A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, April 26, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: John 18; 1 John 3:16-24; Psalm 23
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer
Imagine you’re in a gathering of people and the leader asks you to introduce yourself. You start off, “I am …” But what do you say next? Do you say your name?
I am Jeffrey Sawyer Spencer. That really doesn’t tell you much about me. Maybe my choosing to introduce myself that way tells you a little something about who I am if you consider that I could have told you, “I am Jeff” or “I am Pastor Jeff.” But that consideration is only possible if you know that I typically go by “Jeff” and that I’m ordained.
I could tell you something about what I do. I am a pastor at Niles Discovery Church. I am a bass in the Golden Gate Men’s Chorus. But none of these introductions really tells you who I am.
In reality, you can only begin to understand who I am by spending some quality time with me. It is the same with God. We can know some things about God, but only real experience with God will enable us to glimpse what God is really like.
Barbara Essex[i] points out that scripture is filled with stories of individuals’ relationships with God and that through those stories we can see how others have experienced who God is. “For Abram (who later became Abraham), God was a voice pushing him and his family from the comforts of retirement to new frontiers in a strange land. For Hagar, God was a presence of strength and survival in an abusive and exploitive household. For Joseph, God was a rescuer who delivered him from a pit and prison and elevated him to ‘somebodiness’ in Pharaoh’s palace. For Esther, God was an expert strategist who made a way out of no way and enabled her to save her people from massacre. For Jeremiah, God was a fire shut up in his bones. For Ezekiel, God was a surgeon and triage team who brought new life to dried bones.” Their experiences with God taught them who God is.
And so it is with each one of us. Each of us has unique experiences of God. And through those experiences, our understanding of who God is changes through our lifetime. God doesn’t change; our understandings change. This is because our experiences of God do not define God – they merely give us glimpses of who God is.
The Bible tells us that Moses had a very powerful experience of God. He was off shepherding sheep when a burning bush caught his eye. When he went over to the bush, he heard the voice of God calling him. First, the voice told him to take off his shoes for he was standing on holy ground. Then the voice told him to return to Egypt and Pharaoh’s court and demand the release of the Israelite slaves.
Moses suggested that it would be challenging to go back to the Israelites to do the community organizing that would be necessary to prepare them for the trek from slavery to freedom. Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”
God said to Moses, “I am … who I am.” The Hebrew is actually difficult to translate, but that’s about as good a translation as any. Who is God? God is … who God is.
Other “I am” statements are scattered through scripture. Sometimes these “I am” statements reveal something more about who God is, though none completely reveals the majesty and mystery of who God is. God is Presence and Healer and Savior and Keeper. God is rock and refuge and protection that people seek.
One of the things that pops out when one reads the gospel of John is that Jesus also uses “I am” statements. The words, “I am,” are used 29 times in the gospel and 26 of those times they are on Jesus’ lips. Seven times he uses the phrase followed by distinct metaphors or images: I am … bread; light; door; shepherd; resurrection and life; way, truth and life; and vine. These are images that his audience would know and understand. By stating “I am” in this way, Jesus uses tangible symbols and images to help the people understand his authority and power. And when he utters, “I am,” he connects himself to the God of the Hebrew Scriptures.
Today, we hear him say, “I am the good shepherd.” And in saying this, Jesus reveals something about who he is and about who we are. The image of a shepherd was a common one – people walking around the Palestine would have seen shepherds on a daily basis. On one hand, the status of shepherds in the social fabric was quite low. Hanging out with sheep in the fields wasn’t exactly clean living.
On the other hand, Hebrew Scriptures paint shepherds in a positive light. The first sin in scripture may be the eating of the forbidden fruit, but the first crime in scripture is a murder: Cain killed his brother Abel. Cain, the bad guy, is a hunter; Abel, the good guy, is a shepherd. Moses hears God’s call while shepherding.
And the 23rd Psalm paints a positive picture of God as a shepherd. In this Psalm, the duties of the shepherd are evident. A good shepherd leads, guides, feeds, protects, and even carries the sheep, when necessary. God the shepherd cares for the sheep and has their best interests at heart. There are bad shepherds, hirelings who run away at the first sign of danger. But God is a good shepherd, the shepherd who guided Israel out of slavery into the present.
Think about the images of shepherds in the gospels. The shepherds are the ones the angels announce the birth of Christ to. They seek the lost sheep. They risk their lives for the flock. Jesus is the Good Shepherd because of his relationship to the sheep and to God. There is nothing this Good Shepherd will not do for the well-being of the sheep; no sacrifice is too great. Jesus loves God so much that his only desire is to do God’s work – even if it means giving up his life.
Further, Jesus gathers the flock. Jesus implies that the community he is forming will be inclusive: “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.” Jesus invites everyone into the flock. Sinners, lepers, women, Samaritans, tax collectors, and more are all included. Jesus’ flock is an open and affirming flock.
As flattering as this image of the Good Shepherd is, the image of the sheep is equally unflattering. Sheep are stupid creatures. “They are not able to take care for themselves and need constant watching. They wander off; they will drink polluted water; they will try to scratch out food from the same barren spot even when fresh grass is right in front of their faces; they will eat too much; and they will fall down and be unable to get up on their own! The sheep are totally dependent creatures. They need a shepherd to guide, care for, and rescue them. Sheep will not survive without a shepherd.”[ii]
Maybe you see where I’m going with this. If Jesus is the Good shepherd, that makes us the sheep. That makes us the unflattering description I just made.
Diana Butler Bass reflects on this at a personal level. “Having been born and raised in cities, I don’t know much about sheep, and my closest acquaintance with them was not a happy experience. My junior high school locker mate lived on a farm. Her family raised sheep. Every morning, she helped feed the critters and arrived at school with clothes smelling like manure. The aroma got into my clothes as well, prompting some seventh grade boys to dub us ‘the sheep girls.’ It wasn’t a compliment.
“Most people probably have more romantic notions of sheep, however, than do I. Cute, furry creatures depicted in pastoral scenes of old-fashioned farms. Baby lambs born in the spring. The shepherd conjures images of Jesus the Good Shepherd holding us, carrying us through life’s difficult patches and protecting us from predatory beasts – rather like a bucolic version of the poem, ‘Footprints in the Sand.’”[iii]
Bass goes on to remind us, “The symbol of the Good Shepherd first appeared in Christian art in the first century, making it one of the most ancient signs of the faith. It was not, however, invested with quixotic ideals of rural life. Rather, the Good Shepherd was the most common form of catacomb art – it was how early Christians decorated their tombs. The sheep was a symbol for the deceased soul, and the shepherd was the symbol of Jesus bearing the dead to heaven.”[iv]
I hear echoes of the first Epistle of John. “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters” (1 John 3:16; NIV). The author of this letter is telling us that it’s our turn, that as the body of Christ today, it is our turn to be good shepherds to the world.
The letter writer cuts me to the quick when he asks, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” (1 John 3:17; NRSV) Sharing materially is one way to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. And there must be a thousand other ways to “not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth” (1 John 3:18; NIV). We must decide for ourselves – individually and as a congregation – how we will love with actions and in truth. We still have work to do to close the gap between the love we profess and the love we share. And we also know from Jesus that to really love with actions and truth will require us to lay down our life.
It seems oxymoronic, but the only way the church will not die is by dying. It is only by giving ourselves away that we will live. Fred Craddock once said, “It is not whether the church is dying, but whether the church is giving its life away to the world.”[v]
Nicole Lamarche is starting a new United Church of Christ in San Jose. In a recent blog post about this challenging process, she shared this insight that reaffirms and expands on what Fred Craddock said: “The congregations that are woven into the life of the communities in which they are located will survive this time of radical transformation and those that continue to see their mission solely as caring for those who show up to a building will eventually shrivel. Switch the default from looking in (it’s all about meeting our needs), to looking out (what difference can we make in this place?) and everything changes. If your goal is to be the friendly church for everyone and you aren’t clear about what niche you serve and how your congregation matters, slow decline is likely.”[vi]
It may not be all that flattering to be the sheep, but we’re not only the sheep. We’re also the body of the Good Shepherd today. Our job is to lay down our life for the sheep. Now we need to figure out who we’ll go about laying it down.
[i] Barbara J. Essex, Bread of Life, (Cleveland, Ohio: United Church Press, 1998). For this sermon, I used (and sometimes quote) from pages 13-17 and 53-60.
[iii] Diana Butler Bass, “Shepherding to Heaven,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/shepherding-heaven (accessed 21 April 2015).
[v] Quote cited during worship at the Christian Church of Northern California-Nevada Annual Gathering on 24 April 2015 in Sacramento.
[vi] Nicole Lamarche, “Five Things I have learned from Religious R&D,” Silicon Valley Progressive Faith Community http://siliconvalleyprogressivefaith.org/5-things-i-have-learned/ (posted 17 April 2015; accessed 25 April 2015).