Saturday, April 12, 2008

4 Easter

Good Shepherd Sunday
April 13, 2008
St. John the Divine
Moorhead, Minnesota

1 Peter; Psalm 23; John 10.1-10

Today is Good Shepherd Sunday—the Sunday in which we encounter this wonderful reading about Jesus being the Good Shepherd. However, we not only have just one wonderful image in today’s Gospel reading. We actually have two.

The first is a wonderful and beautiful image all in its self. Jesus describes himself in today’s Gospel as the Good Shepherd. This is probably one of the most perfect images Jesus could have used for the people listening to him. They would have understood what a good shepherd was and what a bad shepherd was. The good shepherd was the shepherd who actually cared for his flock. He looked out for them, he watched them. The Good Shepherd guided the flock and led the flock. He guided and led the flock to a place to eat.

This is an important aspect of the role of the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd didn’t feed the flock. Rather the good shepherd led the flock to the choicest green pastures and helped them to feed themselves. In this way, the Good Shepherd is more than just a coddling shepherd. He is not the co-dependent shepherd. The Good Shepherd doesn’t take each sheep individually, pick them up, and hand-feed the sheep. Rather, he guides and leads the sheep to green pastures and allows them feed themselves.

The Good Shepherd also protects the flock against the many dangers out there. He protects the flock from the wolves, from getting too near cliffs, or holes, or falling into places of water.

Let’s face it, there are many dangers out there. There are many opportunities for us to trip ourselves, to get lost, to get hurt. If we follow the Good Shepherd, if we allow ourselves to be led by him to the Gate, we avoid those pitfalls of life. Of course, the journey isn’t an easy one. We can still get hurt along the way. Bad things can still happen to us. There are predators out there, waiting to hurt us. There are storms brewing in our lives, waiting rain down upon us.

But, with our eyes on the Shepherd, we know that the bad things that happen to us will not destroy us, because the Shepherd is there, close by, watching out for us. We know that in those bad times—those times of darkness when predators close in, when storms rage—he will rescue us.

More importantly the Good Shepherd knows his flock. He knows each of the sheep. If one is lost, he knows it is lost and will not rest until it is brought back into the fold. In our collect for today, there is a wonderful reference to the Good Shepherd. In the prayer, we ask God:

“Grant that when we hear his voice, we may know him who calleth us each by name…’

This is the kind of relationship we have with Jesus as the Good Shepherd. We are know him because he knows us. He knows us and calls us each by our name.

In Jesus, we don’t have some vague, distant God. We don’t have a “watchmaker God” like the Deists of the eighteenth century believed in. We don’t believe in a God who simply sets the watch of our creation—who created us—and then just let us go, not caring about us, not knowing us, now paying any more attention to us. We don’t have a God who lets us fend for ourselves. We instead have a God who leads us and guides us, a God who knows us each by name, a God who despairs over the loss of even one of the flock. We have a God who, in leading us and guiding us, then allows us to pass through him into a place wherein we will feast.

The bad shepherd, on the other hand, is a lazy shepherd. He doesn’t care for the flock and, in not caring, he lets the flock do whatever it wants. If sheep go astray, he doesn’t go after them, bringing them back into the fold. If a wolf comes near, he doesn’t come between it and the sheep, but rather runs away, leaving the sheep to fend for themselves. If a sheep here or there are lost, it doesn’t matter. And worst of all, he doesn’t know his sheep. One or two might be lost, but the bad shepherd might not even notice, and certainly wouldn’t care. All these are important images, vital images to explain the relationship God has with us and we with God.

But the other beautiful image in today’s Gospel is that of Jesus as the Gate, through which the sheep enter the pastures. This is an image different than we’ve heard previously.

The image of the Good Shepherd can be taken and applied by anyone. Anyone can be a shepherd. Even we can take the image of the Good Shepard and apply it to ourselves. Certainly, priests and pastors have long clung to that image and applied it to their vocation. And a good priest and pastor really should be like the Good Shepherd. But no priest or pastor—not one of us—can claim to be the Gate for the sheep.

Jesus, today, does just that however. He describes himself as the Gate through which the sheep enter. At first, this seems like a strange image. Most of us can, no doubt, wrap our minds around the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. But Jesus as the Gate? That’s a bit harder to understand.

The fact is, it too is a wonderful image. Jesus makes clear that there is only one Gate through which to enter the green pastures and he is that gate. One cannot enter the pasture except by entering the Gate. So, in a sense, as sheep of the flock, we get Jesus at every turn. He knows us. He leads and guides us. And, through him, he brings us to a place of refreshment and fulfillment.

I often read one or two sources before I ever sit down to write a sermon. One of the sources I am not ashamed to refer to every Sunday is Forward Day By Day, the daily meditations that have inspired Episcopalians for many decades. The writer for this morning’s meditation refers to an image that I had forgotten. The entry for today reads:

“One of the things I have always loved about C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia is the plethora of entrances into that magical land. By the end of the series, however, it is clear: Aslan, the great golden Christlike lion king of Narnia, does not merely open the door to other worlds; he himself is the way.”

For those of you who have not read Lewis’ The Last Battle, it’s truly a wonderful finale to the Narnia series. In its finale, those who believe in the lion Aslan, who truly is a symbol for Christ, pass through a gate into a beautiful place. The actual going through the gate is a terrifying experience, but once they are through, they come out in paradise. In a sense, Aslan stands at the threshold of the new era. He stand there not merely to usher people in. He stands there as the gate through which the characters enter. It’s an image that we should all cherish.

Jesus is the Good Shepherd and he is also the Gate. He is the Shepherd that leads us to the Gate—to himself. And he is the Gate through which we can enter into those lush green pastures that wait all of us.

So, on this day in which we celebrate the Shepherd who leads and guides, allow yourself to be led. On this day that we look to the Shepherd who guides, let us be guided. Allow yourself to be led by that Great Good Shepherd, who brings you to himself, to the very Gate. And there, go through the Gate into that glorious place we have longed for all our existence. And when we are there, in that glorious place, let us rejoice in our God and in each other. Let us know that the joy we will experience there will be a joy that is never taken from us.

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