Sunday Worship – May 3, 2020
Posted by FirstPresbyterian Regina on Sunday, May 3, 2020
I’m sure you’ve already noticed that this morning’s worship is all about sheep and shepherds. When we were planning ahead for the music for this service several weeks ago, I pointed out that the lectionary was giving us Psalm 23 again. It came up just about a month ago during the Season of Lent, and we’re getting it again on this Fourth Sunday in the Season of Easter. As I noted the sheep theme, someone started to sing that wonderful chorus from Handel’s Messiah about the sheep: All we like sheep… have gone astray, have gone astray, have gone astray….
I said, “Yes, that’s an excellent song about sheep. But not for this week.” You see, the readings on this Easter Season Sunday are less about the sheep going astray, getting lost, or messing up. And they’re more about what the shepherds are up to. Today is all about the shepherds, actually. And in particular, the idea that Jesus is the “Good Shepherd” who cares for us (the sheep) and leads us to abundant life.
Many early followers of Jesus would have been familiar with describing the promised Messiah as a caring a skillful “shepherd”: The prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel each use such language. And likewise, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Zechariah contrast the good shepherd with “worthless shepherds” who neglect, exploit, and scatter the flock.
The prophets used the familiar concept of a shepherd caring for the sheep to describe what they were looking for in their judges, kings, governors, and other leaders. And the fact that they had seen more greed, corruption, and self-interest from their leaders led them both to criticize the powerful ones who neglected or took advantage of the poor, as well as to long for and hope for the day when a “Good Shepherd” would appear.
Does it make you start to think about the leaders of our time? Certainly, we have no trouble naming the ones that we consider to be “worthless shepherds.” The ones that seem to be in it for their own glory, fame, or wealth. The ones who make so many promises of good things, but never seem to deliver. The ones whose values seem at odds with ours, who do not seem to care about the regular people and those being left behind.
But I think it’s fair to say that this pandemic has pointed out that we’ve got some good shepherds too. Not perfect, by any means. After all, every elected or appointed leader is just a human person like the rest of us. But no matter what your political preference, most of us have been thankful for the steady and caring leadership of people like our Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau; our Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam; and our Premier here in Saskatchewan, Scott Moe.
They’ve led us through challenging times, and made difficult decisions about restricting gatherings and activities with the goal of protecting and guarding each and every person. And they continue to lead us cautiously and optimistically into a time of slowly re-opening. But carefully, not-too-quickly, so that hopefully we will not experience another wave of the Coronavirus outbreak.
Secular leaders may not be used to the metaphor of the shepherd and the sheep being applied to them, but religious leaders almost expect it. Our Gospel passage today establishes the need for the Christian community (the sheep) to have a strong leader (the shepherd of the sheep), because there are enemies and temptations and distractions intent on leading God’s sheep astray.
In the early church, leaders were instructed to “tend the flock of God” and the titles for Christian leaders of elder (or presbyter) and bishop (or episkopos) had direct links to the work of shepherding. Or think of the term that many Christian churches use for their leaders today – we are “pastors” who provide “pastoral care.” That’s taken directly from the rural image of fields and sheep and the shepherds or pastors that oversee them.
Jesus uses a figure of speech or a proverb that first describes the difference between a shepherd and a thief. The shepherd enters the sheepfold by the gate, while the thief climbs in illegally. The shepherd calls the sheep by name, and they follow him because they know his voice. In contrast, the sheep run from the thief because they neither know him nor trust him.
Later in the same chapter, Jesus describes the difference between a shepherd and a hired hand. The person hired to look after the sheep is legitimately there, and likely trying to do a good job. But there’s a difference between the paid staff and the person who owns the business. The shepherd is deeply invested in the well-being of the sheep. He’s willing to do all that he can to protect them because they belong to him. When things get tough, the hired hand is more likely to cut and run.
These metaphors in John’s Gospel should serve to underscore the assurance that we have from our beloved Psalm 23 – that the Lord is our Shepherd and we shall not want. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who cares for us and leads us into abundant life.
And those of us who answer calls to leadership within the church are challenged to imitate Jesus’ example of shepherding care – giving our lives and efforts day-by-day for the sake of the sheep, caring for the flock, searching out the lost ones, looking for sources of nourishment and safety, and guiding those in our community to that abundant life.
In as much as we are called to leadership as ministers, elders, teachers, Christian parents, missionaries, and evangelists, we are indeed called to be shepherds. We are neither thieves who are in the church only for what we can gain for ourselves, nor are we hired hands who carry out our tasks for the personal pay-off. But we are called to serve as shepherds. I like to say, “sub-shepherds” of the one “Good Shepherd” who is Christ our Lord.
Theologian Ruben Rosaria Rodriguez tells the story of a friend of his who once served a Spanish-language, rural congregation whose members included undocumented migrant farm workers. During his years as pastor of this poor and marginalized community, the church grew in membership and had become “home” to a subset of the US population that often lives in hiding and shuns public involvement. Eventually, several of these undocumented men and women answered the call to leadership and became ordained elders in the congregation despite their undocumented status.
Sadly, the pastor eventually took a call elsewhere, in order to pursue further studies, and had to say goodbye to this congregation. Needless to say, his decision to leave caused much grief among the members, especially among those undocumented elders who accepted the mantle of leadership based on their belief that as their shepherd this pastor would protect them. The pastor called a public forum to alleviate the fear and growing mistrust, at which one of the elders accused him by saying, “You are not a good shepherd; you are a stranger, and we no longer know your voice.”
Transitions in pastoral leadership are always difficult, compounded in this instance by the undocumented status of many church members, but this minister took the opportunity to remind the church that there is only one shepherd -the Good Shepherd – and so long as we trust in him, the Lord will always provide trustworthy leaders. In fact, God had already done so by calling elders who, despite their undocumented status, accepted the responsibility to tend this threatened but growing community.
The metaphors and the figures of speech are plentiful in Scripture, as we strive to understand and live into our identity as God’s people. At times, we are the sheep of the Good Shepherd. At times, we are called ourselves to be shepherds of the sheep and to give ourselves, our lives, and our gifts for the sake of those under our care.
If that wasn’t complicated enough, our Gospel text today provides us with one more metaphor with Jesus also describing himself as “the gate” for the sheep. He says that “whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”
In contrast to the thief who “comes only to steal and kill and destroy,” Jesus “came that [we] may have life and have it abundantly.” He is the gate through which we come in to find safety. He is the gate through which we go out to find nourishment.
Remember Psalm 23? The Lord is my shepherd… who leads me to green pastures and still waters, who protects me in the darkest valley, who gives me plenteous food and drink, and gives me a safe place to live. It sounds very similar, doesn’t it? It’s the promise of abundant life which is given to us as God’s people.
But what is abundant life? It’s not the promise of riches, or perfect security, or perfect health, or all the comforts of life that we might desire. When bad things happen in the world – things like pandemics, terrible illness, awful loneliness, economic disaster, people senselessly killed, houses burned down, and helicopters crashed. When bad things happen in the world, and they impact people of faith, people like us, just as much as everyone else… we’re reminded of what “abundant life” does not mean.
It doesn’t mean an easy life. It doesn’t mean special privileges that others don’t enjoy. It doesn’t necessarily mean tables overflowing with food or lives with plenty of comforts and time for leisure and pleasure.
One commentary describes the abundant life as “Not a life of material wealth, but rather of love and intimacy with God, like the trusting companionship of sheep and shepherd.” It points out that in the very next chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus goes on to describe this intimacy as so close as to be comparable to the relationship between a vine and its branches.
This is the good news of the Gospel! God is with us, and calls us to be with God, in this deep-down-to-our-toes, existential, loving, indwelling sense: “Abide with me,” Jesus says, “as I abide in you.” For Jesus, that’s what “abundant life” looks like.
And that’s the life that the Good Shepherd is leading us into even now. Even when we’re stuck at home. Even when we cannot gather. Even when there are added struggles with money, work, loss, and grief, and questions about the future. Jesus is with us, as determined as a shepherd running after his wandering sheep, as reliable as a gate to lead us in and out, as close to us as a vine nourishing its own branches.
May we follow Christ into the abundant life that is God’s will for us today and tomorrow. Amen.