The Fourth Sunday of Easter: May 11, 2014
Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10
Preacher: The Rev. Samuel J. Smith, Assistant Priest, St. Michael’s Church
Every year, on the fourth Sunday of Easter, our lectionary is filled with images of sheep and shepherds. Therefore this is known as Good Shepherd Sunday. And every preacher must pack a few good shepherd sermons in his quiver. I am no different—in fact, I have a doozy of a Good Shepherd Sunday sermon that that I have preached several times—one that, if I may be allowed to brag on myself, won me the preaching prize at The General Theological Seminary in 2009. Who knows? You’ll probably get to hear it next year. But this year, I find myself compelled to take a different approach to this passage. Why? Because there are several upcoming events that highlight shepherds in our midst.
First, we have the consecration this coming Saturday of our new suffragan bishop, The Rev. Allen Shin. There will be a big service at our Cathedral just a few blocks north of here, beginning at 11:00 a.m. It promises to be a moving spectacle, with our Presiding Bishop, The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, as the Chief Consecrator.
If you have never seen such a service, you should plan to be there; it is thrilling to see the Cathedral all decked out to do exactly that for which it was designed. You will not be disappointed.
Second, and perhaps much more importantly, we will soon be saying good-bye to one shepherd here at St. Michael’s, and welcoming another. I know that many of you, like me, have many different emotions tied to these events. Of course, we are sad that Mother Liz will be leaving us—she has done so much for this community, teaching, leading, and loving us in innumerable ways. I feel particularly fortunate to have been her assistant, and to learn so much from her about what it means to be a good shepherd. We will all miss her presence here, no question.
And then we are excited, and perhaps a little anxious, about who our next rector will be. What will he or she bring to St. Michael’s? What will we become under the guidance of a new leader? How will we relate to her or him? There is so much up in the air. No question, our vestry has an important charge before them, as they consider the candidates and the qualities that they offer to our community in order to choose a new rector.
With all of this on our horizon, the opportunity to reflect on the qualities of a good shepherd is just too good to miss.
As we delve into these images, we must first acknowledge the obvious: The metaphor of a shepherd and his or her sheep does not speak to us in the same way it would have to the original audience for these stories. They were agrarian people. They understood firsthand the work of a shepherd, and the unique relationship between shepherd and sheep.
In preparing for this week’s sermon, I read about sheep herders in Africa. It is said that the people in a village of shepherds know each other’s sheep the way we might know one another’s children. Members of the community say to one another, “Have you seen my sheep so-and-so,” identifying their own sheep by name. Through the dark night one might hear these villagers calling out names, calling their sheep so that shepherd and sheep might find each other. This feature of village life in a place small enough and close enough where folks know which sheep are theirs and which belong to someone else, where sheep themselves know to whom they belong, was as familiar to Jesus as it is unfamiliar to us.[i]
So our understanding of these passages is hindered by our lack of experience with shepherding as a way of life. Adding to that confusion is the fact that these passages were written not only for a people with a specific frame of reference, but also a specific historical context.
Kings in the ancient Near East often used this metaphor of a shepherd to describe their own responsibilities. In Psalm 72, we read that, “the foremost responsibility of kings is to provide for their people the resources they need to live, with special attention to those who are most threatened and vulnerable.”[ii] For the writer of Psalm 23 to refer to the Lord as his shepherd, and for Jesus to proclaim, as he does in John, Chapter 10, verse 11 that he is the good shepherd, was not just to explain his actions and his caring—it was, in fact a political statement.
In hearing this particular metaphor, the listener in Jesus’ day knew that he was claiming an ability and responsibility greater than any mortal ruler. Jesus was claiming true sovereignty over those who would follow him. This nuance too is lost on us.
And yet this metaphor of a shepherd does carry deep meaning for us, doesn’t it? Perhaps it is because of the shepherd’s hook, the crozier that is the symbol of authority for bishops. Perhaps it is because of many stained glass windows viewed, and countless hymns and anthems heard and sung. Or perhaps it is because we know what it is to care for the vulnerable, through the care we received from our mothers and fathers (Happy Mother’s Day to all of you who proudly claim that title), or the care we have been privileged to give.
So, what do these passages tell us about the qualities of a good shepherd?
In the 23rd Psalm we learn that a good shepherd provides for his or her sheep. Like a benevolent ruler, the shepherd makes sure the flock has the nutrition they need, and that they are protected. The good shepherd also leads the flock, literally, taking them to the places where they will prosper. And above all, we hear in the psalm of the contentment and bliss of a flock that knows it is cared for—that knows the shepherd is looking out for their best interests. The sheep need not fear; in fact, they can rejoice in knowing they have even more than they need, due to the tending of their shepherd. To put it in different biblical terms, they have the assurance of abundant life.
And what does the passage from John tell us about the shepherd? Well here it gets a little trickier—but that always seems to be the way with the gospel of John. First, we have this strange reference in the very first verse to the one who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate—the one Jesus says we should recognize as a thief and a bandit. Context is vital here. In the preceding chapter, we had the healing of the blind man and Jesus’ confrontation with the religious authorities who are working to discredit him.
In that story, Jesus refers to the Pharisees as the ones who are really blind—that is, unwilling to see the signs before them that Jesus is the Messiah. As the story continues in here in chapter 10, Jesus uses a different metaphor to cast the Pharisees as faithless leaders.
John then employs one of his primary literary devices to expand our understanding of Jesus. In this passage we have yet another example of John’s I AM statements. Scholars tell us that John uses the various I AM statements not only to explain tricky theological attributes of Christ and to make his identity clear, but also to tie Christ closer to Old Testament prophecies. At different points in John’s gospel, Jesus says, “I am the bread of life”[6:35], “I am the light of the world”[8:12], “I am the resurrection and the life”[11:25], “I am the way, the truth, and the life”[14:6], and “I am the true vine.” [15:1] Most of these statements, as well as the I AM statements in this 10th chapter of John, may be tied to Old Testament metaphors for God.
Here in the 7th verse Jesus says, “I am the gate for the sheep.” We hear of the gatekeeper who calls out to his sheep by name, and they recognize his voice, knowing he is their shepherd. Like those African sheepherders, the sheep and shepherd know each other intimately; they know they belong together. It is clear that another quality of a good shepherd is that familiarity—one that knows us by name, one that we know belongs to us, and we to them.
But then Jesus again draws the contrast between himself, the gatekeeper and the gate itself, and those thieves and bandits who are looking only after their own interests. While they would steal and kill and destroy, the good shepherd (or the gatekeeper, or the gate) comes to bring abundant life.
Now to summarize: A good shepherd is a benevolent provider, a trusted trailblazer, a comforting and familiar voice, and a trustworthy caregiver who will show us the way to abundant life.
That sound like a pretty good description of the kind of shepherd we’d like, don’t you think? It certainly describes many of the gifts of Mother Liz; it fits the bill for our bishops; and it makes a good checklist for our next rector. But of course, even as we are the sheep of the flock, each of us is also called upon at various times in our life to be shepherds. Certainly parents are called to shepherd their children, but community leaders are shepherds, as are teachers, professional caregivers (like medical personnel and social workers), managers and employers.
I know each of you could name many different ways that you are called on to be a shepherd. All of these jobs call upon us to exercise similar gifts, and to strive to be good shepherds for those who look to us for guidance.
And in Christian community we are called to be shepherds to one another. (That’s what was going on in our reading from Acts—the disciples were learning what it meant to become a church.) This is not only the work of the clergy—we all tend one another. I see it happening in so many ways here at St. Michael’s—through organized programs and ministries, but even more profoundly through ongoing relationships in the church family.
I suspect there have been times when you have acted as a shepherd for someone else here without even knowing it. A key part of congregational life is this leading and following that we give to each other. It is one of the great gifts of church life.
Of course, it can be frightening to have to take on such daunting tasks—to need to be our best selves for the sake of others. But as Christians, we know that we have a model for this work: we have THE good shepherd, Jesus Christ, God become one of us, to show us how to give of oneself for others. Jesus is our gate: Jesus shows us the way to be good shepherds, shepherding us along the way.
So don’t be anxious, St. Michael’s Church. Even as we prepare to say good-bye to one trusted shepherd in the next few months, we can trust that God will provide for us another shepherd, one who will have different ways to guide us along, but certainly one whose voice we will come to know and love, one who will walk with us and comfort us, and who will also point us to the Good Shepherd, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. [Hebrews 12:2]
Let us pray:
Lord of the 23rd Psalm,
We have known death,
And you have refreshed our souls.
We have known fear,
And you have comforted us.
We have known hunger,
And you have set a feast before Us.
In the darkest valley
No calamity of humankind or nature has separated us.
Teach us to walk as you walk
Beside those in mourning
So that they will know joy,
Beside those in fear
That they will know comfort,
Beside those in hunger
That they will feast until their cup overflows.
As your goodness and love follow us,
May our goodness and love follow our neighbors
That the threat of the worst terrors
May turn to the knowledge of the comforts of the house of the Lord,
Where you have invited us to dwell forever.
And so let us strive to help build on earth
What you have promised us in heaven.
In the face of all calamity, present and yet to come,
Let us lead our neighbors beside quiet waters,
The quiet waters of the Good Shepherd. Amen.[iii]
[i] Henrich, Sara. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=931, accessed April 28, 2014.
[ii] McCann Jr., J. Clinton. Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010. p. 107.
[iii] http://crs.org/prayers/prayer-to-the-good-shepherd.cfm, accessed May 10, 2014 (text modified).