Sunday, May 3, 2009

Sermon -- 3 May 2009

4TH SUN. OF EASTER — 3 May 2009
St. Paul’s, Durant — 9:00 AM

Acts 4:(23-31)32-37 Ps 23 1 John 3:1-8 John 10:11-16

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

The picture of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is one of the most common in Christian imagery. In one form or another it recurs throughout the gospels, and for that matter through the Hebrew scriptures as well. We may immediately think of the parable of the lost sheep (in Matthew and Luke). Jesus also picks up on themes that run throughout the Old Testament — as we heard in Psalm 23 today (“The Lord is my shepherd…”), or in Psalm 100 (“We are [God’s] people and the sheep of his pasture”), or in Psalm 80 (“Hear, O Shepherd of Israel, leading Joseph like a flock; shine forth, you that are enthroned upon the cherubim”). Recall that the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) were all shepherds, as was Moses after he fled from Pharaoh’s court in Egypt into the Sinai, as was David before he was anointed as Israel’s King (“I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel” 2 Sam 7:8).

In the 34th chapter of Ezekiel, a passage which Jesus pretty obviously has directly in mind in what he is saying in today’s Gospel, the prophet Ezekiel, speaking for God at the time of the conquest by the Babylonians, condemns the leadership of Judah for not caring for God’s flock but letting them be scattered, and God promises to be their true shepherd and to bring them home.

Most of us have little direct acquaintance with sheep or shepherding. (Are any of you still raising sheep? Or at least, was your family raising sheep on the farm when you grew up?) So for most of us, the image of Christ the Good Shepherd is a lot like the stained glass window over the high altar over at Trinity Church in Iowa City, which some of you have probably seen: Jesus in long white robes, with a neatly trimmed beard and long flowing locks of well-brushed, well-conditioned hair, cuddling a couple of soft curly lambs that at first glance look like poodle puppies.

Right. You get my point.

When the Bible talks about us as the sheep of God’s flock, about Jesus as our shepherd, there is nothing cute or romantic about it. We’re not being given a compliment here, folks! But what I hope is clear is that God loves us, God cares for us, God rescues us even at the cost of his life, and this is not because we deserve it or have earned it, but just because!

And we say that over and over, but even as we say it, we back away from it. Yes, God loves us — if.…

God cares for us — when.…

God rescues us, if we can demonstrate that we deserve it. When we can prove that we have earned it.

And that’s wrong. And we know that it’s wrong.

How many of you were raised Lutheran? Martin Luther knew this was wrong. Lutherans since Martin Luther, not so much. Anglicans, at least since Richard Hooker, not so much. Reformed, including John Calvin, not so much. Roman Catholics, not so much, especially if you went to parochial school.

Why do you suppose it is that no matter how much we say we understand, how much we think we understand, we so often just don’t get it? One of the things that I discovered when I had left parish ministry and went to work for the University — something I really hadn’t realized before, since I was ordained to the priesthood when I was still a young squirt and clueless about a lot of stuff — but something which I suspect most of you have known for a long long time — is that the world is full of folks who are really good, decent, caring people but who have long since been turned off by “The Church” or “The Christian Religion” because their experience has been that they’ve been repeatedly told that God will love them but only when they get all their ducks in a row, and sorry, they aren’t in a row yet, at least not good enough. Perhaps some of you have been there. If so, welcome back!

Let me be clear in a brief excursus: I am not suggesting that issues of sin and morality aren’t important. They are. In some instances they are far more important that we realize. (Although in some others, they are far less important. But I digress.) But there is a widespread notion, even within mainstream Christianity, that the big problem with sin is that it offends God. Now, I don’t believe that God is offended by our sins. But I do believe that God is deeply grieved by our sins. Because our sins damage and even destroy ourselves, and they damage and even destroy each other, and (as we are becoming increasingly aware) they damage and even destroy the world that God created for us to live in. God does not want us to destroy ourselves, because God loves us. God wants us to be whole, and not to be broken. And sin breaks us, and it breaks others, and it breaks the world. As Jesus says in the verse immediately before this morning’s Gospel reading: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” We live in a world, and in an age, when “religion” seems to some to be slowly, and not always so slowly, losing its grip, at least in Western society. I’m not at all sure this is a bad thing. History does not suggest that when “religion” has a grip on society it has very much to do with the Kingdom of God. I mean, let’s just look around at various parts of the world these days, including some aspects of our own society, and of alleged “Christianity.”

All the more reason why it is vital that we not just sigh and say, “Oh well.” Jesus calls us to proclaim his good news — the good news of God’s love, God’s love for humankind — including others who do not belong to our particular sheepfold — for whom the shepherd has laid down his life in order that we all may share his life.

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