Feed My Sheep
Holy Covenant UMC, Sunday Feb. 6, 2011
Rev. Kate Hurst Floyd
Follow me, Jesus says.
Feed my sheep, tend my lambs.
But Jesus, I don’t know if I’m ready to follow you. I don’t exactly have this faith thing figured out. I ask a lot of questions…and the more questions I ask, the fewer answers I seem to have. I pick up the Bible to read, and I don’t quite know where to start. Some of it makes sense: love your neighbors; other parts don’t: stories about a wrathful God, confusing names and places. I know I like coming to church, but when we say the Lord’s prayer, I don’t know that I actually believe every word; in fact, I don’t actually know what it all means. I don’t pray enough or read the Bible enough at home; I don’t even know exactly how to pray. I don’t think I can follow you because I don’t have my faith all figured out.
But Jesus, I don’t know if you want me to follow you. I mean, I’m kind of a screw-up. People here at church don’t know my deepest secrets, but you of all people, know that I’m no angel. You know the ways I’ve mistreated my friends and lovers; You know my struggles with addiction, and despite my best efforts how they still continue. I want to be a better person, but too often my selfish nature gets a hold of me. I don’t make enough time for my family, I’m not patient enough with my partner. Jesus, I mess up, a lot.
But Jesus, what does that even look like? What does it even mean? I feel like I’ve tried and been defeated. I’m overwhelmed by the need in the world and don’t know how I’m supposed to make a difference. Between my own work and family life, I hardly have time to solve world hunger or lead the charge for environmental stewardship. I know kids need tutoring and mentors, but working with children has never been my gift. I don’t know where to begin, and what difference I could make.
Why would you choose me?
Follow me, Jesus says. Jesus has been crucified, was dead for 3 days, and now is back, risen, and appears to his followers. To different people in different places, he makes his presence known as the one who conquers death. This is his third appearance to his Disciples since the resurrection, and he is leaving with them wisdom, fellowship, and instructions for carrying out his mission after he’s gone. In the beginning of this scene, he’s talking with all of his disciples, as they fish and have breakfast on the beach. But as we move towards specific instruction, Jesus singles Peter out, among all those gathered around him for the last time, and says Peter: Follow me.
But Jesus, Peter says, are you sure you want to be asking me this question? With all these disciples here to choose from, why did you pick me? The others are far more careful with their words, more faithful, and never abandoned you. You know I have a bad habit of running my mouth off, of being over eager, of acting before I think. And that’s not the worst of it…Jesus, I don’t know how you can ever forgive me. When the authorities were coming after you, ready to kill you, I could have delayed the process…or at least stood by your side. But instead I chickened out and denied even knowing you. Not once, not twice, but three times….I denied you and abandoned you in your greatest hour of need. Why are you asking me to follow you?
Do you love me Peter?
Well of course I love you, Jesus.
Then feed my sheep.
Do you love me, Peter?
Yes, Jesus, I just told you that. I do love you, and I feel terrible about the ways I’ve disappointed you and let you down, but only because I love you so much.
Then feed my lambs.
Do you love me, Peter?
Jesus, has the resurrection made you dense? I just told you, not once, not twice, but now for a third time: Yes, you know I love you, you know everything about me. I love you, Jesus. What do I have to do to prove it?
Tend my sheep.
Sheep, lambs, shepherds, bucolic fields, were a common, everyday sight for Jesus and his followers. They encountered sheep in their day to day lives, worked side by side with shepherds…this imagery, and these instructions, made sense: feed my sheep, tend my lambs. But few of us, in Chicago in 2011, are regularly around sheep and shepherds. Maybe you did grow up on a farm, and this imagery is evocative for you; but most of us, today, would be better off with a metaphor about the El, and tending El riders, or shoveling snow—these are our everyday occurrences. The imagery of sheep is harder for us to grasp, and especially hard for us to know what to do practically.
The most vivid imagery that comes to my mind is from the movie Brokeback Mountain—have you seen it? If you haven’t, it’s this beautiful and tragic love story about two men who first meet while tending sheep one summer in the mountains of Montana. The scenery is magnificent, shot after shot of rolling green hills, blue skies, and herds of cream colored sheep, tended to by these two men, their horses, and a few dogs. The scenes are tranquil, until all of a sudden we’re snapped out of the peace with the discovery of sheep who were killed by wolves.
That’s the thing about sheep—they’re vulnerable, in need of care, love, and tending. And even with the best sheep herders, they’re still not immune from harm.
Jesus is the great shepherd, and all of us are his sheep—beautiful, meant to live in community, and deeply vulnerable. And when Jesus leaves, he asks Peter, and all of us, his followers, to care of one another—our brother and sister sheep. I know what you’re thinking– I’m no Jake Gyllenhaal, who am I to care for a herd of the most vulnerable?
It’s what Peter thought, and it’s what can keep us from truly loving, and following Jesus—we’re afraid that our own vulnerability—imperfect faith, a tendency to mess up, being overwhelmed by the task—makes us inadequate.
But the truth is, Jesus doesn’t demand perfection, Jesus asks for love.
My goodness, Peter abandoned Jesus when he was about to be crucified, and Jesus not only loves and forgives him, but chooses him to be the leader of the church in his absence. Why Peter? Why us? Because of our vulnerability, not in spite of it. If we’re able to feed and to tend, to act on our love, then we’re able to follow.
You don’t have this faith thing all figured out? Well neither does the person sitting next to you in church this morning. Share your vulnerability—strike up a conversation about the questions you have about Christianity, and then decide to join a Bible study together to learn more.
Have you messed up in life? Then join the club of the human family! You’ve been wounded by drugs or alcohol, then reach out to someone who’s in the midst of struggle with addiction, and offer support. You know what it’s like to be spiritually hungry, then come to Dignity Diner and feed people who are physically hungry. Sit down together and share your vulnerability.
You think the task is too big, and you’re not up to it? Then start small, with what you care about. Did your grandfather die of Alzheimer’s? Then consider starting a support group here at the church. Do you know what it’s like to be mistreated because of who you are, who you were born to be? Then join a letter writing campaign to reform our immigration policy.
Jesus doesn’t demand perfection, he asks for love. And we love Jesus by putting that love into action. When Jesus says “follow me”, instead of saying…but, but, but…feed his sheep, tend his sheep, feed his lambs. As one who is perfectly loved, unapologetically vulnerable, and willing to connect with other sheep. And the good news is, we don’t do any of this alone, but together, as the body of Christ.
For the risen one, with perfect love, is also vulnerable. Suffered on a cross, experienced wounds, grieved over a broken world. And yet through this brokenness brought healing, joy, and the gift of abundant and eternal life. So our God, who takes on vulnerability, singles us out and says: I choose you. Follow me. Feast at my welcome table. Take this bread, eat, for this is my body broken for you. You are forgiven, every time that you drink of this cup.
Go, forth, and feed the world with this good news. In the name of perfect love for imperfect people.
Thanks be to God! Amen.