Sunday, April 30, 2023

4 Easter, 2023-A: On being sheep and shepherds

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

En el nombre del Dios que es Trinidad en unidad. Amen. (Note: At the Rite II service, the preacher brings the children up for the demonstration…)

Long ago, I was a Brownie Girl Scout troop leader. As an expert in the field of child abuse prevention, I was called upon every year to help teach the Girls Scouts of all ages how to stay safe. I used the following demonstration to show them that there are some grown-ups who may try to trick them in order to harm them, and it works because they are the ones who are supposed to be looking out for them and their safety.

I would begin by tossing a coin, saying, Ok call it. Heads I win, Tails you lose. One child would call out “Heads!” and I’d say, Heads – I win! I’d’ toss it again and another child would call out, “Tails!” Tails, you lose, I’d say. It wasn’t long before the kiddos understood the trick.

In today’s gospel story, Jesus makes similar points about the Jewish leadership. It’s important to remember that this story follows the story of the man born blind whom Jesus healed. Remember how his parents hesitated to answer the questions, was your son really born blind and who healed him? It’s because they feared the Pharisees would excommunicate them for being followers of Jesus causing them to lose their family, friends, and community.

Jesus is connecting this moment in the gospel to the passage in Ezekiel where God called the leaders of Israel false shepherds who fed themselves and not the sheep whom they scattered leaving them vulnerable to predators. God declares “I myself will search for my sheep, rescue them, and feed them with good pasture. (34:11-16) Jesus was a masterful Biblical scholar.

Jesus identifies himself as the shepherd who enters by the gate. He is also the gate. This is his unique status as the Incarnate Word of God, and not surprisingly, the religious leaders don’t understand what he is saying.

There is so much beautiful imagery in this short parable that may go unnoticed by those of us unfamiliar with farming sheep. For instance, it wasn’t unusual for several flocks to gather in the same place for pasturing. I’m told this still happens in that region of the Middle East.

One wonders how, at the end of the day, the sheep will be separated back into their proper groups, but a shepherd knows that the relationship they build with their sheep is so personal that the sheep develop great trust in their shepherd over time. They also know the sheep trust each other, so if a group of sheep heads in one direction the rest will follow – herd mentality.

The sheep know their own shepherd’s voice and will follow it. I’m told it’s pretty amazing to watch this in real life – several flocks separating following their shepherd who goes in front of them to show them the way.

The shepherd leads their flock to the enclosed area where they will sleep for the night. Most shepherds would put planks across the gate to keep the sheep from walking back out during the night. But the really devoted shepherd would lay himself down across the gate and sleep there. That way no sheep could leave, nor a predator enter, without him knowing. Of course, lying across that gate also meant that the gatekeeper was vulnerable to the predators.

Jesus was claiming to be that sort of shepherd – the Good Shepherd who is willing to lay down his life for his sheep.

Jesus identifies himself as the gate as well and says that whoever enters by him will be saved. This is often taken as an exclusive comment, but it isn’t. Not if you believe in the Trinity, and consider what Jesus says a few verses later as he continues this teaching: “I have other sheep which are not of this fold, and I must bring them too. They will hear my voice and we will be one flock and one shepherd. (16)

Did you know that the word translated here as “saved” literally means to make sound, in good condition – free from injury or disease? It means to preserve someone from danger, loss, or destruction. Jesus is saying, “Whoever enters by me will be made sound, preserved from danger and destruction, but even more, they will be given freedom to come in and go out and find pasture” …the kind described so beautifully in Psalm 23.

We are the sheep who follow the voice of the Good Shepherd, and we are the shepherds in the world today as the church. It is now up to us to guard the gate – not to keep anyone out, but to make sure the gate opens every time a sheep comes in or goes out following the voice of God.

As shepherds in the world today, we are called to lay down our lives to protect the flock from those who would do them harm. The Emmanuel Black Lives Matter gathering every Friday night is doing that – taking insults and taunts directed at them as they stand for our African American sisters and brothers who suffer from continuing targeted racism in our culture and cultural systems.

In Missouri, there are currently over 40 anti-trans, and anti-LGBTQIA+ bills under consideration by our legislators. Churches United for Justice, a local group of faith communities, is watching that legislation, showing up to testify against it, and mobilizing people of faith to protect our vulnerable siblings-in-Christ who are being attacked culturally, medically, and personally. 

Within our own congregation are continuing expressions of fear over the potential for gun violence while we worship, run our preschool, and just go about our business as a Christian community of faith. I’ve counseled several women and one teen about the impact of the limits being imposed on women’s healthcare under the guise of “Christian values.”

As members of The Episcopal Church, we are out of step with the voices of false shepherds who benefit personally by fomenting fear, judgment, and condemnation of other members of the family of God they disapprove of or hate. Our Baptismal vows call us to respect the dignity of every human being and in our gospel story today, Jesus clarifies whose voice we are to follow – his, and his alone.

Luke tells us in Acts, that the early church “spent much time together in the temple.” We are called to do the same. The reason is, as Episcopalians, we discern the voice of God individually and in community. Hearing the voice individually only can lead us astray. False shepherds like David Koresh and Jim Jones thought they, and they alone, heard the voice of God. Look where that led. Our commitment to corporate discernment that affirms individual discernment is one of the planks we lay across the gate to protect our flock.

Listening for the voice of God is something we must choose to learn and practice, and church is where we do that. Some people worry about being able to recognize that it is God’s voice. It’s true, we are all vulnerable to temptation, but through his death and resurrection, Jesus defeated the power sin and death have over us. Do we believe that?

Do we believe that by his wounds we have been healed? Do we believe that having been marked as Christ’s own forever in our Baptism, there is nothing that can separate us from the eternal love and protection of God?

We can choose to walk away from God or the Church, mad about something, or disapproving of another thing. We can even choose to follow false shepherds who spin false narratives and employ threats, coercion, or cajoling; because the promise we cling to is that we are members of one flock, being constantly gathered back into the fold by our Good Shepherd.

The way of the world kills and destroys by infecting our hearts and our churches with fear, hate, and threat of abandonment. But our faith assures us that in the face of every earthly circumstance, we are not alone. We are in the eternal presence of God in Christ, who offers us abundant life; a life in verdant pastures, beside still waters, and lavish with blessings.

How can we help but share Good News like that? Amen.

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