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Of Pastures and People

Acts 2:42–47
John 10:1–10
Psalm 23

[Delivered by Elisabeth Jones]

You’ve probably noticed by now that there are a lot of sheep today.
John’s Gospel, and that all-time favourite psalm, the 23rd Psalm.
In fact there are those who actually refer to this 4th Sunday of Easter as
Sheep Sunday.
Which makes that short passage of Acts rather odd.
There it is sticking out like a sore thumb, Sheepless!
What’s it doing here?
I’m attracted to anomalies, things out of place catch my attention,
Why no sheep?

So often in the Bible, the people of God are described as sheep.
Jesus, forever associated with the 23rd Psalm,
is often portrayed as the Good Shepherd.
And we tend to read these passages with a sigh of romantic relief,
“we the sheep of God’s pasture.”

Now, if you have a sense of “sheep safely grazing”,
with white fuzzy lambs cavorting around sunlit green meadows,
“all of an April evening,”
let me assure you, you are wearing decidedly rose-tinted spectacles.

I grew up on the edge of the Pennine hills in Northern England,
where nothing grows on the peat but short stubby grass, and heather;
no place for crops or cattle, but good enough for sheep.
Lots of them.
And let me tell you,
– Sheep are a daunting combination of absent minded and bloody minded.
– Sheep don’t willingly do what they’re told, or go where they’re supposed to,
and yet they will happily wander off into river beds, gulleys,
onto precipitous cliff overhangs,
into thickets and brambles, knitting their own fleece on barbed wire fences.

– They have this annoying habit of ignoring reasoned attempts to herd them in one direction,
and an equally annoying habit of ‘group panic’ when something spooks them.

So what then are we supposed to do with these passages, and many others,
which say that we, human beings, are the sheep of God’s pasture!
Do you wonder what this is trying to tell us?
– That we are more stubborn than mules and thicker than planks?
– that we tend to wander off on our own , or follow each other, into trouble?
And, more to the point, that we, like sheep without a shepherd,
are no more use to the world than an ice-pick in the desert?

Perhaps it’s a good thing there are no sheep in the passage from Acts!
It means, that if I preach this text,
I won’t have to navigate the tricky narrow sheep paths
which will make you ticked at me for questioning your intelligence,
or your willingness to follow the Good Shepherd
safely through the gate into the fold!
It means I can tell Sharon I didn’t upset anybody,
I didn’t cause one of you alarm or insult…..
I didn’t call you thickheaded sheep!

Much wiser, I think, to stay with this wonderful picture
which the writer of Acts paints,
of the fully-realized human community,
where people gladly give up the individualist notions of “MINE!”
to share everything.
Everything.

Here we have described a community of faith
Where life is centred around the worship of God.
Where they study Scripture to make sense of it in their lives,
where they pray for the peace of the world,
and where they work to provide the basic essentials of life
to each and everyone who has need of them.
Where by their generosity to one another,
no-one goes hungry,
where healing happens,
where no one is left in loneliness.
Awe is the word the text uses to describe this community:
Awesome, wonderful.
Indeed.
Just a few weeks prior, in the days immediately following the execution of Jesus,
this same group of people huddled in an upper room,
frightened for their lives, desolate at the loss of their leader.
And now, we see them, proclaiming a risen Lord,
and living out the fullness of the promises of God,
where love overcomes fear.
A community in which the God-given power to heal and
rebuild lives is experienced among the youngest and the oldest,
in spades, in miracles.

If these are the people of God,
they don’t look at all like Derbyshire sheep, do they?

In fact, if we look, if we look with hope,
we can see glimpses of ourselves in this passage,
and so we should.
Healing ministries, social outreach ministries,
care for the elderly, and for people living with mental challenges.
A community which gathers in vital worship,
and in study of Scripture and what it means to live faithfully in our context,
members of this community quietly busy with countless acts of generosity,
from clearing snow to car pooling
to repainting rooms at St. Columba house.
The list of modern miracles in this place could go on.
And it is right to give God thanks for such blessing.

But, that seems just a bit too easy, too simple.
We know that while we are indeed all those things I’ve just described,
there’s more to us than that. If we’re honest.

We don’t always look like this snapshot of the
Jerusalem Christians of Acts 2.

But then again, neither did they.
If we were to read a little more than the 5 verses of today’s reading,
if we were to read further on in the book of Acts,
we would soon find that the flock, here safely folded,
fat and fluffy,
begins to wander off.
In chapter 5, some of these people/sheep – Ananias and Sapphira –
get caught in the thickets of self-centredness.
A chapter later, some get trapped in the gully of temptation,
others, like Simon Magus, are stranded upon the cliff-edge of pride,
mistaking the grace of God for their own talents.
Before you know it, in chapter 6, the Rams are butting heads against each other
in battles for supremacy in the growing flock.
By chapter 8 this flock,
this wonderful community of generosity and faithfulness to the Risen Christ,
is scattered.

A bit depressing isn’t it?
We shake our heads, or we may want to scream or cry,
“Is it so hopeless?
Were they/ Are we doomed to be dumb sheep,
always getting lost and caught?
Was there nothing they could have done
– is there nothing we can do-
to keep these communities of faith and trust and love and fellowship
going without falling away from these high holy moments of awesomeness?

It’s tempting at this point, as it was for the community of Acts,
and as it has been and will be often
for communities like ours,
to grimly grit our teeth and say
“If we just try a bit harder when trouble creeps in,
if we just hold on really tight to these good moments,
if we just say a few more prayers,
if we just dig a little deeper,
we’ll get it right, and keep this going.”

That’s what some theologians have called “works righteousness”
and they tell us it doesn’t work. They are right.
If we read this short passage as a sort of How to Manual
“7 Habits for Highly Holy People,”
it’s not going to work, not over the long haul,
because we’re missing something really important.

Scripture, especially the Scriptures for this Sunday,
tell us to expect that although at times we will get it right,
and by the grace of God, will be able to live a life of
fellowship, faith, love and care
there will be other times when we’re going to be
just sheep.

We are going to get it wrong,
maybe even terribly wrong .
– the history of the Church’s
awful mistakes,
and falling away from this Acts ideal,
should give us pause…

Maybe we need to look at those Sheep passages today after all.
Sheep…… and a shepherd.
“God is my shepherd….. he leads me beside still waters…. feeds me…. anoints my head…”
“The sheep know the voice of the Shepherd, who calls, and they follow…”

Passages that speak of sheep yes, but also of
God as Shepherd who leads the flock
to places of safety, of blessing,
even when,
– especially when
there are shadowed valleys all around.
Passages that speak of a human relationship with God in Jesus
where we are known, and we recognize his voice,
and where, although there are countless other voices, distractions
temptations, threats,
he will shepherd his flock into safe pasture.

So I was wrong.
The Acts reading does have sheep in it after all.
Sheep, who for a time at least,
listened to the voice of the One who called them,
into a life of grace-filled love for God and neighbour.
A life, where for a time,
Easter took hold in the lives of ordinary
children, women, men,
so that extraordinary things happened in them
and in the lives of those they touched.

And if we see ourselves in that part of their story,
we need also to see ourselves in the whole story.
They like sheep, went astray,
for a time.
As we shall too, sometimes,
to wander off into gulleys
to find ourselves in death-shadowed valleys,
to get caught in thickets,
and be threatened by all sorts of terrors that are part of being alive.
There are even going to be times when we are sheepishly stubborn,
when we try to do things by our own lights,
and in our own strength,
and we’ll get it wrong.

But,
we are the sheep of God’s pasture,
God is our Shepherd,
In this place we have come to know
the voice of this Shepherd,
and we have been around long enough,
to know that this Shepherd,
calls us home, time and time again.
That’s what a Good Shepherd does with her sheep.
No matter many times we go astray,
no matter how many times we get lost, get it wrong,
God is our Shepherd,
and will lead us home.

Amen.

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