I want to begin by introducing myself and saying what a pleasure it is to be with you tonight at St. Mark’s Between the Bayous. My name is John Newton, and I currently serve as the Bishop’s Canon for Lifelong Christian Formation. Thank you so much for having me – it is really great to be with you.
There’s a question I’d like to reflect on tonight. What makes us valuable? In other words, why are we important? What makes us special? What gives us worth? Well, I want to begin answering these questions by reading you the first paragraph of an article entitled, “450 Sheep Jump to their deaths in Turkey,” which the Associated Press ran back in 2005. In case you’re wondering, the article’s about how 450 sheep jumped to their death in Turkey. This is how it begins. “First one sheep jumped to its death. Then stunned Turkish shepherds, who had left the herd to graze while they had breakfast, watched as nearly 1,500 others followed, each leaping off the cliff. In the end, 450 dead animals lay on top of one another in a billowy white pile. Those who jumped later were saved as the pile got higher and the fall more cushioned.”
In tonight’s Gospel when Jesus likens us to sheep – it’s not really a complement. You see most animals when released will either go wild or just find their way back home. But sheep are different. The truth is, they’re not very smart, and sheep have absolutely no sense of direction. That’s why a good shepherd doesn’t leave his sheep because if he does they jump off a cliff.
And so in the ancient near east – which was Jesus’ world – a sheep with no shepherd or a sheep with an incompetent shepherd was completely hopeless and vulnerable. And so to speak of Jesus as our shepherd – this isn’t really a sentimental image. But it is a powerful one. Perhaps you’ve heard the 23rd psalm. “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters. He revives my soul, and guides me along right paths.” What makes this psalm so powerful is that it speaks to the deepest desire of the human heart. I mean, isn’t that what we all yearn for – someone to take care of us that knows us better than we know ourselves and that wants to give us abundant life? A Shepherd who, in the midst of a world full of fear and anxiety and uncertainty and war and death and disease, longs to lead us to calm places so we feel safe and satisfied and at peace. I don’t know about you, but for me this image awakens something so deep within. Because I would submit that we’re all following someone; that each one of us is tuning in to someone’s voice – or to multiple voices, which are probably contradictory and scattered – to make sense of who we are and what gives us value. Tonight, I’d like to focus on Jesus’s voice, and to tune in to what he says about value.
That word value – it’s a word tied to worth and importance. In other words, to say that we’re valuable is to say that we’re important – that we’re “worth something,” which let’s face it, is something we all need to know. There’s no depression like the depression of thinking our life isn’t valuable, and even though I seriously doubt that’s where most of us are, that doesn’t mean we don’t ask the question, if only at the subconscious level. Why am I important? What makes me special? What gives me worth?
Ernest Becker won the Pulitzer Prize for his book The Denial of Death, which he begins by making the claim that a child’s need for self-worth “is the condition of his life.” And God knows we seek that worth from whoever we think can give it to us. I know I do. As Brene Brown puts it, we “steal worth.” We become the funny one or the attractive one or the athletic one or the rich one or the smart one or the successful one because if we’re not that then who are we?
Well, at the heart of the Christian Gospel is an answer to this question – this question of what makes us valuable. Remember, that word Gospel means good news, which is not the way we always feel about our relationship with God. Far too often we get stuck in that dead paradigm that says Jesus came to offer us good advice – advice on how to be good or to get in good with God – but Jesus did not turn the world upside down by offering good advice. No, His Kingdom revolution began when he went public with some very good news – good news that’s captured in part by something he says tonight. “I call my own sheep by name.” I’ll say that again. “I call my own sheep by name.”
What makes us important? What makes us special? What gives us worth? Here’s what I think tonight’s Gospel is getting at. What makes us valuable, what makes us important, what gives us a “name” has nothing to do with us and everything to do with Jesus’s call. We matter not because we’re good but because God is; not because we’re lovely but because we’re loved; not because of what we do but because of what Jesus did on our behalf. “I lay down my life for my sheep.” What gives us a “name” has nothing to do with us and everything to do with Jesus’s call.
But hearing that call and re-learning how to live this life deeply centered in that call – that’s a different story. After all, there are so many wolves and hired hands and incompetent shepherds and thieves out there, and they’re all out to steal, kill and destroy our real sense of worth by offering us a false one. “Try harder. Follow the rules. Lose ten pounds. Be good. It’s a dog eat dog world. If you want someone to scratch your back then scratch someone else’s. Be funny. Be smart. Be pretty. Don’t be boring. Nothing in life is free. Obey your thirst. Just do it.” There’s a lot of bad advice out there, and Jesus doesn’t have time for any of it. When it comes to that question of what gives us worth Jesus refuses to offer advice. But he does offer us news. Good news. “I know my own. I call each sheep by name. I know my sheep. I love my sheep. I lay down my life for my sheep.”
I want to go back to that article and read you some quotes from the shepherds themselves. “There’s nothing we can do.” “They’re all wasted.” “It’s going to be hard for us.” You see what these quotes capture is how devastating the loss of these sheep was to the shepherds. Because like in Jesus’ world, these sheep weren’t pets. They were the shepherd’s life! You see a shepherd’s wealth, livelihood, and glory were bound up with the safety and care of his flock, and what tonight’s Gospel is trying to get at is simply this – that Jesus, the One for whom and the One through all things were created – feels this way about each one of us. There’s this great verse from Ephesians, where Paul prays that we’d know the riches of Jesus’ glorious inheritance among the saints. Most people, when they hear that verse, mistakenly assume that Paul prays that we would know that Jesus is our inheritance and be thrilled with how great that all is, but that isn’t at all what text actually says. It doesn’t say that Jesus is our inheritance. It says that we are Jesus’ inheritance. And that’s what Paul wants us to see – that Jesus sees us, that He calls us by name – because we are His inheritance. And to me that is so important, because before we can ever live for Jesus we have to know that Jesus lives for us. We are His wealth. We are His livelihood. We are His glory.
And so I’m not going to end this sermon by offering any advice. There’s far too much of that already, but I will give you some good news – news that perhaps you’ve never heard, or that you may just need to hear again. You are not your reputation. You are not what you feel. You are not your mistakes. You are not your achievements. You are not your portfolio. You are not your IQ. Your name – your worth – has nothing to do with that. Because you – you are Jesus’ inheritance. You are worth dying for. You are his wealth. You are his livelihood. You are his glory. The God of the universe knows your name. And because of that, you are far more precious than you could ever dare dream.