Friday, May 4, 2012

The Fourth Sunday of Easter (Good Shepherd Sunday); April 29, 2012

Psalm 23; 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18 Preached by Rev. Jsaon M. Haddox Happy Good Shepherd Sunday to you all! The fourth Sunday in Easter season is always dedicated to the theme of The Good Shepherd, and so we wish a blessed festival to our neighbors up Walton Way, and all the other churches that keep this day as their feast of title. For many of us, Psalm 23 is one of the first portions of scripture we ever learned. How many representations in painting and sculpture and other art forms have we seen, of the Good Shepherd? There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of songs paraphrasing or referencing the 23rd Psalm. At one time I could count on congregations (even non-liturgical ones) at funerals being able to say it from memory. My first thought upon reading the lessons for today: Is it even possible to preach a new word on this psalm? I began to reread it… The image of the shepherd in ancient Israel was an ambiguous one. The shepherds of Israel were seen as scruffy, scrappy, marginal folk. They were not particularly well-regarded by the better classes of society; the position of shepherd was not especially prestigious. On the other hand, little David, the greatest king Israel ever had, had been hustled in from tending the sheep to be anointed as God’s chosen. And it is to David that we attribute many of the Psalms. If Psalm 23 isn’t the psalm of a shepherd king, I can’t think what would be. From God’s providence in the wilderness, to protection in the darkness and danger, to a celebration with anointing and feasting in the house of the Lord…it’s all there! When Jesus says of himself this morning, “I am the good shepherd…” he is using and embellishing that well-known image from the Psalm. This statement of Jesus, and where it occurs in the story, is not nearly as benign as it sounds at first hearing. The 10th chapter of John bridges two critical stories: first, the story of the man born blind whose sight Jesus restored, and secondly the raising of Lazarus from the dead. The stakes are as high as they can be; Jesus and his followers are on one side of the line in the sand and “the Jews” are on the other. We hear pointed criticism about the hired hand who does not own the sheep (the Greek reads something more like “…whose own the sheep are not,” suggesting not merely the ownership of the sheep as objects, but that there is an intimacy between the shepherd and the sheep.) In contrast to the hired hand is the image of the shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand leaves everyone and everything else, hightailing it for the nearest tree, and we hear again: “I am the shepherd, the good one…I know my own, and they know me. I lay down my life for them. There are others who do not belong to this fold, I must bring them also and they too will listen to me. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. There are others, Jesus says, who are not right here in front of you at the moment but who are also mine as well. They matter just as much as you do. He tells his hearers—then and now—that the circle of God’s love is much larger than anything we can see or even imagine. I lay down my life, Jesus says, and I take it up again. No one takes it from me; I lay it down of my own accord, and I take it up again. We cannot hear this language from Jesus of “laying down his life” and “taking it up again” without our ears perking up. Oh there he goes again—talking about the resurrection! “I have received this command (Greek: entolen, instruction, order, decree) from my Father.” The Father language immediately gets him in trouble again, here and a few verses later. “You are blaspheming…you are making yourself God.” (10:33) At that moment Jesus addresses his critics to say “Do you not believe me? Then believe the works that I do…I do these things because the Father is in me and I am in the Father.” A few chapters later, he tells the disciples the same thing, in the Upper Room. Remember that in John’s gospel, the Last Supper is not an ordinary meal with the eating of bread and the drinking of wine. Instead Jesus models for the disciples the work of washing feet, and serving and caring for one another in some remarkably intimate, vulnerable ways. After which, Jesus repeats himself to the disciples: “Even after I’ve been with you all this time, if you still don’t believe me, believe the works themselves…those who believe in me will do all this and more!” (14:12) And they do. Jesus is the shepherd, the good one…who is in intimate relationship with those he has called to himself; who does cause them to graze in green pastures and drink from clear still waters; but who also sets a table of delicious food and drink for them. (Sheep do not eat from tables. They would be more likely to eat the tablecloth itself.) He pours oil on their heads to anoint them as his own; and prepares them to do the works he has done, not to be sheep, but to be good shepherds as well. We live in a time when the words and outward trappings of faith are often—not always, but often—used to divide, and belittle, and condemn. The gospel of Christ has sometimes—not always, but sometimes—been taken hostage by those who would use it to protect their own agendas and feather their own nests, who seem to have no knowledge or desire of knowledge of what that Gospel might actually mean. The first letter of John seems to speak to a similar time and situation. False teachers were claiming that perhaps Jesus didn’t really become human, but just appeared that way (the word for that particular heresy is Docetism, from the Greek word dokeo, meaning “to seem or appear”)—and the letter is written to insist on the essential reality of the Incarnation. That YES, Jesus was God and human, both at once; and YES he died and was raised from the dead; and YES that means that what happens here in our lives is of extraordinary importance to God. It will not do to wait around for the life of the world to come; the life of God’s abiding presence and transformation begins now. Has already begun, in fact. The image of Christ laying down his life “for us” and the consequent call to lay down our lives for one another echoes the gospel. It is a call to social action—“How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and refuses to help a brother or sister in need?” Ask that question of the authorities and powers in Washington or Atlanta or downtown Augusta; ask that question of ourselves, who do have more than enough to eat, and so many clothes and shoes in our closets that they are overflowing… And yet it is more than that—Let us love in truth and action, as well as in word and speech. We are called to act in deeds of love and mercy, yes; we are also called to speak, to tell of the love of God we ourselves have seen and known. As Episcopalians we are terrified of this—WHY? I know we don’t want to be rude or pushy or preachy, but really…if someone asked you “Why are you a Christian?” what would you say? The famous preacher and bishop Philips Brooks was asked that very question. He thought for a moment and said “I think am a Christian because of my aunt, who lives in Teaneck, New Jersey.” She had convinced him, by word and example, that being a Christian was something worthy and good. For the most part, Christian faith is caught, not taught. It is infectious, spread by personal contact through lives filled with the light of Christ, doing the deeds of Christ, speaking the good news of Christ. All of the above. As the old hymn lyric has it: “Let those refuse to sing who never knew our God/but children of the heavenly King may speak their joys abroad.” All of these are ways in which we show who we are, and whose we are already--“God abides in us, right now, right here, through the Holy Spirit.” We live into this reality as we trust in Jesus to be who he says he is for us, and as we live and speak and act in love toward each other. We are called, today and every day, to do the deeds of the Good Shepherd. We are called, for the sake of those around us, to let go of those things we think we MUST have in order to manage or control our lives—knowing that in Christ’s resurrection, all our own losses and deaths and burials are also transformed and raised to new life in Christ Jesus, our good shepherd. Alleluia! Christ is risen! Amen.