Sunday, May 3, 2020
Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year A
Prayer of the Day
O God our shepherd, you know your sheep by name and lead us to safety through the valleys of death. Guide us by your voice, that we may walk in certainty and security to the joyous feast prepared in your house, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Readings and Psalm
Acts 2:42-47 The believers’ common life
1 Peter 2:19-25 Follow the shepherd, even in suffering
John 10:1-10 Christ the shepherd
Title: We, Like Sheep
George Washington is quoted as having said: “If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.” Like Washington, I could also be quoted as referring to sheep as dumb. Each year, when we come to this 4th Sunday of Easter, informally called Good Shepherd Sunday, and we read again the beloved 23rd Psalm, and we hear, from the 10th chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus speaking of himself as the Good Shepherd; I typically love to draw attention to that belief that sheep are dumb, and applaud Jesus for his wisdom in using them as a symbol for us, and our relationship and deep need for God.
Well, today I feel I must take this opportunity to apologize to the sheep of the world. Because recent studies have shown that in fact, sheep are very intelligent. They are social creatures, with individual personalities, and very good memories. (So much for hoping that they forget my past insults. I guess I just have to hope that they accept my apology.) However, my annual applause for Jesus using them as a symbol for us, and my appreciation for the strength of this metaphor still stands. And is actually affirmed by the commonalities discovered by researchers between those who are wooly and we who like to think ourselves wise.
And Jesus speaks to these shared characteristics as he begins to teach and reassure us that he is the Good Shepherd. The gatekeeper, let’s assume that Jesus is referring to God, opens the gate for the shepherd. The good shepherd. The chosen one. Jesus, our Savior, the one who is to be trusted with the precious possession – us. For anyone who was listening to Jesus and who knew anything of sheep-tending and animal husbandry, they knew just how valued and valuable that flock to the gatekeeper and owner was. Not just to any slouch would be given the task of care for those sheep. The sheep were everything to their owner. Likewise, we are everything to God. So, after ages and ages of kings and false prophets, foreign powers and mighty nations having jumped the fence to aggravate, steal, or destroy the sheep, God the gatekeeper opens the gate to the anointed one. Bringing in the shepherd perfect in mercy and compassion, wisdom and love.
And the first thing that Jesus promises us (who obviously are the sheep) upon his entry into the sheepfold is that we will know his voice, a familiar voice. A voice that brings calm to the flock. It turns out that sheep do have an awareness of who is familiar and who is stranger. They can distinguish facial expressions in humans as well as in their fellow sheep. Especially when their fellow sheep are anxious. Sheep even express depression in similar ways to humans. Like us, they hang down their heads and avoid positive actions that might help lift them out of their depression.
Jesus spoke of God in a new voice that challenged his hearers to come to their Creator in new ways and with new understanding. His words and stories taught of God not as angry destroyer but as compassionate renewer, not as harsh judge by as forgiving father, not as merciless punisher but as merciful healer. This was a voice, though new, yet that the people, through the work of the Holy Spirit, recognized, welcomed, sought, followed, reached out to, embraced, committed all that they were to, (as we heard in the reading from Acts). We rejoice that this new voice then, is the familiar voice that continues to call to us, through their witness, through the continued work of the Holy Spirit in us, through the presence of Christ in the sacraments, in the word, in our community.
Sheep are not only social animals, thriving in the company of the healthy flock; but they also have individual personalities and traits. So, it is important to them that the Good Shepherd calls them by name. Acknowledges that each one is known, specific, cherished, valued. We who are the people of God’s pasture, and the sheep of God’s hand, are given that same gift of uniqueness. In the waters of baptism God claims us and names us. We may not use the language of “personal Lord and Savior” but we do see, in those waters that flow from the fount, that we are precious and cherished children of God. Perhaps in these days of anxiety and chaos. When we might be all-too-well relating to those anxious sheep seeing themselves abandoned in the fields and seeing danger all around. As we are growing all too familiar with this valley of death in which we are lingering much too long. It would be easy to lose sight of this promise and this identity that is given us in baptism, sustaining us through our life, and coming to gracious fulfillment in death. Hear it again, insert your name, and hear the Good Shepherd call to you: ______, you are a precious and cherished child of God.
Finally, once claimed, and gathered, we are sent. But not alone. The Good Shepherd leads us out of the fold. Into, as the prayer says, “ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown.” And it continues “Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us.” The Good Shepherd is with us. Every road we travel. Every step of the way.
Often times, when we explore this Good Shepherd-cherished sheep metaphor, we go to those pictures of lost sheep, of sheep running about who need to be brought under control. And certainly, the Good Shepherd does this, lovingly. Holding nothing back in coming to find us, rescue us, and bring us back to the safety of the sheepfold. But in these days where thoughts of running around, getting lost, needing to be brought back just do not quite jive with our stuck-in-the-sheepfold reality of quarantining. Or worse, perhaps our experience is more like stuck in individual pens where we don’t even get to hang with the rest of the flock. In these days of isolation, perhaps it is good to focus on these images of sheepfold life and see the comfort and peace that is ours in the presence of the Good Shepherd, especially as we look longingly beyond the fence that is stifling us.
In pasture or on path, on green banks or valleys of death, standing at the river or at the trough that the Good Shepherd most gracious keeps filled with the water that quenches all thirst, Jesus is with us. Walking with us and sitting with us. Running with us and isolating with us. Searching us out and finding us whether we are lost in the rough places or lost in despair and depression.
One more thing about sheep. An experiment of which I read explored the lasting effects of anxiety on sheep. Turns out that once sent into a state of deep anxiety, a sheep does not just snap out of it. Having experienced stimulus that causes anxiety, when you take that stimulus away from the sheep, it does not necessarily engage in healthy behavior right away. And so it is with us. And so, Jesus, our Good Shepherd, does not leave us to ourselves, but rather continues to anoint us with healing oil, continues to set a table for us at which all are gathered, even those who cause us deep anxiety (we call them enemies). With goodness and mercy, this shepherd leads us on in hope. Rich, deep hope that is the gift of a God who values and cherishes so profoundly that the thought of losing even one sheep is not possible. And God proves this when the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
So, rejoice and be comforted that, though we have gone astray, the Good Shepherd again has led us back, to the fold, to the font, to the flock, to the feast. And our cry of joy is not a baaa, but an…
Alleluia, Christ is risen. The Lord is risen, indeed. Alleluia.
The Rev. Mark Erson,