ARE YOU SHEEPISH?
A Sermon for Year C, Easter 4
By Nathan L. Bostian
A Sermon for Year C, Easter 4
By Nathan L. Bostian
In the interests of Orthodox Christianity, I would like to start off tonight's sermon in a very unorthodox way. I want to ask you a silly question, and I would like your silly response:
When you were a kid (or an adult!) what animal did you want to be, and why? [ASK AROUND FOR ANSWERS]
I have to admit that I never really fantasized about being an animal. An astronaut, or a knight, or GI Joe, yes. But animals: not so much.
However, I thought that it would be really cool to be a huge, ferocious bird of some type. An Eagle, or a Falcon: Something with huge talons and that blood-curdling scream that would make your prey wet itself. And yeah, the idea of flying was pretty cool too.
But there is one animal hardly anyone fantasizes about being: A sheep.
Have you ever been around sheep for any length of time? I mean, in Sunday School as kids we got great felt-board pictures of happy fluffy sheep. And if you were lucky, you got to make one out of cotton balls, and take to your parents. But, the reality is not so cuddly…
First of all, sheep stink. Have you ever petted a sheep and smelled your hand? It's enough to make your eyes water. They smell because of the urine and feces… and Lord knows what else is growing in that fur. They are dirty, messy, smelly creatures who have no way of grooming themselves. Sheep are eating and pooping machines!
Second of all, sheep are dumb and near sighted. They have been known to eat their way off of a cliff, if their shepherd is not careful. They only focus about what is right in front of them, right here, right now. They only care about feeding their stomachs.
Third of all, sheep are pretty defenseless. I mean, they can kick hard and hurt you (especially if they kick a man in the just the right spot!). And they can take a good nip out of you, especially if you get between them and their food. But, if a truly ferocious animal comes into a sheep pen- like a wolf or a mountain lion- they are toast.
Finally, sheep are cranky. If they are hungry or thirsty, they are not meek and docile. They complain and whine and BAA BAA BAA. They will chew on your clothes. They will ram into you, and into each other, if they think someone has something good to eat. And if you think sheep just sit there while you try to shear them, think again!
At shearing time, it is a wrestling match that would be tough for Hulk Hogan or the Rock. They bite, kick, yelp, head butt, and try to run. I know people who shear sheep, and they are some of the toughest folks I have ever met.
Maybe that is why Jesus compares us to sheep. I know I have many days when I am messy, cranky, defenseless, and dumb. Many times I am near-sighted, and I only care about the next thing I can consume to meet MY needs. And I can be grumpy, complaining, mean, rude, and even… smelly… How about you?
And this is the point where I admit that out of all of the images that Jesus uses to talk about our relationship with him, the image of sheep is the one I like the least. I don't like it for two reasons:
First, in all of the dozens of sermons I have heard about sheep- until one I heard last week- I have never figured out WHY Jesus would want to save sheep. I mean, if sheep are so worthless and bad, why would the shepherd even CARE about them? The image of the sheep shows us how bad we NEED the good shepherd, but it does not seem to tell us WHY the shepherd would want to save us in the first place.
Second, like all of you in this room, I would rather be another, better animal… ANY animal… Anything except a sheep.
I mean, couldn't I be a dog. Dogs are friendly, warm, lovable, and even helpful. But dogs have one and only one thing they want out of life: They want to feel good. They want to live to party and howl at the moon. They will eat anything that tastes good, and if they are in heat, they will run out the door and take anything they can get! They will do anything to get their head patted, their belly rubbed, and their mouth around that treat in your hands.
The motus operandi of the dog is to achieve happy feelings and avoid bad feelings. There is nothing greater to life. I can be a dog. Can you? Are there days when your whole purpose in life is achieve pleasure, and avoid pain?
But, how about a cat? I am not the biggest cat fan in the world, but my mother is. She says that cats have ever-so-much more personality than dogs. You can pet them and cuddle them: but on THEIR terms. Cats are calm and collected and always aloof.
If dogs live for pleasure, then the goal of a cat's life is pride. Cats are better than all other animals, and they know it, and you know it… Because they have YOU trained. They look down their noses at sloppy dogs, and stupid sheep. They are one of the only animals who can sneer…
Do you have days when you are a cat? Are there times when you raise your self up, by putting down others, because you are more enlightened, more cultured, more intelligent, or just more…
I know there are days I am a cat. And when I am it shows…
Or perhaps some of us have wanted to be a racing stallion or a majestic mare. Beautiful, powerful, and successful: these animals decorate more paintings than just about any other animal except humans. Their mane is just so, their muscles ripple, they race and do not grow tired… They are, in a word, studs.
Is it a horse you want to be? The person who turns heads when they enter the room. The "winner". The "success". The "professional".
I have days I want to be a horse. How about you?
But there are those of us who are not happy enough to be dogs, nor coy enough to be cats, nor successful enough to be horses. And we resent the hell out of them for it. So we choose a different strategy, a different mascot:
We choose to be a Rhinocerous. Powerful, ferocious, armor plated. Rhinos are feared even by the King of the Beasts: The Lion. In fact, not many human weapons can take down a Rhino. The Rhino dominates the animal world by sheer power.
Are you a Rhino that tries to dominate your world by sheer power? Do you keep others out, by building up armor plates, to keep everyone away from the real you deep inside?
What is your armor plating, your source of power? Is it having all the answers, and using your intellect to annihilate your opponents? Is it being the dedicated martyr, that always does everything, yet never gets the appreciation you deserve? Is it using guilt and anger to always keep others under your control?
We all have days when we are pleasure seeking dogs, or pride seeking cats, or prestige seeking horses, or power seeking rhinos. But a sheep, believe it or not, does something that NONE of these animals will ever do.
All of these animals exist to TAKE from others. But sheep are PRODUCING animals. Out of all of these animals, only sheep can produce something that is of value to others. They were made to produce, to benefit others, and they do it NATURALLY.
In the ancient middle east, you could use sheep for many things: You could milk them, eat them, or skin them. But this was not their main value, and in all honesty you could use better animals to milk, eat, or skin. But, sheep had one thing that none of the other domestic animals had: Their wool.
With the wool of a sheep you could make tunics, togas, blankets, tents, and any number of other cloth items… All without killing the sheep. Sheep, in the ancient middle east, were the perfect renewable resource! Sure, Egyptian cotton might breathe better, but would you want it on a cold desert night to keep you warm? Sure, papyrus was easier to find, but would you want to use a place-mat for a shirt?
And I think this is why Jesus uses the metaphor of sheep. Because on one hand: Sheep REALLY need a shepherd. Like I said, they are messy, cranky, dumb, nearsighted, and almost defenseless to the enemy… Just like we are.
But, on the other hand, they are uniquely productive creatures. And in the hands of a master craftsman, the thread and fabric made from sheep can create masterpieces! To switch the metaphor just a bit, I think this is the idea behind what Paul says in Ephesians 2:8-10:
"For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God-- not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His masterpiece, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life."
Like sheep, we cannot save ourselves. We fall into ditches all the time, and cannot pull ourselves out. We are constantly attacked by forces of evil and consumerism, that will utterly consume us like a rabid wolf, unless we have a shepherd to do battle or us.
But, once we allow the shepherd to save us and guide us, we begin to live into what we were made to be all along: A uniquely creative masterpiece, that does good works, which really change the world.
What kind of masterpiece will we be? The original text of this Ephesians passage uses the Greek word for a sculpture or a piece of pottery. But, if you will allow me a little prophetic imagination, I am thinking about another kind of masterpiece that is in line with our "sheepishness".
Do you have anyone in your life that does needlepoint work? My wife, my mother, and my grandmother all do needlepoint. My grandmother won championships for her work. She would spend days on end, patiently weaving together the most intricate and creative pieces.
One of the things that always struck me about her work was how it looked in the process of making it: It looked horrible right up until the end. It was splotchy on top, and from the underside it was just a knotted tangle of random colors.
Then, one day, you could see it: A picture of a lamb, or a cat, or a dog, or a horse, or a rhino… Yes, she actually did do pictures of all of these animals, and a hundred others.
Somehow, in the hands of a master craftswoman, the random threads became something beautiful. From the underside it looked like nothing but a tangle of random string, but from the top, it was breathtaking.
Imagine for a moment you are a sheep. And each one of you has a different color coat. Some are white, some brown, some yellow, some blue, some red, some… Tie dyed. Each of you has a unique coat, with a unique color, that God made only for you.
If you hold back your life, from the Good Shepherd, and your coat from His Father the Master Craftsman, you can never, ever become what you were made to be. The enemy will come in and slaughter you. Your unique color will never be woven into the fabric of creation.
If you refuse to drink from the Living Water of God's Holy Spirit, and instead choose to drink from the polluted wells of consumer society, you will never grow the coat God designed you to have. You will grow sick, and die. But, there is another way…
Don't despise your sheepishness. Don't walk around life trying to be a cat, or a dog, or a horse, or a rhino. Be a sheep. Listen for the Shepherd's voice amidst the maddening noise of the world.
Give thanks for the times when you are sheared- even though they are often painful- knowing that God is making something beautiful out of all of your trouble, just like He made resurrection out of the death of His Son.
And, if you surrender yourself to the guidance of the Good Shepherd, He will lead you to the pasture of life, because He alone has walked through the valley of Death, and He knows the way home.
If you drink deeply from the Spirit's living water, you will grow healthy and strong, and your coat will be shining and glorious.
And if you surrender yourself to be sheared by the Father, who is the Master Craftsman, he will take your wool and weave it into a picture that you scarcely would have imagined, and never will forget.
And now, may you find true life in the Living Water of the Spirit. May you find true Love in the arms of the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ. And may you find true purpose in the Master Craftsman, God the Father Almighty. Amen+