The Good Shepherd, Easter 4 (C) – 2016

[RCL] Acts 9:36-43; Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30

Today many churches will celebrate Good Shepherd Sunday, especially those parishes and congregations that have “Good Shepherd” in their titles. “The Good Shepherd” is a title that Jesus used for himself in a famous section of the Gospel of John in which he declares, “I am the Good Shepherd.” The passage is so meaningful for the Christian understanding of who Jesus of Nazareth is that parts of it are appointed for this Sunday in all three years of the Church’s lectionary.

The background and implications of Jesus’ claim to be the Good Shepherd make it particularly consequential. Throughout the Old Testament—but with special pointedness in the prophetic books—the kings and other rulers of Israel and Judah are called shepherds. This designation makes sense because kings and rulers were entrusted with looking out for the welfare of God’s people. They were responsible for defending them from attack, for administering justice, for taking care of the poor and needy, and for making provisions for the worship of the Lord.

As the Hebrew prophets make clear, however, the rulers of Israel and Judah failed on every count. They “fed themselves and not the flock,” and they had “scattered the sheep of the Lord’s flock”. They proclaimed the hope that the Lord would intervene on behalf of the people, God would be their true Shepherd. God spoke to Ezekiel promising:

“I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.”

Throughout the Psalms the Lord is presented as the Shepherd of Israel and the one who guides the people like a flock. The best-known example of the Bible’s shepherd-imagery for God is the psalm appointed for today, Psalm 23. Many Christians know its words by heart:

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters.
He revives my soul and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake.”

In rich symbolism, the psalm movingly depicts God as the true king of Israel and shepherd of God’s people. God gives them everything they need, and nothing is missing from God’s generous provisions. Sustenance, refreshment, beauty, and safety are all to be found among the Lord’s gifts for God’s people. The Lord’s strength defends them from their oppressors and saves them from dangers the way a shepherd protects their sheep from wolves, bears, and lions:

“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”

God’s people rejoice, surrounded by the abundance of God’s love forever:

“Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

This understanding of God as the Shepherd of Israel forms the backdrop for Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel of John.

Jesus begins what is known as the Good Shepherd discourse by describing the relationship between the sheep and the shepherd: God knows them by name, and they recognize God’s voice. The relationship is direct and personal. God is not some far-off deity who is uninterested in God’s people. God loves them and calls them by name.

Like the Old Testament prophets Jesus contrasts the Lord’s care for people with the failure of the Jewish leaders who came before him. He exposes them as false shepherds. Instead of caring for the flock of God they were thieves and robbers from whom the sheep needed protection. Jesus insists that the false shepherds only came “to kill, to rob, and to destroy” but that he came to save the sheep and to give them “abundant life”. Jesus teaches that as Israel’s true Shepherd, the long-awaited Messiah, he knows us, loves us, and provides for us with the same knowledge, love, and care that God, Israel’s Lord, offers to God’s people. He even promises us the gift of eternal life.

By laying claim to the role of the Good Shepherd, Jesus is claiming for himself a position reserved for God alone as becomes evident from the section of the Gospel we hear in today’s readings. The crowd demands that Jesus answer them clearly whether or not he is the Christ, the Messiah. Jesus further angers them by telling them that they really ought to have discovered that for themselves when they had heard him teaching and when he had done might signs before their eyes, but they had not listened or seen because they were not God’s sheep. He appears to rile them even more by pressing the question further. He declares, “The Father and I are one.” It was a remarkable statement, and it provoked a dramatic response—the crowd took stones in order to kill Jesus!

There appeared to be no two ways about it: Either Jesus was correct, and he was the Good Shepherd being opposed by some outsider sheep, or he was a blasphemer who deserved the harshest punishment. The crowd’s violent reaction further illustrates the importance of the question that faces every person: Who is this Jesus? Is he a blasphemer, or is he who he says he is? Is this Jesus the Christ? Is he the Good Shepherd?

In his book Mere Christianity, Anglican layman and theologian C.S. Lewis suggested that one might ask if perhaps Jesus was simply a lunatic, but that no one who listened to Jesus’ message about the care and the loving protection of God could seriously argue that Jesus was a madman. Therefore, instead of simply dismissing what Jesus says, we must take his claims seriously.

Many who first heard Jesus’ claims to be one with God demanded evidence, signs that would demonstrate the truth of what he said. They wanted proof. Jesus gave them an answer when declared, “I am the Good Shepherd; I know my own, and my own know me…and I lay down my life for the sheep… No one takes it from me; but I lay it down of my own accord, and I have power to take it up again.” The proof that Jesus gives that he is the Good Shepherd is his loving self-sacrifice for the people of God and the power of his resurrection. Put another way, Good Friday and Easter Morning are the proof that Jesus of Nazareth is who he says he is.

On this Good Shepherd Sunday, we ought to celebrate God’s great love as it is revealed in Jesus Christ’s total gift of himself on our behalf. He is the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for the sheep and took it up again, and it is he who has given us the abundance of eternal life. As Christians we receive this gift as we hear Jesus’ voice calling us each by name and as we trust him with our whole life in the knowledge that commended to the Savior’s keeping we shall never ripped away from God’s love. Amen.

Download the sermon for Easter 4C.

Written by The Reverend Dr. John J. Lynch

The Rev. Dr. John J. Lynch is the rector of Christ the King Episcopal Church in Yorktown, Virginia, having previously served in the Diocese of Honduras. He is also the Province III Chaplain to the Order of the Daughters of the King. In addition to his pastoral responsibilities, Father Lynch writes and publishes the Spanish-language blog “El Cura de Dos Mundos”.  

Hearing the voice of the Good Shepherd on Earth Day, 4 Easter (C) – 2013

April 21, 2013

Acts 9:36-43; Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30

In today’s readings we are presented several times with the familiar shepherd motif. The text from Revelation declares that the “lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd” and the gospel reading is about belonging to God, as sheep belong to a shepherd. Perhaps nowhere is this metaphor more poignantly presented than in beloved Psalm 23, which assures us that God the shepherd guides, leads and restores us, even in the darkest of times.

The Bible often refers to political and religious leaders as shepherds. In the Old Testament in particular, bad leaders are portrayed as bad shepherds, while God and the future Messiah are described as good shepherds. Furthermore, it is the voice of these shepherds that lets people know their trustworthiness. Jesus tells us that his sheep will listen to and know his voice, not that of the hired hand. Just before today’s reading in the book of John, Jesus explains to a group of Pharisees that, “the sheep follow him [the Good Shepherd] because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.”

Whose voice is so familiar that you trust it unconditionally? And what is that voice telling you?

Today it is perhaps harder than ever to distinguish between voices of the good and the bad shepherds, simply due to the large number of loud, public voices competing for our attention and our loyalty. And furthermore, these voices that attempt to shepherd us through confusing paths often contradict one another. It can indeed be quite challenging to discern the voice of a trusted guide out of a cacophony of facts, pseudo-facts, speculations, opinions and falsehoods that bombard our ears every day. Some voices employ the tried and true tactic of taking unpleasant or threatening truths and casting them into the realm of doubt or uncertainty. When the jury still seems to be out, we can go with business as usual rather than confronting harsh realities and enacting some changes.

But there is yet another voice to consider here. This voice is constantly speaking but seldom heard. It is the voice of the earth, and it is groaning. Romans 8:22 states that “all Creation is groaning” alongside ourselves.

Tomorrow, April 22, is Earth Day – the 43rd Earth Day since its beginning in 1970. On this day we honor creation and recognize its groaning. In one sense it is strange that we devote just a single day per year to reflect upon our home – the tapestry of life that allows us to breathe, eat and function. One day only to praise and marvel at the unfathomable complexity and splendor of life on this earth, and one day only to mourn and repent what we now recognize as the large-scale deterioration of every single system that supports life on this earth, while the other 364 days of the year we condone business as usual in un-creating these complex life systems that God has placed on this earth. We do indeed walk through a valley in the shadow of death.

In a 2010 Pew survey, Americans were asked whether religion influenced their thinking on tougher laws and regulations to protect the environment. Around 5 percent said yes.

What a lamentable shortcoming of our churches and faith leaders. The created world is a revelation of God’s power and gracious presence, a table that God has prepared before us. It is green pastures and still waters, but is also a finely tuned atmosphere and complex network of biodiversity; it is interrelated earth systems that allow life to flourish. This sacred quality of creation demands sharing and moderation, antidotes for our excessive consumption and waste that end up harming the poor most of all. Rich people and countries contribute most to changes in Earth’s climate, resulting in catastrophic events like droughts and superstorms, whose victims are the poorest and most vulnerable, largely in Africa and parts of Asia.

Serving as a good steward of creation means accepting these painful truths, hearing the groaning voices. In the gospel reading today, Jesus says, “I have told you and you do not believe.” Perhaps he was exasperated as he said this, much as today’s many climate scientists, scholars, community and faith leaders are with us. “I have told you – and you do not believe.”

We are called, not just to believe, not just to honor creation and hear its groaning, but to act in response. A humorous headline from the satirical newspaper The Onion reads, “‘How Bad for the Environment Can Throwing Away One Plastic Bottle Be?’ 30 Million People Wonder.” This tongue-in-cheek jab draws attention to a sentiment that surely many of us feel: I am only one person – what difference can I make? But the truth is that we are never just one, we are never alone. And we must act, alongside our brothers and sisters and church community, because God calls us to be engaged, fruitful humans on this earth.

Where do we begin to act in the face of a seemingly insurmountable crisis? Can we see ourselves in the position of those in Revelation, who will hear the elders explaining that “these are the ones who have come out of the great ordeal”?

The reading from Acts offers guidance. In this reading, Peter is summoned to a seemingly insurmountable crisis situation: In the town of Joppa, Tabatha, a devoted discipline, has just died. In what unfolds next, we find meaningful direction on taking action, whether we identify as Peter or as Tabatha. First Peter knelt down and prayed. Fruitful, grounded action begins with prayer. Next, Peter told Tabatha to “get up.” Some of us are equipped to extract others from a state of stupor, a proverbial deathbed and get going. Others need to have ears to hear the voice of Peter and “open our eyes.”

Then Peter “gave her his hand and helped her up.” Both giving and accepting encouragement are crucial in a long and difficult process or reawakening and enacting change.

Finally, Peter “showed her to be alive,” demonstrating to all who were gathered there the good work that had occurred.

And so, as we reflect this day on God’s creation around us and the work that lies before us, we know that in this task we are not alone. We know that God walks with us, that the incarnate Christ joins the earth in groaning, and that there is a way out of this dark valley if we can allow ourselves to be led by the trustworthy voice of the Good Shepherd.

May we be equipped to distinguish and heed this voice, one that guides, cajoles, urges us to follow the paths of goodness and mercy. May we recognize the goodness of the earth’s complex, beautiful systems and feel mercy for those who suffer disproportionately from the effects of environmental degradation.

And may we have ears to hear the voice of the earth, one that has been speaking all along and desperately needs our attention.

 

— Frederica Helmiere teaches eco-theology at Seattle University, and environmental writing at the University of Washington. She holds a Master’s of Arts in Religion from Yale Divinity School and a Master’s of Environmental Science from Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Freddie and her husband serve a new church start in South Seattle called Valley & Mountain, a spiritual community rooted in deep listening, radical hospitality and creative liberation. Find out more at www.valleyandmountain.org.

 

He hears his master’s voice, 4 Easter (C) – 2010

April 25, 2010

Acts 9:36-43; Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30

It’s an old, familiar image, but a powerful one, that for nearly a century has illustrated what was once a new, amazing reality. The Radio Corporation of America, or “RCA,” created a lasting logo: the figure of a dog sitting before a Victrola record player, staring in wonder at the speaker. The caption told it all: “He hears his master’s voice.”

Obviously, this classic advertisement relied on the common knowledge of dogs and their relationship with owners. Whenever an owner calls a dog, the animal will begin to wag its tail and squirm and jump in eager anticipation of being petted or scratched or fed or taken outside.

Jesus used a similar reality in trying to explain to his disciples his love for them and his relationship with them. In today’s gospel reading we experienced a glimpse of Jesus reflecting on his ministry by using the imagery of a shepherd. He characterized who and what he was for them – and who he is for us.

To Jesus and the people of his day, tending sheep was a familiar activity that meant many things. The shepherd led the sheep to good pasturage, looked after the strays, exercised responsibility for protecting the sheep, served as midwife for the birthing of lambs, and paid special attention to the little lambs, the most vulnerable of the flock. The shepherd knew each of his sheep and valued the life of every one. The shepherd was deeply devoted to his flock.

In referring to himself as a shepherd, Jesus gives us a way to more fully appreciate his ministry. In our gospel today, Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand.”

If we can see ourselves as sheep of a Godly flock, we can better understand our relationship to Jesus – a savior whom we can imagine as a good, caring, dependable shepherd.

Jesus was almost certainly playing on an image much more ancient than that of RCA’s Victrola. We recited it in our psalm today – a hymn of confidence offered by one who knew the great joy that “we are his people and the sheep of his pasture.” Jesus cares for us as surely as did a good shepherd of his day. In the same ways, he leads us to all that truly sustains life at its deepest level. His example calls us into question when we stray from his way like lost sheep, and his gracious forgiveness saves us when we turn back to God. His love protects us and heals us. He serves as a midwife for our new spiritual births, and he leads us into transformations from the ways of the world to the way of God. He pays special attention to the poorest and most vulnerable, the least and lost among us.

Our task might be considered something like emulating the RCA dog. We do well by learning to recognize our master’s voice so we can hear his word and follow him. We hear the resonance of Jesus’ voice in worship, in the regular reading of scripture, and in our own private prayer time. We hear the resonance of his voice in the loving example of saintly Christians and in the cry of the weak – the poor and sick and needy of our world. All this enables us to identify the voice of Jesus when he calls to us.

One of the great dangers for us is in not recognizing Jesus in our lives, like sheep not hearing the voice of the shepherd. It is very easy for us to fail to discern his will because we can’t separate his voice from the many others clamoring for our attention. Such is the nature of this complex and difficult twenty-first century world, full of potential distractions. Everywhere we go, there are voices calling out – voices that say “buy this” or “do this” or “say this” or “go this direction” or “act this way” or “don’t tend to that need.” There are voices competing with one another, vying for our attention, seeking to gain control of our lives in big and little ways.

So, we Christians must keep our ears tuned to the voice of Jesus, our good shepherd, calling out in the midst of those other voices. Of course, the danger is that if we do not know how to recognize his voice, there is no way for us to walk through life under the protection of his love and care. The good news is that we can experience joy and happiness if we recognize the voice of Jesus as we make the journey through life.

When we act confidently in the presence and reassuring voice of Jesus, it becomes easier to follow the way of our Lord, easier to love our enemies, easier to offer forgiveness to one who has hurt us, easier to turn the other cheek, easier to bear witness to Jesus. It will be easier to follow Jesus at work, home, school, and at leisure because we will be acting confidently, reassured by the presence of the one whose voice we recognize.

The Jesus whose lordship we proclaim this day is truly our good shepherd whose presence is constantly with us, his flock. The challenge for each of us is to learn to listen for his voice, putting forward the time and effort to clearly recognize his voice when he calls to us.

As we continue our journey through this season of Easter, let us dedicate ourselves to the task of reading Jesus’ word in Holy Scripture, worshipping regularly, saying our daily prayers and devotions, and looking throughout our daily lives for his calling to act as servants of Christ, reaching out in love and care and concern for all his children. In this way, we who hear our master’s voice will heed it, and in doing so will witness to others the very values of God.
— The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of “John E. Hines: Granite on Fire” (Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, 1995), is retired from full-time, active ministry and lives with his wife in his native home, Bastrop, Texas.

Our shepherd leads us, 4 Easter (C) – 2007

April 29, 2007

Acts 9:36-43; Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30

The 23rd Psalm is one of the most well-known chapters in the Bible. Countless people have memorized it, usually in the King James Version:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures;
He leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul;
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his Name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil; for thou art with me;
Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies;
Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

Many of us recall Sunday-school posters of this favorite psalm superimposed on beautiful painted pictures of Jesus on a grassy hillside, with a lamb over his shoulders, rescuing it from danger. Many children still get great comfort from the image of the kind and gentle Jesus who cares for all God’s creatures. This is the Jesus who will stay with a child through a dark night filled with terrors: alligators under the bed and monsters in the closet. This is the Jesus who stays with adults too, through nights of weeping, and loneliness, and worry, and despair.

And in those times of danger and grief, many people turn to the 23rd Psalm for comfort. At the bedside of people facing surgery or serious illness, reciting the psalm brings peace and hopefulness. At memorial services, it evokes the kind and loving presence of the God who promises an eternal dwelling place in the house of the Lord.

But then, there are the times when events in our lives or in our world throw our peace, our hopefulness, our comfort into doubt – times when the Jesus we remember from our childhood, smiling on that grassy hillside, seems almost irrelevant to the darkness of the world.

Perhaps some of us experienced one of those times recently, when a young man shot 32 other people and then himself on the campus of Virginia Tech University. How do we make sense of a world in which a young person can be so troubled, so destructive, and so unable to receive the help that others offered him? How do we make sense of a world in which such bright, innocent, promising young lives are tragically and suddenly lost? How do we begin to understand a world where people in America, Iraq, Darfur and a thousand other places die regularly and senselessly?

Perhaps the people crowding around Jesus in the Portico of Solomon were asking similar questions. At the Feast of the Dedication, the feast we now know as Hanukkah, the people remembered how the nation rededicated the temple after a great leader, Judas Maccabeus, defeated the Greek conquerors in 164 BC. The festival remembered the suffering of the Jewish people under the Greek Empire, and rejoiced at their great victory. Against this background, with Roman soldiers hovering and memories of thousands of crucified would-be rebels and other unjust suffering fresh in their minds, people asked Jesus, “Are you the Messiah?” Would Jesus be the new hero who would drive out the Roman invader? Would the nation be free and independent once more?

The people crowding around Jesus want a clear and decisive answer. Instead, he is cryptic and evasive. The people want him to speak with authority about weapons and strategies; instead, he talks about sheep. To their demand that he assume the leadership for which they have been hoping, he answers with a claim of leadership so astounding that many of them pick up stones to kill him on the spot: he claims to be one with God the Father.

This is no gentle, clear-eyed Jesus on a green, rolling hillside; this is a fierce, uncompromising Jesus, a Jesus who refuses to meet any earthly expectations, a Jesus whose frame of reference is so far removed from that of the people around him that it is a wonder he escapes with his life. And indeed, John tells us that the next time Jesus dares to show his face in Jerusalem, the chief priests cook up a scheme to have him crucified.

How do we reconcile the gentle, kind shepherd Jesus, the one who would go anywhere and risk anything to save even the smallest lamb, with the Jesus who provoked his enemies to violence? And how does this Jesus have anything at all to do with the worries and dangers of our lives? How can our faith in Jesus help us through a tragedy like the one at Virginia Tech? What can the gentle shepherd do to help?

The wonderful thing about Psalm 23 is just how realistic it is about the darkness of life. Perhaps the picture we get of the Good Shepherd from art and music and childhood memories is an image of pure light and pure sweetness. But the psalm itself knows darkness and fear. Like the writer of the psalm, many Christians have traveled through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. They too have known the threat of the unknown. And yet many have also known the comfort of God’s presence, walking alongside them through that dark valley. Many people have felt the exquisite sweetness of Jesus’ love surrounding and enfolding them in the most difficult moments of their lives. Many have experienced transcendent holiness and light in the darkest of times.

People who spend much time with those who are ill or bereaved begin to know what kind of help brings true comfort. Comfort does not come from assurances that everything will be all right or from platitudes that try to explain why everything that happens is God’s will. Comfort comes from the simple presence of companions who are willing to sit alongside us in our darkest hours, to walk through the darkness with us, to help us make the darkness holy, and to rejoice with us when small glimmers of light finally begin to shine.

And at the heart of it, that is what our Christian faith can tell us. It tells us that our Lord and Savior, the great hero who liberates us, is not the God of light alone. Jesus is sovereign over the darkness too, because he too has been enfolded by darkness. Like us, he has grieved over the senseless waste and tragedy of life. Like us, he has agonized over those who suffer. As all of us will eventually, he has entered into the darkness of death. And with all of us, he promises to walk that road so that we do not have to walk it alone. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.”

The ultimate truth of our Christian faith, the truth we remember this Easter season and every Sunday as we celebrate the Lord’s Resurrection, is that our Shepherd leads us out of death into life. The Lord who was crucified and who rose again is the same Lord who promises to redeem the world, to relieve its suffering, to restore it to wholeness, to inaugurate a new creation. The risen Lord is the sign of the life that God promises to all of us: life transformed, life redeemed, life restored, life abundant, life joyous and eternal and blessed. God prepares a table for all of us: a table brimful with overflowing cups and overabundant blessings. And Jesus, our Great Shepherd, invites us to come and share with him at the table of blessing.

 

— The Rev. Susan B. Snook is an Episcopal priest and church planter. She is priest missioner at the Church of the Nativity in Scottsdale, Ariz.