Sermon preached by the Reverend Cindy Stravers
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, Connecticut
The Fourth Sunday after Easter – May 15, 2011
This Sunday, as you may have guessed from the readings we’ve heard, is known as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” It comes round once a year and focuses on the metaphor of shepherds and sheep found in both the Hebrew Scriptures and in the New Testament.
Psalm 23, probably the most well-known and most beloved of all the psalms, uses this metaphor to paint a picture of a God who tends to the needs of his people with gentleness – providing for their physical needs, promoting their sense of well-being, protecting them from all that could possible harm them. This shepherd is one who is present and active in the lives of his sheep – leading them, accompanying them, covering them with goodness and mercy.
This is a metaphor, a word-picture of God we like to remember when we need to find comfort. The Lord is our shepherd; we have everything we need. When we hunger or thirst – when we come face to face with those who wish to hurt us – or as we come face to face with death itself – we have what we need. That’s the bottom line according to Psalm 23.
That bottom line, however, seems to be undercut in almost every corner of our lives. One hour of television might be enough to convince us that in reality, there are all kinds of things we lack; we lack beauty according to the Avon lady; we don’t have the latest or enough designer fashions according to the driver of the Marshall’s bus; we can’t always be right so we may have to lie according to the guy in the deli using his ATT phone; we don’t always have our mojo on – we’re not always surrounded by beautiful men and women – and so we simply need to drink more orange juice!
It all translates into one message: we don’t have enough.
We may need to take another look. What are the messages we hear? Where do they come from? Can we trust their source?
Our lesson from the Gospel of John suggests that not all who would lead us are, in fact, worthy of our trust. There are thieves and bandits waiting in the wings coming to steal, destroy and kill. They may be dressed as shepherds, their talk may sound sweet, they may have a huge following, but they are not the Good Shepherd. And so the question emerges, what do we really need? And how does the Good Shepherd provide that?
I was talking with some of our kids about this very thing on Tuesday in “Not Sunday, Not School.” After we determined that we need things like water, shelter and food, the kids dug a little deeper. After some pretty astute discussion, Naomi, one of the kids, suggested that what we really need is someone who cares for us.
Now we get to a question of faith. Can we say, can we begin to trust, that the Good Shepherd really cares for us and for all people?
What might that mean?
The Reverend Chris Yaw, author of Jesus was an Episcopalian – the book many of us read together this spring in preparation for confirmation, reception and baptism – posted the following on his blog this week:
“The notion that Christianity is all about a soft-focus Jesus who protects, feeds and shelters the fragile is one of the predominate images we find every spring when Good Shepherd Sunday comes around. It’s become an attractive picture for us to see Jesus’ work in the world as nothing more than footprints in the sand as He carries us when we cannot carry ourselves. But we suspect that any notion of a comfy, cushy Jesus without a cross to carry or a burden to take means there’s something missing – something essential missing.
After all, shepherds don’t raise sheep for fun – they raise sheep for wool. They lead them, feed them, and protect them because they expect something from them. When the sheep pass through the sheep gate it’s not always to get a good night’s sleep. Once a year, it’s about getting sheared. It’s about getting pinned down, shocked, scared, and forced to give up their most valuable possession. Sure the Shepherd knows every sheep by name and obsesses over the humane treatment of His little ones, but the Shepherd’s love is equally given to those who are not in His flock – those shivering in the cold, quivering on the margins, in desperate need of the gifts his flock might give.
Following the Shepherd, then, isn’t mainly about personal fulfillment; it’s about universal sacrifice. We are called to play a vital role in God’s redemption, reconciliation, and provision for the world. How are we getting sheared today? Can we see that it’s part of following the Shepherd? How are we being called to move beyond Christianity as therapy – and into the depths of self-sacrifice that’s essential for being counted as one of the sheep?”
Self sacrifice. Now that’s radical. And it’s uncomfortable. But it is the story of the first followers of Jesus recounted in our lesson from the book of Acts. Having experienced the sacrificial nature of their faith, demonstrated in their Lord’s suffering and death, they chose to share in his mission. Seeking the common good, they shared what they had so that all had enough. They became the body of Christ – refusing to amass goods for themselves, they were willing to share – they were willing to be sheared – many giving their lives in order that more people would know the good news of God’s salvation.
They followed the Shepherd who not only cares for his own flock, but who also provides a way for more sheep to be added to the flock – seeking the lost – becoming the door – all at great expense.
Some of us are like the sheep of Psalm 23 today – in desperate need of God’s tender care. To those, I say, trust in the God who is present and who cares deeply for you. We have a Good Shepherd; you are safe.
There are others of us who have experienced this care – those who have been well fed and find themselves ready for the shearer. Their coats are thick and it’s time to let the shepherd do the work of shearing. To those I say, trust God. Your willingness to give your best is matched by the Shepherd’s willingness to give his life.
And there’s a third group – the sheep who have heard the voice of the Good Shepherd and have already sacrificed their wool for the sake of the kingdom and are now feeling somewhat naked and vulnerable. To those, I say thank you. Thank you for assisting the Good Shepherd in caring for the flock.
All of us who claim to be God’s children today can be assured that in whatever state we find ourselves – tired, hungry and in need of comfort, well-nourished and energized, ready to be sheared, or newly shorn, God is present. God knows us and God calls us by name. Our job is to listen carefully to the voice of love – and to follow faithfully so that the kingdom of God has room to grow – inside our selves and all around us.