Easter 4 Good Shepherd Sunday Year C

The. Rev. Judy Spruhan

I have decided that Good Shepherd Sunday is my least favorite Sunday of the year to preach. Even more than Trinity Sunday, Good Shepherd Sunday challenges my liturgical brain.  After all, how much can any preacher say about this image?  It made perfect sense in the historical and cultural context in which it was first presented, but how do we wrap our minds around it in today’s world, when we are so separated by time and culture from the reality of sheep and sheep herding (except for those few of us who still raise their own sheep)?

In order to prime the pump of my preaching brain, I thought of some of the connections I have in my own life to the image of the Good Shepherd.  I remember telling you about the plastic glow-in-the-dark Good Shepherd plaque I won in Sunday School for memorizing the 23rd Psalm. I thought of another connection, which was the fans we used in church during the summer in West Virginia. They were donated by the local funeral home and had a picture of Jesus holding a lamb and surrounded by sheep. For that matter, the only other time we regularly use Psalm 23 in our liturgy is during funerals (in King James Version, of course). It is the only Psalm which many of us know by heart, even those who have not darkened the door of a church for many years. “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want,” triggers the memory of many elders who have long since lost their memory for other things. Even from the distance of time and culture, we still cling to this image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. But why?

Today’s Gospel reading follows the famous passage where Jesus talks about being the Good Shepherd who gives his life for his sheep. The context of today’s passage is very different. He is not talking to his disciples or to those hundreds of people who gathered wherever he went to hear his teachings.  He is speaking to the Temple authorities, who have cornered him and demanded that he tell them once and for all if he is the Messiah they have waited for centuries to arrive. He is also speaking on a major Jewish feast day, the Feast of the Dedication, which we know as Hanukkah. The authorities are hoping that he will entrap himself in his words, either speaking in such a way that they can charge him with blasphemy under Jewish law, or accuse him of treason with the Roman authorities. He is speaking in the Portico of Solomon, an enclosed area where there is no safe way out if things get out of hand.

Jesus’s message is plain and simple. Those who believe in me hear my voice, and they are my sheep. I’ve already told you who I am, and my deeds should prove it to you. If you don’t believe me, it’s because you are not my sheep.

He then draws on one of the Old Testament Messianic prophecies in Ezekiel. In this passage, the prophet is ordered to prophesy against the shepherds of Israel-those who only ate the choicest meat and clothed themselves in the sheeps’ wool, those who were using their power and authority only to abuse the sheep.  The prophet proclaims that these shepherds are not healing the sick, binding up the wounded, seeking the lost, or strengthening the weak.  Because those who claimed to be the shepherds were not defending the sheep, the sheep were scattered and became prey for wild animals. As a consequence, God will remove the unfaithful shepherds. God will search for the sheep, will seek them out and gather them from all the countries where they have scattered, and will bring them to their own land. Because the leaders have failed in their trust, God will be the shepherd of God’s people, and God will feed the sheep with justice. This is the shepherd Jesus is claiming to be when he confronts the authorities. As God promised to care for God’s people, so Jesus is tending his sheep, even at the cost of his own life. The works which God would do-healing , binding, seeking and strengthening-Jesus is doing. The love which God promised God’s people, Jesus is showing. Jesus claims to be both different than and more than the promised Messiah-he declares at the end of today’s passage that he and the Father are one. In his own person, God is present in the world and among the people, who will hear his voice and recognize the Shepherd. One thing you can say about Jesus, he certainly did not lack courage!

For me, one kernel from this passage which struck me this year is the declaration that the Shepherd knows each sheep by name, and calls them to him by that name. Remember the Easter story of Mary Magdalene in the garden, assuming Jesus is the gardener and asking him where he moved his body. She recognizes Jesus when he calls her name. I remember when our Bishop of Chicago, Frank Griswold, became Presiding Bishop. Our daughter was so thrilled to know that the Presiding Bishop of the whole American church knew her name. And when he visited the reservation where we were working, his first response was to give my husband and I a big smile and a hug, which made us instant celebrities to the people whom we served. So how awesome is it that the Creator of the universe, of all time and all space, knows each of us by name?

Another kernel from the Good Shepherd passage is that Jesus declares that his sheep recognize his voice, and will follow him and no one else. The custom of his day was to shelter several flocks of sheep in the same cave, where they would mingle with each other during the night. In the morning, each shepherd would leave the sheepfold and call his sheep. Only his sheep would come to him, as they were the only ones who recognized his voice. The other sheep would remain in the cave until they heard their own shepherd’s voice. Jesus compares himself to this familiar shepherd, who will give his sheep eternal life, and declares no one will be able to snatch them out of his hands. He again tells the Temple authorities that they do not believe him because they are not his sheep, and do not recognize his voice. This should give us pause to consider if we are listening to the voice of our Shepherd, or to some other voice which calls us away promising a life of success, fame, or tranquility.

Our passage today in Revelations carries this theme of Shepherding further. Here, Jesus is the Lamb who will shepherd his people. These are the people who have heard his voice, those who are loyal to the Lamb, have washed their robes, and have worshiped in God’s heavenly Temple. They are told that the Lamb who is at the center of the throne will be their shepherd. He will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe every tear from their eyes. The One who has died and has risen, who has defeated death forever, will be both their goal and their reward.

Again, this passage in Revelations is one which we usually don’t hear except at funerals. By relegating the Good Shepherd passages from the Psalms, the Gospels, and the book of Revelation to funerals, we have lost the power of this image. So what do these passages have to say to us as 21st century Christians far removed from the world of sheep and shepherds, who are not attending a funeral today (at least I hope not!)?

The theme of each of today’s readings centers on the type of relationship which the Shepherd has with his sheep. Our relationship with Jesus is a relationship based on faith. As one writer expressed it, “faith is not the result of an intellectual pursuit-faith is the ability to hear the Shepherd’s voice and find connection, peace, and confidence from this intimate association.” Faith is a deeply personal and intimate relationship with God. The relationship which Jesus offers each of us is one based on love, one which has been created and sealed by the blood of Jesus. Our Shepherd does not love us because we are particularly smart or educated sheep, but because God is love, and loved us before we even knew there was a God to love.

I may have told this story here before, but it is very relevant to today’s readings, so I will tell it again.There is a story of a famous stuntman (like Evel Knievel) whose biggest trick was to ride his bicycle across a giant water fall. He had a large basket connected to the front of his bike.  He would talk to the crowds that gathered and ask, “Do you believe I can ride this bike across this waterfall?” And the crowd would answer, “Yes, yes, we believe you can do this!”  He would ask again, and again the crowd would roar their response. Then he would pick out the loudest person in the crowd and ask, “Do you REALLY believe I can ride my bike across these falls?”  When the man answered, “Yes! I REALLY believe you can ride this bicycle across these falls,” the stuntman would answer, “Good-get in the basket!” 

Our relationship with our Shepherd is based on this kind of trust. As the sheep trust their shepherd to protect them and to lead them on good paths, so we come to trust our Good Shepherd to hold us in his hands, to be with us throughout all of the dangers and trials of this life. Our faith is not an intellectual assent to the Creed or the Prayer Book or to our particular branch of the Jesus Movement-it is not about getting all of our questions answered. We have been called into a personal relationship with the One who loves us and gave himself for us.

Do you have this kind of relationship with Jesus? In the words of the old Gospel hymn, “Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling, calling for you and for me.” Do you hear his voice calling to you today in love, calling you to a deeper and more intimate walk with him? Do you recognize the voice of our Shepherd calling to you this morning in the words of Scripture? Do you hear him calling at the altar, where we offer ourselves anew to him, and he gives himself to us in the bread and wine? Do you know his living, loving presence in your life each day? If not, reach out to him today, bleat your heart out, and the Shepherd will hear and will draw near to you in love.

A child once tried her hardest to memorize the 23rd Psalm for a program the Sunday School was putting on for their parents. Each night, she would struggle with the words, until she thought she had it firmly in her mind.  But when the day came, she got up on the stage and all the words had flown from her memory.  So she said meekly, “The Lord is my Shepherd-and that’s all I know.” 

Maybe that’s all we need to know.