Sermon of the Week:
You Wanna Go Where Everybody Knows Your Name
Fourth Sunday of Easter #pcusa
Keywords: Aussies, The Good Shepherd, Cheers, Power of a Name, Gospel of John
Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-733469. All rights reserved.
Our family has been talking A LOT about shepherds this week,
but it wasn’t because of this passage from the Gospel According to John.
We’ve been considering adding another pup to our family mix
for a couple of months now
and, yesterday, we adopted a playful and goofy Australian Shepherd named Ryder.
Leading up to all this, I did a lot of research about Aussies, among other breeds.
Was a bit nervous, you know,
not just about Aussies, but about any new dog.
Would they get along with our other pup Annie?
Would they be good with our girls, our neighbors, our couches? All open questions still.
So we looked at all sorts of dogs,
mainly medium-small size pups,
dogs who could both go on a good long walk
and hang out while watching tv
and we fell hard for this Australian Shepherd Ryder.
Turns out they’re not from Australia at all.
Their roots go back to American Ranches in the 1800s,
possibly related to English shepherds and border collies.
The most likely story is that they were introduced
to help herd sheep that were being imported from Australia at the time,
and thus the name.
Like many shepherding breeds, they’re attentive and smart and active
and Aussies reportedly have a high drive to please,
so, needless to say, we’re excited,
even if we might look a bit tired this morning
with the introduction of a 9 month old puppy around here.
These are new surroundings.
We have to earn his trust, go easy with him,
show him we’re dependable and have his best interests at heart.
I have some training to do;
mainly I need to train myself, so I can help train him.
When you research the breed, you find some great youtube videos out there
of Aussies herding sheep.
When THAT’s their job, wow, watch out: they run fast and true,
and can keep hundreds of animals in the right place at the right time.
Some of those videos show the dogs guiding the sheep to stick together,
and somehow they get all those sheep to move as one gigantic horde
as the dogs guide them safely into their pen,
often through what seems to be an impossibly narrow gate,
at least when you’re talking about that many animals.
We don’t have sheep around here, at our house in suburban Kansas City,
so we’ll have to work up some other job for him to do.
Some of the literature suggests asking them
to pick up your dirty clothes off the floor and taking them to the hamper,
and I think we would LOVE some of that around here, if Ryder is up for it.
Truth be told, this is all another way to say
that I don’t know all that much about real shepherds,
the kind of work it takes to actually keep sheep and other livestock
on the straight and narrow.
I am, admittingly, a creature of the city and the suburb,
and even though I spent the first twelve years of my life
in some teeny-tiny towns in rural Iowa
and there are some cute pictures of me as a kid at county fairs
doing kiddy tractor pulls or enjoying Windsor chops on a stick,
we still lived in the town town, you know?
The farm life is largely foreign to me.
Some of you have more experience of the farm than I do.
But if you’re more like me,
then these passages about Jesus as a shepherd,
as the GOOD shepherd,
take a bit of translation to get your head around.
That’s ok. We all have our own histories and our own experiences,
and I value farmers and am so grateful for those who work the land, raise animals.
I just don’t have the innate connection
with these stories that they might have,
or, for that matter, that the gospel writer’s audience would have had.
The biblical world was a much more agrarian world.
Both sheep and the shepherding profession,
the people, not just the pups,
were common parts of everyday society back in Jesus’ day,
and more generally in the biblical period.
As a result, you see mentions of sheep all over the place in the Bible.
The people writing and listening to these stories would just get it, naturally.
Sometimes there are references to actual herds of livestock,
and other times, like today, this is offered more as a metaphor
about people and their leaders, or about who God is in relation to us.
The most famous of these passages is the 23rd Psalm,
The Lord is my Shepherd,
I shall not want…
He maketh me lie down in green pastures
He leadeth me beside still waters
He restoreth my soul…
There is a common theme in many of these stories, right?:
the care and the protection of the sheep,
how they are provided for,
who has their best interest at heart.
Maybe that’s because sheep are seen as relatively defenseless creatures.
When there’s danger, mainly they run,
or they band together for protection,
but woe to you if you’re on the outside edge
and there’s a wolf lurking around.
Now, I know that we self-sufficient types might shudder a bit
at the thought of being called sheep.
We can get all worked up about how we KNOW how to get our house in order,
that we don’t just blindly follow someone trying to lead us somewhere,
all those things,
but I think that concern is more like a good pup getting distracted
by that squirrel running in the yard across the street,
instead of paying attention to the thing happening right in front of him.
The metaphor isn’t about calling you docile or feeble or helpless or defenseless
or whatever else we modern people think of when we think about sheep.
This is more a story about who God is,
and how God intends to deal with people like us.
So the people who wrote the bible
knew that most people in that world, in that culture
knew sheep pretty well,
and would understand somewhat intuitively
this talk about the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob
being the sort of God who has your best interests at heart,
being kind of like a shepherd who cares for the sheep.
The sort of God who can help you walk through the darkest valley
and not fear any evil,
whose rod and staff…the traditional tools of a shepherd…
are a comfort, because there’s a sense that, in the end, the Shepherd’s got your back.
Because we ALL have those moments where we walk through that valley,
when fear of evil consumes and we find ourselves in need of goodness and mercy…
So let’s not get sidetracked on whether we’re sheep or not, ok?
All…THAT is swirling around in the background here
for the writer of this Gospel, the Gospel According to John.
Here, John says, Jesus is the Good Shepherd.
He’s not a hired hand, and certainly not a thief or a bandit.
Jesus’ job is to care for the sheep of his pasture.
John actually does an incredibly interesting job
at describing different motivations and backgrounds
of those who might be engaging the sheep.
There are thieves and bandits who try to hop the fence
or look for ways to sneak in
or lead the sheep astray.
They’re no good.
Then there’s the Hired Hand, the one who might help sometimes,
but he’s more about his self-interest,
rather than their good, the sheep’s good,
and so the hired hand has this tendency to run away
when dangerous times come along.
There’s a whole other sermon here
that would connect Jesus’s point about the thieves and bandits and hired hands
with the broader context in this part of the Gospel According to John.
In the last chapter, Jesus is sparing with some other religious leaders
the pharisees and the scribes
people who, Jesus implies, either are not fulfilling their role with integrity,
or with the best intentions of the people at heart.
We all know how damaging that is, when our leaders are revealed as dishonorable
when it seems like they’re using the people for their own profit, or power.
So this is, in one important way, a call to choose the sort of leaders
who seek to imitate the good shepherd,
and a call to all leaders
to do their work with integrity.
It is always good to ask yourself: are they leading with your best interest at heart?
But, again, a different sermon.
Today, lets focus on how, unlike the thief and the bandit and the hired hand,
the shepherd CARES first and foremost about the sheep:
what is good for THEM, how to nurture and provide for and how to protect THEM,
because the shepherd wants, ultimately, to see them thrive.
The shepherd cares about their flourishing, about their good.
And for this reason, the shepherd himself is a GOOD shepherd.
Jesus, John is trying to tell us, is righteous, and honorable,
because in him there is no subterfuge, no ulterior motive,
no false altruism,
no trying to get YOU to do something for HIM
no using you to get ahead.
Jesus is the good shepherd who will show you genuine love and honest compassion.
Jesus is the gate, to welcome you into a safe and protected space,
Jesus will go so far as to get to know you, and nurture a relationship with you
so that he will be able to call you by name,
and you’ll know who it is calling,
and that, in itself, can give you peace.
When I was a kid, it was a special treat
to get to watch television with my folks after dinner.
Put this into perspective:
This was way before smart phones brought Netflix on demand
to the palm of your hand.
We didn’t have DVR, Digital Video Recorders,
We had VCRs, with cassettes that you had to insert into them,
and VCRs were expensive and were hard to program,
so you often had to just wait for the show to actually be on.
We really only had the one TV in the house,
and when my folks started letting us watch some evening shows with them
it was kinda a big deal.
They got to decide what was on, of course.
My dad liked a steady diet of great 80s network programming:
Hill Street Blues, Newhart, Family Ties, St. Elsewhere
and I admit I am still fond of smart, to this very day
of gritty dramas and well-written comedies.
And the best of the bunch was Cheers,
the sit-com set in a Boston bar,
with Sam, Diane, Norm, Cliff, Carla, Coach, Frasier and Woody.
Sorry, younger viewers, if you don’t know this show,
but it is available on Netflix or Hulu next time you want to binge something.
But it was such a great show. Deadpan comedy. Great characters.
Everyone wanted to know if Sam and Diane would get together in the end.
Cheers had one of the more memorable theme songs of all time, too.
The editors of TV Guide and a readers poll commissioned by Rolling Stone magazine
even declared it to be the best Television Theme of all time
It starts like this:
Making your way in the world today
Takes everything you’ve got;
Taking a break from all your worries
Sure would help a lot.
Wouldn’t you like to get away? …
Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
And they’re always glad you came;
You want to be where you can see,
Our troubles are all the same;
You want to [go] where everybody knows your name.
(Aren’t you glad I didn’t try to actually sing it…?)
One thing that was great about Cheers
was this recurrent plot technique that fit this theme song perfectly.
A scene would often open with Sam or Woody or Coach behind the bar,
Diane busing a table, some of the regulars sitting in their regular spot
and Norm would come striding in through the door
and every time, in unison and as if on cue,
everyone would shout out “Norm”
and he’d say something funny and ask for a beer or something
and the show would go on.
The premise of the show wasn’t all that new or unique.
It was how these deep relationships formed
over time, over stories, over sharing their lives with each other,
and through all that, these strangers came to know each other,
and as they did, they came to love each other,
and nothing symbolized that point
more than everyone calling out “Norm” when he lumbered through the front door.
We all want to be known like that, at least by someone.
We all want to be seen, and known, and loved, not in spite of who we are
but because we are, and because we matter.
God loves you, just like that, says the Gospel According to John,
because you see it in Jesus,
who is a good shepherd,
and who, like a good shepherd,
can go into a crowded pen of sheep and call out to his creatures
and they’ll know its him,
because they love him, and he loves them;
they know he’ll provide for them, guide them, nurture them,
that he has their best interest at heart.
Listen for that voice, John is saying.
Follow that voice, the voice of one who loves you enough to call you by name.
And this is an Easter story, because we remember how on Easter morning
Mary was at the suddenly open tomb, when she saw the gardener there…
and he called her by name too, and there was the same awareness,
there, that Easter morning, unlike anything she had ever known, and she knew….
Because Christ lives, there is hope for all of us
that God is calling us, by name, telling us that we have a home in God’s pasture.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd because he loves us, and knows us,
and we can both take lasting comfort in that fact,
and we can seek to be the kind of people who care for others
the way that Jesus does.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd because he is reliable,
he doesn’t run when the going gets tough,
he doesn’t have any other motive behind what he does
other than the good and the true and the right,
which is another way to say
that his motive is God’s motive.
And when we make that our own motive, too, amazing things can happen:
people can share what they have and hold many things in common, for example,
like what we heard Don read for us this morning,
so that the hungry can eat, the lonely can find company,
the outcast can find a welcome, so Justice can be proclaimed.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd, who knows our name,
and because he knows our name, we can hold our head high
and know that we are loved and nurtured and valued, every one of us,
and we can work to make this a world where all people
are loved and nurtured and valued too.
So may we be grateful for our Good Shepherd,
and seek to follow where he leads us,
to green pastures, beside still waters, or wherever we need to go
so that goodness and mercy will join us.
May it be so.
Image Credit: He Qi. The Good Shepherd