Sermon Preached on April 28, 2019 – Fourth Sunday of Easter
By The Rev. Dr. Nina R. Pooley
St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Yarmouth, ME
Sheep of the Good Shepherd
If I didn’t know better, I would think there’s a conspiracy between the lectionary and those of you who are big fans of the Wobbles saga.¹ The lamb story feels a little silly, but then again, it’s a lot more comforting to ponder peaceful pastures than to turn on the news these days.
As we speak, our little wooly Wobbles is on her way north, in a dog crate in the back of a Volkswagen Jetta – wondering what is going on. Hopefully, she is comforted knowing that she is with Channing, someone who raised her, someone she trusts to care for her. But it’s a huge leap of faith for a lamb – from pasture to Jetta!
If, a little like Wobbles, you’re wondering where we are today, that’s understandable. We too have made a sudden leap. From stories of the Risen Jesus as he appears to the disciples and sends them forth, to this morning’s Gospel account, which takes place well before the crucifixion. Which is a little baffling for Easter season – except the folks who put the lectionary together are making a point (beyond cheering for Wobbles). Before we can begin to walk in the footsteps of our Good Shepherd, we need to embrace the fullness of the image – we need to grasp our role as sheep. To do that, it helps to understand what’s going in this morning’s text.
We are on the large covered porch of the Temple in Jerusalem; the controversy about whether Jesus is the messiah has been building. The crowd around him is divided: there are those who think Jesus might have a demon and be out of his mind, and those who argue that these aren’t the healing acts of one who is possessed.²
We hear Jesus profess the core themes of his Good Shepherd sermon, if you will. The contrast between false shepherds and the Good Shepherd who came that the sheep may have abundant life. The fact that the sheep have learned to trust the Good Shepherd, they know his voice and follow him. And the distinction between those who recognize Jesus for who he really is, and those who don’t.³
The crowd presses Jesus, ‘Tell us plainly if you are the Messiah.’ And his response – “I have told you, and you don’t believe.” Truthfully, in John’s Gospel, Jesus has only admitted in private he is the Messiah, he hasn’t yet addressed this question publicly. When Jesus says, “I have told you,” he means through his actions: healing, feeding, restoring to well-being and community; signs that clearly declare who he is. If you have eyes to see and ears to hear.
Jesus’ point – there’s plenty of evidence already, signs which point to his relationship with God, his being the Messiah. And those inclined to see and hear, believe. But for those who have chosen not to see and hear, no evidence or argument will do. Every claim has a counter claim, and every sign has its skeptics.⁴
There’s something uncomfortably familiar about this scene. The ongoing debate, the division of the crowd, the sense that they’re ‘pressing him,’ and saying “just tell us plainly.” As if that would somehow make a difference. We know from our current political and cultural climate – once people have made up their minds, there’s little
that will sway them. We know, because we do it too, holding tightly to our opinion no matter what.
And yet – at the end of the day, our righteous anger and staked out claims offer us little comfort, and no path to abundant life. Because life is not about being right, or better than others, or whatever we think we are accomplishing when we argue past each other and then take our toys and stomp off to barricade ourselves with like-minded others. (Which so often is what we do.)
Rather, the path to abundant life is found by being willing to listen, ready to hear the voice of the good shepherd, and then following him. It’s about being open to relationship, sensing that the good shepherd acts in our best interest, and trusting in that love.
Be a sheep of the fold, a lamb of God’s own redeeming. Grounded in the love of the Good Shepherd, we can then navigate the world’s issues, from this place, from this perspective. Listening to one another, open to relationship with others. That’s a life of faith – not lived mindlessly – but informed through our experience of God’s love, and trusting in that relationship.
Jesus said: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” (John 10:27) We are known and loved. We belong to the Good Shepherd, and to one another. At its core this relationship is about knowing and being known. As we embrace our role as sheep, take a moment to imagine this kind of knowing, the knowing of the Good Shepherd. On this Mother’s Day, let’s use images drawn from our own parenting; or being well loved and parented ourselves, by those who’ve filled that role for us.
It’s the knowing of a parent who can pick out their kid anywhere, in a crowd, at a hockey or football game covered in gear, at a horse show when every rider is outfitted exactly the same.⁵
It’s the knowing of a parent who gets a text from their child and knows something is not quite right, and they call the child right away, “what’s wrong, you don’t sound like yourself.”⁶ Or the parent who asks, “How was your day?” and hears “Fine” for the thousandth time, but recognizes the tone, or hitch, or something, that actually says, “I’m NOT fine.” And stops what they’re doing to engage their child fully and find out what’s
It’s the intimate knowing of someone who really knows and loves you: your beloved, or a life-long friend;when they say your name in a way that no one else does.
The knowing of Christ is the kind of knowing of your deepest and fiercest relationships which you know will never let you go.
And – it’s the kind of knowing that understands how desperately others want to know and be known. And wants to share this with them.⁷ Comprehending that we are known and loved, experiencing true belonging, we can’t help but extend that knowing, loving and belonging to others. We live into being good shepherds ourselves.
One example: As you may have read in countless articles over the past week, there’s been an enormous outpouring of grief over the untimely and tragic death of Rachel Held Evans. Evans, only 37 at the time of her death, was a progressive Christian blogger, columnist, and a New York Times best-selling author; a former Evangelical, she became an Episcopalian, and is known in social media circles by her initials: RHE. Some of the
media response to her death is certainly due to her fame and the suddenness of her death – but the surge of deep grief from around the world is genuine, because who she was, and how she lived – she was such a good shepherd. She was able to hold open the gate for many who felt they had been excluded from the sheepfold. She used her platform to allow those who were marginalized a place in the conversation; she nurtured and supported other voices; and when she opposed an opinion, she did so without tearing apart the human being expressing it.
She embodied being a good shepherd; and there are many whose lives of faith are fuller, many who are at the table because she was able to convince them that they belonged, many who are Christian, because of her. In the days following her death, a hashtag emerged “#BecauseOfRHE” as people expressed how she had changed their lives. It’s a fitting tribute – hundreds saying: because of you: I am more fully me, more fully in
relationship with Jesus, more fully in the fold, because you made it wider, more inclusive. You brought your courageous, challenging, and faithful perspective to every issue and hot topic and opened the conversation for all – in civil and supportive ways.
Rachel Held Evans: a life of faith well lived, and one that illumined the way for so many others. A wonderful shepherd to other sheep, and a faithful, listening sheep of the fold herself; well beloved, and known. May she know life eternal, with her Good Shepherd.
My friends, that’s the point, it’s both our identity and our calling. We are sheep of the fold and called to walk in the way of the Good Shepherd, to be good shepherds ourselves. My belonging and beloved fellow sheep, believe you are known and loved by our Good Shepherd.
Let’s share the loving and belonging, feeding, and tending and protecting. Let’s throw open the sheepfold to include others; let’s go out and find those who are lost, and bring them home. And let’s get going, following in the way of Jesus. Because the world’s in need of some good shepherds.
1 The on-going story of our daughter, Channing’s, rescue and nurture of a little hand-fed lamb on the college farm, see the May Mustard Seed Newsletter for more details and photos.
2 It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Easter 4; May 7, 2019, SALT.org
3 It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Easter 4; May 7, 2019, SALT.org
4 It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Easter 4; May 7, 2019, SALT.org
5 Karoline Lewis: A Good Shepherd Perspective, May 06, 2019 10:52 AM Workingpreacher.org
6 Karoline Lewis: A Good Shepherd Perspective, May 06, 2019 10:52 AM Workingpreacher.org
7 Karoline Lewis: A Good Shepherd Perspective, May 06, 2019 10:52 AM Workingpreacher.org