Sermon by Pastor Joel Crouse
Third Sunday after Epiphany
January 21, 2024
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Years ago, when the boys were younger, they brought home George Orwell’s book Animal Farm as part of their English class. I remember reading it in high school, as imagine many of you may have done as well. Just to refresh your memories: the book tells the story of an uprising of animals who seize the farm from their human masters and set out to run it cooperatively. Instead, the pigs slyly take power. In one telling scene, the sheep constantly bleat the slogan: “four legs good, two legs bad” -which sounds animal-empowering but in the end serves only to drown out dissent. Threats are made, both subtle and overt. Anything but blind obedience is punished with exile, or worse. In the end, the followers having freed themselves of one set of tyrants, fall victim to another. Indeed, they become the slaves to new, even more cruel masters.
The book, of course, is Orwell’s criticism of communism and political systems that squash freedom. But it is also about the risk of following a belief system – or falling into a belief system - without critical thought. The animals did not challenge the pigs when they saw things going wrong, and soon it was too late. We have seen that story time and again. Charismatic leaders who called “follow me” and then led those that answered down a dark path not imagined.
How often do we hear that belief in Jesus is a type of sheep-like complacency, that those who hear the call of faith are indeed foolish sheep blinded to reality and reason. We don’t need to look far to find ways that faith can lead people astray, to violence or terrorism or hatred of the other. Just look at the Middle East. But it doesn’t have to be God we’re following: the second anniversary of January 6th in Washington, D.C. shows what can happen when certain leaders are followed; the internet is full of trails of misinformation enticing us to be sheep.
And yet, what does our Shepherd truly ask of us?
Today in the gospel, we hear a famous call story. Just as he saw Nathaniel sitting under the fig tree, Jesus comes upon Andrew and Simon fishing and James and John mending nets.
“Follow me,” he calls, “and I will make you fishers of people.”
Is there a more powerful call? It is reassuring to those lost in the dark. It is comforting for those who are sitting at a crossroad wondering where to go. It is bold for those who want to make a change in their lives. Follow me, the call says, and I will give your life purpose. And in the end, isn’t that what we all want?
The foundation of our faith is that we answer those two words from Jesus – that, yes, we accept Jesus as our Shepherd. That we become sheep, and that Jesus leads us. And yet, our relationship as sheep and Shepherd is so much more complex than simply leading and simply following.
The last thing the gospel wants us to be is like the sheep in Animal Farm, bleating witlessly. Our prayers are meant to wake us up, not put us to sleep. To send us forth, not keep us caged. They call us not to live outside the world, hating it, but to be a part of the world, empowered to change it.
Faith should not blind us but make us see more clearly our positives and negatives. What is real, and what is possible. Following Jesus is radical; it is extreme. It commits us to the radical service of making the world better, more tolerant, more peaceful, more loving. Throughout the gospel, Jesus faces his critics, hears out the disciples, has his mind broadened by strangers. His ministry develops by seeking out others out. It is important that his followers themselves were diverse, from different walks of life – tax collectors and fishermen and prostitutes. To be loving and open is not to be weak. It makes us protectors.
As I reflected on the gospel this week, I remembered a scene from an old movie, the name of which now escapes me. I guess I remember it because it is about a father and his sons, and it uses the metaphor of sheep. The father is meant to be teaching his sons about the ways of the world. The world, he says, is made up of three kinds of people: sheep (that is, responsible citizens, who needs protecting); wolves (who are the predators); and sheepdogs (who defend the sheep against the wolves). He wants to raise his sons, obviously, to be the defenders of the sheep from the wolves.
But to me this metaphor always felt insufficient. It is missing the Shepherd. The Shepherd is not the responsible, docile sheep, or the ferocious wolf, or even the courageous sheepdog. The Shepherd is the Thinker. The Shepherd is agile enough to guide the sheep to where they will be safest and most productive, and smart enough to keep the wolves at bay, and perhaps even tame their fighting instincts. The Shepherd is the best hope for making the sheepdog unnecessary. If the Shepherd leads – and is followed – the sheepdog gets to be a dog and live peacefully.
Our relationship with Jesus tempers our wolflike tendencies and urges us, when needed, to be the sheepdog for others. But we are reminded that we are the protected and valued. And then we are sent out to be thinkers and doers in the world – just like Andrew, Simon, James, and John who answered the call that day and left their nets behind.
“Follow me,” Jesus says to them, “and I will make you fishers of people.” Follow me, and I will empower you to go out into the world.
So do we hear God calling?
Do we hear Jesus saying: “You there, lying on the beach near Nineveh, or fishing in your boat, or standing at the bus stop, or sitting in this pew – you are worthy of my time. In you, I see both sheep and shepherd. Will you hear me? Will my voice drown out the rest? Will you answer and follow me? Amen.