Sermon: All We Like Sheep

04.26.2015      Preaching Text: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” (Psalm 23:1)

Since we changed around our fiscal year, Stewardship Sunday now falls in spring (no pun intended!). Which means that the stewardship themes in the lectionary, ones that normally appear in November (coinciding with Thanksgiving), are absent from our April Eastertide readings.

So it was with some surprise that I read today’s texts, especially the 1 John passage:

“How does God’s love abide in anyone,” the author asks, “who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

But, I suppose, we first should ask, what is stewardship? Well, for starters, it has to do with the general existential condition of human life. Life is given to us; it’s not earned or manufactured from our efforts. It comes from beyond us, just as everything and everyone in this world comes from beyond us, well beyond our control.

That means our lives are, strictly speaking, on loan. We don’t own anything, not even our bodies or minds. It’s all been given to us to steward, to use. Yet to what purpose?

One of the givens of children’s sermons is that, no matter what the question, they pretty much figure the answer is “God,” even if they’re not too sure. It’s always a safe bet.

So when I ask to what purpose our lives and gifts should be directed, since we’re in church, we’re pretty sure the answer is “to do God’s will.”

It’s a great answer, except that the minute we leave the church parking lot, or perhaps even before, we resume thinking that all our God-given gifts are for our benefit alone. It may be in word or speech that we assert God’s ownership over our lives, but in everyday living we’re firmly in the driver’s seat.

That said, there’s a pretty good reason for this. After all, we may have been given the talent or ability to, say, create a work of art, but we know it takes work, discipline, and effort on our part to make the most of that talent or gift.

Yet if we were look at a musical score from the great baroque master, Johann Sebastian Bach, we would find at the end of each manuscript three letters, “SDG,” an abbreviation for the Latin words, Soli Deo Gloria, meaning “to the glory of God alone.”

As if that weren’t clear enough, Bach once said, “Music’s only purpose should be the glory of God and the recreation of the human spirit.”

What if we all applied this same sentiment to everything we do? What if we used (or stewarded) every gift, talent, or strength we have, knowing they are a gift from God, and used them solely for the glory of God and for the re-creation of the human spirit?

In his famous oratorio, The Messiah, another baroque master, Georg Philipp Händel, used a text from Isaiah and famously set it to the choral refrain, “All we like sheep have gone astray.”

It’s as if, like lost sheep, we’ve taken the very gift of life, all the powers, strengths, and capabilities with which we have been entrusted, and used them for something other than the glory of God alone.

It today’s readings, both Psalm 23 and John’s gospel, we read about the “Good Shepherd,” the God who seeks to lead us toward green pastures and still waters. But all too much like sheep we wander and go astray, seeking our path.

Psalm 23 is an often recited, but its actual reference is generally overlooked.

The good shepherd leads the sheep in the “right paths,” for there is great danger from wolves and other hostile creatures when the sheep wander off that path, especially through the darkest valley. The shepherd’s “rod and his staff” ward off all intruders, offering protection and comfort for the flock.

Likewise the shepherd sets a table before the sheep’s natural enemies, meaning he scours the pasture land to insure that there are no scorpions or other predators. He anoints the heads of the wounded sheep as they enter the fold for the night and feeds them a special drink, nursing them back to health.

It is only when the sheep wander outside the guidance and care of the shepherd that their lives are made problematic.

In 1 John, being followers of Christ (his sheep) means something specific, that we are to follow his selfless example. We are to love and share the gifts we’ve been given, to the glory of God and the benefit of humanity. Christ has sacrificed himself for us, say John, and we are to do the same.

This is not a call to ignore the gifts we have from God, but to use them to the fullest. It is not a call to weaken the light inside us, but to let it shine forth brightly. It is to make the most of what God has given us so that we might worship God through it and share its blessings with those around us.

One of the devices I’ve heard a few pastors exploit over the years is to flatter his or her hearers, praising them to the hilt for all they do.

And while I’m not prone to such a thing, certainly not in any exploitative way, I must say that this church – you here today – steward your gifts in ways that bring relief and comfort to many.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people tell me how blessed they’ve been by the love of this congregation. In times of difficulty and distress, you have been there for them. (And I know this from personal experience.)

This is a generous congregation, not just in terms of its time and talent but of its money. The most recent example is the legal defense fund for the Memorial Garden. Before having even officially started it, we’ve already raised close to $10,000 from just 4 “units.”

To be honest, I can say, without equivocation, that this church is a joy to pastor. I look forward to coming to work on Tuesday mornings. And through even the most challenging moments, your support and commitment has been a constant source of both strength and comfort to me.

I know in my own life that too often, as with everyone, I’m tempted to take credit for things I do, forgetting that it is not I who is doing it, but Christ. In every waking moment, it is essential for me to remember who’s in charge and who it is who knows best what my life’s direction and purpose should be.

And I am heartened that you have joined me in this ever-present challenge. Amen.