Sermon: Belonging to the Sheep

04.17.2016     Preaching Text: “The sheep hear my voice, I know them, and they follow me.” (John 10:27)

For me it was a very sad day. It was late June in the year 2002 and I was leaving for Connecticut after serving an 8-month stint as your interim pastor.

I left with a heavy heart. I remember driving along the flat coastal plain on I-195. Amid the barren-looking scrub pines I reflected on the people of this church and how much I was going to miss them.

Never before had I felt so comfortable with a church. Not only that, but in most places I’d lived I could always find something to complain about. Here I just felt at home – both on the Cape and at First Church.

So now I was leaving it all behind. I would never return. It felt as if my life were moving backwards, not forward.

Just this past week I was talking to a longtime member who shared, unbidden, how much she also loves First Church. It has been her favorite church, she said.

Needless to say, I agreed. I’ve never felt as connected to a congregation as I have here. It’s an absolute joy to serve alongside you, to, as Jesus says in John’s gospel, “belong to his sheep” here in Harwich Center.

But this doesn’t just go for Harwich Center. It’s also a joy to be part of the church universal. In thinking over my life, it’s impossible to adequately express the blessings I’ve known being a part of those who hear Jesus’ voice.

Which is not say that I don’t sometimes forget this, or take it for granted. But in those moments when I really take stock of life, there is no doubt that being one of Christ’s sheep has been and continues to be a blessing beyond telling. Perhaps only in retrospect do I recognize the ways the church has positively influenced my life, making me who I am today.

In such moments I realize that because I belong to the sheep, I see the world differently. It could easily have been different.

When I think about the “sheep” who’ve influenced me in ways decidedly different form the ways of the world, I’m grateful. Deeply grateful. I’ve been humbled by these people and through them experienced again and again the love of Christ.

Last week I referenced the recent Deacons’ Retreat and the many personal stories I’d heard of the ongoing ways in which Jesus changes lives, stories of healing and redemption. They were heartwarming to hear, in part because we don’t often talk with each other about the things of the Spirit. It was reassuring and inspiring.

This is not to say, of course, that the church is perfect. We the sheep are hardly flawless exemplars of Christian love and virtue.

Then again, it’s understood, or at least it should be, that the primary qualification for becoming a sheep is an admission of our imperfection and our undeniable need for God’s shepherding, involving such things as God’s forgiveness, grace, and mercy.

Needless to say, such things are often hidden from those outside the fold, and even sometimes to ourselves.

It is my contention that the world is largely ignorant of how much the sheep contribute to its well-being. That’s because, in part, we’ve succeeded almost too well.

The specific insights and revelations given to the church, which it in turn has bequeathed to the world, are now thought to be a given. Everybody, or so it is thought, is born knowing right from wrong, and the Good from life’s lesser values and norms.

The often unasked question is this: if everybody already knows what Goodness is, why do they need to belong to a church? Aren’t we now all a bit irrelevant? Sure, we do a few good works and find companionship within the confines of the sheepfold, but really, can’t such things be found elsewhere? Why the need for faith, or the community built upon it?

This past week in Bible Study we came upon this sentence in the first chapter of the Book of Revelation: “To him who loves us and freed us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and honor and dominion forever and ever. Amen.”

I asked everybody how comfortable they were with the church being described as a “kingdom,” and its members as “priests.” I reminded them also of the passage I wrongly attributed to the Book of Hebrews (it’s actually from 1 Peter 2:9) where those belonging to the sheep are identified as a “royal priesthood.”

Not surprisingly, nobody liked thinking of themselves this way – as royalty, that is. After all, it presumes a kind of superiority, and suggests an unhealthy self-righteous triumphalism.

But listen to how Peter defines this “royal priesthood.” He calls the church (us, that is) “God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

Note what he’s saying. We’re not better than others. We are merely recipients of what Christ has done for us! It’s not we who claim greatness. We are but messengers tasked with sharing our good fortune. As I’m sure you’ll agree, this hardly suggests superiority of any kind.

But while we are busy rejecting the idea that we’re a “royal priesthood,” those charged with sharing the Good News and, thus, promoting the values and norms born of this Good News, we may fail to ask the following question:

If it’s not our job to share and promote this Good News, which includes defining the difference between good and evil and right and wrong, then who exactly is going to do it for us? Who gets to determine the Good?

Should it be the Supreme Court? Congress? The president (both present and future)? What about the U.N.? Our world leaders? Maybe it should be our overlords on Wall Street? Or in Silicon Valley? Hollywood maybe? The media? Should it be college professors and/or administrators? Could it be scientists?

What do you think? Which of these should it be?

It’s said that nature abhors a vacuum. And it does. If we don’t believe we have something important, valuable, essential, and good to share with our neighbors, our culture, our nation, and our world, who then will fill that vacuum? Or doesn’t it matter?

Jesus said, referring to those outside the church: “The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me, but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.”

But then he adds, “But the sheep hear my voice, I know them, and they follow me.”

Was he right about that? Amen.