Good Shepherd Sunday

nathanielkiddnathanielkidd on 29 Apr 2012 23:07

Shine the light of your resurrection upon us, Good Lord, and reveal yourself to us in your risen glory. Open our eyes to see you, open our ears to hear your voice, open our hearts to know and love you, and draw us into your fold, that we may indeed be the people of your pasture, and the sheep of your hand.

Preaching from the lectionary is something of a mixed blessing. It keeps us honest, it keeps us on track; it keeps us in the faith once delivered, if we use it well. But there are some Sundays when preaching from the lectionary is less convenient. There are some Sundays when the lectionary gives you a rather unasked for roundhouse kick to the face. Unfortunately, for me, this is one of those Sundays.

But why do I say that of this Sunday? Anybody with ears to hear knows the Scriptural full-nelson that this week’s readings put the preacher in. This is Good Shepherd Sunday. Now there’s a softball if you ever saw one, right? Even a B-rate preacher should be able to slam this one out of the park. This is the Gospel good-stuff, a shoo-in for “the Greatest Hits of the Bible.” Here is Easter sweetness and light, images of pastures and puppies come to mind – we meet the all-loving, all-embracing, all-good, all-surpassing love of God in the image of Jesus Christ the Good Shepherd. What could be better?

In fact, last week, Fr. Harry, one of the retired priests who assists at Bread of Life, a delightful, a holy old man, former Trappist, who in fact used to be bunkbuddies with Thomas Merton – Fr. Harry, comes up to me, looking just a little confused, and says, “Nathaniel, what year is it? A, B, or C?” “It’s year B, Fr. Harry,” I replied. And he got this little twinkle in his eye, and smiled a broad smile, and replied, “Oh boy! The Good Shepherd. I can’t wait to preach next week!” There’s something particularly holy about an old priest who he can’t remember what year it is, but he can remember off the top of his head what the theme for Easter 4B is. (And it was a pretty good sermon. I made sure to have mine all the way written before this morning, so that I wasn’t tempted to steal anything.)

It’s Good Shepherd Sunday, the standard American preacher’s field day; and if the all the sermons on this theme were written, I suppose the world would not be big enough to contain all the volumes.
But that’s exactly the problem. Everything seems stale, everything seems cliché or kitschy, not up to the great, glorious cloud of smoke or the looming image of the Pantokrator that better accords with my spirituality, with that terrible sense of God in all his glory and all his grandeur that is impressed most deeply upon my soul and moves me perpetually to profoundest praise.

It says something about me, probably not something very positive, that my favorite image of the Good Shepherd is the one that Fr. Gabig has up right now as his profile picture on Facebook. There’s Jesus, looking very compassionate, looking down at this little lamb he is holding– but it’s not a lamb because someone has photoshopped the upper part and now it’s a baby T-Rex.

good_shepherd.jpg

It says something about me, probably not something very positive, that I judge my sermons on my ability to say something new, something interesting. It says something about me that I want to skirt the easy stuff; that I so desperately want to avoid saying anything that seems to me to be obvious, or trivial, or mundane.

See, the fact of the matter is, I resist being a sheep. Sheep are stupid. They are legendarily stupid. In fact, they are so stupid that I think I’ve heard at least four sermons about how stupid they are. But if we are going to acknowledge Christ as our Shepherd, does it not require us to also acknowledge our sheepliness?

In a way, yes. But at the same time, part of the beauty of the image of Christ the Good Shepherd is that he takes this image on himself quite apart from our acceptance of it, or our response to it. Jesus is the good shepherd, even when we aren’t his good sheep. If we’ve wandered from the fold, he’s already left the ninety and nine to come look for us, that he might bring us back over his shoulders. Jesus is the good shepherd, even when we aren’t his good sheep. He is the good shepherd, because he lays down his life for his sheep.

Though we like sheep had gone astray, each one turning to his own way, he bore the bruises of our iniquity, and stood between us and our punishment. Even when quite unlike sheep we are caught up in our own schemes, our own devising, saying in our hearts like fools that God does not know, and that he will not find out: he is there, waiting to carry us home if only we will stop running in the other direction. And even though sometimes I may be more of a ravening T-Rex than a wandering little lamb, I can think about Fr. Gabig’s picture: Jesus isn’t looking down with shock and fear and horror; he isn’t even looking down with surprise. The look on his face is perfect love in perfect calm, a loving calm that melts my fears, my insecurities, my coldness and hardness of heart and obstinate individuality, and allows me to become what I really am, and come back into the fold, come back into his fold.

And here is a profounder mystery of his grace, many of us poor wandering sheep here assembled are in the pike to be ontologically changed so that we can further participate in his shepherd-ness. But as I reflect on the mystery here, as I approach my own impending ordination with fear and trembling, I realize it is not only sacramental – it is the foolishness of God. If I am a wandering sheep, as I know I often I am — or worse still, a wandering T-Rex—how is it that God would give me watch over his flock? Why does he not govern the heart of his people directly? Me, my Bible, and Jesus Christianity is starting to look like an awfully good idea as I recognize my utter incapacity to do the work he is giving me to do – and if I can’t trust myself to discharge this calling, how can I trust anyone else?

Luckily, God, who is really very clever, has this all figured out. We lead the sheep by becoming more sheepy ourselves. This is the measure of a Christian, is it not? Not his place on the ecclesiastical ladder, still less all his worldly accomplishments: it is in his faithfulness, his full self-abandonment to God that he is measured. It is this faithfulness, this radical trust in the Risen Lord, that allows him to laugh in the face of death, beholding the hope of the Resurrection. Thus we heard today how Peter and the disciples fearless before the religious authorities; thus we hear the stories of countless martyrs, who despised death as a thing dead because Christ in his Resurrection trampled it down. Here Christian faithfulness is measured, it is measured in willingness to become the sheep of all sheep, that his Lord might be the more gloriously the Shepherd. We lead the sheep by becoming more sheepy ourselves: just as the Lord led us, by being led like a lamb to the slaughter, and giving himself for our life and our redemption.

This is an important message: this is something we need to hear at seminary. We work a lot here on building skills, building virtue, building knowledge; preparing to step into positions of leadership, authority, and power. This is necessary. This is important. This is a labor of growth and a labor of obedience that cannot be ignored. But that is neither our ultimate good, nor the ultimate measure of our faithfulness. Our true faithfulness is measured in smaller things – in those little decisions we make every day about how we pray inwardly, how we live with one another and love one another; little decisions – imperceptible to the world – but of the utmost importance. Are we clear in our communication – is our yes “yes” and our no “no”? Do we keep our promises? Do we follow through with our commitments? Those who are faithful in little, will be faithful also in much, says the Lord. Where is our faithfulness? Before what, before whom are we pouring ourselves out, and how?

But we know well enough what’s good, and we know how far we are from it. It’s Good Shepherd Sunday, so let’s let the image of the Good Shepherd surprise us, make us a little uncomfortable. Let’s be a little offended at being likened to sheep, and let’s let bind us with the cinctures of Love, and carry us home, bring us together, and make us again one flock. So too John instructs us, once again, as he writes, This is love: that Christ laid down his life for us – so too we should lay down our lives, one for another…Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.

May our Lord indeed be truly our shepherd, and may we be truly his sheep. +

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