Following Faithfully, aka, Getting Out of the Way

For about two years now I have had a quote hung on my office wall by Thomas Merton, a Catholic monastic and teacher. I haven’t yet put it up here in Marengo, but it reads:

In order to become myself, I must cease to be what I always thought I wanted to be.

I take this to mean that if we want to really be true to who we are, to the people and the church that God has created us to be, then we have to get out of the way.

I shared with you on one of my first Sunday’s here that I was convinced at one point in my life that I was going to be a meteorologist. I don’t know exactly where this obsession came from. In fact, as a child, I was terrified of thunderstorms. I would literally get sick to my stomach whenever the lightening started to flash and the thunder started to roll. My parents could tell you that every time we went camping it was inevitable that it would storm, and they knew enough to have me sleep by the tent door, so I could get out easily!

I eventually grew out of that, and now love to watch a storm building on the horizon. Thursday evening, as the storm rolled through, I was so intrigued by the movement of the clouds and the way they formed. The sound of the rain falling through the trees this week has been soothing. For three years, I tried to head down the path I thought I wanted to be on. I got an internship with KWWL in Waterloo and spent some time with Craig Johnson, their head meteorologist. I looked at colleges with programs in physics and atmospheric science. I thought I would be heading to graduate school and so began to major in physics, even when I started out at Simpson College. I was pressing forward with what I believed I wanted to do – and never stopped to think about what I was made to do.

But you know what, I eventually realized that while I am personally interested in weather, that it fascinates me and refreshes me, I was never meant to be a meteorologist. I wasn’t destined to sit in front of a computer and watch a cold front move across the nation or determine el nino patterns. God had something different planned for my life.

In many ways, I was doing everything possible to get in the way of what God had planned for my life. I thought I knew what I wanted, but I had no idea of what I needed or what would make me truly happy. I wasn’t paying attention to how God made me.

Our congregation was also birthed by God. We had a beginning and from the start we have had a purpose for being here. Like a child that is born into the world, our identity as a congregation will continue to change and grow. And as we look towards the future of our congregation, I think we need to keep that quote in mind as well.

In order to become myself, I must cease to be what I always thought I wanted to be.

As people who are a part of this church, I’m sure that we each have things that we want this church to be. Just listening to all of you for the last three months, I have heard some of those hopes and desires for our congregation. You want more young people in our midst. Some of you want to better support our youth and have more ways for them to be involved. Others of you want this church to be full on Sunday mornings. Some of you want to have stability and financial security in the church – instead of always operating in crisis mode. These are all good things to want!

The big question though, is if there is something out there that is even better. Something out there that we are supposed to become that perhaps none of us can see yet. Are we getting in the way of what God as planned for our church?

My thoughts take me to the parable of the good shepherd from this morning’s scripture. Jesus is speaking out in the countryside to a group of disciples and teaching them about what kind of leader he is.

Now, not many of us today are sheep herders, so it may be hard for us to really understand what is going on. So here is a little lesson – Shepherding 101, if you will.

First of all, there is a big difference between the way we lead sheep here in the West and how they would have done it in Jesus time, and continue to do in the east. We often herd our sheep – pushing them forward towards their destination, often with the aid of sheep dogs or other animals. When they begin to go the wrong direction, we push them onwards, or the dogs nip at their heels, and eventually they get where they are supposed to.

In the East however, the shepherd would have led his flock. He would have stood near the front of the flock, but was always in the midst of them. As he walked, they would walk with him. Wherever he went, they would go. As our scripture this morning reminds us, the sheep would recognize him by the sound of his voice. They knew the difference between the voice of their shepherd and that of a thief or bandit or other stranger. And when that kind, gentle voice called their names – they would follow.

Of course, there were times when the sheep must be brought home, and often at night the shepherd would bring them back in to the sheep fold to protect them.

This sheep fold would have been a fenced in area where the sheep would be safe. There would be food and water nearby, a bit of shelter, either from a nearby cave or something built. And most importantly… there was one way in and one way out.

In our scripture this morning, Jesus tells us about the gate… and the gatekeeper… and in many ways claims to be both. The gate, or entrance to this sheepfold would have been an opening that was wide enough for a few sheep to enter at a time. But the gate also had to be narrow enough for a person to lay across it. You see, instead of having a gate that swings open, like we might think of today, the gate for the sheepfold would have been an actual person! At night, the shepherd would lay across the entrance, so that anyone coming in or going out would have to cross his very body. He was a human shield against other animals getting in and the sheep getting out.

I think as we begin to apply this scripture to our lives today, we can think of the church – this actual building – as being our sheepfold. It is our place of safety and comfort. It is the place that we return to every week to be refreshed and reminded of who we are and whose we are. As a former pastor of mine said: “Sunday morning worship is like a drink of cold, fresh water, that gives you just enough energy to get back out there and do it again.”

We, like the sheep, are meant to spend most of our time out in the pasture. We are supposed to be out in the world, enjoying the good things that God has to offer and also faithfully following our shepherd. But there are times when we return to this place, to renew our spirits, and gain the energy to go back out there and do it all again.

Now, I have often had trouble with this bit of scripture, because I have never been much of a follower. I have always been a leader by nature, and that’s one of the reasons that I’m standing up here in front of you! But I think, deep down in my heart, I also resent being called a sheep. Sheep are smelly animals. And we often think of them as very dumb and easily led. Why on earth would we want to be a sheep? Why would we want to be a part of the herd and follow that “herd mentality.” Surely the American culture teaches us that we should think for ourselves and forge our own paths! Surely what we want matters!

But then I remember that quote by Thomas Merton again:

In order to become myself, I must cease to be what I always thought I wanted to be.

As I read more about sheep this week – I learned that they actually are smarter than one might think! Did you know that there have actually been studies done recently about the intelligence of these animals? It turns out that sheep have excellent long-term memories. The test group of animals was shown a set of pictures of other sheep’s faces. For some of those faces, they were given treats. Time and time again, when they were presented with a choices between the face that would give a positive response and the one that gave them nothing – the sheep continued to choose the face they recognized.

This week, I realized that “sheep are not dumb, only willing to be led.” They understand that they are a part of a group, a community, and they deeply trust their shepherd. Rather than blindly following anyone, they carefully discern who they can trust, who will seek the best for them, and once they recognize that person – they will follow him anywhere.

Christ claims to be our shepherd. The question before us is… will we choose to follow him faithfully and listen for the sound of his voice… for the new vision for our church, or are we going to try to get in the way and seek our own pastures?

We are all gathered here this morning because we know that this is a place where we are safe and loved. It is the sheep fold that protects us. We know that we are a part of the flock. The question is, are we willing to have anyone join our fold? What new sheep would Christ like to add to our flock? And are we going to help them get through the gate?

You see, I truly believe, that even as we sit here this morning, the Spirit of God is working on the hearts and minds of people all across this town. I believe that Christ, our faithful shepherd, isn’t going to just sit at the entrance of our church, guarding the door, waiting for us to come in and out. I believe that Christ is out there… actively searching for those lost sheep.

Jesus tells his disciples another parable in Luke 15:

Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

I don’t have the answers to those questions yet. Together we will be listening for God’s voice and direction and together we will discern who we are meant to become.

And from my own experience I can promise you, if we take the time to listen, God will lead us. God will provide.

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