Sermon for Sunday, 26 April 2015
4th Sunday of Easter
The Rev. Carrie B. Smith
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd.” I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to proclaim Jesus as our Good Shepherd in a time when the sheep are facing persecution and violence in Libya, Egypt, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Kenya, Iraq, and Syria (among other places). I’ve been wondering how we hear “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want” when Arab Christian members of the flock face economic and political threats right here in the land of the resurrection. It seems every day we hear reports of a wolf just outside the gate, sometimes holding a sword to our heads, and other times holding a pen to paper, drafting unjust or racist policies that cause the flock to suffer.
And how do we even process the tragedy unfolding in Kathmandu?
These are trying times. In difficult times like this, I often look to Psalm 23 for comfort:
“Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me."
But I admit that I also understand the perspective of my Facebook friend—a Palestinian Christian—when he recently suggested:
“You should phrase it “though I walk through the valley of death I shall fear no evil, because I am the meanest SOB in the valley”. That's when you get respect!”
The Lord is our shepherd, and we are his flock, but when the wolves are circling the gate, the truth is we can start to act very un-sheep-like. When we feel threatened, our human instinct usually isn’t to trust in the shepherd and take shelter with him. Our human nature tells us to show that wolf that we aren’t sheep—we’re bigger and badder wolves. We will huff and we’ll puff and we’ll blow the house down before we stop to listen to the voice of the one who says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
Sisters and brothers, whether we are feeling like good and obedient sheep or wolf wannabes, on this fourth Sunday of Easter it’s difficult to miss the Good News in the familiar Gospel text we just heard: Jesus, crucified and risen, is our Good Shepherd, and in his love we are secure. Safe within the sheepfold, nothing can threaten the gift of forgiveness, grace, and eternal life we have in him: no wolf, no sword, no power or principality, no terrorist threat or extremist rhetoric. No earthquake. No avalanche. No, not even death itself can separate us from the love of God we have in our Good Shepherd, Christ Jesus, who has laid down his life for the sheep.
Alleluia, Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed, Alleluia!
Thanks be to God, we have heard the Good News again that Jesus is our Good Shepherd. But it’s also true that we hear this Good News two days after the centennial commemoration of the genocide of 1.5 million Armenian Christians. We hear this Good News one day after the memorial service here in Jerusalem for thirty Ethiopian Christians murdered in Libya. We hear the Good News of Jesus, our Good Shepherd, in the context of a political situation causing Christians to suffer hardships even in the land of Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection.
In light of this reality facing the sheep of the flock, we may hear today’s Gospel text not as Good News but as a call to bare our teeth, to bear arms, to build up fences or walls, and to fight off the wolves ourselves. Instead of tuning in to the voice of our Good Shepherd who says “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” and “I know my own and my own know me”, we are distracted. Instead of resting in the sure and constant care of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, we rest in our own thoughts, Photo-shopping faces on the wolf. He only gets a brief mention in this Gospel passage, but in our imaginations, he becomes bigger than life, bearing the face of ISIS, or the xenophobes in South Africa, or Israeli lawmakers, or whoever else we see as being diametrically opposed to peace, to justice, to freedom, to the safety of the flock. Confident that we’ve identified the wolf, the threat, the “Other”, we roll up our sleeves for a fight and say, “The Lord is my shepherd—and you certainly are not.”
But hear again the words of this almost too-familiar Gospel text:
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.”
Notice how the focus of this passage is not the Good Shepherd vs the Big Bad Wolf, but rather the Good Shepherd vs the Hired Hand.
In other words, when Jesus tells us “I am the Good Shepherd”, he’s not differentiating himself from the wolf (as if we couldn’t already see the difference!) Rather, Jesus wants us to be clear that he is not the Hired Hand.
Yes, there are wolves in our midst. Yes, there is evil and there is hatred, there is racism and Christian persecution and Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, and the violence and suffering of the world are often just too much to bear. The powers and principalities that oppose the Gospel are always lurking nearby, hoping to claim a foothold in the pasture.
But when Jesus says “I am the Good Shepherd” he isn’t warning us about the wolf, but rather about putting our trust in people and powers which promise things they cannot deliver.
“The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.”
Who is this hired hand? The hired hand is whoever and whatever we think provides us security in this life, but cannot be trusted with the job. The hired hand promises life abundant, but runs off when the going gets tough, leaving us defenseless. The hired hand can be a person, but it can also be our own talents and skills, our money, or our home, or our power and popularity.
The hired hand can be our unquestioning confidence in a political party, or in our own intelligence, or in our institutions.
The hired hand can be our guns. Or our fighter jets.
Or a wall topped with razor wire.
We sheep have many ideas of what will provide us security in this world (and the next) and we have tried them all.
But if there is any Good News for us in the midst of genocide, persecution, occupation, and even natural disaster, it is that we need not seek security in a hired hand.
Our security is in our Lord Jesus Christ, the shepherd of the sheep.
We are secure in the Good News that Jesus laid down his life for the sheep.
We are secure in the Good News that Jesus is risen, and has defeated the power of death once and for all.
We are secure in the Way of Jesus and in the footsteps of the saints and martyrs who have gone before us, showing us the power of loving our neighbors, the power of praying for our enemies, the power of reconciliation over retribution, and the power of forgiveness over firepower.
Dear sisters and brothers, fellow sheep of the fold, we know that power over others is never the witness of the cross, and revenge is never the witness of the empty tomb.
Building higher walls and strengthening battle forces and being armed for the inevitable is never the witness of the Good Shepherd.
For Jesus said, “I am the Good Shepherd. I lay down my life for the sheep.”
Our Lord Jesus, the Good Shepherd, has already fought the good fight for us, and won. He has already prepared a place for us in the Father’s house. Therefore, no matter what we face in this life—whether we face a sword like the thirty Ethiopian Christians did in Libya this week, or the devastating loss of life and homes as our Nepalese neighbors are even now—we remain safe and secure in the love of God in Christ Jesus.
So when we stand against the forces of hate, extremism, racism, violence, and exclusion, we do it as sheep of his fold. We do it as ones who know his voice. We do it as witnesses of Our Lord’s self-emptying love for the Other.
|Michael Patrick, Child of God|
This morning we were witnesses to the baptism of little Michael Patrick. Through water and the word, Michael Patrick was washed clean and made a member of the flock that is the Body of Christ in the world. Given the situation for Christians today, this little bit of water might seem to the world to be a weak defense against the powers of terror and violence and persecution. A little water and the words of Jesus might seem to provide very little security in a world where guns and bombs and the sword seem to have the last word.
We don’t know what life will bring for Michael. But we know that it is exactly in his baptism where Michael is the most secure. We know that it is through Water and the Word that Michael finds life, hope, and his true identity—not as baby brother or third child or precious grandchild, but as a sheep of the fold.
And although he didn’t come to the waters himself, we trust that Michael, as he is raised within the community of faith, will learn to recognize the voice of the shepherd. He will hear the stories of God’s love and faithfulness. He will sing songs of praise for creation and salvation. He will be fed and nourished by the Body and the Blood.
And therefore Michael, Child of God, beloved sheep, will know the voice of the Good Shepherd never sounds like the beat of the battle drum.
He will know the voice of the Good Shepherd never excludes or divides, but always draws in the lost sheep and those who do not belong to this fold.
He will know the voice of the Good Shepherd speaks freedom, and liberation, and love of neighbor, and respect for creation.
Thanks be to God (and thanks to his parents and our Sunday School teachers and the whole community of faith) Michael will know the Good Shepherd has laid down his life – not only for him, but for the entire world.
Say it with me:The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.