Sermon preached by the Reverend Cindy Stravers
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, Connecticut
The Fourth Sunday of Easter – April 25, 2010
This is the day when the Church has traditionally celebrated the metaphor of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. It is also a day in the Roman Church where the idea of “vocation” is lifted up. Good Shepherd/Vocation Sunday – the fourth Sunday after Easter.
Except for the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, The Lord’s Prayer, the psalm appointed for today, Psalm 23, may be the best-known and most well-loved portion of Scripture. We teach it to our children, we read it at the bedside of the dying. It is a poem filled with images that provide comfort – a tender shepherd leading his flock to the places they need to go – sweet grass when they are hungry, cool water to quench their thirst. A gentle shepherd who calls with a recognizable voice and leads his sheep to what is best for them – staying with them through the dark and scary places – seeking the sheep who have found themselves stuck in brambles and sharp rocks – lifting them to safety – carrying them home.
Who wouldn’t want such a shepherd? Such a friend? Such a lover?
Well, I learned this week that not everyone likes being compared to a sheep. The metaphor is strange for city folk. We haven’t spent much time with sheep and what we’ve been told doesn’t seem very flattering: they are rather dumb, dirty, unable to find their own way – reliant on others – dependent.
Being dependent and having to be led by another – even if it is to the places that are best for us – seems like a copout – a way to disengage – a way to shift the responsibility for our lives on someone or something else. So, that’s one problem with this metaphor.
There’s another problem, and I’ll own up to this one. I always get a little knot in my stomach when I think about what it means for us to say, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I lack nothing.”
I find myself wondering about the big picture – what about the children in Africa for instance – one dying every 30 seconds of malaria – a disease that is preventable if only they were able to sleep under a $10.00 mosquito net.
What about the 24,000 children worldwide who will die today because they don’t have access to clean water, nourishing food, shelter?
What about the children in our own communities whose lives are disrupted by violence – in the streets, in their homes, in their very souls?
Can we, with any honesty, recite this psalm in a voice any louder than a whisper? What will we tell our children when they ask about the inequities they see, the fear they feel, the disillusionment they are bound to experience? What do we tell ourselves? Does the Good Shepherd really meet all need?
In answering this question, we often move to a place where we claim that the reality of a Good Shepherd who tends all his sheep is something tucked away – hidden in the closet of the future – something we can hope for certainly – but, in the end, must simply wait for.
I believe that there is some truth to this – the kingdom of God has been inaugurated, but has not yet been fully established. I wonder, though if this kind of understanding is a little too thin – a little sketchy when placed in the light of the other readings today.
In the first reading from the book of the Acts of the Apostles, we hear about Tabitha, a woman who spent her life serving others. In some ways, she might have seemed like a shepherd to her friends – knowing them well enough and caring enough about them to use her skill and her energy to help meet some of their basic needs. Upon her death, the love and concern of her friends causes them to act. They demonstrate a level of trust in the power of God – the power that raises the dead – and they become something like a shepherd to her – summoning Peter who, in turn, takes on the role of shepherd himself.
We begin to see something new – sheep becoming shepherds. Followers of Jesus become those who lead others to green grass, cool water and new life in the midst of death.
In the Epistle lesson appointed for today from the Book of Revelation, we are invited into a vision that lends yet another layer to the reality of the Good Shepherd. Here the Good Shepherd is the lamb – the lamb sitting on the throne of heaven – the lamb whose blood was shed – poured out over the whole earth – blood that somehow turns dead things into things that will never die. The Good Shepherd, when all is said and done, is the Lamb.
Perhaps it is this kind of movement – this dynamic back and forth movement from sheep to shepherd – and from shepherd to sheep that allows up to more fully understand and experience God’s call.
And it is a call – a very high calling – an invitation to a vocation that we all share when we give our lives to God. It is a vocation of relationship – a relationship that includes the voice of the Shepherd and the terrified cries of stranded sheep.
The Good Shepherd knows the sheep and still calls to them – noting their need and responding with tender care. Motivated by the purest love, the Shepherd feeds the hungry, comforts the fearful, rescues the lost, offers life to the dead. The sheep, motivated by need and willing to become vulnerable, follow the voice that they have learned to trust.
Sometimes we are sheep; sometimes we are asked to shepherd. Both roles involve some vulnerability – both entail some risk.
Whether we’re in our sheep state, or in the role of shepherd, our understanding and experience of the Good Shepherd who becomes the Lamb on the throne, can – and must – inform our relationships with each other and with the world. As sheep, we can bleat from the rocky places only when we trust. As shepherds, we can offer care only when we love with the kind of love the Good Shepherd offers – love that is worthy of trust.
On this Good Shepherd/Vocations Sunday, may we be blessed with both the ability to trust and the willingness to love so that our vocation as God’s children will make a difference – in our own lives, in the lives of this particular parish fold, and in the lives of the other sheep – and shepherds we have yet to meet. Amen.