Sheep of the Good Shepherd

May 12, 2019

John 10:22-30

One class that is not offered in seminary is how to care for a church cemetery!

As a new pastor, it is important that it is properly maintained. Mowed on a regular basis and ensure that it looks like it is in decent order. Not to mention that proper records are maintained. Also, you better make sure that there are flags on all the graves of the military veterans on Memorial Day. How this became part of the pastor’s job I was never sure. It did not help that the cemetery was located a few miles from the church on a dirt road near the original church.

Every year when we come to this point in the lectionary, I am reminded of my first call and their cemetery. Why? Because it was not just known as Immanuel Lutheran Cemetery, but also the Swedish Lutheran Cemetery and more importantly, the Sheep of the Good Shepherd Cemetery. There is a metal archway over the entrance that reads, “Sheep of the Good Shepherd.” It was a serene spot. A place that I truly enjoyed visiting and being surrounded with the saints of the congregation that had already entered the church triumphant. If I was lucky enough, I may be visited by livestock whose grazing area butted up to the cemetery. I walked along the Anderson’s, Nelson’s, Sandahl’s, Hanson’s (you know all those good Swedish names), and many more while praying. I especially enjoyed going out there on Easter Sunday just as the sun was rising and rejoicing in the Resurrection.

In John’s gospel this morning, we enter the story in the midst of The Good Shepherd chapter. Therefore, the 4th Sunday of Easter has come to be known as Good Shepherd Sunday. Jesus, the good shepherd, knows each and every one of us and calls us by name to follow him and have life eternal.

While Jesus knows us and calls us, that does not mean that we fully understand what is taking place. We too often attempt to make Jesus into the very thing that he is not! Don’t think that we are the only ones. There was confusion in Jesus’ time as well. The Jewish leaders in the temple wanted to know who Jesus was. In our lesson this morning, they cannot stand the waiting. It’s like waiting for the name of the latest royal baby that was born. Ok not really, but those talking to Jesus this morning really wants to know if he is the Messiah or not!

We are told that it is winter and the time of the festival of the Dedication. We know this festival better as Hanukkah. It was a celebration of not only the rededication of the temple at the time of the Maccabean revolt, but also a celebration of liberation. As they gather for this festival, the Jewish people are looking towards the coming of a Messiah, and are waiting for Jesus to respond and tell them the truth. However, he chooses not to answer in the affirmative because he does not fit into the box in which they are trying to place him.

They are looking for a Messiah, who will save them from the Roman empire. A conqueror who will destroy all that is in their way and will bring them to a place of peace. Their concern is around earthly matters and not the promise of salvation that the Messiah can provide eternally. They desire someone that can conquer their oppressors and bring them back to a point of nationalistic pride.

Wow, we do not learn from history, do we?

Time and time again, we gather around political leaders that we think are going to bring great change and we remove our eyes from what truly matters in Jesus Christ. We want them to save us from what we think is wrong. We look for leaders in businesses to save them from failure. The church is even guilty of this! Congregations call pastors in the hope that they will turn everything around. Sunday school classes will be back to levels of the past, the sanctuary will be full, and the offering plate will be over flowing. In all of these cases, we look past what truly matters in Jesus Christ. Not to say these things cannot be done, but they are done in community. We are not called to conquer. We are not called to save anybody from anything. That is the calling of Jesus Christ!

Jesus is the Messiah! He just is not the Messiah that the Jewish leaders are looking for. He does conquer. But he does not conquer the Roman Empire as they are hoping. He conquers what truly matters. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, conquers sin, death, and evil! It is this Messiah that we are called to follow. We follow him and he tends to us as his flock.

More importantly, he reaches out to those that need him the most. He looks to welcome all of humanity. Especially the part of humanity that is abandoned, thrown out, cast out, and tossed out. Those that are on the fringes of society. His concern is not with political parties or the bottom line. Jesus’ concern is for his flock. To care for and love us as children of God.

While we may have no clue how to be a shepherd in the literal sense, we can learn from Jesus and reach out to the same people that he ushers into the kingdom of God. And you know what, Jesus does not exclude anyone. In his call to follow him, we too can learn to share the love and grace that is bestowed upon us by God.

This past week, as the church of Christ, we lost another great saint. Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche Community for people with developmental disabilities and those who assist them. He is an example of what it means to truly follow Jesus Christ. He wrote the following in one of his many books,

To become a good shepherd is to come out of the shell of selfishness in order to be attentive to those for whom we are responsible so as to reveal to them their fundamental beauty and value and help them grow and become fully alive.

As we choose to follow Jesus, are we truly following him, or are we just giving him lip service? Are we being his hands and feet in the world or are we just talking the talk? The grace is that Jesus welcomes us in whatever we choose to do, however are we truly living in our faith? What are we choosing to shepherd?

Let us pray. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, you call us to follow you and you know us. You know our hearts and what is on our minds.  May we continue to listen to that calling and be open to your movement in our lives and the life of our community. Amen.

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Shepherding God’s Creation

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April 22, 2018, Earth Day

John 10:11-18

These are the sounds that you would hear out in the field if you were watching over the flocks. The bleating of sheep. Possibly the sound of bells. The birds chirping. All the sounds of a glorious creation that has been given to us by a loving God. A creation that we have been entrusted, and a creation that is vulnerable to the demise of our own greed.

Today is the fortieth anniversary of Earth Day!  While, as humanity we have been entrusted to care for the creation since the beginning, we have not always done the best job. We have taken from the earth with reckless abandon and have in just the past century began to realize the affect it has had on our environment. The call to care for creation first came to us in Genesis.

Today has also been known throughout the church as Good Shepherd Sunday. We hear in the Gospel, Jesus’ promise that he knows each one of us and has laid down his life for us. This promise flows over to creation. Martin Luther once wrote that, “God writes the Gospel not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and in the flowers and clouds and stars.” We are surrounded by the living Gospel. The good news that surrounds our lives.

The discourse that we enter this morning is a continuation of Jesus’ response to why he healed the man that was born blind. The Pharisee’s were questioning Jesus on why he chose to heal the man on a sabbath day. We do not get to hear the entire dialogue but come in from the point where Jesus says he is the good shepherd.

The sheep are not always left in the care of such a loving shepherd. As Jesus points out, the hired hand could care less what happened to the sheep. He cares more about his own safety and ensuring that he is protected from harm then he is about the wolves that may come to harm the sheep. The hired hand does not have a vested interest in the well-being of the sheep. Other than perhaps a paycheck! The hired hand does not love and have compassion as the good shepherd does.

When it comes to the care of creation, too many of us are apathetic. We simply do, without thinking about the consequences of our actions. We are no better than the hired hand that Jesus speaks of in the gospel lesson. When we take little to no vested interest in our communities and the care of them and the ecological resources, we are far from being a shepherd. This is part of the statement that Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, Elizabeth Eaton, released for Earth Day:

As members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), we share a deep love for all of God’s creation and a profound responsibility for it. Made in the image of God, we are called to continue what God is already doing for the earth (Psalm 104), enabling it to flourish. God assigns humans to care for the earth as God does, in loving servanthood. (Philippians 2:7, Genesis 2:15).  

 Daily we witness the evidence of a rapidly changing climate. At the same time, we also witness in too many instances how the earth’s natural beauty, a sign of God’s wonderful creativity, is defiled by pollutants and waste, resulting in ecological crisis. As a member church of The Lutheran World Federation, we affirm “that the global ecological crisis, including climate change is, human-induced. This is a spiritual matter. As people of faith, we are called to live in right relationship with creation and to not exhaust it.”[i]

We find an overwhelming grace in Jesus as the good shepherd. Jesus has taken on death like no one before him. In his willingness to lay down his life for all of humanity, we encounter a grace that the world had yet to experience. In the image of Jesus as good shepherd, the Pharisees are offended because they come to realize that they are the hired hands in the story.

Jesus as the good shepherd is an image that we are all very familiar and one that speaks a message of welcome. It is as a good shepherd that Jesus welcomes all into his flock as his body and blood are given to us at the Lord’s Table. In this simple, yet complex act, we become one with the body of Christ and are encouraged to become shepherds ourselves.

It is a good thing that Jesus only called himself the good shepherd. Imagine if he would have called himself the “awesome” shepherd, or the “extraordinary” shepherd. These would have been big shoes to fill and ones that we would have been overwhelmed to even think of stepping in to. However, good is an adjective that seems doable. We can be good! We can step up and learn to care for others the way that Jesus did. We may not always get it right, but to be good is much easier than to be “extraordinary!”

How about we start to see if we can be a good shepherd when it comes to caring for the creation that has been entrusted to us since Genesis. Heather Bennet, Executive Director of Blessed Earth Tennessee, wrote a piece for Rethink Church on caring for our environment and points out the six “R’s” of living sustainably. Perhaps you have heard of some of them.

 

  • First, REFUSE. If you don’t need it don’t buy it. If you don’t need it don’t take it. This includes food.
  • Second, if you can’t REFUSE then REDUCE. Reduce the amount you need.
  • Third, if you can’t REFUSE or REDUCE then REUSE.
  • Fourth, if you can’t REFUSE, REDUCE, or REUSE then RECYCLE. Recycling is probably the most popular, but recycling is energy intensive. Think about the transportation, energy and water involved in the process.
  • Fifth, if you can’t REFUSE, REDUCE, REUSE or RECYCLE then ROT. That’s just an R word for compost.
  • Sixth is pretty special: REST. This one is not dependent upon the others. Every week practice REST. When we rest, we’re not driving or engaging in commerce. We’re probably going to enjoy some time outside. For Christians, this day would include spending time in God’s word and in God’s creation.[ii]

 

When we begin to think about how our actions affect creation, we start to embody the image of a good shepherd. It is something that is very doable.

Jesus comes and reveals himself to the disciples and us as the good shepherd. A shepherd that is willing to lay everything down for the life of just one of his sheep’s.  Let’s not just simply follow as a sheep. May we be so bold to be a shepherd for others that are lost and lead them to the way of not only caring for creation, but in the truth of the saving grace of Jesus Christ. Bishop Eaton concludes her statement:

In grateful response to God’s grace in Jesus Christ, this church carries out its responsibility for the well-being of society and the environment. Our “concern for the environment is shaped by the Word of God spoken in creation, the Love of God hanging on a cross, the Breath of God daily renewing the face of the earth.” Our concern is, then, propelled by hope and guided by principles of justice.  We find our hope in the promise of God’s own faithfulness to everything God has made. We seek justice for all of creation in concert with God’s creative and renewing power. We do so understanding that we have the ability and responsibility to act together for the common good, especially for those who are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

 

Let us pray. … Christ, the good shepherd, may we find hope in your relentless ways to bring in all of humanity to your flock. We give thanks for being called to be your hands and feet in spreading that good news for all to hear. May we spread the good news through our actions in caring for creation and in our love that we model from your love of us. Amen.

 

[i] http://www.elca.org/News-and-Events/7922

[ii] http://www.rethinkchurch.org/articles/changing-the-world/spirituality-and-environmental-care

 

Life of Abundance

May 7, 2017

John 10:1-10

What does it mean to have an abundant life?

Is it something that is promised only in the future?

Or, is it something that we can live into right here and now?

This Sunday has come to be known as Good Shepherd Sunday. We are immersed into the image as Jesus as the Good Shepherd. Not only that, he also says that he is the gate. So, what is it? It is all of the above. While the disciples struggle to understand what Jesus is telling them, he tries to relate to them in terms that they should be familiar with. The image of a Good Shepherd standing over his flock of sheep makes sense. When Jesus says that he is the gate to the pasture, this is where he seems to lose them.

To them, it makes about as much sense as if I were to tell you that I am the car that is parked in the garage. While we have time to interpret the metaphor of him being the gate, they are left in the moment scratching their heads. Truly, what does it mean for Jesus to be the gate? A gate provides access to whatever is in the enclosed area. Yes, we can be like the thieves and bandits and jump the fence, but this gets us nowhere. We know who those fence jumpers are, and we are confronted with them on a daily basis. Those people or things that attempt to distract us from a calling that has been placed upon us by God. They bombard our lives and entice us with their promises of providing something better or perhaps something we have never had. We are marketed to through the media, both television and radio, and now even through targeted advertisements on Google or Facebook. It is amazing that one moment I can be looking up socks on Google, and then go to Facebook and have suggested advertisements for the best and greatest yet men’s underwear. We cannot get away from it, unless perhaps we want to go and live as a hermit.

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In light of this, what does the abundant life look like?

Those advertisers, certainly entice us into the thoughts that if we were to buy their products and use them on a daily basis, we must be living the abundant life. Surely, to live the abundant life means that we can provide for our families whatever their heart desires. Surely, it means that we have the nicest car available to us with all of the bells and whistles. Surely, it means that we will encounter no problems and little resistance in our lives. This abundant life is what is marketed to us on a daily basis.

However, how do we equate that to the life of a person that is struggling or to the church member that has lost all hope that God is answering their prayers? How do we share the abundant life with someone that has had to go through major surgery and is facing a completely different way of life now? How about the members of our community that are spending the rest their days in assisted living? Does their hope of an abundant life vanish?

Those thieves and bandits that jump the fence and choose not to come through the gate, would definitely have us thinking that. Those thieves and bandits can lead us to sin and deter attention away from the gate. Those thieves and bandits are sin in our midst.

We though, are called by name to enter through the gate. It is through the gate that we find life and we can find it abundantly. Remember, Jesus has taught us that he is “the way, the truth, and the life.” It is through the gate that we are able to get to know Jesus and experience the way, the truth, and the life. As we live into an abundant life with Christ, it also means that we are protected, provided for, and surrounded by his presence.

It is the good shepherd that does all of these things. The good shepherd protects his flock from the thieves and the bandits; the people and things that come to distract and cause us to sin. The good shepherd provides just what we need, even when we do not know we need it. The good shepherd surrounds us at times with his presence, even when we are not sure if he is present.

The abundant life comes to us in the midst of our calling to live as children of God. In the midst of the calling of our vocations. In the midst of our calling as children, siblings, and parents. In the midst of our being. The abundant life is not material. The abundant life is one that is centered on Christ and is led by the Holy Spirit.

The thieves and bandits concept of the abundant life only distracts, misguides, and leads us to sin. Jesus has come to bring us a different option. We enter through the gate and are saved and are free to come in and go out. In this we find life. A life that Christ has given to us abundantly. In this we come to know God’s love.