Jason Micheli: A Sheep Without Verbs

My first funeral sermon 16 years ago flopped. "It didn't sound like you knew him at all," a worshipper told me on the way out of the funeral home chapel. "Uh, I didn't know him at all," I replied. I was just a student. I didn't know then - they don't warn you in seminary - that most lay people consider it the mark of a good funeral sermon when the preacher sounds like he knows the deceased.

When it comes to funerals, lay people don't usually judge whether I've proclaimed the Gospel or done a good job unpacking the scripture text or pointing to the promise of Cross and Resurrection. For services of death and resurrection, it's a good sermon only if the gathered can shake my hand at the door and say, "It sounded like you really knew her." or "You really captured him."

Whenever one of the flock is lost, most people don't care whether or not I speak of the Shepherd or proclaim that the Shepherd is good. Whenever one of the flock is lost, most people want to hear about the one lost sheep not the singular Shepherd. They want to be assured that I know the person whom they've lost. They don't think they need to be reassured that the lost member of the flock is known by the Shepherd.

I don't know you, whoever you are listening on the other side of this speaker, but I suspect if you're enough of a church nerd to be watching a sermon on the screen of your tablet or iPhone, then you've heard these lines about thy rod and thy staff recited or prayed or sung so many times in worship you no longer hear the oddity of Psalm 23 or the offensiveness of it.

The Lord is my Shepherd...

To profess that the Lord is your shepherd is to confess that you are a sheep. A lamb even. If you're listening a sermon online, then, odds are, you've already sniffed out the truth: lambs are lame. Sheep are stubborn. Sheep wander. Sheep get lost. Sheep fall into valleys. Sheep are dependent totally on their shepherd. Sheep need to be led and guided and protected by their shepherd. The passive voice there says everything you need to know.

There aren't any stories, or epics, or legends called Dances with Lambs. No, sheep are stupid. By themselves, sheep are lunch for wolves. When sheep wander and get lost, they baaaaah...which is better than a dinner bell.

To hear that God is your Shepherd is to be told that you are a sheep. And to hear they you are no better than a sheep is offensive for us who rate our worth by our resumes. Not only are sheep weak and stubborn and easily led astray, they're completely useless.

Sheep aren't like other animals. Sheep aren't like asses. Sheep don't do any work by which they merit their worth. Sheep don't bear a burden like mules do. Sheep don't pull a plow like oxen do. Sheep don't lead a wagon like horses do. Even goats do work by which they earn their value. Even goats graze down briars and thickets and earn their worth. The only real work - if you can call it work - the only real work a sheep performs is listening to the Shepherd's voice.

If you measure animals' worth by the work they perform, sheep are useless and, thus, worthless. Unlike other animals, the value of a lamb is intrinsic to the lamb. In its lamb-ness. Its worth isn't in the work it does; its worth is in who it is as the creature the creator made it to be. Its worth is its wool and its meat.

So, Psalm 23 is an odd, offensive song to hear in this season of Resurrection. Aren't we supposed to respond to the news that God has raised Jesus Christ from the dead by doing and saying everything that Jesus did and said? Aren't we supposed to earn this Easter gift by living like the lamb instead of a goat, loving our neighbor as much as we love ourselves, just as God, when he became one of us, loved his neighbors?

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus spins a yarn about a single lost sheep who wanders off from the flock of 99. We forget how the parable of the lost sheep is Jesus' way of responding to the disciples' attempts at elbowing each other out of the way in terms of importance. The parable is his answer to their question, "Who is the greatest in the house of the Lord?"

Notice - Jesus doesn't answer their question about their worth in the Kingdom with an exhortation about the work they must do. Jesus doesn't tell them the greatest in the Kingdom are those who sell all their possessions and give the money to the poor. Jesus doesn't tell them the greatest in the Kingdom are those who do the things that Jesus did, those who love their enemies and turn the other cheek and clothe the naked.

No, Jesus answers with an image of a sheep who actively accomplishes absolutely nothing. The sheep in Jesus' story is nothing but the passive recipient of the Shepherd's finding. The parable is an odd way to answer a question about greatness because you don't need to be a ranch hand to know that a lost sheep is a dead sheep just as surely as a lost coin is a dead asset.

How impressive can the House of the Lord be, after all, if the only ticket you need for greatness in it - much less for admission - is your lost-ness?

Not only is the parable an odd way to answer a question about worth, the parable is just as offensive as the psalm because the "Parable of the Lost Sheep" (that's what the header in my Bible calls it) the "Parable of the Lost Sheep" isn't really about the sheep who gets lost at all.

The only verb the sheep gets in the parable is getting lost. All the other verbs belong to the Shepherd. The sheep doesn't search out the flock. The sheep doesn't scramble out of a thicket and wander back to the fold. The sheep doesn't even bah-bah-bah until its voice is heard by the Shepherd. And once it's found, the sheep doesn't even so much as repent of its getting lost.

We think the story's supposed to be about the sheep, lost from its flock, but it's about the Shepherd. It's not about the work the sheep does to get itself to a findable place. It's about the Shepherd's work of finding.

It's about the Good Shepherd's gracious and saving determination to rescue his sheep from death. The only verb the sheep gets in the parable is getting lost, which is to say, the only "work" the sheep does in the parable is to know that, apart from the gracious folly of the Shepherd to find him, death has the last word.

Just like God at Easter, the Shepherd gets all the good verbs in the story: God raised Jesus Christ from the dead.

Just like God at Easter, the Shepherd gets all the good verbs: the Shepherd puts the lost sheep on his shoulders and carries it back to his house and calls together his friends and his family and his neighbors and, like a fatted-calf-killing Prodigal Father, says: "Rejoice with me, for I have found my lost sheep."

As if - it's our sins and not our goodness, our wretchedness and not our worthwhile work, that most commend us to the grace of God.

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Sheep are strange. They can't carry a Christ into town to shouts of Hosanna. They can't bear a Samaritan's friend to safety. The only "work" sheep do is to trust the Shepherd's voice. And as God's frightened flock, that's our only work to do, too.

No matter what colors drape the altar, we're never far from the valley of the shadow of Death. So, I invite you to trust the voice of the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, who promises that by his substitution for you, God forgets your sins in the darkness of the grave.

Trust the Shepherd's voice when he tells you that his cousin John was right: he is the Lamb who bears away all our sins such that in the House of the Lord, God remembers our iniquities no more.

Trust the Shepherd when he promises to you by his cross and his empty grave that in the power of the resurrection he finds us lost to death and he puts us on his shoulders and he carries us back to his friends with rejoicing.

Trust the Shepherd when he spins these yarns where there's not a single note of our earning or our merit, not a hint of rewarding the rewardable or saving the salvageable.

Trust the Shepherd, for if it's not about our worthiness, there's absolutely no need to worry about our place in the house of the Lord.

All that is lost will be found because of his gracious folly to raise the dead to new life.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.