A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter
April 25, 2021
Trinity Episcopal Church
in Easton, Pennsylvania
“Now the God of peace, that brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, make you perfect in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is well pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.” (Hebrews 13: 20-21, KJV)
Hark! 'Tis the Shepherd's voice I hear, Out in the desert dark and drear, Calling the sheep who've gone astray, Far from the Shepherd's fold away. Who'll go and help the Shepherd kind, Help Him the wandering ones to find? Who'll bring the lost ones to the fold, Where they'll be sheltered from the cold? Out in the desert hear their cry, Out on the mountains wild and high; Hark! 'Tis the Master speaks to thee, "Go, find My sheep where'er they be."
One of the most astonishing, and distinguishing features of the Holy Gospel According to Saint John, is that it features a series of seven “I Am” Statements. Jesus presents a series of images, metaphors, explanations of who he is and what he is about. He uses common, every day, objects—things which would have been very familiar to those who were listening to his words.
But, Jesus gives them a new shift, a new focus, a new view. And that is both exciting and perplexing at the same time! In doing so, he identifies with these images, and invites his listeners—and us—to think about them in a different way. We are challenged to look beyond a literal and superficial examination of these images, and to find in them hidden meaning and value. They open new ways of thinking about God’s Realm, about Beloved Community—and about our own mission as disciples of Jesus.
Just to remind us, here is a list of the “I Am” Statements:
- I am the Bread of Life (John 6:35)
- I am the Light of the World (John 8:12)
- I am the Door (John 10:9)
- I am the Good Shepherd (John 10:11,14)
- I am the Resurrection and the Life (John 11:25)
- I am the Way and the Truth and the Life (John 14:6)
- I am the Vine (John 15:1, 5)
Bread, Light, Door, Shepherd, Resurrection and Life, Way and Truth, and Vine. Wow! These are images which none of us would have used to speak of God, of community, or of ourselves. And yet, each of these images is like a mirror. In it we see a reflection of something transcendent, something mysterious, and something transformative. We see not only reality as we perceive it to be—but prophetically—reality as it could be, as it was created to be, as God intended it to be!
Today is called “Good Shepherd Sunday.” It is the day in which we are invited to look at just one of these statements, “I Am the Good Shepherd.” We are invited to think and pray about what it means to be a Shepherd, what it means to be a Sheep, what it means to be part of a flock, and how all of this is connected to “Beloved Community.”
Sadly, the whole shock and surprise of this image is lost on us! Few of us grew up on a farm. Even fewer of us raised sheep. And the images in which Jesus is depicted as Good Shepherd are so saccharine, that we are tempted to just see them and quickly move on.
The scandalous image of a shepherd from first century Judaism does not even occur to us! In seminary, for instance, I remember being shocked when one of my professors (who loved to scandalize his naïve students) said to us, “Good Shepherd? There is no such thing!” His point was that shepherds were perceived to be filthy, smelly, generally ritually unclean—and normally disreputable. It was not a vocation that most parents would have wanted for their children. Thus, it is almost unimaginable in the Gospel of Luke, for instance, that it is to a group of shepherds that the good news of the birth of the Messiah was first announced. That is literally the last thing that anyone would have expected. Shepherds! Really?
It would be harder to imagine anyone who would have been farther removed from the center of power. Shepherds would not have been in the room where it happened! Even worse, they were often understood to be quite mercenary. You got what you paid for! The image of “sheep stealer,” then as now, was one which was quite common. King David might have used a sling to keep his family’s sheep safe, but he appears to be an exception! Knives, and clubs, and swords were probably more commonly used than a shepherd’s crook. There was also the expectation that losing a certain number of the sheep was just the cause of doing business. After all, the shepherds had to eat too (and so did the wild and hungry beasts)! And were the hired hands really willing to fight “mano a mano” with wolves, bears, and other predators?
Imagine for a moment, that shepherd is used as an image for anyone who holds and exercises authority! Then, as now, it is far easier to think of those who have abused their authority, have neglected those entrusted to their care, and have mistreated the sheep–rather than those who have cared for them, protected them, and loved them. This is at the heart of the debate in our country about the role, value, and purpose of “law enforcement.”
We are challenged by our BIPOC Siblings–(Black, Indigenous, or People of Color–for brevity, I will here after use the acronym)–to examine the systemic racism which they experience–on a daily basis–at the hands of those who have sworn to defend and protect them!
Depending on the color of our skin, we will have radically different perspectives about “peace officers.” For BIPOC persons, shepherd is a loaded word! It is not a word which immediately brings feelings of comfort, safety, and rest.
Our Presiding Bishop and Primate, the Most Revered Michael B. Curry shared an incredibly powerful and moving personal reflection at the Celebration of Compline with the Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota on the evening of April 20th, following the announcement of the guilty verdicts in the murder trial of George Floyd. In his remarks, Bishop Curry shared his own painful life experiences of having been taught to be wary of the Police. The message which he learned as a young man, just learning to drive, remained true for most of his life, “Don’t fight them back because you can’t win. They can kill you and get away with it.” If you have the time, I invite you to prayerfully listen to Bishop Curry’s words—and I will post the link with the text of this sermon on my blog.
For BIPOC communities, the radical message of Jesus will have the same impact today, as it did when he spoke this word millennia ago! They challenge us to imagine “community policing,” as a series of partnerships in which everyone involved in community is invited and empowered “to proactively address the immediate conditions that give rise to public safety issues such as crime, social disorder, and fear of crime.” (Borrowed from the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs).
This is a very different view than the one we have if 911 is called today! This is the kind of vision which Bishop Curry speaks of when he shares his hopes for Beloved Community. And he reminds us, that this is very much a work in progress, “Our work now goes on . . . the struggle continues.”
Let me cut to the chase. In our readings today, there are two ideas of shepherding which I would like to briefly explore with you.
First, Jesus says something which always mystifies me: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” Just who are these “other sheep?” Saint Augustine went so far as to describe it in this way, “Many that God has, the Church has not. And many that the Church has, God has not.”
Who are these other sheep, indeed? For me, it feels like they could well be those whom we “other.” We find it all too easily to exclude them, to push them to the margins, to dehumanize, and to dismiss them. We fail to love them, value them, encourage them, support them, and empower them. We fail to recognize beloved persons who are created in the image and likeness of God.
Most often, we do this out of ignorance, blindness, and lack of self-awareness (we do not recognize our privilege, our biases, our prejudices). But sometimes, it is intentionally done. Sometimes it is “us against them.” Sometimes it is fear which motivates us, and, sometimes, it is a sinful and destructive hatred which “justifies” our desire to act in ways which are clearly opposed to and antithetical to the “good news” of Christ!
Jesus’ message is unambiguous: the “others” are his sheep! Even if we choose to exclude them, God will not! And, it may be in the very act of choosing to exclude them, that our own membership in God’s sheepfold is determined. Those are not easy words for us to hear! Those are not easy words for me to hear! A recent post on Facebook put it this way, “I would rather be excluded for those I include, than included for those I exclude.” In Beloved Community there are no strangers, aliens, exiles, or “others”!
Secondly, why is it that we never think of ourselves as shepherds? We are tempted to think that this is a vocation which applies to someone else; to those who are elected, to those who are professionally trained, to those who are powerful, to those who are ordained. What if the vocation of shepherd is an essential and integral part of the ministry of all the baptized? What if each and everyone one of us are called to both shepherd and to be shepherded?
Our reading today from the First Letter of John presents us with this invitation—and challenge: “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” Yes, “let us love one another.” Let us become Good Shepherds, and not bad ones. Let us work tirelessly to include, to heal, to reconcile, and to build up. Let us not only profess our love but let us prove it in the concrete actions which we undertake to make that love real, present, and effective!
I chose to begin today with a song from my childhood, “Bring them in.” It reminds me—it reminds us–that we are all called to “go and help the shepherd kind, to bring them in from the cold, to find them wherever they be.” After all, isn’t that what others have already done for us? Isn’t that the reason that we find ourselves inside the flock rather than looking in from outside?
So, today, on this Feast of the Good Shepherd, I salute each of you and bless you in your ministry of shepherding God’s sheep—wherever you find them, wherever they may be! God bless you as you do whatever you can to “bring them in.” God bless you, Good Shepherds of the fold!