Good morning! Mother’s Day, of course, and with all good wishes and blessings on that occasion.
On the ecclesiastical calendar the Fourth Easter Sunday in this great season of the Church Year has in the 1979 Prayer Book calendar become our “Good Shepherd Sunday,” as we hear in the Collect and of course in the 23rd Psalm and in the reading from John 10. In older Prayer Books “Good Shepherd” was the Sunday after Easter, what we would call now “the Second Sunday of Easter,” and the appointed gospel reading also from this long passage in the tenth chapter of St.John, but in the section that immediately follows our reading this morning, beginning at verse 11. We have verses 1-10 today, and then verse 11: “Jesus said, I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep.” In our modern three-year lectionary cycle we get in years A, B, and C some different perspectives on the longer passage of John 10, all of it rich with “Good Shepherd” imagery.
And as a side note, simply to commend the very lovely Good Shepherd Window in the narthex. One of my great predecessors, Harry Briggs Heald, rector of St. Andrew’s, died very young, 1924, while he was still serving, and as a tribute and memorial to him as pastor and friend the window was contributed by the children and families of the St. Andrew’s Church School. Then back in the late 1990’s the window was restored and conserved with gifts honoring our friend David Leighton, 13th Rector of St. Andrew’s and then later Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland. He died just this past fall, and is still remembered by so many in this parish and diocese and in Maryland, and with prayers of thanksgiving. And so a day when we might remember those two and all the pastors of this parish and in all the places of our lives . . . .
And so this morning, the 10 verses of John 10 that are the prelude to that dramatic 11th verse. The reading really with two sections. The first, having to do with the unique and personal relationship between the sheep and the shepherd. Thieves and bandits slip into the sheepfold by climbing in over the back fence, but they have no right to be there, no legitimate and honest business, and they are strangers to the sheep. Rustlers. All criminality.
The true shepherd comes in by the front gate, and the sheep immediately hear and know his voice. And he knows each one of them by name. And there is trust, not fear. They don’t run away, but they will follow where he leads. There is an authentic belonging, one with the other.
And then in the second part of our reading this morning Jesus shifts the image a bit. The shepherd is now all of a sudden the gate and in a more extended sense even, the sheepfold, the safe and secure dwelling place. This all is a bit more a poetic conceptualizing. The way we might speak of living in a family. The Old Testament will use a phrase like “the House of David.” I think we still use that for Queen Elizabeth’s family, her ancestors and descendants, “the House of Windsor.” Not about a building of wood or brick, but a different way of thinking about space. I am the dwelling place of the sheep, the gate, the means by which true life and rich and prosperous life may be discovered. Good pasture. As Jesus will say a bit later in John 14, “I am the way.” The road, the door, the instrument of healing and hope, health and salvation. This wonderful saying, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
If you don’t mind my quoting myself, as I will say sometimes in the context of the Easter message, a natural and appropriate first response to the announcement, “Christ is risen,” might very well be something like: “Lucky for him! Everyone I’ve ever known who has died has stayed dead, so this must be one for the record books . . . .”
If the Easter Message is truly “gospel,” truly good news, then it must be good news for more than just one person 2,000 years ago, long ago and far away. It must mean something more, and it must mean something for us, for you and me. Not just an inspiring story, but that our lives are different as a result. That it makes a difference.
And so the word for us in this reading, the invitation for us to hear really at the deepest level, in our minds and more importantly in our hearts, is that the sheep and the shepherd go together. That his life is our life. That he is not distant, but continues to know us each by name, continues to speak in a voice that we will hear and know to be true and good, again, in the deepest listening of our hearts. This perfect assurance. For as in Adam all died, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.
At the service for Bea Minkler this past Thursday Tim Hushion, who is our priest in charge at Trinity Cathedral these days, read the traditional lesson from Romans 8, and it goes right to the center of this truth about sheep and our Good Shepherd: “For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
The bandits and thieves of this extended and complicated metaphor are of course always all around us. I remember seeing the bumper sticker a few years ago, “The one who dies with the most toys wins.” The business page says that these days the action in the economy is all about “winning eyeballs.” Attracting an audience for advertising. So many voices who will tell us what life is all about, about what product, what set of experiences, what political or social direction will lift our hearts and bring us to rich pasture. And of course there can be tantalizing hints. The surge of adrenaline at the latest acquisition or conquest, the sweet exhilaration of victory or even the sweet self-congratulation that can come in a defeat. Since we will all of us love our grievances, a sense of being right even when others more powerful than we are wrong.
The fuel that runs along in everyday life. Family, career, relationships. The good things of every day. Which of course can be good, and constructive, and life giving and meaningful in so many important ways. Each section of St. John’s gospel calling us back to the great Prologue, the first 18 verses of the first chapter. “He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. But to all who received him who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. . . . And from his fullness have we all received grace upon grace.” The Good Shepherd and his flock.
The Easter question. Why it matters what happened on that Sunday morning, not just to him, but gathering in the whole flock. To ask, where are we in our relationship to the Shepherd of the Sheep? Is his the voice we hear? Is he the door, the gate, our home? That he might live in us, and we in him.
With the prayer that in this Easter we may find and know the answer. As kids we used to sing the hymn in Sunday School:
Savior, like a shepherd lead us; much we need thy tender care; in thy pleasant pastures feed us; for our use thy folds prepare. Blessed Jesus! Blessed Jesus! Thou has bought us, thine we are. (708)
Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.