A Sermon preached in
May 7, 2017, Easter 4, Year A
For online access to the readings click here.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
Our readings today (about the gate, the shepherd and the sheep) remind me, surprisingly, of my mother’s hospitality. Any friend of mine or my siblings was a friend of hers. Ex-boyfriends of my sisters still hung out at our house even after they broke up. She modeled for me gracious “Southun” welcome with lighthearted humor. Our only rule was to introduce our friends to my mother, so she knew who was in her flock-of-the-day. My mother modeled how to be a shepherd of sheep, as these texts echo today, in offering food and water and safety. These are the tasks of a shepherd, despite that fact that few of us urbanites have ever met a real shepherd (or a sheep).
Theologian Frederick Buechner wrote about a real shepherd, named Vernon Beebe. Beebe “…used to keep sheep. Some of them he gave names to, and some of them he didn't, but he knew them equally well either way,” he wrote. “…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 newborn lambs … and called them in at the end of the day so the wild dogs wouldn't get them. He would 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… under the light of 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…”
Buechner’s description endears us to the reality of a shepherd. And, if God is like a shepherd, there are more than just a few ways that people like you and I are like sheep. Being timid, greedy, foolish, and half holy is only part of it. Like sheep we get hungry, and hungry for more than just food. We get thirsty for more than just drink. Our souls get hungry and thirsty…”
Maybe this sense of inner emptiness is what makes us know we have souls in the first place. But once in a while that inner emptiness is filled. That is what Psalm 23 means by saying that God is a shepherd: God feeds that part of us which is hungriest and most in need of feeding. God pours a drink for the part of us which is parched and most in need of hydration. And God in Jesus is right beside us in dark valleys.
This makes us feel warm and secure. We like to think someone is watching out and caring for us, particularly when the world seems so cold and dangerous. We are glad to be sheep belonging to a good shepherd. We like being taken care of – well, at times. But at other times, we may not like the idea of being taken care of. Sometimes, we resent this care and fight it. “Mom, let me do it myself!” we might cry. Think about it – being a sheep has its disadvantages. Sheep are not so bright. They are fragile. They tend to wander off and lose their way.
I remember watching my friend Mark sheer his flock one day. He just tipped the sheep on their backs and they lay, defenseless, as he clipped their wool. To be like a sheep is to be like a child, being guided and taken care of by someone larger and stronger – always receiving and seldom giving. As children, we needed this loving care. As we mature, we have an even deeper need. That need, that call from God, is to care for and feed someone else. That is when we find abundant life.
The trouble with seeing Jesus as the Good Shepherd is that it makes us sheep –helpless, needy, sheep. The trouble with thinking of ourselves as sheep is that sheep do not ever grow up to be shepherds.
In the story of Jesus’ resurrection appearance at the Sea of Galilee, Jesus meets Peter and the others as they were out fishing. Once they notice that the man on the shore is Jesus, they bring him some fish, which he cooks for them. Over breakfast, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me? If you do, feed my sheep.” He doesn’t say, “I am the good shepherd and I will take care of you.” All he says is “Feed my sheep.” To Peter and to us, Jesus says, “You, too are called to be shepherds. Stop worrying about who is going to appreciate you and find ways to show appreciation to other people. Start getting joy from what you can give rather than what you can get.”
Christ is the good shepherd of the sheep AND the recruiter and trainer of shepherds.
This Christian life means both receiving and giving. The hired hand’s voice is only one-sided, stealing the opportunity for mutuality. This Christian life means a blend - of caring for and being cared for, of giving and receiving, of loving and being loved. Like serving at Crossroads, or attending one of our Thursday Night “Getting To Us” sessions, or bringing communion to shut-ins, or volunteering at VBS. This Christian life means being led along paths we would not choose for ourselves, and being prodded by the shepherd who knows our needs better than we know own.
This Christian life means, most profoundly, trust. Trust that in every circumstance we are protected and led by the one who stands guard against the worst the world can do. It does not mean that death will not come, that tragedy will not string, that our hearts will not be broken, that someone will not betray us. Trusting the Good Shepherd means that we might sing Psalm 23½:
Even though I walk through the corridors of the ICU, I will not fear death…
Though I pass through the valley of dismay at our political process, I will not be alone…
Though people may think less of me because of my decisions, I will not lose heart…
Though my relationships are strained and my job is uncertain, I will fear no evil…for you anoint me, guard me, love me.
This is really good news! To be free of fear, to be free of others’ unrealistic expectations, to be free of shame…THIS is a gift beyond words. I know this because I am a specialist in fear, in uber-responsibility and paralyzing self-shame. But then there is this Good Shepherd, Jesus, who promises to meet us in ways we cannot imagine in the most difficult places of life – and death.
And in life and in death, through the gift of the church, we learn that we do not belong to ourselves, but, ultimately, to Jesus. He leads us to waters of baptism. He sets before us a table of love in the face of all the world’s pain. He will lead us safely home.
May we, this day, follow where he leads and trust that he loves us beyond measure.
May we, this day, follow his voice, share in his ministry allow him to guide us into paths of service and compassion.
And with this Good Shepherd, may we have life, and have it abundantly.