Mother Katherine’s sermon preached on April 25, 2021

Posted by on Sun, Apr 25, 2021 in Easter, Sermons

The Fourth Sunday of Easter

April 25, 2021

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—

The 23rd Psalm is usually the only one most people have memorized, or at the very least know well enough to recognize. As much as it should be worn out by now, for many it’s also the only thing that will do for funerals. The idea of Jesus as the ‘Good Shepherd’ is comforting that way too. The idea forms one of the very earliest known images of Jesus, found in the Catacombs of Rome in a third-century fresco. It shows a fairly scruffy beardless Jesus with rough shepherd’s clothing and gear carrying a rather earthy looking lamb with two more at his feet. It didn’t take the church long to clean him up, and from the fourth century on sculptures, stained glass, mosaics as on your bulletins, show a pretty tidy well-groomed shepherd, with an equally tidy sheep on his shoulders. Personally I want a shepherd who will get down in the dirt with me! We each glean different ideas from how we imagine ‘the good shepherd’, and I hope yours is one of attending relationship and safeguarding instead of remoteness. My mind goes straight to Jesus as the Lamb of God, which of course he also is—the two are different aspects of the same truth of salvation. 

The metaphor of shepherd is so frequently used and so lovingly time-worn maybe it makes ‘Good Shepherd Sunday’ a bit less than a priest’s favorite to preach on. This week I read the lessons and prayed, and thought about those who tell me they’re glad to hear sermons which connect scripture to ‘real life’ and point them to action. Seminaries teach us to always preach including a ‘go forth and do’ message, which is all well and good at appropriate times. Let’s not come to think that only way we hear scripture speak is like thinking it’s all up to us; if we do enough good solid Christian action there should be nothing left for God to do. After all that hard work of making the whole of creation, calling and sending of Gods people, managing floods and rainbows, parting seas, sending Jesus and getting him through the resurrection—it’s as if we become Jesus’ disciples so that God can retire now and leave it up to us. This is the gospel of our Lord, not a to-do list or self-salvation plan!

Today it’s all about Jesus. He’s the only one doing—the doing, teaching us who and what he is to us. In Jesus is a shepherd who lays knows each of them, calls them, brings them, owns them, cares and protects them. In our psalm the shepherd makes, revives, leads, walks, comforts, spreads a table, anoints, fills, and gives goodness and mercy. Yes, Jesus inspires us to do a great deal else in the gospels with plenty of action and interaction, but today is a time for us to stop and be his beloved sheep.

“I am the good shepherd”, Jesus says in John’s gospel. No mincing words or embellishing, this gospel writer John tells it straight and deep. There’s no sermon on the mount, no beatitudes, no parables, no transfiguration, no last supper—all things we find in the other gospels. The sense of mystery and metaphor is expansive in John’s telling, it’s the only gospel to include Jesus’ teaching on eternal life, and the only one to speak of him as the good shepherd. Jesus then says, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” For us who want to learn what we need to act, to be sent to ‘go forth and do’ there’s no instruction, no assignment today. I know we like gaining a foothold on fixing the world’s ills, and as the church we try to gather our efforts to do our best. We’ve proclaimed the decade of evangelism (that came and went) or twenty percent growth by 2020, and I like Presiding Bishop Curry’s calling us to be ‘the Jesus Movement!’ We won’t find such instruction here, and we’re left to wonder why. Why a “Good Shepherd”? Why not the Best Teacher, the Divine Do-gooder, the CEO of Omnipotence? Someone to tell us the best way to get going and be the winningest of sheep, the best and brightest Christian sheep leaders? Not here. 

I am the good shepherd”, he says. Not you, not me. We are the sheep, and sheep aren’t known to be especially bright and high achieving. They’re docile, herd-following, obedient, social, and stressed when isolated from the flock. They need a shepherd, and so do we. If he could’ve taught or equipped the disciples to save themselves and pass that knowledge along effectively and efficiently, he could have left on Good Friday and never needed to come back to originate Easter. He would never need to be the good shepherd who lays down his life for us, for his beloved, wayward, wandering, sheep-like children what we cannot do for ourselves. And that’s the greatest love and comfort in the whole of scripture. That’s why we want the 23rd Psalm read at funerals. When earthly life ends, when struggle and striving, loving and daily living, and our wandering comes to an end, this is where our hope is waiting for us; we want to be led by the unfailing love of the good shepherd, over death’s threshold and through the grave with both strength and mercy.

As we live and from time to time find ourselves glad we know this psalm, I see just how often it is my own doing that I’m astray, how our shepherd finds us in self-imposed snares and yet patiently draws us through them and into his arms. The shepherd guides to still waters and green pastures, shows us the way, because we wander into the dangerous ones often enough. In all of this he is holy comfort to the end of our earthly days, and then leads us—or carries us on his shepherd’s shoulders— into eternal life. 

As our country absorbs the outcome of the Derek Chauvin trial for the death of George Floyd, I’ve heard (and had myself) a variety of reactions and thoughts emerging. For some of us, the outcome brought relief and a sense of justice, and only moments later I heard the same people voice increased fears of retaliation. There’s fear, a distrust of each other; of police and protesters, of people of color, of black, white, Latino, Asian, Sikhs, Muslims, of varying gender identities, and more, and many experience themselves and their loved ones as targets, in ways both new and old. As I listen to people about this verdict I also hear about the year+ of division and violence, tearing apart from each other. In our gospel today Jesus also 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.” Lord, hear our prayer! This is our hope, and why we so often choose this gospel for funerals too.

I suspect we all wonder if we will get better or worse through what is happening; we seem far away from this experience of oneness in Christ’s expansive sheepfold. That doesn’t mean it cannot be true. Perhaps this is not a moment to do as much as it is to reflect and listen to each other, even be in silence. We cannot fix all these things ourselves, no matter how wise or spiritual, powerful, accomplished or right we are. Today let’s pause to let our Lord shepherd us. Let’s remember that he didn’t lay down his life to save those who are without sin. We all need to be beloved, and God needs to love us. I’m finding this ‘Good Shepherd Sunday’ a time I can admit how very sheep—like I am—and perhaps you do too—and a time to be deeply thankful that we have such a very ‘good shepherd’ to lay down his life for us, to save us.

Amen.

© 2021 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved.