Sunday, April 25, 2021
Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year B

Prayer of the Day

O Lord Christ, good shepherd of the sheep, you seek the lost and guide us into your fold. Feed us, and we shall be satisfied; heal us, and we shall be whole. Make us one with you, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Readings and Psalm

Acts 4:5-12 Salvation in the name of Jesus
Psalm 23
1 John 3:16-24 Love in truth and action
John 10:11-18 Christ the shepherd

Sermon

Title:  Confessions of a Hired Hand

Alleluia! Christ is risen!  The Lord is risen indeed.  Alleluia!

Each year these joyous cries get a bit of a refreshment on this fourth Sunday of Easter.  Amidst the doubts and the fear, the confusion and reluctance of those first followers to embrace and trust the good news of Jesus’ resurrection that we have been reading about and connecting with in those first Sundays of Easter, we get a little rest bit on this, what is unofficially known as Good Shepherd Sunday. We leave the post-resurrection stories, we venture back before the grief and horror of the crucifixion, before the sorrow of the passion, even before the over-inflated joy of Palm Sunday.  And we are back with Jesus the teacher who often uses everyday images to open our eyes, our ears, our hearts, our minds, and our spirits to a new understanding of God.  And what image is more tender, more comforting, more endearing, than that blessed image of the Good Shepherd.  Even to us city dwellers, who rarely get any closer to a sheep than when we wear a wool sweater or enjoy a few lamb chops – we too find connection with those images of the beloved 23rd Psalm.   We crave the still waters.  We long to lay in calming and abundant pastures.  We know too well the valleys of death.  We crave the table set for us.

Likewise, we are encouraged by the image of Jesus the good shepherd who goes looking for the lost sheep.  We probably all know on some level what it means to be lost, and we all long to be found.  There is nothing sweeter than to be carried home in the strong hands of the one who saves us.

In my office hangs one of my favorite images of Jesus, depicted as a shepherd holding his crook, his face is weather-worn from constantly being among the sheep, his hands tough and strong from the hard work of loving husbandry.  And his face is set, his eyes fixed – possibly searching for the lost lamb, possibly watching for threatening danger.  He clearly is a good shepherd and the sheep are safe in his care.  (You’ll see this image on this morning’s power point as you listen to today’s anthem.)

The portion of John chapter 10 that we hear this year is even comforting to those of us who find Christian elitism and exclusivism unsettling and hard to affirm.  I’m highlighting that portion where Jesus says that he has sheep beyond the part of the flock that he is talking to.  Praise God for diversity, for inclusion beyond our limited vision or faulty parameters.  We rejoice in a saving God who leaves no one behind.

But perhaps the greatest comfort from this day is that we get to go back, having walked the way of the cross with Jesus, having seen the display of God’s suffering love for us, having witnessed the glorious resurrection that brings new life to all creation, today we are given the gift of going back to hear Jesus teach again. To hear again, now knowing what we know, what we have seen, to hear him speak of the shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep and know that this is Jesus the crucified and risen Christ. What a good shepherd it is that claims and names us, leads and feeds us, guides and finds us, comforts and cares for us, provides and protects us.  All is done for us with no regard for the price that the shepherd must pay.

Oh, to sit in those green pastures, by the still waters, with the good shepherd.  How about if we just close our eyes and create that image in our imaginations for the refreshment of our body and soul.

Would be nice.  Is nice.  Is enough.  But I’m having some trouble staying there this morning.  As welcome as the good shepherd is.  As many blessings and as much grace as I feel showering down on me through this image, there is something else in this year’s good shepherd passage that is just not letting me rest. Or at least not letting me rest easy, sheep that I am.

Because there is another mention in today’s portion of John 10 that is just plain unsettling.  It’s that hired hand stuff.  You heard it – the hired hand is the coward who runs away from the great threats to the sheep.  The hired hand is the one who doesn’t care enough about the sheep to stick around and take care of them.  Yes, unsettling for me, at least, in a big way today because this weekend I am celebrating the 12th anniversary of my ordination into the public ministry of word and sacrament.  And, I guess, on some level, one could see the call that I have said yes to is to be one of those hired hands that Jesus is talking about.  A flawed caretaker of the flock.  A poor substitute for the good shepherd.

And this past week, leading up to this anniversary, as I meditated on this passage, as I reflected on 12 years a hired hand, the events of the week only emphasized my hired-handness as characterized by Jesus.  On Monday, someone from the Healthplex up 7th avenue called me, as they do from time to time.  A man had died and the family was asking for a clergy person to come and pray with them.  How I wanted to run in the opposite direction, away from this wolf death that had stolen the life of another sheep. What can I say to speak to such pain?  What can I do to comfort such suffering of the broken hearted wife who sent her husband off to work never dreaming that the next time she saw him he would be laid out on a gurney?  The social worker, a co-worker of the man, and I just stood there around his empty shell, silent, as the man’s wife wept over her beloved.

Then Tuesday came.  Probably like many, we were glued to the TV around 5 PM, waiting to hear the verdict out of Minneapolis.  Relieved that finally there was some accountability assigned.  That another death would not be brushed aside as “that’s just the way it is.”  But the words of the Minnesota Attorney General and others, convicted me and I hope you too to see that there is much work to be done for all of us to do, reforming our nation and our society, (not only in terms of law enforcement,) for all of us to do, as we confront racism and answer the sacred call to do justice, love mercy, and to walk humbly with God and all God’s children.

If Monday was about powerlessness, and Tuesday was about overwhelming tasks, Wednesday was about patience.  What day isn’t about patience?  I’m the hired hand who doesn’t necessarily run away scared, as much as I’m the one who walks away frustrated.  Lessons in patience abounded once again.  And then a dose of patience for me and with myself was needed as I completely forgot an appointment that I had made for a ZOOM conference.

But then, because we have a good Shepherd and because I am way more sheep than hired hand, the week wrapped up with some wonderful pastures and refreshing waters.  Starting to prepare for the 200th anniversary of our sanctuary building, I dug through some history and was strengthened by the reminder that many sheep, many hired hands, many witnesses of the resurrection have come before us; living in the care of the good shepherd, running away from fears and doubts, sometimes getting lost, hopefully aware that they have been found, nourished and comforted by the word and sacraments that has lived in this place for nearly 200 years.  Lived in creation since light dawned.

And after a wonderful lie down in the pasture that is my Sabbath rest on Friday, yesterday, filming presentations for our next Inspiration Gospel Showcase, I once again was nourished and refreshed by the proclamation of fellow sheep.  Or were they now taking the role of Hired Hand and seeing that I and other sheep, were fed by the gracious hand of the Good Shepherd working in and through them?

Yes, fellow disciples of Jesus, my ordination does not put me on some special hook nor does it let you off one.  We are all sheep of the Good Shepherd’s flock.  And well cared for are we.  But in one way or another, as flawed as we may be, we are also called to be care-takers of the flock.  Some of us just do it professionally. But none of us do it perfectly.  There is only one Good Shepherd. And thanks be to God, we are in that shepherd’s keeping, the one who has laid down life, given all, for our sake.  The one who even shows great grace and understanding when we come up short as hired hands. For as our bishop Paul said to the candidates at an ordination: it’s not about you.

It’s about the Good Shepherd – Jesus the Christ – who tends and leads us. And who askes us all, in word and deed, as hired hands not replacement shepherds, to bear witness and to remind the world of how good our shepherd is.  The one who laid down life for us.  The one who rose up claiming new life for us.  The one in whose name we rejoice:

Alleluia! Christ is risen.  The Lord is risen indeed.  Alleluia!

The Rev. Mark Erson,
Pastor

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