Fourth Sunday of Easter
1 John 3:16-24
Our lessons this morning are about the Shepherd and the sheep. In the gospel, Jesus describes himself as the “Good Shepherd” – the one who tenderly cares for his sheep even to the point of laying down his own life. This is a pre-crucifixion discussion with his followers as he begins to paint the picture of what is to come. Jesus describes his relationship with them as authentic versus the kind of shepherd who has his own agenda. And he basically says that he can be trusted, as he is not some fly by night hired hand who runs away at the first sign of danger or disagreement. The hired hand will never be willing or able to go the extra mile, is always ready to abandon, and there is no safety with someone who is only doing something for the money or some other alterior motives.
Jesus said, “I know my sheep and my sheep know me just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.”
He makes this claim on us even before his death and resurrection. He makes this claim without question. You are mine. I am willing to die for you. I am with you, even in the valleys and the shadows of life and death.
We are also drawn into this image in the Old Testament passage Psalm 23; that masterpiece believed to have been written by King David near the end of his life. Looking back over all the milestones – the highs and lows – David concludes that the one constant in his life, the one thing that has not disappointed is: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”
This poem or prayer has been on the lips of thousands and thousands of people – Christians and non-Christians alike. It is the anthem on sickbeds and hospital beds, or standing at grave sites and memorial services. “Yea thou I walk through the darkest valleys and the shadows of death (physical, spiritual, and emotional) I will fear no evil, for You are with me.” And there is comfort to guide my way.
If that is all we had, all we know; if our entire theology is wrapped up in these few words alone and we are somehow able to grasp hold of them and hang onto them and live them out in profound and personal way – that would be enough. That’s all we would ever need. Close the Bible and walk away with just that – it would be enough.
During this Easter season – not just Easter day – we especially look to see and hear hope-filled signs of life and resurrection springing up all around us. And the signs are plenty if we are able to grab hold of them. Is that not true? In the church, we declare that we are Easter people who have been raised up into new life and we declare our loyalty to follow the One who has the whole world’s interest at heart.
We ask ourselves what kind of sheep we are. What kind of shepherd? Are we being raised up to be a people who lay itself down for the sake of others? Are we going after, pursuing those who are lost and vulnerable, the broken and wounded, until they are found? Are we sources of life, nurturing, healing, and making others whole?
On Thursday, I received news that one of our members, Alice Bryant, had passed away at age 93. Most of you would not have known her as she has been in declining health for the past 15 years or so, but I visited her often. And it was always a pleasure, a gift. She was as much a part of this community as any of us. Generously making her pledge and making sure to honor it as best she could. Never a hurtful word.
She never got stuck or paralyzed by the hurts and disappointments of life; always grateful and gracious. Her only child, Vanetta’s ashes rest in our columbarium there in the back of the church. She wanted her close by – in the church. She said, “Pastor, when I die, I want you to take my baby’s ashes and place them in the coffin with me so that we can be together at last.” Now, we know that neither of them will know the difference and both will be ash very soon, but in the context of the church and the Easter season, these words have power. We celebrate a mother’s hope of a glad union in this world and the next. We celebrate the kind of faith that ushered her on in life, believing, trusting, knowing.
And then yesterday morning, I received word from Neil that he and Lindsay’s babies were born Friday afternoon. And I’m hopeful about the ways we’ll get to shepherd these children – little Audrey Cecelia and Evan Allen – into a life of faith. They are part of us and we are part of them: baptisms, children’s message and choir, day school, confirmation. Wouldn’t that just be something? It’s about as good as it gets.
My brothers and sisters, I think God is looking for Good Shepherds to lead people through the entire arc of their lives, providing what is needed. It is not just the work of the pastor but we are all called to be nurturers and caretakers.
The Good Shepherd is present, protects and restores; listens and watches and makes sure our needs are met as best they can. They are not the enemy, but rather when or if enemies approach – the wolfs and the bears of this old world – and come after us, they are protective. The enemy can only come so close, because the Good Shepherd stands guard and is willing and able to fight them off.
Even when one goes astray, Good shepherds look high and low to find it. So precious are all that he or she is willing to put all the others at risk to find the one that is lost, gently leading it back to the fold. Allows us to lie down safely in pleasant pastures green, and continues to pursue us with goodness and mercy all my days.
Perhaps it’s time that we revisit passages like these; sit with them long past Sunday morning. That is if we want to really be Easter people. Sit with them and let them do something for us.
How about it? Psalm 23 this week? Make it part of the air in which you breath as you find yourself leaving your home in the morning, perhaps walking to work or from work, sitting on the bus, or train, or driving in your car.
When wondering how you are going to make it through the day, or how you will get from one life circumstance to the next. Or confronted with a difficult personality. Just begin to recite the words. When frustrated by a situation at home or relationship in your family, or even perhaps as good news and joy comes your way, gently whisper it beneath your breath or declare it out loud. Make it the final words of the day when you find yourself drifting off into sleep: the Lord is my shepherd. Use it as often as possible.
May it inform both your ears and your heart about how you can be shepherd for your friends, your spouse, or co-worker.
Now, I am going to ask you to sit still for a moment and we are going to say it together. You might want to place your hands on your lap; with your palms facing up – open to receive. I’m going to give you a few minutes to find it in the Bible – it’s on page 491.
If you have it memorized by heart, you might want to close your eyes and recite it out loud or silently, and if you miss a word or two it’s ok. This is not the morning for criticism. It’s the morning for prayer and reflection and for the Holy Spirit to wash over you.
As we read and as we pray this psalm, ask the Good Shepherd to be your Shepherd anew and allow yourself to be his Sheep. And then, recommit yourself to being a shepherd; a Good Shepherd.
Let us begin. Slowly. Reverently.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures;
He leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul;
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil;
for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me
in the presence of mine enemies;
thou anointest my head with oil;
my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life;
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.