4Easter: Acts 4:5-12; Psalm 23; 1 Jn 3:16-24; Jn 10:11-18
A sermon preached at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL on April 26, 2015.
The twenty-third psalm is a familiar one. We say it at funerals; we think about it in the dark times of our lives, the priest says it to us when we lie in a hospital bed. It is our go-to psalm of choice when we need comfort and encouragement. It may be the most powerful scripture we have in terms of redirecting our focus onto God, especially in times of distress.
Some of us can recite the entirety of the psalm, others might only know the first line, The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. Most of us like the King James Version and few of us have never heard the psalm at all. But all of us will recognize the sense of security and peace, comfort and hospitality that seeps through these words and into our souls.
Similarly, the gospel lesson from John is one of familiarity and comfort. Jesus’s description of himself as the good shepherd resonates deeply in our psyche. And our understanding of the shepherd laying down his life for the sheep draws us into an Easter understanding of salvation that inspires us with hope and security.
Between the psalm and gospel reading today we are given a glimpse into the pastoral nature of God. The Lord as Good Shepherd cares for his sheep in deep and abiding ways. His relationship to them is based on more than just knowledge of them”he engages with them in active ways. In the psalm those ways are related to supplying our needs, offering us rest and refreshment, healing, guidance and purpose. In our darkest moments, he offers us protection, faithfulness, and discipline. He offers us hospitality as a means of hope, conversion, and abundance. He blesses us and offers us security and salvation for eternity. The gospel description furthers our understanding of the pastoral nature of God as an incarnate God”a God who shares our nature and offers himself wholly and completely for our salvation.
There is no fear here, no power or domination”only a humble and gentle presence of the divine. That is the power of the image of shepherd and sheep”it draws us into a place of humility, a place where we don’t have to know the answers, where we don’t have to do the right things, that place where we realize that there is nothing we can do to draw God into relationship with us, God is already there. All we can do is listen and receive that which Christ offers us.
Several years ago, my grandfather, Papa Jerry, died. He had a tumor in his chest, near his heart. It was cancer. When they found the tumor they thought they might be able to remove it but soon discovered that the tumor had wrapped itself around the ventricles of his heart and there was no way to remove it without killing him. Instead, he was put on a chemotherapy and radiation regiment to shrink the tumor and extend his life.
My Papa Jerry was always of good humor whenever I was around, he always had a smile and a joke ready for the telling”the biggest complaint I ever heard from him in that time when he was dying of cancer was that it felt like a three hundred pound woman was sitting on his chest. My grandmother couldn’t have weighed more than 110 lbs soaking weight, so I teased him about how he knew what a three hundred pound woman sitting on your chest felt like and he would laugh in his good-natured way and would talk about anything other than his cancer. But the one thing he never talked about was God or his faith. I wasn’t even sure he had a faith and I never broached the subject with him though I worried about his salvation constantly. When he died, I was devastated. My grief was beyond measure and compounded by my doubts and worries regarding his eternal life. I had known for a long time that he was going to die, what I grieved was whether or not he would live.
I was alone in the house and sitting on the bed when a moment of great darkness engulfed me and in anger and grief I began to blame God, crying out in lamentation and bewailing my loss”cursing God and crying myself to the point of exhaustion”to the point at which I no longer had any words to hurl at God, I no longer even had the strength to lift myself up.
It was at that point of laying in the fetal position all by myself in the middle of my bed that I realized I was not alone, that there was a gentle and humble presence of the divine all around me”my eyes were squeezed shut but I swear I felt the softness of angel wings engulfing me and drawing me into a place of comfort and reassurance; inspiring me with the knowledge that my grandfather was in Heaven and, in that moment, I knew that peace which passes all understanding. I had walked through the valley of the shadow of death and I had no need to fear for God was with me.
That is who our shepherd is, that is the pastoral nature of God”the softness, the gentleness is what God offers us if we can only receive it. But the only way we can receive that comfort is to give ourselves up, to embrace our own weakness, our own humility, all the ways in which we are not and God is.
Sheep are vulnerable. They are not strong or fast or powerful. They are not quick witted or independent. They like to stick together, but can easily become lost and when one gets lost, he will experience a great amount of stress until he is reunited with the flock. Sheep need direction and protection. They like to follow the shepherd.
Like sheep we are too often led astray by our own thoughts and by belief in our own power or maybe we are simply led astray because we are to easily distracted. We allow ourselves to be weighed down in the swiftly moving chaos of this world and find ourselves at risk of drowning. We get too caught up in our schedules, allowing our smart phone calendars to tell us how we will live our lives in the midst of business meetings and traveling sports teams, forgetting to lie down in the green pastures of a shared family meal around the dinner table or a quiet, contemplative time with God.
Though we are like sheep, we are not very good at being sheep. We have a tendency to deny our fears and confusion instead of living into them, covering them over with things we can do or manage and avoiding that which we do not understand. We don’t allow ourselves to sit with the unknown, the unimaginable, because we have been programed to always have a response. Our fears drive our personalities, our decision-making, even our goals and dreams and instead of moving through our fears to find redemption, we push back against them afraid they will expose our weaknesses.
We don’t want to embrace our weaknesses, but overcome them. And we want to do that on our own, without anyone else’s help, much less God’s. We may know the shepherd’s voice but too often we do not listen to it.
And yet, if we could let go of our own needs for power and control, if we could let go of our fears and instead embrace the humbleness and gentleness of the good shepherd, we might find that our fears do not control us, that our lives become more intentional, that our successes are not tied up in what others think or even in what we think, they are tied up in God”in the abiding goodness of this world. Living as sheep means embracing our vulnerability and allowing God to define us”not fear.
The Lord is my good shepherd; I shall not be in want because he lays down his life for me.