301 First Street NW
Mount Vernon, IA 52314
Worship Sunday at 9:30 am
Preached by Rev. Lori Wunder, April 22, 2018
Are sheep stupid?
That’s their reputation, isn’t it?
But is that true? I wanted to know.
So I asked Google.
The very first result was an article from the BBC that claimed sheep are grossly misunderstood and unfairly stereotyped [link here].
The reality, this article said, is this:
Sheep are actually surprisingly intelligent, with impressive memory and recognition skills. They build friendships, stick up for one another in fights, and feel sad when their friends are sent to slaughter. They are also one of the most destructive creatures on the planet.
From this description, sheep don’t sound too different from humans, do they?
I learned more about sheep from a Barbara Brown Taylor sermon on the passage from John, in which she talked with someone who had raised sheep. She learned that sheep develop strong bonds with their shepherds. The shepherd can walk through the flock with no problem, but a stranger doing the same thing would cause pandemonium. The sheep and their shepherd also develop their own communication system. “A good shepherd learns to distinguish a bleat of pain from one of pleasure, while the sheep learn that a cluck of the tongue means food, or a two-note song means that it is time to go home.”
She also learned that sheep aren’t like cows—they can’t be driven from behind, like cowboys on horseback do with shouts and sometimes the crack of a whip. If the shepherd makes noises behind the sheep, the sheep will just circle around behind the shepherd. Cows can be pushed; but sheep? Sheep must be led. Sheep aren’t going anywhere their shepherd hasn’t been.
Sheep trust their shepherd because the shepherd has proven him- or herself to be trustworthy. The shepherd doesn’t run away at the first sign of trouble. The shepherd stays with sheep, even when, especially when the going gets tough, because the shepherd loves the sheep, and the sheep love the shepherd in return.
So, the metaphor of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is good and appropriate.
After my research this week I feel quite a bit better about Christians as sheep—not mindless followers, but companions who trust with good reason.
Of course, the metaphor of disciples as sheep has some limitations.
One enormous difference between us and sheep is that we aren’t invited to simply follow the shepherd; we are invited to become like the shepherd.
One of my spiritual practices is to pray Psalm 23. It’s one of the prayers I use with my prayer beads, or repeat to myself as I walk our dog in the early morning.
For the last several months my brain has gotten stuck—stuck on the first part of verse 5:
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies…
I get stuck because I want to know what that looks like, exactly.
Are the enemies standing off at a distance, looking on but not invited to the feast, unwelcome at the table?
Is it a show of favoritism, of blessing to one and not the others?
Or, are my enemies at the table, too?
In the original telling of the psalm, I suspect it was intended that the enemies were excluded from the table.
But when I interpret this psalm through Jesus the Good Shepherd, the one who loves and cares for us and who leads us—sometimes into dangerous and uncomfortable places?
Well, I just don’t think there is any getting around Jesus as a table host for ALL, even the ones we consider our enemies. (Especially the ones we consider our enemies.)
Who is your enemy? Your rival? Who gets under your skin? And how does the Good Shepherd challenge your thinking about and relating to these enemies?
This last week I’ve been reading Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship by Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest and the founder of Homeboy Industries, the largest gang-intervention program in the world, located in Los Angeles. Father Greg, or G or G-Dog as the Homies call him, is full of wisdom, grace, joy and the kind of faith I wish that I had more of. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
In the introduction, Father Greg writes about the kinship of God. What does that kinship look like? Boyle writes, “…survival of the fittest is displaced by the survival of the ‘unfittest.’ Cherry-picking makes way for ‘reverse cherry-picking.’ What if we ceased to pledge our allegiance to the bottom line and stood, instead, with those who line the bottom? Us versus Them…or just Us? Good people/bad people…or just God’s people?” (p. 7)
Father Greg tells this beautiful story about one of the homies, a young man who like so very many others had turned to gangs because he was an orphan, abandoned and abused by his parents. But at Homeboy Industries, this young man found acceptance, love, a new family, new kinship.
Shortly after Christmas, Father Greg saw this young man and asked him where he was for the holiday.
“Oh, just right here.”
I said, “Alone?”
And he said, “No, I invited six other guys from the graffiti crew who didn’t have no place to go,” he said. He named them, and they were enemies, from different gangs, rivals.
I said, “What’d you do?”
He goes, “You’re not gonna believe it. I cooked a turkey.”
I said, “Well, how’d you prepare the turkey?”
He says, “Well, you know, ghetto-style…,You rub it with a gang of butter, and you squeeze two limones on it, and you put salt and pepper, put it in the oven. Tasted proper,” he said….
“Yeah, the seven of us, we just sat in the kitchen, staring at the oven, waiting for the turkey to be done…”
And Father Greg observes, what could be more sacred than seven orphans, enemies, rivals, sitting in a kitchen, waiting for a turkey to be done?
In the kinship of God, enemies don’t exist anymore.
If former gang bangers, young people who have grown up in a violent neighborhood in which the only security seemed to be aligning yourself with a gang and becoming part of the violence—if they can discover their kinship and eat a Christmas turkey together? Well…
On Friday morning around 100 students from Mount Vernon High School participated in a National Student Walkout, remembering the anniversary of the shooting at Columbine. I went over to stand witness with them. It was a peaceful assembly. There was a small group of students who disagreed with the protest, but they came out, too, to observe. Well done.
The only disruption was when a truck with a Confederate flag on the license plate and two young men inside drove by—and yelled insults and obscenities at the crowd.
They raised my hackles. I thought unkind, judgmental thoughts. And then I remembered the Good Shepherd, and I imagined myself sitting at a table with these yahoos who are being deliberately obtuse by choosing to ignore the meaning of the Confederate flag!!!!
Pray for them, my better angels told me.
One last thought on sheep: Sheep are fairly defenseless, so they have learned that their survival depends on sticking together. They don’t really have the option of going it alone. They need each other.
The same is true for us. We need each other. Stay together. Make a place for everybody. Keep our eyes on the Good Shepherd.
That’s how we’ll make it in this world. That’s how we’ll make this world…into the kinship of God. Amen.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life (1993, Crowley Publishing), “The Voice of the Shepherd,” pp. 140-141.
 Krista Tippett and Greg Boyle, On Being Podcast, “The Calling of Delight: Gangs, Service, and Kinship,” November 22, 2017.
Rev. Lorene E. Wunder
I saw a billboard yesterday that said, “Fear is contagious.”
Isn’t that the truth? “Fear is contagious.”
I haven’t looked into it, but I have to wonder if fear is contagious on purpose, like that’s the way we’re designed. After all, the fear response is intended to keep us alive, right?
But I suspect when we are afraid, we prefer to be afraid with other people rather than alone. Perhaps this is why scary movies are so popular, and haunted houses. For some—not me—it is fun to be scared with your friends.
In a similar way, when there is something we hear or see or read that scares us individually, our impulse is to tell other people. We call others, ask, “Did you hear about…?” when we run into people we know, post and share the story on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram.
The saying goes, Misery loves company, and I suspect the same holds true for fear—fear loves company, too.
Perhaps that’s why on the evening of that first Easter, the remaining disciples were huddled together in a locked room, afraid.
Just a moment to talk about context:
Last Sunday, we read Mark’s version of the Easter story, which ends with the women running from the tomb, too scared to say anything to anyone. (But of course, they did tell someone at some point, because gospels were written, and here we are.)
This morning’s reading is from the Gospel of John. In John’s version of Easter morning, we see the women tell the disciples and Mary Magdalene have the experience of meeting the risen Jesus.
And yet…the disciples were still terrified. After all, the religious authorities (which is the more accurate translation of “the Jews” here) might come for them next. They were his followers, other people had seen them with Jesus, so they were huddled and hiding in a locked room, trying to make sense of what the women had told them and what they were supposed to do with this absolutely unforeseen development.
Fear is contagious, and best experienced in a group of people.
Suddenly, through the locked doors and into that frightened group came Jesus, who stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.”
Given everything that’s happened, it’s an interesting thing for Jesus to choose to say.
It’s possible that Jesus saying this might have rung a distant bell in the disciples’ heads, calling them back to what Jesus told them just a few days before as he said good-bye to them after washing their feet. Jesus said a lot of things that night—four chapters worth (see John 14-17)—but one thing Jesus promised was this:
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14:27)
Jesus offered them peace. He showed them his hands and his side. The scales fell from their eyes and they began to believe, and even to rejoice. He tells them again, “Peace be with you.” And then our translation says he breathed on them but a better translation is breathed into them, in an echo of the story from Genesis in which God formed humankind out of the dust and breathed into them (Genesis 2:7) to give life. Jesus breathed into them the Holy Spirit, also known as the Advocate or helper (John 14:25), as a gift to help them understand and act.
And these experiences of Jesus made all the difference for the ten disciples here. They could believe and trust again.
However, the 11th disciples Thomas, missed out and because of that, he is forever known as “Doubting Thomas.”
Poor Thomas. It’s really not fair that he got stuck with that name. He only wanted what everyone else got—to have an encounter with Jesus, his own moment of face to face time.
Thomas has an important role to play in John’s gospel. For John, “belief” is not an intellectual assent to a list of propositions (e.g. I believe in God the Father Almighty and Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord and so on and so forth). No. Belief in John is all about relationship, having a relationship with God and with Jesus, and then, finally, with the Holy Spirit. John uses the Greek word meno to describe this relationship; meno can be translated “abide, remain, stay, continue, dwell.”
When Thomas doubted because he wasn’t there, he pointed to the importance of belief as a relationship based on experience. And that gave Jesus the perfect opportunity to look at those of us listening in on the story to say, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” (John 20:29b)
That moment is a way of saying that going forward, first-hand experiences of Jesus would become far more rare, and that the way faith and belief would happen was and is through the witness of and relationship with other people.
I suspect that for many of you, like me, your own belief, your own relationship with God, is something handed on to you through the witness of others—family members, mentors, friends, pastors, authors, sometimes complete strangers.
My belief, my relationship with God is based on my relationship with other children of God. Yes, I have practices of prayer and contemplation and reading that I must do on my own. But it is essential to be in community, too.
We listen to God’s story together, we worship and pray together, talk about and witness to how we’ve seen it happen in our own lives. When one of us is having a difficult time, we walk together and share the load. When my faith is weak, others of you lift me up, and sometimes it is the other way around.
We believe together because we live together, we are in relationship with one another and because of that, in relationship with God. We belong to God, and we belong to each other. We need each other. That’s how we make it.
Remember that billboard I told you about? I only mentioned half of what it said:
“Fear is contagious. So is hope.”
We live in fear-full times. There are real things happening in our world to be afraid of, anxious about, upset about. And, there are forces deliberately at work to keep us afraid, to use our fear to make us support causes and buy products, to manipulate us.
Fear is contagious. So is hope.
That’s why we need this place, this time of worship, this spiritual home, where all are welcome to gather and be reminded that there are always reasons for hope. The way things are right now is not all there is and it is not how things will remain. There is always hope for the future.
And we will find that hope together, abiding with God, keeping our eyes on Jesus, trusting the help of the Holy Spirit and relying on each other.
Thanks be to God for this gift! Amen.