Sunday, April 26, 2015
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
Today is the fourth Sunday of Easter, also known as Good Shepherd Sunday. For the past several weeks we’ve heard accounts of Jesus’ post resurrection appearances and today seems like a departure from the typical Easter stories. Today we hear Jesus say, “I am the good shepherd.” What does this have to do with Easter? We’ve all heard this phrase by Jesus a million times. We hear it echoed in the 23rd psalm, a psalm that gives comfort and peace when we are afraid and feeling alone. We may picture Jesus as the “good shepherd” standing in a field of green pastures and being that non-anxious presence we so desperately need. It’s a beautiful scene. Yet how many of us really understand in the 21st century what shepherding is all about? If you go to places like Ireland – a place I hope to one day visit – you’d have a much better chance of seeing sheep grazing along the green hillsides. Yet here, in Manchester, PA, there aren’t many hillsides filled with grazing sheep. So when Jesus compares us to sheep we don’t really have a good understanding of what he is talking about.
A couple of years ago, I went out to a sheep farm, and got to see first-hand what the life of a sheep was like, at least sheep on a farm. There they were all huddled together and staying close to one another. They are quite social animals. Every so often they would start baaing and I wondered what it was they were saying to one another in their language that I did not understand. Sheep do have their own language. Out of the blue, one of them made a noise and started running and they all turned around and started running after the sheep. I asked the farmer, “where are they going?” He said, “they’re just following the sheep.” They didn’t know where the sheep was going, but they were going to follow. It got me wondering, if the sheep weren’t in an enclosed area, they could have all followed that sheep to their death. They could have run into the road, or off a cliff, or into some other dangerous situation. It’s a good thing the fence was there. And it was a good thing the farmer was there. The farmer – or should I say – a modern day shepherd was there.
Maybe that’s why Jesus compares us to sheep. It’s not that sheep are dumb, they are actually quite smart, but they do like to follow. They aren’t like cows that need to be pushed and prodded from behind. Sheep like to be led, and therefore it’s easy for them to be led astray. Think about all the things that we sheep can be led astray by: fear fed to us by the media, consumerism and materialism by adds telling us we need more, addictions of any kind including overworking, and over extending ourselves. We as a society keep moving at a faster and faster pace and we barely have time to slow down and catch a breath. There seems to be a collective voice that says the busier we are the more we are successful. There’s a collective voice that tells us we can’t slow down, we have to keep moving, keep doing, keep trying, and it’s exhausting us all. We’re following voices from false shepherds that are leading us down a path that can potentially harm us. We’re going so fast that we can’t hear God’s voice – the voice that tells us to slow down, to keep holy the Sabbath day, to be still and know that I am God. The voice of the good shepherd is calling us away from the false voices that try and pull us away from God, away from worship, and back to God who is leading us to life.
That is why this Good Shepherd Sunday is in the middle of the Easter season, because Jesus is the Good Shepherd. Being a shepherd – a really good shepherd – is not an easy job. It’s a hard profession. And it’s not a hands-off kind of desk job. A shepherd gets dirty because he or she is right there with the sheep. (You might think twice about inviting a shepherd over for dinner without a good shower!) A good shepherd doesn’t leave the sheep alone; they are close. They have a relationship. The get to know the voice of the shepherd. And a good shepherd is always watching out for danger. A shepherd can get seriously injured fighting off dangerous animals that try to hurt the sheep.
Jesus is the ultimate good shepherd who loves us so much that he laid down his life for us. And even after Jesus rose from the dead, he came back to reassure the disciples. He didn’t have to, but he did because he did not want them to live in fear. And the Good Shepherd is one of forgiveness. Jesus came back to reassure the disciples who betrayed him, who denied him, who deserted him, and locked themselves up in fear. Jesus came back to lead the sheep who had gone astray – who were led by the voices of fear – back to the fold.
He came to lead us back to the fold because he knows there are other voices that try to lead us and don’t really love or care about us. These other voices only think about profits and gains for themselves. Corporations care about the bottom line – money, and the media cares about ratings and in turn profit. It’s easy to be deceived by false voices that claim they are looking out for our best interests, but really they are looking out for their own. It’s easy to be pulled toward voices that lead us into darkness and leave us alone.
But Jesus came to overcome the darkness. And through the victory of the cross and resurrection, Jesus has overcome the ultimate darkness – death – and so as we hear in the 23rd Psalm, “even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me.” Darkness will come from time to time, yet we have the promise that the Good Shepherd is with us. Jesus is a powerful Shepherd. His rod and staff will fight off those things that try to destroy us, and his rod and staff will guide us and pull us back when we stray too far. And if we listen for the voice of the Good Shepherd, he will lead us through the darkness into the light.
I remember one particular evening when my daughters were young that the lights went out unexpectedly. Winter storms in New England often result in power outages, but this one happened without warning. I hadn’t laid out the usual candles and matches in preparation. My daughters were afraid. They couldn’t see me and so they were afraid, just like when we can’t see God and so we too are afraid. I reassured them I was there and not to fear. I kept talking to them in the dark as I made my way to get candles and matches for light. I guided them to me with my voice. They couldn’t see me, but they heard my voice, and they followed it, until they eventually were with me, and together we made our way through the dark, and through the storm.
We will all experience times in our lives when we find ourselves suddenly in the darkness. It may be a sudden illness, or death, or some other kind of loss, and we will be afraid, but it is in those times that we must listen for the voice of the Good Shepherd, For he loves us. He laid down his life for us, and he will remain with us through whatever storm or darkness we find ourselves in, and bring us to the light. The voice of the Good Shepherd is one that always leads to safety and life.
Today we welcome and celebrate four new members into our congregation, into our flock. As infants, their parents heard the voice of the Holy Spirit leading them to gather at the waters of baptism, where they first entered the family of God. Today, they and all of us affirm our baptismal vows and promise to follow the Good Shepherd and listen to his voice. And we promise to help others to hear his voice as well. For Jesus said, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”
That is what Jesus desires – one flock, tended and guided by one shepherd. Jesus embraced the outcast, oppressed, and marginalized. He embraced those that others did not want to associate with because Jesus saw them as beloved children of God. One flock does not imply sameness. We do not have to be just like the others in the flock. All of us sheep are different, but part of the same flock, the same family of God and the Good Shepherd embraces us all. Listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd for it is the voice we are called to follow. It is a gentle yet powerful voice. One that will lead us on the right path. One that will protect us from those who try to steal our souls. One that will lead us to peace and joy. One that will lead us to life eternal. Listen. Amen.