more than almost any other part of the Bible, we read it so much that we might even have it memorized.

533999_485840638098085_190703679_nSo when it comes up in the lectionary, as it does today, there might be a tendency to gloss over it. What more can you say? The Lord is my shepherd…everything is going to be okay, right?

But to think of this Psalm as simple, to underestimate it because of it, it to miss just how radical a statement of God’s love and concern it really is. That’s why it’s important that it’s paired with another reading today, this one from the Gospel, and this one containing the words of Christ himself.

Christ is doing a lot of talking about sheep and gates and how the sheep will follow the shepherd and how the shepherd is unlike a sheep thief. How the shepherd guides us, and does not devour us. Christ is talking about how the shepherd will save the sheep. And Christ goes on to all himself “the Good Shepherd”.

So, by this point you might have noticed that today’s Scriptures say a whole lot about sheep, and you might be wondering about that. That’s fair. And it might not surprise you to know that in the life cycle of the church year, this is called “Good Shepherd Sunday”.

The metaphor of church people being sheep has always bothered me a little. I don’t know much about sheep, but they don’t seem all that bright to me. They seem more like animals that follow the leader, and do what they’re told. I don’t want to be thought of as a sheep. I don’t want to be part of a mindless “flock” that follows along and does what it is told.

And another part of this has always bothered me too. And that’s because Christian ministers are often referred to by this title of pastor. And if you go back to the roots of that word, “pastor” has a very particular meaning. It’s a derived from this Latin word: pascere, which means to shepherd. In other words, in a congregation that pastor is the shepherd and the people are the sheep.

You might be feeling a little offended by that right now. That’s okay. I would too. You probably don’t want to be sheep anymore than I do.

But here’s the thing that has always made me most uncomfortable about this: the idea that somehow the pastor takes this role that really is only supposed to belong to Jesus. Maybe that point is hitting me a little extra hard today.

Now as I’m up here preaching today, you might be thinking about the news I shared with you this week. As you know, I have been called to serve another church. At the end of June, Heidi and I will be moving to New Hampshire.

I believe this is a true call. I believe that we are following God’s will for us. And yet, making the decision to leave was incredibly hard, and incredibly sad. We love this community, and we love this congregation most of all. I’ve been very blessed to be your pastor.

And so as I begin to take my leave, I know that I am handing off the role of pastor to someone new. Someone else, an interim pastor, is going to fill this pulpit very shortly. And not long after that a settled pastor will be with you for a longer period. And I pray that they will be exactly the pastor you need. And I pray that you will continue to grow and to minister to your whole community.

But here’s the spoiler. One day, hopefully years down the line, they too will be called to move on. Not because there’s a better congregation out there. That’s not why pastors have to leave. But because God will call them to the next thing, and will call you to the next thing as well. God is going to call you into the next phase of your life together, a place where God already is, and where God will bless you.

And that’s because it is God, and not the pastor, who is ultimately the “Good Shepherd”. It is God who leads us through the valley of death to safety. It is God who makes sure our cup runs over. It is God who brings us into green pastures and leads us beside still waters. And it is God’s house, not the pastor’s, in which you will dwell forever.

In other words, it’s not about the pastor. It’s about God.

When our conference minister, Lynn Bujnak, was called to Vermont she wrote something interesting in her candidating material. She wrote that she didn’t see herself as a shepherd, because in Christ we already have one of those. He is the Good Shepherd, in fact. But she did see herself as a pretty good sheep dog.

A sheep dog can do a good job gathering us in. They can find the ones around the margins, and help lead them back to crowd. They can guide the way. They can push us forward. They can sound the alarm is something is wrong. And they can pretty useful and helpful.

But they aren’t shepherds. And, as good as they are, they are replaceable. And they should be.

And that’s because if you are here today at this church, if you are at any church, the pastor shouldn’t be what makes you stay or go. Sure, you might like your pastor, you might feel like the pastor “gets you”, you might feel a sense of connection that helped you feel comfortable here, but in the end, hopefully, that’s not why you stayed.

My hope is you stayed because you felt a connection with the Good Shepherd. My hope is something about these Scriptures every week caught you, and connected with you, and you felt led to go deeper. My hope is you found Christ, or at least a glimpse of him, in prayer. And my hope is that this community helped you to find Christ’s love in a new and uplifting way.

This church has had literally dozens of pastors in its over 150 years. But it’s only had one Good Shepherd. And that Good Shepherd is why this church has lasted, and why it will continue to last. Christ will be the guide through whatever comes next. And Christ will make all things into a blessing for this church, no matter who your particular sheep dog happens to be.

In a few minutes, we are going to be baptizing Annie. We are going to be welcoming her into this holy sacrament as a community. And, even though I will be the one sprinkling the water on her head, I won’t be the one baptizing her. And even though you will be the ones making the baptismal promises to nurture her, you aren’t baptizing her either. We aren’t the ones doing the lifting here.

That’s because Annie is about to be baptized into something a lot bigger than all of us. And above all else, in this act, the Good Shepherd is claiming her.

That’s good because Annie is probably going to be around a lot longer than most of us. And when we are gone, God’s love will still be there. The same God who claims her in baptism today will claim her in her golden years. And the same God whose name we bless her with today will call her name throughout her life. Because the Good Shepherd never forgets any of us, and never lets us go.

What’s true for Annie is true for us all. Even, and especially, when we are on the move to our next green pasture. The Good Shepherd will go with Annie all her life. And will go with me to Exeter. And will go with this congregation wherever you are headed. And we will all dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Amen.