Sermon preached by the Reverend Cindy Stravers
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Fourth Sunday of Easter – April 29, 2012
C.S. Lewis once said that there are three things God wants for us: to love, to be loved and to grow up.
Today is Good Shepherd Sunday and the church, in its wisdom has put three different scriptures together for us that draw on the metaphor of the Good Shepherd.
Our psalm today, taken from the Hebrew Scriptures, is one we know well; the words roll off our lips without much effort. We recite it at the bedside of those who are sick; we often choose to include it in our funeral liturgies; it is one of the first pieces of scripture we present to our children.
This psalm paints a picture of a shepherd-God who tends her 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 the sheep – leading them, accompanying them, covering them with goodness and mercy as they make their way to the fold of God’s presence – as they move into their true identity as God’s children.
When we are able to live into this psalm, it is very likely that we will begin to experience – to appreciate – God’s love for God’s people and to respond to that with a sense of love ourselves.
This Hebrew image of God as the Good Shepherd is joined with Jesus’ own words found in the Gospel of John where he identifies himself as the Good Shepherd and explains something about how he fulfills this role.
The Good Shepherd of the Gospels knows the sheep; he shows up. Then, moving beyond his own little flock, he seeks out others and brings them into the fold – ultimately unifying the entire flock. He loves them enough to willingly lay down his life for them, putting the good of the community above even his own welfare.
Jesus was claiming God’s role for himself and that was big – it got him into big trouble – and no doubt it was troublesome.
While the psalm illustrates the kind of care that the Good Shepherd takes of the sheep and inspires love, the Gospel passage describes what it takes on the part of the shepherd for this kind of care to take place and living into this image may very well lead us to a sense of being loved – deeply loved.
Last week, Adam talked about the dual nature of Jesus. Historically, while some theologians believed that Jesus’ nature was more human than divine and others believed it was more divine than human, eventually the church settled on and began proclaiming that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine from the beginning. That is the kind of theology we find in our creeds. More recently, however, another idea about the nature of Jesus has emerged – a theology characterized by process.
This theory emphasizes the process or evolutionary nature of humankind and the world and holds that God, too, is in a process of development through interaction with the changing world. Jesus, according to this line of reasoning, was also on a journey of learning to know who he was as he lived into his mission and ministry. Jesus was learning how to love God’s people, how to point them to their Creator, how to offer himself in order to lead them into new and never-ending life. Jesus, living ever more deeply into both his humanity and his divinity, became the agent that brings all things into One – one flock tended by one shepherd. Jesus’ work of shepherding – of knowing, of protecting, of feeding, healing and leading his followers into unity as they grow into their true identity – was not over-night magic. This was his mission, his ministry and it was work. Hard work. Good-Friday work. Jesus himself was growing up.
But what does this have to do with us, you may be wondering?
The common take on these lessons is to identify humanity with the sheep in this metaphor. I’ve done it myself. And certainly, some connection can be made. As human beings, we are often subject to the kind of behavior that characterizes sheep – following strange and sometimes destructive voices of those who are not the Good Shepherd. We buy into messages that taut the importance and reasonableness of seeking prosperity above all else, we seek power and do our best to protect our own individual rights at the expense of the common good – taking our cues from politicians, advertisers, the media, and letting our own egos run wild. We scatter; we compete; we forget who we are.
On Good Friday, at the very beginning of the afternoon service for children, I showed the kids how light can be reflected. I lit one candle and gave them each a mirror. I told them that Jesus said he was the light of the world and showed them that if they held their mirrors just so, the light got bigger, brighter, as it was reflected in each of their mirrors. At the end of our time together, after we had walked the journey of Jesus’ last few days – washing feet, feeding friends, praying through the night – I told them that the Light was about to change. In fact, it was about to go out. But before the Light changed, the Light itself was shared. I lit a taper from the Christ light for each child. Now the children were no longer just reflecting the Light – they were one with the Light.
This movement – this development from reflecting the light, to becoming one with the light, is how I have come to understand – to go deeper into the metaphor of the Good Shepherd. As we move deeper into our true identity – and having received the very presence of God through the gift of the Holy Spirit – we may find ourselves moving from simply following the Good Shepherd into becoming one with the Good Shepherd.
I would offer one word of caution, however. Becoming one with the Good Shepherd is not the same thing as becoming a contented Big Cheese. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Again, I quote C.S. Lewis: “I didn’t go to religion to make me “happy.” I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”
Listen once again to the words from our Epistle lesson: “This is how we know love – that Jesus laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”
As children of God, empowered by the presence of the Holy Spirit, we join Jesus in his work of mission and ministry. We move from talk to action, from division to unity, from self-centered behavior to sacrificial love. We begin to grow up.
We may have to say yes when we’d rather say no. We may have to say no when we’d rather say yes. We may be asked to walk through dark and scary places – making the path clearer for another who follows. We may have to speak up. We may have to keep silent. We will probably be asked to give something up – power, time, resources – and we won’t always be sure that the work necessary for shepherding is even valued.
The task, when we are ready, is to love one another in the way Jesus loved so that the Good News of God’s radical acceptance permeates our individual lives and our lives as a community and then spreads across the thirsty ground of those who are so desperate to experience it themselves.
This process of growing into our true identity is not easy. It doesn’t happen over night. There is no magic involved. It takes work. Hard work. Good-Friday work. And it takes practice….just like any other process.
May God give us grace and courage as we learn to love, as we accept the reality that we are loved and as we grow up into the people God intends for us to be. Amen.