What follows is a portion of the sermon I preached today, on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, at St. Andrew's Church in North Grafton. The gospel reading for the day is from the fourth gospel, John 10:11-18.
Do you remember that time when Jesus was talking with the tax collectors and sinners when the scribes and Pharisees come grumbling. They don’t like it that Jesus is so indiscriminate about the company he keeps. So Jesus tells them three parables that are intended to help them to see the world from another perspective—by imagining what it feels like to be lost.
First, he tells them the story of the ninety-nine sheep and the one who gets lost. Remember? And the shepherd goes out to find the lost sheep and bring it back to the flock. And then he tells the story about the woman who loses a coin in her house and turns the whole house upside down until she finds it. And then as he builds to a crescendo he tells the story about the man who had two sons and one of them lost his way, but in the end he came to himself and came home. All three stories: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son are offered as a kind of explanation by Jesus as to why he spends so much of his time with sinners and tax collectors; because he sees them not as bad people to be shunned but as lost people who are yearning to be found.
It’s from the first of those three parables that most of us can probably see in our mind’s eye an image of the “good shepherd” carrying back a wayward little lamb to re-join the rest of the flock. This image is a powerful one, and you don’t need to have been raised on a farm to recognize that there is good news in it. I do sometimes wonder if it isn’t just as easy to get lost in our fast-paced world in front of a computer screen or tethered to our IPhone than it is in an agrarian society. In either case, the good news in every time and place is that God seeks out the lost ones and binds up their wounds and makes them strong again.
It’s great to be among the ninety-nine and feel plugged in and connected and munch on good grass all day. But sometimes we are that one who feels lost and confused and scared. And when you feel lost and confused and scared it can become a vicious cycle, because it seems so obvious that everybody else must be found and put together and happy. So maybe you wander a bit further away even, until you are more lost and more scared and more confused. Pretty soon you may even find yourself walking through the valley of the shadow of death. But God doesn’t give up on us even then; especially then. God goes out on a search and rescue mission, and by the grace of God we may even allow ourselves to be found.
The imagery in today’s gospel reading draws on this same life experience with shepherding and sheep, but comes at it from the other side. The Good Shepherd is still Jesus, the risen Christ. But the perspective is from the other side of the equation: rather than the one who is lost and needs to be carried back to join the rest we see why it is important to stay part of the ninety-nine. It’s talking about why being part of a flock matters in the first place. The larger goal of keeping the flock together is simple: it’s a dangerous world and one little lamb off by herself is likely to become a leg of lamb dinner for a hungry wolf family. It’s a wolf-eat-lamb world out there after all, and a flock that is together is safer than a flock that is disbursed.
This is the key, I think, to understanding what Jesus is talking about in today’s gospel reading. A flock that is together can be led to greener pastures and still waters and the wolves can be kept at a distance and therefore they can all have more abundant life. Sometimes people tell me they are very good Christians who don’t need the church to practice their faith and I have no reason to doubt their sincerity, but I would respectfully challenge their assumptions. If we really are made to part of a flock—members of Christ’s Body, the Church—then we need each other. Yes, community can be hard. But even at it is most challenging, healthy communities give us a space to grow into the full stature of Christ that a privatized spirituality can never offer us.
Now, just so that we are all clear on this: in today’s opening collect we prayed: O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people. In the twenty-third psalm, we prayed, the LORD is my shepherd… And in the Gospel we hear Jesus say, "I am the good shepherd.” So who is the Good Shepherd again?
Sometimes we expect the Bishop to be the good shepherd, or maybe even more likely our pastor – that word even comes from this same imagery. Sometimes congregations start to baah a lot and go out and get lost and so pastoral ministry starts to look like the pastor is supposed to keep running around gathering up the one, and the one, and the one, and the other one. But somewhere along the line we got a little confused. At best, bishops and priests, serve the Good Shepherd like faithful sheep dogs. They are not the Good Shepherd; there’s only one of those and whether or not we carry a staff or wear a collar, all of us are in this together.
At the heart of this powerful metaphor about the Good Shepherd is a claim about what the church is for and a reminder that we need one another, and when we make time for each other to gather and to reflect on God’s Word and break the bread and share the cup we give ourselves a much better chance of staying well in body, mind and spirit. The church is crazy sometimes, no doubt. Community takes work. But so do marriages and parenting and friendships.
But it is good for our spiritual health to make time to be together. It’s good for our spiritual health to assess where we are from time to time and figure out where God is leading us—especially when there are greener pastures and more still waters ahead. Sometimes the Good Shepherd says “follow me” to that new place and we just say “baah.” All we like sheep have gone astray and we probably will do so again.
The call of this Good Shepherd Sunday is for trust to trump fear. When we are found, and part of the whole, we are stronger. And when we do get lost and we go astray, we are not abandoned. There is a good shepherd, Jesus, who seeks us out – and plenty of sheep dogs to help. Each week we are called to come back together so that we can give ourselves a better chance of being found by the love of God that casts out all fear—a love that forms us as an Easter people.
One last note: apparently the Good Shepherd has other flocks as well—that recognize his voice even if they do not know his name. I like that a lot. But for those of us who are gathered here, as these fifty days of Easter continues to unfold we pray for the momentum to build toward Pentecost, as we keep listening for the voice of the One who calls us by name. May we respond with Easter hope: “my Lord and my God!”