The Fourth Sunday of Easter 2021: A Sermon

“I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

I would guess that this is the one congregation in the diocese [Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, Sun Prairie WI] that does not need to be reminded of the importance of this image. A little celebration is in order.

Recall that “shepherd” is an image that works on multiple levels. In ancient Israel folk would be familiar with shepherds, and most would know first-hand the importance of good shepherds who were attentive to their sheep, gentle with the weak, strong against their predators. And not only in Israel but throughout the ancient near east rulers, whether good or evil, liked to be celebrated as good shepherds of their people.

King David had confessed “The Lord is my shepherd,” using the Name that later became too holy to be pronounced, which scholars usually vocalize as Yahweh. And here Jesus is saying not “The Lord is the good shepherd” but “I am the good shepherd.” It’s that way of speaking that pointed his followers to the confessions hammered out centuries later, such as the Nicene Creed that we’ll use later in this Mass: “very God of very God.”

And one of Ezekiel’s most profound promises of Jesus’ coming (Ezek 34) picks up the image:

“Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them– to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep.”

We know this world too well. The New York Times ran an update today on CEO salaries in 2020. Some examples:

  • Norwegian Cruise Lines $36M
  • Hilton $56M
  • Paycom $211M

No wonder there’s not enough for everyone else when many at the top are incapable of saying “enough.”

Ezekiel continues in this vein for a good stretch. Then:

“I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.”

So that day in Jerusalem, Jesus’ “I am the good shepherd:” I imagine Ezekiel hearing it and smiling…or pumping his fist.

Jesus the good shepherd, come that we might have life, and have it abundantly: green pastures, still waters. In a world in which too many leaders point to paths that lead nowhere, offer solutions that are worse than the problem, very good news. Jesus the good shepherd: that’s an image—a promise—to hand onto. And sometimes we find ourselves hanging onto it for a good stretch.

Now, it doesn’t take going around the block many times before we wonder what this image is really promising, whether we can rely on that promise. And here David can help us. For the psalm that starts “the Lord is my shepherd” contains not only the comforting words about the green pastures and still waters, but also the business about walking through the valley of the shadow of death, There’s a table spread—but “in the presence of those who trouble me.” That sounds like David’s life. And perhaps one of the reasons we’re given such a full account of David’s life (most of the two books of Samuel) is to watch the Lord as David’s shepherd through all of it.

Near the end of the psalm: “Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” “Follow:” that’s perhaps one of the most regrettable translations in the entire Bible. Literally: pursue. My enemies may be fast; the Lord’s goodness and mercy are faster.

What happens if we move from David’s poetry into the prose of our lives? We know that in this life good Christian lives can end badly and painfully. This is why Paul, talking about our hope in the resurrection says “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19). Perhaps David pointed toward this in the last line of the psalm: “and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.” Death doesn’t play the last card.

But there’s another truth, equally important. John’s first letter, a sort of “Dummy’s Guide to the Gospel” spells it out: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us [that’s the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep part]—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” So the Shepherd’s action becomes a model for our action. We are taken up, as it were, into the Shepherd’s work. So yes, there’s still the valley of the shadow of death. And John’s telling us not to let any Christian walk it alone. John continues: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

“Who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Here we might return to that NYT article. It turns out that none of the virtues are stand-alone—even love. If I don’t know how to say “enough,” my capacity to love will be severely limited. That’s perhaps the most important take-away from that article: whatever the issue, am I able to say “enough”?

It’s important to notice that John isn’t an outlier. The same Gospel in which we hear “I am the good shepherd” tells of the Good Shepherd’s command to his disciples: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

“Jesus, the Good Shepherd” is first about Jesus; it is immediately also about how his followers are to follow: loving “not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” And it is through these followers, by the way, that Jesus does much of the shepherding: love is the lubricant that allows us to receive and give what we need from each other.

So the command to love extends only as far as the church walls? Obviously not. It focuses on “one another” because if we’re not working on that there’s little hope that we’ll be of much use to those outside the walls. If we are working on that, the walls will be no barrier.

Let’s circle back to Ezekiel:

“I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.”

It’s reasonably clear that the abundant life Jesus brings is about much more than the fortunes of individuals, though it’s not less than that. The Shepherd’s out to set the world right, restore our institutions so that they serve, and stop destroying. But here’s where it gets confusing. In our experience setting the world right usually involves a large army and a great deal of violence. Jesus’ strategy is different. So Jesus really isn’t trying to set the world right, but limiting himself to something more modest, something simply interior? No. He’s out to set the world right, but armies and violence don’t cut deep enough. Jesus knows this is confusing, which is why we have parables like the mustard seed: the beginnings seem laughably insignificant, but, oh, the end product.

So, yes, working on this “love each other” business, the church walls are no barrier. “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened” (Matt. 13:33).

I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

Amen. Alleluia. Alleluia.

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