Sunday, May 3, 2020

4 Easter, 20-A: Serving like our Shepherd

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

En el nombre del Dios: creador, redentor, y santificador. Amen.

I revel in the knowledge that Jesus knows us. Jesus is so familiar with each and every one of us and the circumstances of our lives that when he wants us to notice and attend to him, he calls us by name. I revel in the knowledge that when we hear the voice of Jesus it is familiar to us, enabling us to respond with trust, complete trust, even when confusion and doubt are also present.

It’s the same for us as it was for Mary Magdalene when the risen Christ called her by name outside the tomb. When Jesus is speaking to us, there’s a peace that happens within us. When we hear his voice, we hear it with our whole selves, our bodies, and our spirits, and we respond with joy even in the midst of our confusion or fear.

I have learned over the years that when Jesus calls me by my name and I respond with complete trust, then I can follow him into the most radiant joy or the darkest nightmare - mine or someone else’s. I can follow him because he is God and I am not, and I believe with all I am that God would never lead me to my destruction.

Dark moments happen in life and people suffer. Sometimes we can trace a line of events that enables us to find the cause or someone to blame, but then what? How are we to respond? What does the voice of our Good Shepherd say to us?

As followers of Jesus we must always work to bring about justice - the kind of justice Jesus brought - the kind that opens a pathway for the redemption of all. This is the justice Jesus is describing in the story of the Good Shepherd.

In those days, shepherds would lead their flocks to communal grazing areas. The sheep would mix all up together as they ate. When the day was ending, the shepherds would call to their flocks using unique sounds and signals their sheep would recognize. Each shepherd would then walk their own flock toward their nightly enclosure.

Unless they were a very rich shepherd, which most weren’t, their enclosures had no gates, only an opening. At night a good shepherd would lay down across that opening and sleep there so that no sheep could wander out and no predator or thief could sneak in.

The leadership Jesus was teaching about is servant-leadership, which is an ‘other-focused’ leadership. The shepherd’s duty was to ensure the well-being of the sheep, even at the cost of his own safety and comfort.

Sadly, not everyone practices this kind of leadership, and Jesus teaches us that we can tell who they are by the way they enter into the fold. If they enter by the gate they are a shepherd. If they enter any other way, they are nothing more than a thief or a bandit.

The gospel story goes on to tell us that Jesus, observing his figure of speech wasn’t catching hold, explains it again only this time unambiguously: I am the gate, he says - twice, to mark it as important.

This is one of those “I AM” moments in Scripture. “I AM” is the name of God. Remember in Exodus when God told Moses to tell the people “I AM” sent me? In this moment, Jesus is powerfully, and not so subtly, claiming his divinity. I AM the gate, he says. In other words, I AM the Way.

Whoever enters by me will be preserved from danger and destruction, free to wander in and out to find pasture, which as the 23rd psalm tells us is peace, community, nourishment, and the presence of God.

Despite the poor reputation sheep have for intelligence, Jesus clarifies that the sheep in this parable ain’t so dumb. “They will not follow a stranger,” he says, but “they will run from him because” they don’t know him, and therefore, can’t trust him.

The thief speaks lies that benefit himself. The shepherd speaks truth that benefits the flock. I AM the Truth, Jesus says.

The other leaders will steal, kill, and destroy. “I came that they may have life” - abundant life. I AM the Life, Jesus says.

I AM the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

The thieves and bandits Jesus is alluding to were the Jewish religious leaders of his time, but the same is true of leadership in all times, including ours. As the pandemic holds the whole world in its grip, the world leaders who are focused on the health and safety of all are easily differentiated from those who are mostly concerned with themselves.

We ain’t dumb either.

The communal society described in the story from Acts shows us that it is possible for people to live together in such a way that the resources of all are shared with those who have any need. It isn’t an utopian dream. It was a reality. It just didn’t win the day in human history.

The famous quote: “Let them eat cake” comes to mind. Whether Marie Antoinette said it or not is in question, but what is certain is the sentiment behind it. The rich and powerful in most of human history have not been inclined to practice the servant-leadership of the Good Shepherd.

One last thing, in case anyone wants to use Scripture to stifle the voices of the suffering. In his epistle, Peter is not calling for the suffering to simply endure their suffering as Jesus quietly endured his for us. He’s speaking specifically to slaves who were already suffering and was letting them know that Jesus was suffering with them.

If you’ll remember, Jesus also turned over the tables of the money-changers at the temple who were a stumbling block to the poor who wanted to worship God. Sometimes Jesus’ advocacy wasn’t quiet at all.

How, then do we know when to fight bravely and when to endure humbly? The answer is simple: follow the voice of Jesus - which requires, of course, that we take time to learn the sound of his voice in our lives.

Last week, Deacon Janet suggested people journal their experiences and discover where they are encountering Jesus while we shelter in place. I totally agree and I’d take that advice even farther: listen for the voice of Jesus in your body, in creation, in one another, in your dreams. Our Good Shepherd is speaking to us all the time, using sounds and signals unique to our hearing.

When we gather to worship, whether online or in our churches, we are making time and space to listen to the voice of Jesus so that, as individuals and as a faith community, we can serve as Jesus served.

And our call to serve isn’t limited by our current in-place sheltering. If anything, it’s expanded.

With the unemployment rolls billowing into the hundreds of thousands as a result of the pandemic, it’s isn’t as easy to dismiss and blame anyone for their need. Suddenly there is a renewed awareness that sharing the resources of the rich with those who have need is the right thing to do.

As followers of Jesus, we have an opportunity to lead a cultural shift in the way people who have need are treated both now, and when our in-place sheltering is lifted. We all have the opportunity to be servant-leaders following our Good Shepherd who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Our goal, like his, is to serve so that all may have life and have it abundantly.

Let us pray. Grant, O God, that we will listen for the voice of our Good Shepherd, who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads. Amen.

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