Alleluia, Christ is risen! Congregation responds. In Easter we are celebrating the promise of the resurrection. Too often we think of the resurrection starting when we die, in heaven, but resurrection starts here. God prepares a place for us right now, in this broken world, even in the midst of our enemies. The church is called to be that place, the gathering of the resurrected.
On Good Shepherd Sunday, we hear the familiar Psalm 23. This Old Testament poem is a resurrection text because it gives us a picture of what the resurrection is to look like. The promise is that Jesus, our Good Shepherd gathers us in a flock, so we can be safe and live the whole life God hopes for all of us in creation. In a flock following the risen one; we will live resurrected lives,experiencing heaven on earth.
Psalm 23 always reminds me of a time when I visited my Grandpa’s sheep farm outside of Lima, Ohio when I was a kid. One sunny afternoon in July I witnessed the power that a flock of sheep can have against its enemies.
These were not normal sheep. They were larger than that, with longer legs. South American sheep I believe. Sheep are smart, probably the smartest animals on the farm. They know to stay on high ground to be safe. On high ground they can see their enemies clearly and be prepared. Like us, when we travel down into the valley life gets tough and our enemies get the upper hand.
My grandpa had a new guy working for him that mistakenly put the flock’s food in the valley. Stubbornly, the sheep waited for three days for that food to be moved, nearly starving. No one moved it so eventually, they cautiously ventured into the valley. They were famished and tore into the raw meat with their sharp teeth, deer carcasses I think. When hungry sheep feed it is like a school of sharks finding blood in the water.
As they were tearing at the meat, several mountain lions, like 9 or 10, came down from the hills outside of Lima and started to circle the sheep. You knew they had one thing in mind, and it wasn’t wool for sweaters. These sheep, the smartest animals on the farm, raised their heads, looked at each other, and then focused their eyes on the creeping mountain lions.
With military precision, they sent the female and young lambs up and out of the valley, led by male scouts. With their long, legs they ran quickly, easily outrunning the mountain lions and making it safely to the top of the hill. The rest of the sheep did not retreat from the lions. They formed a column that attacked them head on. With their sharp teeth they tore into the lion’s fur. I could hear their animal growls, crunching as the sheep cracked the bones of the lions, gurgling as life left them.
Thadd: Whoah. Stop right there.
Thadd: First of all, that is like the most inappropriate story for a sermon, it is too gory for a Friday the 13th sequel.
Karl: I was just telling what I saw.
Thadd: I’m sorry but there is no way that actually happened. There is no way you saw anything like that at all. What kind of sheep were these, because I never heard of sheep with long legs that could outrun any animal, let alone mountain lions. Sheep are sllllllllllloowwwwww
Karl: Well that just shows your ignorance. Like I said these were South American sheep, Lama’s. In Spanish they put an a at the end of everything, like taco and amigo.
Thadd: Those are o’s. And it doesn’t matter anyway, Lama’s aren’t South American sheep. And Lama’s or lambs or sheep or whatever don’t have sharp teeth, they don’t even eat meat, and they definitely wouldn’t know what to do with a bunch of deer carcasses on the ground.
Karl: If sheep don’t have sharp teeth, why would they think they could attack mountain lions?
Thadd: How many times do I have to tell you…you didn’t see this happen…except maybe in your mind! Let’s not even talk about Mountain Lions coming out of the hills of Lima, Ohio. Hills in Lima, Peru maybe…Lima, Ohio no way. Even if that was possible, which it’s not, a flock of sheep wouldn’t know what to do if they saw a bunch of mountain lions. Sheep wouldn’t act in military precision if 10 of them attacked. Sheep are dumb. I know sheep. I grew up on a farm. You don’t know what you are talking about. I bet you have never been on a sheep farm. Have you been using the internet again to write your sermons?
Karl: Okay, Mr. Green Jeans, let me grab this hay barrel over here and sit down and listen to you tell us about sheep.
Thadd: It’s a hay bale, not hay barrel.
Okay, Pastor Karl’s idea at the beginning is good. God prepares a place for us. Psalm 23 gives us a good visual of how God leads us to these safe places and protects us when we get there. This is when the sermon went off of the rails though, to say the least.
Farmers keep sheep together because they are safer in a flock than separate. The one lost lamb that the Shepherd searches for is a powerful image in scripture because of how vulnerable one sheep by itself can be. Because unlike anything you just heard, sheep have short legs, not long legs. They don’t run fast. In fact, they are notoriously slow. They have very little teeth made for eating grass and they definitely don’t eat meat. They don’t have killer instincts. They are not the smartest animal on the farm, so the idea that they could formulate a plan to protect themselves is ridiculous. If mountain lions, and again there are no mountain lions in Lima, Ohio, if mountain lions attacked a flock of sheep, there would be blood but it wouldn’t be the blood of mountain lions flowing.
Did I mention they aren’t very smart, either? I just read a story this week about 400 sheep falling off a cliff. The shepherd was having breakfast, so he let the sheep roam free. These sheep followed the wrong leader and one by one they fell off the cliff. To say that least sheep aren’t the most brilliant of animals.
Sheep stay in flocks because shepherds gather them, lead them and keep them safe. They notoriously follow the wrong leader. This is why the image of Psalm 23 works. Because a Good Shepherd leads them, so they won’t be easy prey for mountain lions or three legged blinds dogs or cliffs. Sheep need to be led.
Just like we need to be led. I am not saying we are dumb as sheep, but we are a lot better off together than apart. Our human instinct is to flock. This is why we build cities, and open VFW halls like the one next door. God’s hope for us is that we flock to a place that is led by a good shepherd, the Good Shepherd. To find whole life, good life, resurrection life, we need to seek community led by the Good Shepherd.
When we gather together, in a community that is led by Jesus, we are kept safe, even in the valleys of our life. When mountain lions attack, or divorce breaks up our home, or our wife dies, or our job is lost, we are better off not only if we stay together, but if we stay together in a flock led by the resurrected one. Because the promise is that the Good Shepherd will prepare a place for us, even in the midst of our enemies.
Karl’s story got one thing right, even dumb sheep can be saved, but they likely won’t be doing it on their own. The message of resurrection is salvation starts here, in this flock. Led by the good shepherd, Messiah Lutheran Church, is able to be that place God has prepared for us here and now. This valley is a little piece of heaven on earth. Alleluia, Christ is risen! Congregation responds. Amen.