Easter Week IV–April 30

Yesterday was Good Shepherd Sunday, not an offical name, but certainly an appropriate one. My sermons are getting less and less tied to what I’ve actually written down–which is a good thing, except that when I put them on this blog, they don’t necessarily reflect what people heard on Sunday morning. But here are the bare bones of what was preached:

Easter IV—Gentle Shepherd

Yesterday was Martha Hill’s birthday party;
she’s 103 years old; and as always,
it’s an inspiration just to be near her.
I usually get the best seat in the house
at birthday events–and yesterday was no exception.
I sat right next to Martha.
It was wonderful to see, the many children, grandchildren,
great-grandchildren gather around her to celebrate.
But my favorite part of being near her on such a day is this:
Martha’s faith is a beautiful thing.

I thought of her in relation to our readings this morning,
especially in relation to the 23rd Psalm:
Martha is someone who has believed
and trusted her Good Shepherd
for 103 years, through all
the profound joys and serious sorrows
that accompany a long life.
Her faith has inspired six generations of her family.
She’s someone who knows and hears the Shepherd’s voice.

This morning Jesus teaches us about himself in relation to
this beloved Good Shepherd image of God.
It’s an image Jesus audience would have known,
and it’s language familiar to us, too.
Many of us learned the 23rd Psalm by heart,
or at least we’ve heard it more than once.
Just hearing “The Lord is my Shepherd”
comforts us as soon the words are spoken.
Even if we haven’t heard or studied much of the Bible,
we can all envision God as a shepherd Lord.
As far removed as we are from biblical times, we can relate to it.

Good Shepherd language speaks of our experience of God,
expressing our sense of being known by God.
“I know my own, and my own know me.”
“I call them by name,” Jesus says.

Good Shepherd language
speaks to our sense of being led safely
to spiritual food and water,
those green pastures and still waters.
It speaks to our sense of being tended by God,
and even to our sense of loss
when we lose sight of the Shepherd,
or when we fear the Good Shepherd loses sight of us.

Shepherd imagery in the bible is often used
to express spiritual realities, spiritual principles.
Good leaders were good shepherds; poor kings or religious leaders
were poor shepherds—and acted like “hired hands”
rather than being invested in the health and life of their flocks.
If your sheep are yours, Jesus implies, you take better care of them.
As the Good Shepherd, Jesus reminds his hearers and us,
each one of us, each person, has been given to him,
to know, and love, and tend.

The relationship between the shepherd and the sheep is built on trust—
in metaphor and in life.
Sheep have to know and trust their shepherd;
they learn to recognize the shepherd’s voice.
The shepherd needs to know the sheep.
Trust isn’t an automatic given between shepherd and sheep.
The sheep have to experience the persistent protecting presence
of the shepherd in order to trust him.
Those are spiritual truths as well, and pertain
to our relationship to God as much as they do
to the relationships of real sheep to real shepherds.
Poor shepherds, shepherds who aren’t trustworthy
or diligent on behalf of the sheep,
poor political and religious leaders, receive scathing judgment in the bible,
especially if they’ve forgotten who God is, and who their people belong to.

Like most powerful metaphors, the shepherd metaphor was shaped
by the material realities of people’s lives in ancient Palestine.
And if you don’t already know the role of sheep in the ancient world,
I’m going to tell you.
[thanks to the aritlce in Harper’s Bible Dictionary, for much of this!].

Sheep were the most important domestic animals
in those ancient communities,
important in every aspect of people’s lives—
They were economic resources,
providing meat, clothing, milk, fat, skins, wool,
even the horns were used.
Almost everyone, from children on up, at some point or another
tended flocks—small ones and large ones, sometimes full-time,
sometimes part-time—if you lived in a village in ancient Palestine,
or even in the wilderness, you knew about sheep.
And they needed tending, those sheep. They needed constant care.

Sheep are peculiarly defenseless; they are not built for violence.
They are not aggressive; they are not predators, but prey.
They are gregarious and friendly; they have short attention spans,
and tend to wander off. They need help in childbirth
and they need protection from danger.
A shepherd’s job, though often boring,
with its long hours of watching the flocks,
required endurance and vigilance,
creative searches for good pasture and water,
that might mean journeys far from home.
Shepherds lived outside most of the time,
in all kinds of weather, using makeshift shelters,
in remote areas, accompanied at times by other wild animals,
lions, bears, and wolves.

Close to nature and nature’s rhythms,
the shepherd was a watcher and a keeper,
a caregiver, a mid-wife, a healer, and
a rescuer, for if one of the sheep wandered off,
it was the shepherd’s duty to go and find the sheep.
Shepherds carried staffs to help guide the movements of a flock,
And they carried rods to ward off predators—
“Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”
The rod and staff comforted because they were
the shepherd’s tools of guidance and protection.
Shepherds sometimes carried reed flutes
to calm their flocks with music, and pass the time.

Almost every great leader in scripture
turns out to have been a shepherd at one point or another:
Abraham, Issac, Jacob, Jacob sons, Moses, and David.
You started out watching flocks, and lo, you become a leader of nations.
And we all celebrate those nameless shepherds who were
given the first glimpse of God incarnate in Jesus Christ at the Nativity of our Lord.

Today, Jesus uses the image of the Good Shepherd
to help us understand what the call of the shepherd is:
Jesus names it here as the call to lay down one’s life for others.
On the Sundays in Easter, each week unfolds layers of meaning for us,
revealing what the resurrection means to the church,
to us as a community, to us as individuals.
Here Jesus opens the resurrection again for us:
“I lay down my life for the sheep.” I lay down my life for you.
Here again is God’s amazing divine generosity: God gives life,
God’s own life, to those beloved sheep.
Because he lives, we live.
The portion we hear in John this morning
is part of a longer discourse, where Jesus develops this image
of himself as the Good Shepherd.
If you go back and read verse 10,
which immediately precedes this one,
Jesus speaks of the reason
he has come: “I come that they might have life,
and have it more abundantly.”
The Good Shepherd brings abundant life.
Abundant life comes to us though the
Good Shepherd who lays his life down for us.

This generous self-giving doesn’t stop with Jesus,
for we are given an instruction along with it, today.
We hear similar words from the First letter of John,
this morning also.
No one knows who the author of these letters is,
but most commentators accept that the Letters of John,
especially the first letter, accompany this Gospel of John,
offering interpretive guidelines to the Gospel.
We’ve just heard Jesus teaching
on laying down his life for his sheep.
And right next to it, in First John,
we receive a teaching about what Jesus’ action means
now for our lives as believers.
As Jesus did for us, so we do for each other.
As Jesus lay down his life for us, so we lay down our lives for one another.

John speaks to justice here, not only compassion.
Justice means an open-hearted sharing of resources:
how can any one of us who has the world’s goods—
that means riches–
refuse help to those in need?
“Refuse help:” this phrase loses something in translation here.
In the original to refuse help
reads to close off one’s feeling,
literally one’s heart and belly to others—
for the belly is where compassion lives
in the biblical view of the person.
How can we close off our hearts, our compassion, to others?
And compassion, without action, John implies here,
is not compassion at all.
“Let us love, not in word and speech,
but in action and truth.”
Our actions, our lived truth matter, here in John’s letter,
who we are as good shepherds of each other,
each of us matters in our life together.

Life abundant is life lived generously for the sake of others.
When we live that way, in truth and in action,
we know we are God’s people.
And yet, our most profound comfort, here, may come
from the next few lines: John reminds
God’s heart is so very great,
so generous, so formed in love,
so wide and deep.
God knows every part of us.
God knows everything before we know it,
and knows it lovingly:
John assures us,
that even when we fail and accuse ourselves,
we need not fear before God.
God’s heart is our wide open pasture of grace,
the fresh water of forgiveness, our safe shelter.
Believe in God, and love one another,
just as Jesus commanded.
Then, we are his people and the sheep of his pasture,
and we like, the Psalmist, shall dwell in the house of the Lord, forever.

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