John 10

The Model Shepherd

A sermon for the fourth Sunday of Easter, April 22, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

I am the good shepherd, I know my own and my own know me.

This Sunday in the church calendar, the fourth Sunday of Easter, is traditionally known as Good Shepherd Sunday. We always read from the tenth chapter of the Gospel of John: “I am the good shepherd.” Now, those of us who know only a little simple Greek might translate it as “I am the beautiful shepherd.” The Greek adjective means good in the sense of proper or ideal. One commentator translates it, “I am the model shepherd.”

When Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd he’s not describing what someone might encounter if he or she met a real-life shepherd.  He is describing what could be, what we might hope for, how it might be in the kingdom of God. The ideal shepherd; the shepherd in the imagination of those immersed in the Psalms and the writings in the Old Testament about David the shepherd king; the model shepherd lived a life entwined with the flock that he owned. His livelihood depended on them, and they depended on his protection and guidance, for they were defenseless against predators and couldn’t survive in the wilderness if separated from the flock and the shepherd. The model shepherd would know each of those sheep and keep track of every one.

Think about it—the sheep were the shepherd’s life. Without them there was no livelihood, no present, no future, no independence, no dignity. When you have something that important, it is worth sacrificing to keep. You contrast that with someone who is paid a few dollars a day to show up for a job, who has no promise of a future, no ownership and no real commitment to the sheep beyond the daily wage. The tradeoff for that person is very different. If there are big risks or serious sacrifices to be made, why would the hired person make them? Why not go out and find another job? Wolves are dangerous, and your own life is more important than somebody else’s sheep.

We needn’t be disapproving of the wage worker. Jesus is the model shepherd, and he goes further than any pretty good shepherd would do: he lays down his life for his sheep. Not just some sacrifice, or some risk—he actually lays down his life. When he says this, we know we are moving beyond actual sheep herding and remembering his crucifixion and resurrection.

The epistle lesson from First John starts like this: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” The life of Christ leads us into our life IN Christ. The Model Shepherd tends his flock, but we are more than sheep, we are responsible to one another, we are responsible to love and live ethically FOR one another. John asks, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?” Of course, one answer to that is to not see the need, to look away or explain that it is someone else’s responsibility. Then, there is the kind of love where people are only talking about doing good, so that they can feel nice about it. That’s why it is important to remember that we are forgiven people, not necessarily people who are always perfectly loving or truly caring. There is one Model Shepherd, and it’s not me.

First John continues, “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” No representation of ourselves as the Good Shepherds, no talk about how many sweet feelings we have about others, just reaching out to meet the real needs of others, seeking the healing and well-being of one another.

In the Gospel, Jesus continues: “I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.” It is easy to think that we have our little parish and it’s like a little sheepfold, where Jesus protects us and we feel welcome and at home and we have Jesus as our very own Good Shepherd and we can just settle down with Jesus and go to sleep. But our Model Shepherd doesn’t run things that way—“I have other sheep” maybe those sheep are a bit different or strange to us and our Shepherd calls us to extend ourselves, our sheepfold, our welcome to them.

If any of us loved being welcomed by this church community, the next, even more important step, is to extend that welcome to someone else, to care for someone else’s joys or triumphs, someone else’s challenges or tragedies. A caring community isn’t just that we have our cares met, but about living that care going forward. And that means caring for someone new, at least new to your personal circle of concern. The sheep from another fold are from the future and the present, not from what used to be or what we’ve been comfortable with.

This is a welcoming parish, we have each been welcomed by the Model Shepherd, and he welcomes new sheep every day, we see them all around us, not just here, but wherever we go. Jesus directs us beyond where we are comfortable. He lays down his life for us, that we can take some small risks for him. Jesus is shepherd of those who are beyond our doors, those who don’t agree with us, and those who don’t fit in with whatever group we may be part of. The Good Shepherd invites us to his hospitality, that we can extend that hospitality to others, to those flocks in another fold. We abide in him, and he makes us one flock, with one shepherd.

From today’s Psalm:

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.

You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me;

you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over.

 

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The gate of the sheepfold

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, May 7, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.”

Each year, the fourth Sunday of Easter’s Gospel reading is from the 10th chapter of John about Jesus the Good Shepherd. This year we get the first part, and a lot of it is about the sheepfold and its gate.  The image is of a pen built out on the hillside in the area where the sheep are grazing—usually in ancient Palestine, this was a stone enclosure. Such pens were often shared between the owners of different flocks of sheep.

That’s not much different from when my mother was in college and she spent a summer as a cowboy, working on the range with the cattle on her father’s grazing lease. A number of small ranchers had cattle in that area. Each rancher provided certain resources that were shared, the cattle went where they wanted, ate grass and drank water where they were available, and the cowboys sorted the cows out by their brands, and branded the calves who were at their mothers’ sides. In the sheepfold, the shepherd knew the individual sheep by sight, and had a name for each one.

We are used to sheepherders herding the sheep from behind, often using dogs to push them toward where they should go. However, one of my professors was meditating out in the wilderness in Palestine one day, when she heard a young man singing. When she looked up, she saw a shepherd walking in front of his flock and the sheep were following to their pasture.

So that’s the image that Jesus is using. The shepherd knows the sheep and calls them. They follow him because they trust him, and they know that it is him that they trust, because they know his voice.  In the Gospel of John, Jesus talks about being the Model Shepherd, right after the episode where he healed the man who was born blind. That man who had always been blind could see and believe in who Jesus was, but the religious rulers could not see, and tried to bully him into denouncing Jesus. So Jesus tells the people what it takes to authentically lead God’s people. The true shepherd doesn’t burst in by force and seize the sheep—that is what a robber does.  The true shepherd approaches gently, respectfully and knows his own sheep, and they trust him and follow him.

In the New Testament it’s clear that there were many charlatans about, claiming to have the real word, claiming to be Christ or his representative. Sort of like now. Religious frauds abounded and the church was on its guard about those who would use religion to manipulate people and serve themselves, to seize power over others for exploitation rather than the compassion of Christ. And at this moment, Jesus was in a conflict with religious leaders who were acting out of their own fear, and distorting the law by narrowing it and interfering with its life-giving aspects.

So Jesus talks about being a Shepherd. He says, “I am the gate of the sheep.” That might refer to something like what we think of a gate or moveable wall for an enclosure. Or it might mean situations where shepherds would take their turns sleeping across the narrow opening of the sheepfold wall. Animals are unlikely to walk over a human being, and if they did he would wake up and rectify the problem.  In any case, Jesus says he is the gate of the sheep, in other words, he keeps the flock secure, and is there to stop those who would do violence to the flock.

“Whoever enters …will come in and go out and find pasture.” Jesus guards his community by compassion—he gives life and vitality—the green pasture, the sign of life, comfort and nourishment. That life is the life of his Resurrection—in this Easter season we know that the Shepherd who gave his life for his sheep, has come to give us life. It is not the priest, or any other earthly leader that is the Shepherd, it is Jesus and it is in the love of Jesus that we know that we are nurtured in that life of the resurrection.

Our lesson from the Acts of the Apostles describes the church in those days shortly after the resurrection of Jesus. The Apostles knew the resurrection and lived without fear of this world, they trusted Jesus and the demons melted away. It says of the people,

They devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common…

We should not exaggerate or romanticize this picture, or assume all early Christians lived in a commune. What I read here are two things, things we see as well in our own day, and even right here: a community of trust and generosity. They would gather, watch out for one another, and live in generosity of spirit, knowing and serving one another’s needs. And the other is the power of Christ’s teaching—the one who died on the cross and was raised by God from the dead, has taken away the power of fear, and of the demons of our collective fear, selfishness and anger. Marvelous things happen when people are no longer fearful—as it says, “Awe came over everyone.”

They heard the voice of the Shepherd and they followed him. And as we follow him: “Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”