Sunday, April 22, 2018

Easter 4B, 2018: Abiding with our Shepherd

Lectionary: Acts 4:5-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-1

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En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

In the Gospel story from John, Jesus claims himself as the Good Shepherd. He does this using a familiar figure of speech not meant to be complete or all encompassing, just meant to make a point: I am the Good Shepherd – those others who have been leading you (meaning the Jewish leaders and religious authorities) are thieves and bandits, stealing your trust and robbing you of the abundant life offered by God.

The Good Shepherd is a favorite and enduring image of our Redeemer’s relationship with us (pictorial images of Jesus carrying a lamb over his shoulders) even though most of us today don’t have much real experience with sheep or shepherds.

But it was a familiar experience in Jesus’ time. Back then, sheep roamed freely during the day, but at night the shepherd found a place to enclose the sheep to protect them from predators and from running off and getting lost.

Most shepherds put planks across the gate to keep the sheep from walking back out during the night. But the truly devoted shepherd would lay himself down across the gate and sleep there. That way no sheep could leave and no predator enter without his knowing.

Of course, lying across that gate meant the shepherd was left vulnerable to whatever predators might show up. Jesus was claiming to be that sort of shepherd – the one who is willing to lay his life down for his sheep.

Incredibly, many Christians have taken this beautiful passage which is filled with comfort and loving assurance and turned it into something coercive and exclusive: If you don’t believe in Jesus that way I believe in Jesus, you can’t come in. The gate will be closed to you.

But Jesus makes clear, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.” You are in my flock. They are outside of it, but they are mine too. I will call to them and “they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

The Good Shepherd continues to call sheep into the fold today. We are not yet all one flock, and it’s up to us right now to do our part to get closer to that goal.

We must, therefore, continually ask ourselves, how freely our gate is opened to those whom God calls to join us? And in what ways do allow Jesus to speak through us today – out there? Remember, Jesus went out to the cities and villages to heal the sick, welcome the stranger and set people free from the power of sin in their lives.

As one of my favorite theologians, Winnie the Pooh says, “You can’t stay in your corner of the forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.”

Likewise, we must go out and enter into relationship with those who are lost or suffering, who are crying for safety, for nourishment or comfort, or just companionship. We must go to them and share the good news that God is always there with us, showing us the way to healing and restoration and protecting us from whatever threatens to harm us.

When the chaos of life swirls without and within us there is our Shepherd, always nearby, ready to show us the way to the verdant pasture beside the still waters where a feast has been prepared for us.

Picture it with me, using the 23rd Psalm as our narrative. We’re tired. We need to rest and let the world turn without us for a while. Or we’re breaking under a burden that has become too heavy to bear. Or we’ve never really believed we were of any value to anyone, including God. Or we’re lonely, isolated, or exiled by those most important to us. Our hearts and our heads are heavy. We are weary.

Then we hear the voice of our Shepherd inviting us to come – to nourish our bodies, rest our minds, and fill our souls. We look up and see tables set out on a flat area in the grass. A babbling creek runs along one side emptying into a pool as smooth as glass. A great green pasture spreads out in the other direction.

The tables are covered in fresh, white cloths. The flames of the candles on the tables dance in the soft breeze but never go out; and the tables are decorated with vases of fragrant flowers and herbs.

The sumptuous food is laid in the center of each table; and there are goblets of water and wine, already full, at every seat – and there are lots of seats – because eating a feast in the realm of God means being in community.

It’s a family meal where no one is lonely, no one is left out of the conversation, and everyone has plenty to eat. Our cups are running over, and joy abounds.

Then, to prove just how much we matter God anoints our heads with oil -something usually reserved for kings and queens. At that moment, when the oil touches our foreheads, we feel the power of God’s love enter us and course through our bodies like light breaking into darkness.

As the peace of God fills us, we close our eyes, lift our faces heavenward, open our arms and our hearts, and receive the grace God is lavishing upon us.Then we understand… We understand that the goodness and mercy of God will accompany us, every moment of every day of our lives. We understand because God abides in us and we in God, for ever and for ever more. We understand that we have nothing to fear and everything to gain by living lives of love; not just in word or speech, but in truth and action.

Let us, therefore, ask boldly for what we and our neighbors need, then faithfully receive all that God is ready and waiting to lavish upon us, and put to use all we are given for the glory of God and the welfare of God’s people.

As we prepare to share our Holy Communion, our earthly version of the feast described in Psalm 23, we open our hearts and minds to hear the voice of our Shepherd calling us by name, bidding us to eat and drink as we’re made into one body, one Spirit in Christ. For it is only in the realm of God that can we be totally and uniquely who we are, and at the same time, one with all that is, all that was, and all that ever will be.

Let us pray…Grant us, O God, to follow where you lead, remembering that we can lack nothing and have nothing to fear, because we abide with you forever. Amen.

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