Monday, May 4, 2009

Easter 4, Year B, Sunday May 3, 2009

Acts 4:23-37; Psa 23; 1 John 3:1-8; John 10:11-16

Preached by The Rev. Ellen Francis, OSH

The hired hand runs away… [but] the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

This Sunday, the fourth Sunday after Easter, is sometimes called “Good Shepherd” Sunday. The readings are always from the Gospel of John, chapter 10, and in these readings we hear Jesus identify himself as the “Good Shepherd”, in contrast to the “hired hand” who is out for himself and who runs away at the first sign of danger. This allegory would have been very familiar to Jesus’ listeners in the ancient world since they were much more familiar with the care of farm animals than most of us probably are.

I’ve only had two experiences of sheep, and they were rather distant ones at that. My first sheep-experience was in Wales on a vacation in the spring. We were driving through the countryside, and the lambs had just been born. The grow-up sheep were walking around and grazing, but the baby lambs were just little white, fluffy balls lying on the grass. They were really cute, but the grown up sheep wouldn’t let us get close to them.

My second experience of sheep was in the north of Iran. I had gone with my family to a very small village near the Caspian Sea, and we stayed in a country house. We were far away from any roads or anything modern, and it was incredibly quiet. I’m not sure I have ever been anywhere outdoors that was so quiet, with no ambient sound at all. We walked in the surrounding hills, and saw sheep grazing on the next hill. The only sound we did hear was a “chk, chk” – which turned out to be the sound of the sheep pulling grass from the ground as they grazed.

I don’t know much about sheep, except that they seem to be quite defenseless. They are herded by sheep dogs and shepherds, and can’t take care of themselves. Sheep are also rather dumb. Although they look cute and cuddly from a distance, but we might feel not altogether flattered that we are being compared to a flock of sheep.

It’s true that like sheep, we are sometimes a bit wooly headed. We don’t always make the best choices between a good shepherd and a hired hand. We’ve all heard the stories about the lady who answered the phone and gave her social security number to the “nice” man who claimed to be from her insurance office, or the man who answered an email that he could help someone get millions of dollars out of Nigeria if he would just give them his bank account number.

Whom should we believe? Whom should we trust? It seems obvious that we should not follow a hired hand, who is primarily out for himself and who runs away at the first sign of danger. The question is – how do we know?

Some years ago I was volunteering as a chaplain in a terminal care hospital, and I went to visit an elderly man. He was from Italy, and I told him that I spoke just a very little Italian, mostly on the level of “buon giorno”. Well, that was all he needed to hear, and he started to tell me his life story in a torrent of Italian. I could hardly understand anything that he said. I think he said that he had served in WW II, had married and had children, but there was much, much more that I didn’t catch. So I just made appreciative noises now and then, and an occasional “bene, bene”, and he just kept on talking.

It seemed so important to him to tell his story, in his own way, and especially in his own language. I think on one level he knew that I wasn’t understanding very much, but I had given him an opening in which to talk. It seemed to me that my presence was a catalyst to get the story started, and that he was really conversing with God. Still, this elderly man trusted me with his story, and I held it as a sacred exchange that was really intended for God.

This was often my experience as a chaplain that people who were in a hospital and facing a critical illness were often able and even anxious to open up to me almost immediately and to tell me their most intimate thoughts and stories. If I had just walked in off the street, just as myself, this would never have happened, but I came to them as a chaplain (not even ordained or a sister back then). As we introduced ourselves to each other, Jesus came into our midst. In his sacred presence, our conversation became sacred and all that we said was held in a sacred space and time.

Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd”. Jesus is the one who leads his sheep to green pastures to graze. He leads the sheep not to running streams but to “still” waters so that the sheep can drink easily. Jesus isn’t like the hired hand who has no deep commitment to the flock. Jesus stays with the flock, even in the valley of darkness and danger. Jesus is the shepherd who cares not only for his own flock of sheep, but also wants to bring all others into his fold as well.

There are many images in painting and sculpture of the Good Shepherd. One of my favorites is a statue of Jesus holding a lamb over his shoulders and patting the head of another sheep who is standing at his feet, looking up adoringly at him. If we knew nothing more of the story of Jesus except this statue, we could assume that this bond of love between him and his “fold” was something extraordinary, based on complete trust and care and love. We might wonder and ponder what would be the basis for such adoration and trust.

The disciples knew Jesus and trusted him so completely that they laid down their wealth and none were in need who shared their faith. They trusted so completely that some were willing to die for their faith in the one who had died for them. They trusted him completely, because he is the one who is completely faithful to us all.

Whom should we believe? Whom should we trust? Why settle for a hired hand? As we move forward in our parish life, with our search for a new rector, and with our plans to become financially self-sustaining, we can trust above all in Christ Jesus to be with us every step of the way.

Why settle for anyone less than the one who is always faithful, always compassionate, always present and always true. Who else should we follow but Jesus, the Good Shepherd, the one who gave up his life to death on the cross and rose again in victory over fear and the shadow of death. He is the gate to true life because he has laid down his life for us and for the life of the whole world. Who else should we follow but Jesus who shows us the way and leads us always in the way of compassionate care for one another and into the light of eternal life.

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