Sermon - 4 Easter
In the Name…
There's a bright light in the sky. It grows closer and closer until you see it's a huge metal saucer which descends and lands in an open grassy area. A ramp is lowered and a strange creature emerges. Three bright shining eyes, pointed ears, green skin with a touch of bright pink fur. With a strange waddling gait the alien approaches. It lifts its two-fingered hand and says, in perfect English, "Take me to your leader!"
Have any of you ever had that experience? No? Well, glancing at the supermarket tabloids, one could get the impression that close encounters were quite common. Well, maybe not here.
But, what about the alien's demand "Take me to your leader"? What would you do if confronted by that statement? Hmm. Who would you take him to see? An important and powerful politician like the President. Or the mayor of where we live? Would we consider our "leader" to be the person to whom we report at work?
"Take me to your leader!" That's a tough one. As Americans, we tend to rebel against the idea that anybody is our leader. Of course, society must be structured, so we elect officials to perform certain public tasks, but, we don't owe them any personal allegiance. The best we do, as a nation, is pledge to a flag, the symbol of an idea.
Now, those of us who've been in the military know that we're supposed to defend democracy, but, not practice it. There's a chain of command and nobody has to wonder who their leader is. But, even there we're told we salute the uniform and not the man. We obey the order, not the person giving it. It's an institutional loyalty. So nobody, even in the military, is objectively our leader.
So, we are all individual and independent. But, are we really?
When I was in seminary, a hundred years ago, a popular question going around was, "Who is most influential preacher of our time?" Was it Billy Graham? Jerry Falwell? Pope John Paul II? The answer given was Norman Lear, the producer and writer of “All In The Family”, “Maude”, “Good Times”, “Mary Hartman”, and several more of the popular TV shows of the 70's and 80's. They impacted and influenced our social values. Today, the names have changed, but, it's the same game.
The fashion houses dictate the sort of clothes we're supposed to be comfortable wearing. The auto makers offer us their choice of vehicles. The health industry determines our diet and exercise. Public opinion experts shape how we think and feel and act in many situations. We may believe we don't want to be the same as everybody else, but, when the crunch comes we don't want to be all that different either. There's really a lot of leaders out there trying to get us to follow them, and we need to be careful who, and what, we really are following.
The Fourth Sunday of Easter is usually called Good Shepherd Sunday because the appointed gospel is always Jesus' words about being the shepherd of his flock. That's an image we find to be both well known in church and unrealistic in life. Wonderfully popular and completely irrelevant at the same time.
The fact is that few of us have herded sheep for a living and, for most people in 21st Century America, the picture of Jesus holding the little lamb belongs exclusively to stained-glass windows.
So despite the fact that the image of God as shepherd, and human beings as sheep, is found, with some frequency, in both Old and New Testaments, most people today find it quite incomprehensible. And maybe that's just as well, because if people did understand it, they might just find it downright offensive.
Where I lived in a rural part of Wales, sheep were everywhere, aimlessly wandering the hillsides, the village streets and country lanes. Often you could find dead sheep on the roadside killed in motor accidents. And the farmers there taught me this math question, "If you have ten sheep in a pen and one jumps out, how many are left?" The answer is, "None." When one goes, they all go. The herd mentality. They need shepherds.
When Jesus called us sheep that wasn't a term of sentimental endearment, and calling himself a shepherd is his way of saying that without a leader we're hopeless and helpless. And, that's offensive, because we're individual and independent. Nobody needs to be our shepherd because we're quite capable of making our own way in the world, thank you very much. And, there's a lot of people who really agree with that last statement. Which is why their lives are so perfect. Not.
The truth is that we need a leader who is greater than any person or idea we can create for ourselves. One we don't vote in, or out, of office. And we do have one. He does exist. We just need to accept him as that and listen for his voice. That is the message of the Gospel. But, it can be difficult because listening for God means he has something to say.
Everybody talks to God. We call it prayer. But, if anyone claims that God talks back, we call that schizophrenia. The problem is we've heard too many people justify deranged behaviour by claiming to have heard a voice from God and we don't want to be considered one of those. So, we say our prayers, and hope God respects our privacy.
That leaves us, though, with a silent God, a safe god, the Santa Claus god who makes no demands on us other than a vague injunction to be good little boys and girls, but, who still provides presents, answers to prayer, even if we aren't. A shepherd God, on the other hand,...he has a lot to say about a lot of things and the only way we recognize his voice, as distinct from the competition, is if we know what he sounds like and the only way we get to know anybody's voice is by spending time with them.
That's what God really wants. He doesn't want to be silent and remote. He wants us to spend quality time with him and get to know him as he knows us. He wants us to study his word and get a sense of how he speaks so that when we hear the voice of another would-be leader we can ask ourselves if the styles match up and if they don't, then we know which represents the true shepherd and which the false. But, unless we take the time to learn the voice, we'll never learn the difference, and we'll end up like sheep wandering the roads of Wales, run over by passing vehicles.
Oh. The alien is still standing on the end of his spaceship's ramp. His hand still raised in greeting. In case we hadn't heard the first time, he repeats himself, "Take me to your leader." We think. Who is our leader? To whom do we owe personal allegiance? Then, an idea comes to mind. What about Jesus? That's a thought. And where is he? He's here in the Tabernacle.
Would you bring the alien to church to have him meet Jesus? He's the only real leader we should have. Now, that would be an act of faith. But, come to think of it, why wait for the alien to arrive? There are plenty of people who are alien to Christ already here, all around us. Maybe, they should meet our leader, first. Maybe, we should bring them.
In the Name...