Sermon May 3, 2020
The metaphor of the Good Shepherd is one of the most heartwarming images of our faith. If you have been a lost sheep, you will resonate with the Good Shepherd who left the 99 to go find you and bring you safely back to the flock. If you are one who has been surprised by the Master calling you by name, you will know what Jesus meant when he said, “I know my sheep.” And, if you have ever emerged from a time of doubt with the calm assurance that your faith is true, then you will understand how no one can snatch you from the Father’s hand while Jesus is your Shepherd.
But, perhaps you have never had such a bonding experience with Jesus the Good Shepherd. You are not alone. Millions of people throughout the world have never heard of the Good Shepherd or have been indoctrinated in a religion that does not accommodate the Good Shepherd. Millions more know the metaphor but no longer regard it as having meaning in a modern world. And it is an acquired taste. Perhaps you didn’t give it enough time.
Captured in a diatribe against the Pharisees in the 10th chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus addresses the millions who will not know or relate to the Good Shepherd: “I am the good shepherd. I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep which are not of this fold: them I must also bring, and they will hear my voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd.”
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus reaches across the centuries with the invitation, “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden. Take my yoke upon you, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
And back to John: “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.”
In creating the metaphor of the Good Shepherd, Jesus was reaching back into the hopes and dreams of his own people as expressed in their sacred scriptures. From the book of Isaiah, in exultation upon release from the Babylonian captivity, the prophet Isaiah exclaimed: “Behold, the LORD God shall come with a strong hand and his arm shall rule for him. Behold, his reward is with him and his work before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd. He will gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those who are with young.”
The ancient Israelites longed for a God who would care for them personally like a Good Shepherd cares for his sheep. But, they were hoping against hope. They were such a small nation in the sweep of Empires across the human stage, that this surprise liberation was likely to be no more than a blip of good fortune in a long streak of bad. By the time Jesus came on the scene it was the Roman Empire and the Pharisees with whom Jesus argued were the traitor collaborators of his day. They knew who Jesus was mocking when he named himself the Good Shepherd. The emperor considered himself the Good Shepherd and wouldn’t look kindly on an usurper to his title.
We live in a generation that until recently was relatively free of oppression and misfortune. Whether you call yourself a Baby Boomer, a Gen Xer, a Millenial, or what, until the Coronavirus, we -in America -lived in a historical bubble of fortune. That is because in many ways we had become the Empire. In many ways we consider ourselves the Good Shepherd for the world. But, like emperors of bygone empires, we overlook our faults as we generate benefit from the rest of the world’s misfortune. That fault has come back to haunt us. The consequences of our thoughtless greed and careless hubris are crouching at our door like hyenas waiting for a chink in our armor. We will likely make it out of the pandemic, but more surely awaits us. Global warming, massive starvation, and more crouch at our door.
We are in need of a societal paradigm shift. Most of the participants in this pandemic can’t wait to get back to normal. Over 45 people have shelled out $250,000 each to take a space flight with Virgin Galactic. Apparently such endeavors are essential to our future. Virgin Galactic did a test flight last week so they are ready as soon as passengers no longer have to socially isolate or maybe before.
But, how many ventilators could have been made with the money and manufacturing it took to make that flight? How many N95 masks could have been made. And how many PPe’s. We all know what those terms mean nowadays.
And, how about you. What have you done with your stimulus payment? If you are using it to stave off the negative consequences of losing your job or not being able to work or some other such necessity, then you are using it for what it was intended for. But, if you are using it to make a downpayment on that cruise that you missed or to party like it’s 1999, then you are missing the point. There are millions, indeed billions, who need our help, from victims of the Syrian war to starving children in Yemen to the poor in our own country for whom dignity is swapped for privilege. Do we have the will to provide single occupancy housing for our elderly or will we continue to force them to close out their lives sharing one single room with a person not of their own choosing? We seem to be as oblivious of our own future as we are of that of our children.
Or could you save the stimulus to allow you to afford time to volunteer in an organization that serves the poor or advocates for change in social justice or environmental sustainability.
The flock of Jesus does not live by such a selfish ethic. The flock of Jesus follows the teachings of the Good Shepherd who taught us to lay down our lives for our fellow human beings as he laid down his life for us. Sure, the church has not been perfect over the centuries and, at times, has acted like an Empire itself, but the church has the key to the future. The church has the operating principle that will save the world. Based on the operating principle that God employed in Jesus laying down his life to overcome evil and death, the church has been ordained by God to lead God’s planned salvation of the world.
That operating principle is the use of power. The church believes that its power is perfected in weakness, not in overcoming by force and violence, but in overcoming by serving and nonviolence. The principle of the cross is the antidote to the principle of force and domination that has been the operating principles of the empires of this world.
But, many Americans hang out there unwilling to come home to the faith of their ancestors.
How about you? Are you safe in the flock of Jesus?
In 1800 William Wordsworth wrote a monument to human sadness: Michael. Michael is the story of the Prodigal Son who did not return home. The grief of the Father is immense. He is inconsolable. The remainder of his life is spent in sad hoping that one day Michael will return. But he never does.
O sinner, why do you not come home?
There is yet hope. Jesus has left the 99 and he is looking for you. He has risen and his spirit lives forever in the space between the twilight of this world and the brilliance of the next. You are in plain sight. You cannot hide. Come home.
All we like sheep have gone astray. We have turned, every one to his or her own way; But God has laid on Jesus the iniquity of us all. He was wounded for our transgressions. He bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that we might be free from sin and live for righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.
You might be tempted to question how this could be? How this could all work? But, to think it through isn’t fruitful. Just take it on faith. Surrender, if you will. Let Jesus into your heart.
The image of sheep blindly following their shepherd could be a questionable metaphor. But, if you accept who you are -a sinner prone to go astray at the slightest impulse or when you least expect it, you will accept the protection of the shepherd and the company of the flock. Such simplicity is the key to the abundant life. As Jesus said in today’s gospel lesson, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
Throughout his ministry, Jesus taught about a utopian dream – a mythical time and place when there would be perfect justice and peace. No violence. This was the Kingdom of God. It was a Kingdom attainable, not through the power of brutal force, but through the power of laying down one’s life.
And he taught that this kingdom was now -breaking into this world now and, in his church, among us already. It is a kingdom that lives in the hearts and minds of those who have given themselves freely to Jesus -to be in his flock -to accept his protection and providence. There is a new term in therapy named “mindfulness.” A mindfulness that wells from the Kingdom within you is like a spring to eternal life.
“My sheep listen to my voice. I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.”
The narrative of Jesus and the Kingdom of God rewrites our human story. It has become the story of human history. It can’t be erased or made to go away. It’s always tempting to latch onto a different narrative, but our minds have been wired to relate to this story. We will never be able to shake it because it’s true.
We were created in the image of God for the purpose of being in a relationship with God. No matter who you are or where you think you are in your spiritual life, it never hurts to try to strengthen that relationship. It never hurts to turn your eyes toward home.
In the parable of the Prodigal Son, Jesus tells you how much God longs for you. When the prodigal son is yet a long ways off, his father saw him and was filled with love for him and ran to him and fell on his neck and kissed him.
That’s how much the Father loves you. He is filled with compassion for you and runs to meet you. And the Good Shepherd will safely see us home.