Some Kind of Beautiful
Sermon by Rev. Gary W. Charles, April 25th, 2021
A common way that people describe me is as “a city boy.” I certainly cannot argue with that description. Most of my life has been spent living in and just outside large cities. It took a while, though, to realize that “a city boy” is less a description of where I come from and more a lament of how little I understand about living in the country and about creatures living around me.
Early on after arriving at Cove, I was walking from the sanctuary to Cove Hall and spotted Kelly Eplee hauling a rather long black snake down to the ravine. He sported a calm smile while I sported a look of “keep that snake away from me.” At that moment, someone looked at me and uttered under her breath, “a city boy.” For those unfamiliar with Cove, during pre-pandemic times, we enjoyed each other’s cooking after church once a month. Cove has some wonderful cooks, but when Walter Mehring invited me to taste his fresh beaver stew, I must have turned up my lip in a displeasing way and I heard someone say in a stage whisper, “a city boy.”
I even get caught up short as being “a city boy” when reading Scripture. There are all sorts of critters populating the pages of Scripture, no more so than sheep that are everywhere, from boarding the ark with Noah to populating many of the psalms to stories about sheep told by Jesus. Though unaware at the time, I grew up being taught that in some, strange, inexplicable way, I was also a sheep. The first words from Scripture that I ever memorized were the opening words of Psalm 23: “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” So, if the Lord is my Shepherd, then I must be a . . .
My biggest challenge in understanding this sheep metaphor, growing up as “a city boy,” was that there was not a sheep or a shepherd to be seen for miles. It was not until I was in my forties that I had my first close unexpected encounter with sheep.
I have told this story before but I cannot “not” tell this story in a sermon about sheep. My sheep encounter happened not in rural America but in rural Scotland. Jennell and I, along with Erin and Josh – who were two angelic teenagers at the time – were heading to Loch Katrine in the Trossachs region of the country. It was an idyllic drive with every passenger adding helpful advice to this nervous driver. No cross word was ever spoken and joy radiated from every seat.
Well, not exactly. Actually, directions flew like pieces of paper in a windstorm from both the back and passenger seats, and pretty soon I was focusing on who I was going to vote out of the car first. After driving along an increasingly narrow road that changed from asphalt to dirt, we discovered that we were hopelessly lost, skirting beside Loch Tay, not Loch Katrine. When I stopped to let my ever-so-helpful passengers out for a sanity break – mine, not theirs – a group of sheep arrived. Finally, something was going right. Now, at long last, I would have my own personal encounter with these fluffy, white, adorable, docile creatures that Jesus loved to talk about.
But soon I realized that my childhood images and Sunday School pictures about sheep were about to get a serious adjustment. These animals were not fluffy, but badly matted; not white, but caked in mud; not docile but heading wildly in several different directions. In short order, this rebellious herd gave new meaning to the biblical image: “sheep without a shepherd.” Some were heading east, several others heading west, one or two looked like they might head back down the hill, and the rest headed straight toward our rental car.
Like John’s story about sheep today, Luke tells his own sheep story. In this story, Jesus asks a seemingly simple question of those who are complaining about his ministry with the outcast. He asks, “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.” – Luke 15:4-5
After my one and only sheep experience in Scotland, the answer to that question from Jesus seemed absolutely obvious to me: “No one in their right mind would go searching for one sheep out of a whole flock. It makes no sense. It is not cost effective and frankly, it is irresponsible. Lord knows what might happen to the 99 sheep during the search for the lost one.” But that is not how Jesus answers his own question. For Jesus, our Shepherd God will not let even one sheep be lost and goes to inexplicable lengths to care for each sheep.
Whether in John or in Luke, these sheep stories defy any of us to explain the radical grace of God. These stories have nothing to do with whether you or I grew up around sheep or were raised “a city boy” like me. These stories defy us to make rational sense of the fact that our God cares for us with the same loving abandon that the shepherd cares for the one lost sheep, that our God delights when we are found and no longer live aimlessly wandering the earth.
Presbyterian novelist and preacher, Fred Buechner has this to say about sheep and shepherds: “When I think of shepherds, I think of one man in particular I know who used to keep sheep near my home in Vermont. Some of them he gave names to, and some of them he didn’t, but he knew them equally well either way.
“If one of them got lost, he didn’t have a moment’s peace till he found it again. If one of them got sick or hurt, he would move Heaven and earth to get it well again. He would feed them out of a bottle when they were new-born lambs if for some reason the mother wasn’t around or wouldn’t ‘own’ them, as he put it.
“He always called them in at the end of the day so the wild dogs wouldn’t get them. I’ve seen him wade through snow up to his knees with a bale of hay in each hand to feed them on bitter cold winter evenings, shaking it out and putting it in the manger. I’ve stood with him in their shed with a forty-watt bulb hanging down from the low ceiling to light up their timid, greedy, foolish, half holy faces as they pushed and butted each other to get at the food.”
In our text from John today, Jesus says that he is the “good” shepherd, reminding me of the shepherd in Buechner’s story. “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep,” says Jesus. The word that most translate “good” is actually kalos in Greek, a word that most often is translated as “beautiful.” For John, Jesus is the “beautiful” shepherd. He is “beautiful” not necessarily in a physical way. For despite all those 1950’s Sunday School pictures of a very white, handsome Jesus holding very white sheep, we know little about what Jesus looked like except that he surely did not have white skin.
What we do know from meeting Jesus in John and in Luke, in Matthew and in Mark is that Jesus was “beautiful.” There is something undeniably beautiful about the way Jesus stared down the demonic in people so they could breathe again, the way he gave a Samaritan woman, a person he had been raised to hate, a taste of living water, the way he healed those whose bodies or minds were badly broken and loved even thick-skulled disciples who got the faith wrong far more often than they got it right.
Jesus is some kind of beautiful for John, the Beautiful, Shepherd who has led us to this day and will lead us for the rest of our lives, even when during our lives sometimes we are lost. The Beautiful Shepherd promises to lead us not only when we are adorable, loving, and obedient, but when we are like that unruly, irritable, and scattered flock of sheep I met on a Scotland road. That is one reason that we gather Sunday after Sunday in cities and in suburbs and in the country, in sanctuaries and in parking lots, to hear great sheep stories from Scripture and to give thanks for the Good, Beautiful, Shepherd who loves, forgives, and calls the likes of us.
And, in John we hear that not only does God call the likes of us, Jesus goes on to say: “And there are other sheep that are not of this fold, and I must lead these too.” God revels not just in you and me, but also in those we never see or refuse to see. God’s good and beautiful grace is far more expansive than our own on our most generous day. It makes a way when we see no way forward, it softens hearts that have the consistency of concrete, and it heals deep wounds that no surgeon would touch.
There is something about our God and something about God’s beloved child that is some kind of beautiful.