Sunday, May 15, 2011

Easter 4A: Being sheep and shepherds

Lectionary: Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10

When my daughter was little I was the Brownie troop leader. As an expert in the field of abuse prevention, I was called upon each year to help teach the children how to stay safe. I used to begin by telling those little ones that there are some grown-ups who want to trick them and do them harm, and because they are grown-ups they can trick them.

Then I would do this demonstration. (If you get it – don’t say anything until I explain the trick) Tosses a coin. Call it! Heads I win, tails you lose. (Continues until the little ones begin to understand the trick)

The good news though is that these Brownies have a community of family and friends who can help them stay safe. The good grown-ups in their community know the tricks these bad grown-ups use. The good grown-ups can and want to protect their children.

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 and all encompassing, just meant to make a point: I am the Good Shepherd – these others who have been leading you (the Jewish religious authorities) are thieves and bandits, stealing your trust and robbing you of the abundant life offered by God.

Listen to MY voice, Jesus says. I know my own, and my own know me – they know my voice and they trust it because my voice leads them to safe, green pastures and refreshing, still waters.

The Good Shepherd is a favorite and enduring image of our Redeemer’s relationship with us, even though most of us today don’t have much real experience with sheep or shepherds. But it was a familiar experience in ancient times. 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.

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 leaves the gatekeeper 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.

But not only is Jesus claiming to be the good shepherd, he is claiming to be the gate as well. This makes sense if we remember who Jesus is. As our Gospel writer tells us in the first chapter, Jesus is the Word of God, who was with God in the beginning, and who was God.

Well, of course Jesus is the gate then. How could it be otherwise? Jesus is the one who links heaven and earth. Though him all things were made. Through him all things are reconciled to God. And because he is the Word made flesh, Jesus is both sheep and shepherd and he shows us how to be the same.

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 won’t be saved. One problem with that is, this story isn’t about the flock, it’s about the shepherd - the Good Shepherd, who is the true voice of God.

Also, in Jesus’ story there is freedom – those who follow his voice are free to come in and go out. That’s quite different from the way other shepherds then and now have presented it. Some earthly shepherds aren’t fond of freedom – it’s much easier to build a church and control people who don’t know they have the freedom to come in and go out, isn’t it?

But Jesus makes clear in this same speech (later on in verse 16): “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 come because “they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

The voice of the Good Shepherd continues to call sheep into the fold today. And while we are the sheep, we are also the shepherds now. Being a shepherd who is also part of the flock is hard work. How freely do we open our doors to those whom God calls to us? How exactly do we go out and find the sheep who are lost or suffering, who are crying for safety, for nourishment or comfort.

As one of our 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.”

As shepherds, we have to guard the gate – not to keep the flock in… the flock has the freedom to come in and go out as it follows the voice of the Good Shepherd. We don’t guard the gate in order to keep unworthy sheep out. Only the Lamb of God himself, was worthy.

We guard the gate to make sure it opens every time a sheep is ready to enter the fold, having heard and followed the voice of God. We guard it to protect the sheep from those who intend to harm them or lead them astray.

The key in this story, for the sheep and the shepherds of the sheep, is listening – knowing how to hear the voice of God, our Good Shepherd. But how do we learn this?

Peter tells us in the story from Acts, that the early church “spent much time together in the temple.” The psalmist, in response to the graciousness of God, promises to dwell (that is to worship) in the house of the Lord (church) for the rest of his life.

We are called to do the same. The reason is, we discern the voice of God individually and in community. Listening for the voice of God is something we must choose to learn and practice, and we do that by maintaining our commitment to ongoing Christian formation and to corporate prayer in Church.

So, I have a question for you – do you hear the voice of God? Do you hear the Redeemer calling you by name? If not, why not? The voice of God speaks to us in many ways: in our bodies, in our dreams, as a sudden insight in our prayers, in the reading of Scripture, in the voice of a friend, in the smile of a child, in the beauty of a sunset.

God speaks to us all the time in many ways – all we need to do is learn how to hear it. And we don’t need to worry about recognizing God’s voice – Jesus promises that we will know it.

It’s true, we are all vulnerable to being tricked, but having been marked as Christ’s own forever in our Baptism, we know that we can never (never, never!) be tricked out of God’s loving protection. Even if we walk away from God or the Church, mad about something, or disapproving of another thing, we are still one family, one flock, being constantly gathered back into the fold by our Good Shepherd.

As we continue to journey on together, our task is to learn and grow in our ability to listen and heed the voice of our Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ so that we can be good shepherds too. We know that along the way, we will share difficult moments, confusing moments, exciting moments, and moments where we see the beauty God longs to show us.

And we know this for sure: that every moment will be one we share with the “guardian of our souls,” our Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ.

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