Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The Good Shepherd[s]

Preached at St. Edmund's Episcopal Church, San Marino, CA
Fourth Sunday of Easter
April 22, 2018

John 10:11-18, Psalm 23

Available to listen to at the St. Edmund's website:
St. Edmund's Sermons

    As perhaps you have gathered by now, today is Good Shepherd Sunday.  It is, among other things, a day on which Christians are called to reflect on ourselves both as followers and as leaders, both as sheep and as shepherds in Christ’s flock, because as adults we understand that sometimes we are called to lead and sometimes we are called to follow.  And each of us in the course of our lives will be called to both.

    The problem with the image of sheep and shepherd, however, is that we are not sheep.  Sheep are kept for their economic benefits: wool, milk which can be made into cheese, and meat.  Fleecing people, milking them, devouring them, is exploitation.  Right thinking people don’t admire human exploitation or the people who practice it.  But of course it happens all the time.  The news is full of examples every day.  So maybe the image is more apt than we think it is.  People can be gullible.  They can be tricked.  They can be drained of their resources and left by the side of the hard pathways of a not very tender world.  It can be dangerous to be a sheep without a shepherd.

    One of our culture’s ideals is the independently successful person.  Who does not admire the woman or man whose intelligence, dedication to education and to learning their craft, whose hard work and honesty create prosperity and respect, who makes wise choices, builds a stable family and home, and is a dependable, trustworthy and generous member of the wider community?  Isn’t that what we all want to be, what we want our children to become?  Is that not the hope of a serene and secure old age?  Not all of us succeed completely.  In fact, very few if any of us do.  The truth is, none of us is as self-sufficient as we think we would like to be.

    Sheep, at least the domesticated kind, cannot survive all by themselves.  They need help finding water, pasture, sheltered places for the night.  They need to be defended when hungry predators come looking for them.  They need guidance and protection.  And in this respect people and sheep are very similar.  Most of us do not always see the path in front of us clearly.  Most of us need help finding our way in the world, learning what is truly worthwhile.  We all need protection from the dangers of life.  And when we are young all of us, and when we are old, most of us, need to trust the goodness, wisdom and kindness of others.  The general job description of shepherd has many faces and takes many forms.  There is a constant demand for good shepherds.

    If we have been fortunate we have been blessed by many good shepherds in our lives.  In our early years we have needed caring parents and relatives, teachers, youth and activity leaders, mentors who made the time to introduce us into a wider world.  Then as adults we look for spouses, friends, colleagues and guides to help us through the intricacies of our complicated world.  We need people who will spend their energies to establish and strengthen the institutions we value and depend on.  We need generous souls who spend countless hours at unseen tasks to build up what is good for the benefit of others, as well as people whose positive public lives are plain for all to see.  I am sure each of us can make a list of such people, and if we let our imaginations drift a bit, as they sometimes do during sermons, perhaps we can recapture their unique presences in our lives: not only what they did but who they were, what they looked like, sounded like, even smelled like.  They helped create the world for us and we are who we are because of them.

   One of mine was my grandmother, my mother’s mother.  She was from a family that arrived on these shores in 1705 but among themselves still spoke a form of Swiss German well into the twentieth century.  They were Calvinists of the firm backbone sort, who favored  plain churches and plainer worship, who had serious ideas about what was right and what was not, who had a Bible by the bed that was read as the day ended and as the next day began.  My grandmother was formal, always wore a dress, even in the kitchen, and never seemed to break a sweat, no matter how hot a Western Pennsylvania summer day might be.   On special occasions she seemed a bit like a battleship in full sail.  But never an unkind word from her about anyone. She was all smiles and sugar cookies and a safe and understanding something I could always return to.  She was a rock for an awkward little boy who needed one.  From her I learned to trust that the somewhat scary righteous goodness, the solidity of God, was also the kindness, the gentleness, the generosity of God.

    Good sheep need good shepherds, and we have all found ourselves in their care at different times of our lives.  But good shepherds also depend on their sheep.  Think of that other good shepherd story, the one where the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine to go in search of the lost sheep.  We tend to pay attention to that one wandering sheep and forget that the shepherd trusted the rest of them to carry on while he went searching.  There is a wonderful interchange going on in that story, one in which the integrity, the good character of the flock allows an unusual event to occur without dispersing it.  What is it like to be in a flock like that, to be known, cared for and protected, to realize the essential goodness of that special relationship, to enter into the mutual love between shepherd and flock?  It gives us a sense of belonging, of solidarity, of security and confidence in what is happening now and in what the future will bring.  I imagine that when he told his good shepherd stories, Jesus was inviting the people who were listening to him into a new kind of relationship with God through himself: goodness of every sort overflowing from God’s righteousness, flowing into still waters of a refreshing stream in the midst of green pastures where we can lie down, not in want any more, but in abundance, security and peace.

   Because I believe that is what God wants for us: the Good Shepherd, his beloved Son, leading us to the right pathways, pathways that lead to the beautiful place.  Those pathways will indeed also take us into the valley of the shadow of death, but we need fear no evil.

    For us there always have been and always will be such valleys.  Life is defined by them: we enter life in one dangerous place and leave it in another, and in between there are many more.  We need rods and staffs and good shepherds who know how to use them along the way.  But God’s promise is that we will never lack them if the Lord is our shepherd.

    And more than that.  So much more: banquets of delight, tables of abundance, even in the face of our anxieties, troubles, dangers and distress.   Along the way our shepherds sometimes face danger for us, sometimes danger costly to themselves.  But we are promised: God is with us, it is God’s work the shepherds of our lives are doing.  And we need to love them for it.

    And to what end?  The magnificent banquet, the oil on the head, the overflowing cup, goodness and mercy following us, every day, every day.  The promise given to each of us is that if we enter the great journey together, following and then leading and then following again as we are called, both sheep and shepherds and sheep again together, we will come to that great home of warmth and love and generous smiles and overflowing tins of sugar cookies, and the love of God, which has been leading us and feeding us and protecting us and waiting for us the whole time, in a thousand ways and with a thousand faces, each of them single and irreplaceable facets of the vast illuminated mosaic of the overflowing, inexhaustibly abounding love of God.  

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