(Acts 9:36-43; Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30)
Many of us, while growing up, become identified – either by others or ourselves – with a creature of some sort. One of the nicknames for me when I was young was Daddy Long Legs, for obvious reasons. I liked another nickname better, given to me by the father of good friends of mine at Oak Point: Gazelle. As a tall, skinny, awkward teenager, the nickname Gazelle made me feel elegant and graceful. I’ve also been identified with giraffes; again, for obvious reasons. And I, myself, often feel like a praying mantis due to my small head and what feel like overly long limbs. I particularly feel like a praying mantis when I am trying to get out of a small car. It feels as if I am unfolding as I leave the car.
When it comes to my children, Kiran has felt like a dog to me, with his enthusiastic energy, and Tula has felt like a cat to me, with her agility and love of napping.
How about you? What creatures have you been identified with, either by others or yourself? ALLOW PEOPLE TO SHARE. How have those identifications made you feel? ALLOW PEOPLE TO SHARE.
In the Gospel According to John reading today, Jesus identifies us with sheep: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me” (Jn 10:27). The dictionary definition of sheep states, “a. One who is meek and submissive. b. One who is easily swayed or led.” Hmmm. Not the most attractive definition. Sheep are not sleek and fast like a jaguar, or majestic and fierce like a lion, or beautiful and swift like a horse, or intelligent and kind like a dolphin. Instead, sheep are meek and submissive, easily swayed or led. A person who is a sheep sounds kind of like an insecure pushover, not captivating or strong or exciting at all. Even so, in our relationship to Jesus – and so to God – we are sheep. How does that make you feel? Are you okay with being described as meek and submissive, easily swayed or led? Are you okay with being asked to act meekly and submissively, and to be easily swayed or led? I have a feeling that at least some of us don’t like being described that way and don’t like acting that way. Instead of meek and submissive, we want to be bold and assertive. Instead of being easily swayed or led, we want to sway and lead others. We want to be jaguars, or lions, or horses, or dolphins – but not sheep!
It's important to realize, though, that the Bible doesn’t say that we’re sheep in our relationships to everybody – only to Jesus. In our relationships with our family members, or our friends, or our fellow church members, or our boss, or our co-workers, or our neighbors, or anybody other than Jesus, we are not necessarily sheep. As a matter of fact, Jesus may ask us to be other than sheep with those people. He may ask us to be a kangeroo, or a dog, or a cat, or a goat as we work for God’s kingdom on Earth. Think of Martin Luther King, Jr. He was a lion, majestic and fierce as he fought for God’s kingdom on Earth. But in his relationship with Jesus, he was meek and submissive, easily swayed and led. To us, Martin Luther King, Jr., was a lion; but to Jesus, he was a sheep.
Of course, there’s a part of us that doesn’t want to be a sheep with Jesus any more than we want to be a sheep with others. There’s a part of us that wants to do what we want to do – that wants to be in control, even in our relationship with God. But, if we let that part of us take over, then Jesus can’t be our shepherd. Jesus can only be our shepherd if we’re willing to be his sheep. If we want to be our own shepherds, to be our own masters, then what happens when we lead ourselves astray? What happens when we get caught in the brambles of life? What happens when we’re being hounded by wolves? What happens when we get lost and don’t know our way home? Who will untangle us from the brambles? Who will protect us from the wolves? Who will show us the way home? Who will save us from the trials and tribulations of the world? Who will save us from ourselves?
We need a shepherd – a divine shepherd – because we’re human. We’re too limited to be our own shepherd. And we’re too limited to be each other’s shepherd. If we try to be each other’s shepherd, we will likely lead each other astray and leave each other vulnerable to the trials and tribulations of the world. I cannot be my own shepherd and I cannot be your shepherd. And you cannot be your own shepherd and you cannot be my shepherd. Only God can be our shepherd.
One of the scripture readings for today does not refer to sheep or the shepherd: The reading from the Acts of the Apostles. In it, though, we learn of some important disciples. Usually, the Bible focuses on the main characters in the story of Jesus. We read and hear often about the major disciples – Peter, James, John, Andrew, Bartholomew, James the Younger, Judas, Jude, Matthew, Phillip, Simon, and Thomas – and the major apostles – Peter, Paul, Barnabas, and Timothy. But there are other disciples and apostles about whom we don’t read or hear as often. Even so, these other disciples and apostles played a role while Jesus was alive and after he ascended. (Just to clarify, a disciple is a student or learner, while an apostle is a messenger, one who is sent; therefore, all apostles are disciples, but not all disciples are apostles.) It is these lesser-known, although important, disciples we read and hear about today in the Acts of the Apostles.
Peter is asked to come and attend to Tabitha (her name in Aramaic), also known as Dorcas (her name in Greek). (Both Tabitha and Dorcas mean Gazelle in English.) Tabitha, a disciple of Jesus, had become ill and died. Peter comes when called and, miraculously, raises Tabitha from death to life through the power of the Holy Spirit. The lectionary commentary I use is quick to point out that although the verb used when Peter tells Tabitha to “get up” or “arise” is the same as the verb used to refer to Jesus’ resurrection, there is an important distinction between Jesus’ and Tabitha’s resurrections. The commentary states, “Jesus’ resurrection was dependent only on God’s power, whereas Gazelle’s resurrection is clearly done in the light of and as a consequence of Jesus’ resurrection. The raising of Gazelle stands as a witness to the power of the resurrection of Christ over all persons – not in the sense that our flesh and bones will be reconstituted before the eyes of our weeping friends, but in the sense that the resurrected Christ possesses the power to bring new life to all persons, and that that power flows directly out of the new life God gave to him on the first Easter Day.” Tabitha is able to be raised by Peter through the power of the Holy Spirit because Jesus Christ has been raised by God. Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection has begun a new era, and Tabitha’s resurrection is evidence of that new era.
Many – if not all – of us have heard of Tabitha/Dorcas/Gazelle. But Tabitha was only one of a group of women disciples referred to in the passage as widows. Tabitha was a disciple devoted to “good works and acts of charity” (Acts 9:36). Tabitha, most likely a widow herself, extended her good works and acts of charity to other widows. These widows, touched by Tabitha’s ministry, had themselves begun to do good works and acts of charity and had formed, with Tabitha, an outreach group. It is these other widows I want to draw attention to. They are some of the lesser-known disciples of Jesus, but in the lives of those around them, they had a big impact.
The impact they had began with Tabitha. Tabitha allowed Jesus to be her shepherd and she, herself, was a meek and submissive sheep to her shepherd. She followed Jesus’ in caring for the “least of these” in her ministry to widows. Her willingness to follow Jesus thus spread his love to those who needed it. They received that love and were transformed by it into faithful disciples – good sheep. These good sheep then followed their shepherd in caring for the “least of these.” We can see how one faithful sheep following her shepherd affected others and created more faithful sheep, who would then create even more faithful sheep, who would then create even more faithful sheep – just as a pebble thrown into the water creates concentric circles moving outward until the whole pond has been affected by the movement created by that one little pebble. Such is the impact one faithful disciple, one faithful sheep, can have. This group of lesser-known disciples thus had a great impact on the kingdom of God on Earth.
The same is true for you and me. All we like sheep can have just such an impact on spreading the love of God in the world. There is an irony in the title of this sermon: “All We Like Sheep.” It is the title of one of the movements in Handel’s Messiah. It is a movement that belongs to the section of the Messiah on Christ’s passion. The lyrics are from Isaiah 53:6: “All we like sheep have gone astray. We have turned every one to his own Way. And the Lord had laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” One music critic remarks that in this movement, “[S]in glories in its shame with almost alcoholic exhilaration. [Handel’s] lost sheep meander hopelessly through a wealth of intricate semi-quavers, stumbling over decorous roulades and falling into mazes of counterpoint that prove inextricable. A less dramatic composer than Handel would scarcely have rendered his solemn English text with such defiance, for the discrepancy between the self-accusing words and his vivacious music is patent to any listener emancipated from the lethargy of custom.” In this movement, the singers revel in having turned away from their shepherd as sheep gone astray leading others astray. They rejoice in their sin! The irony of using the title of this movement as the title of the sermon is that the sermon is about being faithful sheep who do not turn away from their shepherd. I decided to use the title, though, because “all we like sheep” can do either: We can turn away from our shepherd into hell on Earth or we can follow our shepherd into heaven on Earth. “All we like sheep” can be sinner or saint.
Of course, “all we like sheep” hope that we will be more saint than sinner. We hope this for our own sake and for the sake of others. Tabitha and her widows have shown us that when the God of Jesus Christ is our shepherd, we do not want. We lie down in green pastures and are led beside still waters. Our souls are restored. We are led in the paths of righteousness. When we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we fear no evil, for God is with us; his rod and his staff comfort us. God even prepares a table for us in the presence of our enemies. He anoints our heads with oil. Our cups run over. Goodness and mercy follow us all the days of our lives; and we dwell in the house of the Lord forever. In fact, Handel has another movement in the Messiah that expresses this experience beautifully. It is in the section about Christ’s healing and redemption, in movement 20, “He Shall Feed His Flock Like a Shepherd.” Let us end with the lyrics from that movement as we, faithful sheep, turn to our sheperd, Jesus: “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd. And He shall gather the lambs with his arm and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young. Come unto Him all ye that labor. Come unto Him, ye that are heavy laden. And he will give you rest.” Amen.
Sermon preached by Rev. Amy Johnson at the Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, Sunday, May 8, 2022, the Fourth Sunday of Easter.
* Image is from Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
 From The American Heritage Dictionary: Second College Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1991, 1128.
 Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV – Year C.
 Manson Myers, Robert (1948). Handel's Messiah: A Touchstone of Taste. New York: Macmillan. ISBN 9780374960353. Cited in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messiah_Part_II.