Joseph P. Mathews, OSL
3 May 2009
4 Easter, B
In the name of God, Mother and Father; God the Son, the Good Shepherd; God the Holy Spirit, who helps us hear the Shepherd’s voice. Amen.
When I finished my last final exam as an undergraduate on Friday, I called Fr. Jeff and asked if he was busy. He said he was, that he needed to write his sermon still, and was playing catch up from his weeks away from the church. I asked him if I could come talk since I haven’t had the opportunity the last few months because of various busy-ness of being a senior. I also asked if I could preach. Somewhere or another I thought I’d preached the other two parts of John’s Good Shepherd narrative the last two years and wanted to complete the set.
By the time I’d made it back to campus I’d forgotten I had a sermon to write myself and went to the baseball game. I’m sorry, Dr. Shelton, I didn’t stay for the entire thing. I left when we were up by 12 at 8:00. If only our Trojans had had a repeat performance last night. I remembered that I had a sermon to write, and while I knew that I was preaching on part of the Good Shepherd narrative, I hadn’t actually read the text yet. But I have now. (pause for laughs and smile)
The Revised Common Lectionary splits Jesus’s description of himself as the Good Shepherd into three parts, all heard on Good Shepherd Sunday, the Fourth Sunday in Easter Season. Last year was about Jesus’s being the gatekeeper: those who come through him will be saved. This year we hear a continuation: the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep he tends and cares for them like no other. This lays a foundation for the way the Church is to take care of its own, as well.
The imagery of a shepherd is imagery with which Jesus’s first century audience would’ve been very familiar, both in their having shepherds and the language of tradition regarding a shepherd that would lead people. The Good Shepherd would have been understood as the Messiah, and the people of the day would have understood the way a shepherd and his or her sheep interacted with one another. Furthermore, they would have understood the reality of a shepherd’s self-sacrifice for the flock.
When Jesus says that he is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life, he makes a political statement: the Good Shepherd cares about the flock. The hired hand -- poor leaders, religious or civil -- turns and runs when a wolf comes. This would have especially been a challenge to the religious leaders of the day, some of whom had sold out to the wolf of Rome and allowed Judaism to become complacent in colluding with the Empire.
Jesus, however is like a good shepherd, someone who cares for the sheep, and is passionate about what he is doing. Many of you have probably had the experiencing of hiring someone who is doing something just to earn a wage or know the difference in work ethic between someone who is living their vocation, their calling in life and someone who is doing something because they have to and hate what they’re doing. This is comparable to a good shepherd and a hired hand -- one does the job fully, putting the sheep first, the other hardly does the job, leaving when adversity strikes (GBOD).
While the phrase, “I know my own and my own know me” can be, has been, and is sometimes still construed as a way of shutting people out for looking, acting, or believing differently than we do, John makes this idea hard to maintain a few verses later when Jesus says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold, I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” (Out in Scripture, 5/3/09)
Finally, this passage focuses on self-sacrifice and the way the Good Shepherd lays down his life to fend off a wolf. Jesus, the Good Shepherd lays down his life so that he can take it back up again. When Jesus laid down his life to fight off the ultimate predator of Satan and Sin, he did it with a purpose. Christ’s suffering is not like other human suffering; Christ laid down his life for his sheep against the ultimate wolf, but took it back up again. We, however, cannot save or raise ourselves. Commentators at the Human Rights Campaign note, “This passage cuts through the notion, frequently imposed on under-represented groups that our suffering is Christ-like, and we are to bear it gladly in his image. Those who construct and impose these theologies are rarely willing to imitate this lesson themselves.” (Out in Scripture, 5/3/09)
As you may know, today is my last regularly scheduled Sunday at St. Mark’s. I may be here some during the summer depending on if I come to Troy for various and sundry things, but today is the last day I know I will be here. As I read through this text while thinking about today being my last Sunday, I couldn’t help but think of parallels between this text and my experiences at St. Mark’s, both that have involved me and that I have observed.
First, the way the church, the body of Christ, the Good Shepherd has cared for the flock in so many ways. At St. Mark’s as a freshman I found a community of people who challenged my faith in a way that didn’t make me doubt, but rather pushed me to grow deeper in my walk with God. I found my first semester people who cared about me as a student, as a person, as a member of their faith community -- from talking to me about starting an edgy club on campus to telling me that I’d scraped by but gotten an A on a final to pull my math grade to an A. Today is a reversal of roles for me with many in this room having been in their own pulpits of sorts speaking to me the last four years.
It’s been my privilege to be a part of a faith community that invests its time in its members and seeks to attract and welcome new people who may be visiting from other folds and may or may not stay with us, but are a part of the same flock with the same shepherd. You at this church have emphasized continually a line from “The Church’s one foundation”: one Lord, one Faith, one Birth, regardless of how or where people express it. I saw somewhat from the outside people in this church fending off wolves by offering to provide whatever care they could when a dear friend of mine was going through major personal trouble. It’s been a pleasure to be a part of a church that has formed and nurtured me in ways that I cannot yet begin to know, spiritually and mentally.
I personally appreciate the amount of care and concern that was given to me in my ordeal around Easter with my appendix coming out, from phone calls to e-mails to an angel on my I.V. stand to an Easter basket with edible Easter grass to flowers to visits to posts on my Facebook wall, I knew that I was loved and cared for. I appreciate the way the church has sought to work to involve college students in its process and governance from electing one as a delegate to convention to helping them be there.
Jesus talks about how the sheep know him and he knows them. Chancellor Hawkins told my leadership class this semester that people want to hear their name. This year for the first time I’m able to name most of the people who speak to me. I’ve been here four years, and for much of it I’ve been addressed by name without exactly remembering who was speaking to me. Sometime during my senior year of high school my mom asked me why I liked St. Luke, my United Methodist Church so much. I tearfully told her, "They know my name." A friend of mine’s parents had greeted me -- by name -- despite my not have done anything with them one-on-one or really in a small group. But they knew my name.
Today’s passage is about Jesus the Good Shepherd, and how the Good Shepherd cares for the flock. But caring for the flock as it is manifested today requires mutual care for one another. Writing about church community last April in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Tom Ehrich said,
“Some faith [bodies] get [the importance of community], and some don’t. You can always tell the difference. The ones that get it make room for children, greet strangers, embrace diversity and always have time for the person who is suffering. The ones that don’t get it want children out of the way, encourage anonymity, freeze out the odd, rarely have time for human needs, and demand that people take sides in their endless squabbles.
Christianity’s health isn’t about doctrine, liturgical style, location, architecture or anything that can be bought or intellectualized. From childhood through adulthood, church is about community, places to feel safe and loved, so that we can dare to grow up, datre to make our way in the omeoneworld, dare to disagree with the powers-that-be, and dare to face death.”
In this place I have experienced the community Ehrich refers to. One of the most important things that has happened is that I’ve been dared to grow up. By that I don’t mean that I am done learning life or am fully complete in my adult maturation. But rather than treating me like a child who you’ve watched grow up or like a child or “young adult,” which is code for immature, you’ve treated me like an adult -- and expected me to treat you like adults as a peer, even when I wasn’t sure how to… and it got really tricky sometimes with the, Do I call them doctor or can I call them by their first name? This is the dilemma of going to church with one’s professors. You’ve helped me make tough, adult decisions and offered your love to me as I dare to challenge some powers that be. You’ve played a part in my discerning my call to ordained ministry, including asking some pretty tough adult questions that left me baffled in our little discernment group meetings. In this place I have learned about and seen the Good Shepherd - in the way people love one another and the way they are willing to sacrifice for one another. And for that I thank you. Alleluia! Christ is risen! Amen.