You do not belong to my sheep
Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.” So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.
At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. 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. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.”
Ralph Wolf and Sam Sheepdog are cartoon characters in a series of 6 Bugs Bunny Cartoons that ran between 1953 and 1962.
It was one of my favourites from the Bugs Bunny cartoons. Ralph, the wolf looked remarkably like Wile E. Coyote, and Sam was a Briard Sheepdog, one of those dogs where the hair seems to cover the eyes and you don’t know how they can see.
Ralph and Sam are portrayed as blue-collar workers just doing their jobs and they come to work with a lunch pail and punch the clock and greet each other, and when the bell rings the Ralph tries to catch and eat the sheep and Sam always thwarts him and usually punches Ralph into next week. When it is lunch time, they stop what they are doing, even if Sam is punching Ralph, and they sit down and have lunch together and when lunch ends, they go back to position they were, Sam punching Ralph. At the end of the day they punch out the time clock and walk home arm in arm.
The cartoon as I recall started musically with the Pastorale section from the William Tell Overture, one of my all-time favourite pieces of music, which I learned from watching Bugs Bunny cartoons, and the Lone Ranger.
It is Sam’s job to protect the sheep. He is the Good Shepherd so to speak. And while the Bugs Bunny take on protecting the sheep has a lot of gratuitous violence, the idea of a good shepherd looking after the sheep goes back a long way, and is the theme of one of the best-known passages from the bible, Psalm 23, also known as The Lord is my Shepherd.
What we sometimes don’t understand is how radical a psalm like The Lord is my shepherd was in its day.
Nearly every culture thousands of years ago believed in a god or a bunch of gods. It was way humans explained how the world began and how many unexplainable things happened. It was common for the people who lived in bible times to think that everything that happened was the result of God or gods.
If you were sick the gods were punishing you. If you were rich the gods favoured you. If there was a hurricane the gods sent it. If your country lost in battle you had not appeased the gods well enough.
And a lot of religion was about trying to appease the gods and make them happy, and not trying to tick the gods off, who could make life miserable for you.
So, here is a psalm, a song, a poem, that talks about God who is like a good shepherd. Now a shepherd was a poor man’s job. A dirty and even dangerous job, with not much pay and not much respect.
So God is portrayed as someone who is willing to humble himself to look after lowly sheep. This God cares for the sheep. This God protects the sheep. This God is with the sheep. This God walks with the sheep in dark valleys.
It is a remarkable understanding of the divine. And it is a theme that Jesus picks up and expands upon, for he is the Good Shepherd, who not only cares for the sheep, but risks his life to go looking for even one lost sheep, and will even lay down his life to save the sheep.
Something that we find wonderful and amazing, but in real life nobody lays down their life for dumb sheep.
Sometimes we are just so familiar with the imagery, we don’t realize how jarring, how radical, how counter to most people’s understanding of life, Jesus’ words were and are…
The Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, for dumb old sheep who mostly don’t deserve it, who mostly wander away, and don’t listen well, and aren’t that bright sometimes, and aren’t worth that much.
And here we are three weeks after Easter, still rejoicing in the fact that the Good Shepherd lays down his life for us, but more than that, the Good Shepherd is alive.
And yet for our lectionary gospel reading we have an interesting piece of scripture, from before the resurrection where people are questioning whether Jesus is really the Messiah.
And they beg Jesus to tell them plainly whether he is really the Messiah.
It seems strange to put this text only three weeks after the resurrection.
On the one hand it seems obvious that Jesus is the Messiah.
(girl voice) “Hello, He is just raised from the dead. Duh!”
But on the other hand, isn’t that how faith kind of works. We kind of alternate between doubting and believing, between knowing and not knowing, between accepting and questioning…
And if that is how it is for you, then don’t feel bad, that is probably normal.
Most of us celebrate Easter and the resurrection and it’s not that long before we start thinking or saying:
God are you real?
Why am I sick? Why did my friend die? I am having trouble at work, God, what are you doing about it?
Climate change, war, world hunger…God what are you doing?????
And we start wondering if Jesus really is the Messiah.
Why don’t you make it plain Jesus? Why don’t you just come out and reveal yourself to the world and make it obvious?
Why didn’t you just step off the cross and call legions of angels and take over the world?
If you are real Jesus, say so. Show yourself. Do something.
And Jesus says to us. I have told you and you do not believe. And the reason you do not believe is that you do not belong to my sheep.
That’s HARSH Jesus.
In fact it’s so harsh, that usually we just ignore it and think that Jesus wouldn’t be addressing us. Of course we think we are the sheep and the good guys, and that Jesus must be referring to Jews or Pharisees or people who aren’t Christian.
I grew up in the church. I couldn’t tell you of a time when I wasn’t a Christian.
Well, except all the times I don’t act like a Christian, or like Jesus.
Because if I don’t act like Jesus, if I don’t embody Jesus, then maybe at least for that moment I am not part of the body of Christ…
The truth is there are times when we don’t hear Christ’s voice, we don’t recognize it, because we are too busy doing our own thing, or think we are right, or pursuing our own agenda, or looking out for number one.
And the truth is, there are times we doubt Jesus and God, and question and wonder.
And maybe it is true that we have absented ourselves from the body of Christ for those moments.
You don’t believe, because you do not belong to the sheep.
It’s weird. Because most people think that the way you belong to the sheep is by believing.
You believe in Christ, you become a sheep, you join the flock…
But if you listen carefully to what Jesus says: You don’t believe, because you don’t belong….
It is not belief that makes you belong, it is belonging that makes you believe.
That’s the way it is in life.
If I were to ask you if you believe in your mother, or if you believe in your spouse or you believe in your children…
…I think you would know that I am not talking about … …believing if they were real or if they exist…
You would know that belief in them would mean putting your trust in them. You believe in their goodness, their trustworthiness, their faithfulness…
I believe in my mother. My mother would have literally given her life for me.
I believe in my wife. She is a good and faithful wife, mother, daughter and Nunna.
I can count on her.
I believe in my kids. They are great kids who would be there for me and for each other.
And yet I didn’t believe to become part of the family.
You are part of the family, and over time you come to believe in each other.
A child doesn’t believe in their parents when they are born. They live in the family and bond and learn and grow and come to understand and to trust, by belonging to the family.
Too much emphasis in the church has been placed on intellectual belief.
Maybe we should just say to people, come and belong with us. Be part of our family. Don’t worry about what you believe or don’t believe for now. Come and be part of the body of Christ and learn about Christ, talk to Christ, worship Christ, be Christ…
…and maybe that is the way people will really learn to trust in Jesus, believe in Jesus.
Belief or faith or trust comes not from a creed, or a doctrine, or a book, or a sermon…
It is not something you just stand up in front of others and assent to…
….it comes from the day to day business of belonging to Jesus, of walking by the still waters, and letting him lead you to the green pastures, of letting Jesus comfort you in the dark valleys, and letting him feed you love, forgiveness and grace at his table.
It comes from being with the other sheep, some of whom are dirty and smelly and have gone astray. Some of them need help. Some of them are hungry. And some of them are your friends, and some of them will help you.
Faith comes through belonging to the family, the church, the body of Christ and learning we can trust Jesus, because we have experienced his love.
And so I wonder if our emphasis should be less on what people intellectually believe and more on helping them to belong.
And loving them for who they are, and accepting them for who they are.. and listening to them, and learning from them, and not us trying to change them, but over time let them come to know Christ and Christ’s body, and maybe that will change them to become like Christ, to want to be Christ to others.
Instead of demanding people believe to become a sheep, maybe we ask them, just to be sheep and then they can learn about the Good Shepherd.
What would it mean to be a group of Christians, a group of sheep, or the body of Christ, that truly help people belong?
Today in the scripture lesson in the Book of Acts we have a story of Peter who through the power of Christ raises Tabitha from the dead.
Tabitha spends all her time doing good and helping the poor.
She helps people belong. She includes people.
She is the body of Christ to others.
And she dies and Peter raises up. Tabitha is the body of Christ to other and Peter raises her body and her to life, just has she had helped Jesus be raised in her body to minister to others.
And who is there? Widows.
Why widows? It is hard to think of a more disenfranchised group of people. Women were often not allowed to own property, sometimes couldn’t inherit what their husbands had for money. It would go to the eldest son.
Widows were poor and they were women, another group of disenfranchised people who didn’t get a voice or a vote, whose testimony didn’t count like a man’s in court, who were subject to domination by men…
For this is a story of belonging. A woman who helps the poor and helps them belong to the body, is Christ being alive in Tabitha’s body.
A group of widows who are given are voice and a place to belong, it is Christ coming alive, and they become the body of Christ.
And at the end of this little story it mentions that Paul lived in the house of Simon the Tanner.
We just read through that and don’t give it a second thought, but I want you to give it some thought.
A Tanner takes the dead bodies of animals, skins the hide off them and processes it, sometimes putting the hide in urine to get rid of the fur.
Tanners were about as far away from the Jewish Holiness code as any people. They were considered unclean. They literally stank. Tanners live on the outskirts and in the poor section of any community because of the awful smell, and yet this is where Peter stayed.
He included the stinkiest and more unwelcome people, because the body of Christ was about belonging for everyone, even those society thought was unclean.
A couple of years ago in the summer of 2017 when B. C was going through a terrible wildfire season, which seems to be every year lately, a family near 100 mile house had a sheep ranch, and they were evacuated.
They were evacuated and had to leave a flock of 90 sheep behind.
Two sheepdogs stayed with the flock, and the family didn’t know if they would ever see the flock again.
The family was gone for twenty days, and when they came back the flock was safe and the two sheep dogs Sophie and Tad were standing guard. Those dogs must have led those sheep all around away from the fires, because all the houses around were burned down. (https://www.pri.org/stories/2017-08-25/hero-sheepdogs-protect-flock-20-days-canadian-wildfire)
It is a story of those who protected and cared for the sheep, and whenever we care for and protect the sheep, Christ is alive in us…
Whenever we care for the body, and belong to the body, then the Messiah comes and is real.
Whenever we reach out to include people and love people and help them belong, then they are raised like Tabitha from death to life…
…and we sheep hear the voice, and know the voice of the Good Shepherd. Amen.