Becoming Disciples: Know and Be Known
Have you ever noticed how much preachers like to talk about sheep?
I cannot tell you the number of sermons about sheep I myself have heard, sermons peppered with stories of traveling to theMiddle Eastand seeing Bedouin sheepherders…or information about the temperaments and behavior of sheep…or stories about what it’s like to be a shepherd. I know you will remind me that I myself have preached a few, too.
I confess I daydreamed through most of our pastor, Pastor Larry’s, sermons when I was a child, but I do distinctly remember him talking for a really long time one Sunday morning about how dumb sheep are. I recall being kind of offended on behalf of all sheep everywhere. Funny, the things you remember.
I think one of the reasons preachers like to talk about sheep is because it sounds really scriptural when we do. After all, Jesus loved to talk about sheep. There are many, many references to sheep in the Gospels: feed my sheep, the lost sheep, the sheep and the goats, the Good Shepherd. Sheep and everything that went with them were clearly an everyday, normal part of life for Jesus and the people with and among whom he ministered, and so it makes sense that sheep appear all over our Bibles.
Today we read another parable of Jesus that involves sheep, along with the very beloved 23rd Psalm, yet another invitation to pull out all of the stories about the time I was traveling and ran into a herd of sheep, or to pretend during these next few minutes that I possess some especially insightful understanding of what it is like to be a sheep.
The more I read these passages again, thought about how much preachers like to talk about sheep, and thought about how many metaphors there are between how I might claim to know that sheep behave and how we human beings behave, I decided that this sermon is the perfect opportunity to come clean, once and for all, on behalf of all preachers everywhere. Thus, I confess: I don’t know much of anything about sheep.
99% of my colleagues know very little, if anything, about sheep.
And, frankly, I would venture to say that the vast majority of all of you have severely limited sheepy experience, too. I mean, when is the last time you had to stop in traffic on 8th street while a shepherd took his herd across to the Portrait Gallery?
And, if none of us know anything about sheep, why on earth would we spend so much time talking about them?
I think if Jesus were here he would get a good chuckle out of all the preachers standing in pulpits this morning pretending to be authorities on the behavior of sheep. See, Jesus talked about sheep a lot, it’s true. But Jesus knew about sheep. And all the people who listened to him preach knew about sheep, too. They were shepherds, many of them, and even if they weren’t, they had at least a rudimentary understanding of sheep care—enough to sustain the household in which they lived. At the very least, they saw sheep everyday, all over the hills flanking their villages. It made a lot of sense for Jesus to use images of sheep, shepherds, sheep-pens, etc., in his explanations of discipleship in theKingdom ofGod.
What does not make sense is for us to act like we know what he is talking about!
So I am going to diverge from the typical approach to these shepherd and sheep passages today and just admit that that last time I saw a sheep it was behind a fence in the National Zoo, and to suggest that perhaps our Gospel lesson this morning might be more applicable to our lives in Washington D.C. in 2011 if we take a closer look at Jesus’ views on following and belonging instead.
After all, this passage comes to us during a time in the church year when we are trying to figure out what it means to become disciples of Jesus, to construct lives that reflect the transforming message of the Gospel in a world that marches to another drumbeat. It’s the same thing Jesus’ first disciples were trying to figure out: in a world full of competing messages, where so many things are pulling at our loyalties, trying to get us to give up what we have, sign over who we are, join up with everyone else, how do we know how and where to invest our lives?
Our Gospel passage today comes right in the middle of the Gospel of John. Curiously enough, it’s not a post resurrection appearance of Jesus, as our passages in past weeks have been. Instead, it’s a parable of Jesus told sometime over the course of his ministry. John sandwiches it between two incidents in which Jesus was trying to clarify who he was for his disciples, who all seemed to be perpetually confused about who they were following and why.
And, we really can’t blame them! They were living in a time, like us, where there were many influences pulling at their loyalties. The Roman government was occupying the region aroundJerusalem. The religious authorities were feuding among themselves, divided into several different power pockets vying for everyones’ attention. In the middle of all of this there were all kinds of voices rising in rebellion, calling the people to arms, objecting to the way things were. Add economic uncertainty to the mix, and it was a constant situation of whiplash—turning this way and that, trying to discern who was worth following, who was telling the truth, who would lead them out of the anxious situation in which they were all embroiled.
As you recall, the disciples of Jesus had given up livelihoods and family responsibilities to follow him around the countryside, to learn what this rabbi had to teach them. When they first answered his call, for sure they must have felt a strong measure of certainty that he was leading them in the right direction. But uncertainty was sure to pop up in a climate like theirs. And if, for example, we were using a metaphor about sheep today we might say that Jesus’ first disciples sometimes had a tendency to be kind of like sheep, who apparently (though, how would I know, really?) are pulled this way and that depending on the compelling voice they hear.
But we are not talking about sheep, because we don’t know much about sheep. We do, however, know something about human beings…how fickle we can be, how pulled in different directions, how unsure about our convictions—even when we started out oh-so-sure at the beginning. Jesus knew his disciples were having these feelings, so after explaining to them again who he was, Jesus gave them some advice about following and belonging.
Jesus told it in the language of sheep and shepherds, but what he was really sharing were deep truths about human living. And the main point of what Jesus seemed to be saying was that your job as a follower, a disciple, is to make sure that the one you are following is trustworthy. Don’t place your life in the hands of a fly-by-night charismatic leader. Instead, follow someone you really know. In Jesus’ metaphor, this leader takes the expression of a shepherd, who enters through the front gate of the sheep fold right in broad daylight, not climbing over the back fence under the cover of darkness. A trustworthy leader, one worth following, is always out in front, assured that the message he is preaching can stand on its own merit. There’s no bullying involved in this kind of leading, because the message is compelling on its own—so you’re sure to keep going because you can see your leader up there, ahead of you, and you have confidence that he’s heading in the right direction. And, most of all, it’s worth your while to follow the one who knows you, knows you by name. This leader is not so far out in front that he doesn’t look back into the crowd and look straight at you, with all your gifts and promise, challenges and pain, and, when he sees you, calls you by name.
When you follow a leader like this, you become part of a group of disciples where everybody knows your name, where you know others and you are known by them, where God becomes—not a far-off idea or a guilt-ridden obligation—but a participant in a personal relationship, where you know who you follow and you are known in return.
This is the kind of discipleship to which we aspire. It leads us to places we never imagined we’d go, and along the way…it nurtures and heals us, it makes us whole.
During my years running a shelter for homeless women in the city of New Orleans, I heard life stories that I had rarely encountered in printed fiction or movies, much less real-life people walking around and interacting with me. One of the people whose life story continually amazed me was Verma Scott, the housemother who lived at the shelter and helped me run it.
Verma had had a hardscrabble childhood in the ghettos ofNew Orleans, growing up with a single mom who worked all the time and living in the very rough Ninth Ward in a housing project. Despite a childhood of neglect and abuse, Verma managed somehow to graduate from high school, marry, and have children of her own. In her 30s, though, her demons caught up with her. She became addicted to crack cocaine and found herself gone from a life of regular employment as a teacher in the school system, a long-time marriage, and five children…to a life of destitute poverty, living in the streets or crashing in an abandoned crack house, turning tricks to earn enough money to get the next fix, and not worrying about much beyond that.
Verma lost everything. Everything. Her marriage, her family, her job, her home, her standing in society, her reputation, her self-respect, her community…everything. The life she lived was one she never, ever, in all her days, imagined she would be living.
When I first met Verma, she had been clean for almost two years. Little by little by little, she was struggling to piece her life back together, to reassemble everything she’d lost in the wake of years and years of bad decisions. She’d gotten off the streets and was beginning to take care of her health. She’d found this job, living in the shelter and working as a resident supervisor for the women who came in off the streets. She’d begun to reconnect with her children, making amends and rebuilding trust with them. She’d met grandchildren she never knew she had and begun being present in their lives.
When I met Verma I was struggling to learn about the punishing impact of street drug use, as I didn’t know really anything about the subject. I couldn’t imagine the swing her life had taken, from a life not unlike yours and mine to a life most of us would never imagine living, then a climb back up the other side of the hill, slowly piecing together all the frayed and tattered parts she could possibly salvage. Once, I sat and asked her how—how—she had possibly managed to find the inner fortitude to believe her life could change, could heal…that she was worth the struggle and fight and sheer will it was taking to change course and heal her life. She told me story I will never forget.
“I was 12 years old,” she began. Verma and her mother lived in the projects, as I mentioned, and her mother worked long hours as a domestic in the home of a wealthy family in Uptown New Orleans. Verma would spend every afternoon after school all alone, too afraid to go outside and dreading the arrival of her mother’s latest boyfriend, who was supposed to feed her dinner and make sure her homework was done but who instead took advantage of Verma’s mother’s absence to sexually abuse Verma almost daily. Verma told me those hours spent at home, waiting for whatever misery her evening would bring were some of the loneliest, saddest hours of her life.
To keep her mind off her fear, Verma would try all kinds of distracting things. One strategy was to randomly dial numbers on the telephone, just to see if anyone on the other end picked up. One day Verma was randomly dialing telephone numbers and an elderly, educated, white woman—from the sound of her voice—picked up the other end of the telephone. After a bumbling start to their conversation, they began to chat about various things, slowly getting to know each other in that first conversation. Verma found out that the woman’s name wasFrances; that she was 82 years old; that she lived by herself in a large house onSaint Charles Avenue; that she was widowed and her children lived far away; and that she had lost her vision and couldn’t get out of the house anymore, ever. Franceswas totally dependent on the care of hired help her children had arranged, and she was lonely. Really lonely.
After that first, random conversation that afternoon, Verma, 12 years old and living in a housing project apartment dreading everyday the events of her life, andFrances—82 years old and across town in a fancy house the likes of which Verma would never live in, became fast friends. Every afternoon for TWO YEARS, Verma would hurry home from school and dialFrances’ number, and the two would talk the afternoon away. Though they never met, they became fast friends. One day, Verma calledFrances’ telephone number and there was no answer. This went on for a few days, and eventually when she called she got a recorded message that the telephone had been disconnected. Verma never found out what had happened toFrances.
When Verma told me this story, I asked her whyFrancesmeant so much to her. She said after years and years of trading her body on the street, of being used and abused by people who either didn’t know her name or could have cared less who she was, the memory of Frances, who waited every day to hear from her and who greeted her by name, with joy, each afternoon, reminded her that she was worth something. That she mattered.
In the middle of all the pain and hopelessness, self-doubt and despair, Verma always remembered the woman who waited everyday to talk to her, who knew her…by name.
The life of discipleship is a rigorous life. Jesus’ first disciples were warned about that, and if they didn’t know if after living through Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection, they would know it very soon when they were called upon to put their very lives on the line for what they believed in. And, surely there were moments when they questioned their decisions to join up to follow Jesus.
Maybe that happens to us, too. We may not be asked to die for what we believe, but we certainly face the challenge of being discerning in how we invest our lives. After all, the call of Jesus is not an engraved invitation to a swanky country club lifestyle. No, being a disciple means believing, first of all—one of the biggest risks you can take. It means committing yourself to life in a community of faith, where you walk alongside others in the challenges and joys of learning and living the way of Jesus. It means reordering your priorities so significant amounts of your time, your money, your personal talents are invested in the task of discipleship. It means giving your life—your whole life—to God. And that’s no small thing.
Jesus would certainly understand the confusion. He would say, if you want to take on the challenge of becoming a disciple, you’d better know who it is that you are following. You’d better know him and make sure that you are known by him. You’d better place your life within the context of a community that knows you and is known by you, who recognizes your gifts and calls you to accountability even when the going is rough. You’d better know and be known, if you want to become a disciple, because the task of discipleship is too rigorous for anything less.
Want to become a disciple? Know God…and be known by him.