Called to be a community of Good Shepherds: A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, 2018

We are in Eastertide, the season of Easter that extends until the Feast of Pentecost, this year on May 20. Our lectionary readings over this season have a certain trajectory. The past three Sundays, we have heard stories of encounters with the Risen Christ. With today’s gospel, we are moving in a different direction as our readings seem to explore what it means to be  beloved community living in the presence of the Risen Christ.

This Sunday is informally known as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” Each year in the lectionary cycle, the gospel reading is taken from John 10, which contains Jesus’ discourse or sermon on the image of the good shepherd, sheep, and the gate of the sheepfold. Each year, the psalm appointed for the day is Psalm 23—The Lord is my Shepherd.

Each year, as I prepare to preach on this Sunday, I confront the same fundamental conflict or problem. On the one hand, there is the power and appeal of imagery that has persisted in the Christian imagination for two thousand years: the Good Shepherd. There is the familiarity of Psalm 23, one of the first portions of scripture I ever memorized, and I can probably still recite it using the language of the authorized, King James version.

On the other hand, I always find myself fighting against that imagery. There’s the individualistic, sugar-coated piety of the ubiquitous, kitschy paintings of Jesus in a white robe, surrounded by white lambs, and blond-haired blue-eyed, smiling children. There’s the paternalism and infantilization of laypeople as sheep, and clergy as shepherds or pastors. There’s the not-so-subtle seduction of a simpler, less-complicated, pre-industrial world, where we can escape the complexities, ambiguities, and challenges of contemporary life and rest in the comfort of green pastures and still waters.

As appealing and comforting this imagery is, I also find it deeply problematic, and its very familiarity can make finding a preaching word difficult.

Our reading comes half-way through the chapter, so Jesus has been using the imagery of the good shepherd, sheep, the sheepfold and gate at great length already. It’s also helpful to remember that the whole of this discourse comes immediately after the long story of Jesus healing the man born blind, a story in which there is conflict between Jesus, the blind man, and the Pharisees, a story also in which the blind man comes to know Jesus through the sound of his voice.

In our passage, Jesus begins with the statement, “I am the Good Shepherd.” He contrasts the behavior and character of the shepherd with the hired hand and we are likely to think of the adjective “good” in light of that, contrasting the “good shepherd” with the “bad” hired hand. But in this instance, the underlying Greek word has a slightly different connotation. We could translate it as noble, or ideal or model shepherd—in fact the contrast might better be understood as being between honor and shame, than between good and bad, or good and evil.

Does that matter? Well, it might, if we think about what Jesus is saying as a description of the ideal shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep—and immediately we’re put in mind of the cross, and of Jesus’ words to his disciples at the last supper: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (jn 15:13), a theme repeated in the lesson from I John that we heard this morning.

In fact, both this aspect of the ideal shepherd, that he lays down his life for his sheep, and the second aspect emphasized in today’s gospel, that the shepherd knows his sheep by name—are obvious to us readers of John’ gospel, approaching this passage after cross and resurrection. For we have seen the true, the model shepherd in action, laying down his life for his friends, for us, on the cross, and calling his own by their name, as he called Mary Magdalene in the garden and in that moment, she knew her Lord.

In other words, in the Gospel of John, we are not only given Jesus’ words about the character and behavior of the good shepherd, John also provides us with the paradigmatic example of the Good Shepherd, Jesus himself, the one who laid down his life for his friends; the one who knew his friends by name.

But there is also a challenge here. While the image of the Good Shepherd seems to invite us into a place of comfort, peace, and security, sheep under the protective care of the shepherd, within the walls of an enclosure, the image itself, as well as Jesus’ words, encourage us to think differently. The reading from I John seems almost to be a commentary on Jesus’ words here. The writer seems to say to us, yes, Jesus did lay down his life for us, but in response we are to lay down our lives for others. There’s no security blanket here, no protective wall, only the example of Jesus calling us out into the world, calling us to love others in the same way, and with the same consequences as he did.

On top of that, continuing the imagery, the walls within which the Good Shepherd gathers the flock are not closed off from the world. Though he may know us, and his own, by name, Jesus is also calling others into relationship. “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.”

This statement offers an important corrective to other tendencies in scripture, and our own proclivities to remain within the familiar and the comfortable. We like the security and comfort of the Good Shepherd. We want to be nurtured and protected, but Jesus is also prodding us outward, into those difficult encounters with the strange, the other, the uncomfortable.

Think about all those places we go where we want safety, security, comfort. Church, yes, where we don’t want to deal with hard issues, or difficult people, or strangers. But apparently also, for many of us, encountering people unlike ourselves creates fear. Think about walking up State Street and dealing with panhandlers; or the horrific story that went viral this week about the African-American men who were arrested in a Philadelphia Starbucks, simply because they were waiting for someone and didn’t purchase anything. We want all of the spaces in which we work, and play, and live safe—and we bring down the full power of a militarized police to make sure that all of those spaces are comfortable for us.

But what would it be like if we opened up our hearts, our selves, our communities, our congregation, to the challenging and unsettling encounter with the stranger, the outcast, the other? What if we allowed those encounters to take place, not on our terms, but on their terms. I was deeply moved by another story I read this week, one that came across the Episcopal News Service, about churches that had made the commitment not to call the police when confronted with difficult or challenging people or situations. The reasoning goes that too often such incidents escalate quickly, that mental illness, homelessness, and other behaviors or conditions are criminalized, that an encounter of the police with people, especially people of color, too often end in violence and arrest, as we saw in Philadelphia, and as we indeed see on the streets of Madison as well.

That’s one way that the words of this gospel reading take us out of still waters and green pastures, out of the protective enclosure, and into the world, the valley of the shadow of death. Jesus reminds us that his call goes out into the world, to others, that he offers relationship,  abundant life to people who make us uncomfortable and unsettle our assumptions. He laid down his life for them as well.

He calls us, too, not only to be sheep, but also to be shepherds, to lay down our lives for others, to invite others into relationship with him. As a congregation, we are having conversations in a number of venues, among a number of groups, about our outreach into the community, about building relationships with our neighbors. As those conversations take place, and as we strategize next steps, I hope that we will take seriously Jesus’ example. As he laid down his life for his friends, may we be challenged to offer ourselves in similar ways, sharing our love and our faith. May we invite others into relationship with Jesus. May our community increasingly reflect and embody the diversity in our city and may our invitation to others be an invitation to us as well, an invitation to grow, and to change, and to experience more fully the abundant life that is relationship in and with Jesus Christ.











Making Sense of the Good Shepherd in a Violent and Chaotic World: A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, 2015

The news from across the world continues to horrify us. Just this week, ISIS executed thirty more Coptic Christians, for no reason other than that they were Christian, and probably because Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby was travelling to Egypt, where he would meet with the Coptic pope and participate in memorial services for the 21 Coptic Christians executed by ISIS in January. Last month, Islamic extremists attacked a university in Kenya and killed hundreds of Christians. The death toll rises and as it does, extremist rhetoric in the US is reaching a fever pitch as well.
This unimaginable violence against Christians is occurring as a backdrop to our own culture wars, where debates and conflicts over religious freedom and human rights erupt as politicians, pundits, and media celebrities seek to gain influence, power, and wealth by fanning the flames of hatred and intolerance. The juxtaposition of those images—Coptic martyrs kneeling with ISIS fighters holding swords at their throats over against interviews with conservative Christians in America crying fear of persecution for refusing to bake wedding cakes are so extreme that many of us feel we’ve come unmoored; we don’t know where we’re headed as individual Christians or as Christian communities. We’re not sure what we’re supposed to believe, or how we are supposed to behave.

All this comes at a time when the world, or most of it, commemorates the centennial of the Armenian genocide, the first genocide of the twentieth century, a horror that cast its long shadows even here at Grace, where we welcomed refugee families of Armenian Christians in the 1910s and 1920s, a legacy that is commemorated in one of the stained glass windows to my right.

I’m also deeply concerned about the violence taking place here in Madison. Earlier this week, I listened as the captain of the central district of Madison’s PD talked about incidents that took place in bars and student residences downtown, as altercations that began with words quickly escalated to stabbings and shootings thanks to the prevalence of weapons in our society. Our world, our society, our city seem to be spiraling out of control into violent chaos.

All this may want us to appeal to the image of the Good Shepherd, to rest in the certainty that God cares for us, cradles us in the arms of God’s love and mercy, protecting us from all evil, leading us beside the still waters and green pastures, and keeping all of the concerns and fears of the world far away.

 The image of the Good Shepherd appeals deeply to us, tugs at our heartstrings, tying into notions of God’s loving care for us. It is also very nostalgic, evoking for us ideas of a simpler, less complicated world and time, either individually, when a loving parent protected us from harm, or an earlier era in human history, when life was simpler and less dangerous.

But the emotional appeal of the Good Shepherd conceals the violence and conflict in the gospel reading itself. The discourse on the Good Shepherd occurs at a time in the gospel when conflict between Jesus and the Jewish religious authorities is ratcheting up. In chapter 9, Jesus healed a man born blind, and that entire chapter is given over to conflict over Jesus’ authority to do such miracles, and Jesus’ identity as the Messiah, the Son of God. In the next chapter, Jesus will raise Lazarus from the dead, which seems to precipitate the plot to kill Jesus.

So Jesus’ words about the Good Shepherd come in the context of intensifying conflict and danger. And as even a cursory reading of today’s text reveals, conflict, violence, and danger permeate Jesus’ words. We may overlook that in the powerful emotional appeal of the good shepherd, but after identifying himself as the good shepherd, Jesus immediately states that a good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.

The strangeness of that statement probably doesn’t occur to us, but reflect on it for a moment. What shepherd would do such a thing? What shepherd would sacrifice his life for the life of the flock under his care? Would you? Oh sure, you might put your life on the line to save your family, we might put our lives on the line to protect our deepest held beliefs, or our country. But would you really sacrifice your life to protect a flock of sheep?

Jesus is drawing a sharp distinction between himself and his opponents. He is the Good Shepherd, the one who knows his sheep by name, and whose sheep know him. His relationship with the sheep is intense, personal, connected. In contrast, the hired hand works only for pay, does what he does for personal gain. I wouldn’t go further than that and suggest that Jesus is saying something about his opponents in the religious establishment here. 

Instead, I think what’s important here is the quality of the relationship between sheep and shepherd that Jesus is describing. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. In a few chapters, at the Last Supper, Jesus will say something similar—No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 

At the Last Supper, in several different ways, Jesus emphasizes his love for his disciples, his friends, and the importance of their love for one another. Here, he’s saying much the same thing, using slightly different imagery. The love the good shepherd has for his sheep, the depth of the relationship between good shepherd and sheep is comparable to the relationship between Jesus and his Father—I know my Father and my Father knows me just as I know my sheep and my sheep know my name. His willingness to lay down his life for them, for us, grows out of his love for us, which grows out of his love for God and God’s love for him.

Jesus’ voice and words call us into relationship of that quality, draws us into deep relationship with him and with God, relationship that is modeled on the relationship between Jesus and his Father. It’s almost incomprehensible, the depth and expanse of that relationship—a relationship that is symbolized by the shepherd laying down his life for his sheep. In the laying down of that life, we experience and know God’s love, a love we are called to model for others.

But I wouldn’t take that too far, either. I was reminded this week of the pernicious effects of misdirected attempts to force the laying down of one’s life. I came down for breakfast one morning and found Corrie fighting back tears. I asked her what was wrong. She explained that she had just read the Pulitzer Prize winning series from the Charleston SC Post and Courier on domestic violence in that state. It’s a chilling examination of the ways culture, politics, misogyny, and Christianity combine to put women in danger from their husbands and partners. Pastors admitted openly to telling abused women to submit to their husbands, or holding joint counseling sessions with couples in abusive relationships that led only to more abuse. More than ten years ago, Corrie had organized a symposium on domestic violence and Christianity at the college where she taught. It’s outrageous that all these years later, nothing seems to have changed. Lest we congratulate ourselves in Wisconsin on our superiority, I need hardly remind you of the news stories here of horrific domestic violence.

I’ll just point out what ought to be obvious. Jesus’ words about laying down one’s life for one’s friends, or one’s sheep are an expression of a deep, intimate relationship of love and knowledge. They are not telling us what to do or how to behave. They are not telling us what to do if we are abused or attacked. Get help! Seek protection.

The violence and chaos of our world cannot be avoided by appeals to the saccharine piety of an image of blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus holding a lamb in his arms. We can’t fathom the faith or experience of someone who has been killed for their faith in Jesus Christ; most of us, thank God, can’t fathom what it must be like to beaten by someone who claims to love us.

But we can bear witness. We can bear witness to a Christ who invites us into and models life-giving, loving relationship. We can, in our relationships at home, at work, and especially in our congregation, seek to embody life-giving, loving relationships. And we can call for justice in our community and in our world, justice that embodies such love.


Reviving our Souls: A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, 2013

Reviving our Souls

 What a hard, hard week it’s been. There was the shock of the bombings at the Boston Marathon followed by the manhunt and the surreal day Friday with one of the great cities of our nation, the city Corrie and I still consider home in many ways, on lockdown. There were the suspected letters containing ricin sent to President Obama and other politicians. There was the devastating explosion at a fertilizer plant that killed at least fifteen people, most of them emergency personnel, with many more still missing. There were earthquakes in Iran, China, New Guinea. The national epidemic of gun violence continues unabated with 8 shootings in Chicago on Thursday alone. Our own wider community struggles with grief and all sorts of pastoral issues at well, including very serious illness. Continue reading

What, the Good Shepherd again? A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, 2012

April 29, 2012

 I hate preaching on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, It’s Good Shepherd Sunday and each year we hear texts from John 10. Each year, we say or hear read, or sing, Psalm 23. I dislike the saccharine piety of the good shepherd; you know that painting your parents or grandparents had hanging in the living room, with a blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus, in a long flowing robe, holding a cute little lamb in his arms. Or if not a painting on a living room wall, perhaps an image from Sunday School or a Bible story book. Then there are the hymns, and of course, Psalm 23. Continue reading

The sheep know his voice–A homily for the Fourth Sunday of Easter

May 15, 2011

I’m sure that most of you have figured out by now that I am fascinated by the changing scene of religion in America. I have been for many years but the transition from the Christ-haunted South, as Flannery O’Connor put it, and Madison, where Grace Church is practically neighbors with the Freedom from Religion Foundation, has given me much to reflect on, intellectually and pastorally. We live in an increasingly secular world, where, in spite of the prominence of Christian rhetoric in the political sphere, religious language and religious institutions, a religious world-view, is on the wane. More people identify themselves as non-religious, and many of those who still claim religious affiliation, are less and less connected to communities of faith. And then I read about the study that was published in the last couple of days that claimed to prove that to be human is to be religious, that is to say, that human beings, everywhere and always, have had religious quests.

Continue reading