Sermons That Work

Today Is Good Shepherd Sunday…, Easter 4 (B) – 2003

May 11, 2003

Today is “Good Shepherd Sunday.” Many of us associate this day with a particular painting, often rendered in stained glass, the familiar one with the rich, dark tones. It features Jesus as the gentle shepherd, carrying home a wayward sheep. Many children who grow up in the church carry this image of the Christ who walked among us throughout their lives. For some, it portrays Jesus as a sort of gentle dogcatcher, returning a lost puppy to them. This was a Jesus who cared about the things children cared about. He made them feel that the things they cared about matter to God, too.

In wider society, today is also known as Mother’s Day. It’s a day when we pay tribute to those who have nurtured us. Like the Good Shepherd, parents, grandparents, godparents, teachers, and our favorite neighbors have “tended” us—they have touched and taught and led and comforted and mentored us. They have taught us that we matter and prepared us for life. Not all of them have been our biological mothers. Not all of them have even been women. But all of them have given us the particular gifts of memory and presence—of caring for us in ways that affirmed us and reminded us just who and Whose we are.

In the late 1960s someone published a collection of the wisdom sayings common to American mothers—there were called “Momilies,” and they gave us a lot to laugh at. “It’s Ok if you play at Johnny’s, but don’t overstay your welcome.” “Just because Susie jumps off the bridge, does that mean that you jump, too? “ Or the all-time favorite: “Don’t wear raggedy underwear. You might get hit by a car, and if they call me to the hospital and you have on holey underwear and embarrass me, I will swear I do not know you.”

All these sayings had the effect of “calling us home.” They were rooted in the basic belief that our choices had consequences for our entire community because our conduct was considered a reflection of the values and character of those who reared us. In some families, there was a particular expression that was used when the children misbehaved: “You better act like somebody.” The intent of these words was to remind us that we are important, that people care about us, that our lives are significant, and that we are accountable for what you do with those lives.

Our mothers were not the only ones who used these expressions to bring us back to ourselves, but they did have particular ones that they could say like no one else, such as “This is MY house.” Or “Don’t make me come down there.” You could be halfway across town, hanging out with friends, getting ready to do the one thing most likely to get you “grounded” until the Second Coming, when all of a sudden you would hear that nagging voice and see that wagging finger: “Don’t you do anything I wouldn’t do.”

No number of years will erode the memory. Folks in their fifties can still can hear that voice as clearly as they did at age fifteen. We carry that voice in our memories. It never leaves us, because we have heard it for so many years. And we will recognize it no matter where we go. Ask any football player who scores a touchdown when his mother is in the stadium. He will tell you that even above the roar of the crowd, he can hear her voice screaming, “That’s my BAAAAAAABBY!” Even Our Lord himself had a mother who pulled the strings of relationship to keep him reminded of his truest nature. He was at a wedding, enjoying himself with his friends when she insisted that he share his gifts, and his ministry of miracles began.

That mother’s voice and its power to compel us over many generations gives us a glimpse of what it means for Jesus to shepherd us. That inviting, affirming, compelling, and convicting voice is also much closer to the heart of the Gospel than many of us realize. When we think “shepherd,” we think primarily of a job—that of a sheepherder responsible for protecting and taking care of animals. But the Good Shepherd is no mere hired hand. He guards the sheep with his very life because he sees them as his own. But this “owning” is not about property, it’s about deep knowing. He has the same essential nature as they do, and their relationship to him is the same as the one he has with his own father. They’re in a relationship that is as close as the skin on one’s body, and nothing can separate them.

The Shepherd loves his sheep and keeps them close, both to him and to one another. This is what Jesus meant in the giving of the mandate that calls us to love one another as he loves us. It’s a commandment to know, value, honor, and protect one another, to share with one another from the riches of God’s bounty. If we recognize Jesus by the tender care he gives the sheep, we recognize his sheep by the depth and steadfastness of the concern they show for their fellow human beings and for all of God’s Creation.

The earliest Christian communities lived out the commandment in this way: “ . . . the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was bestowed upon them all.” Their witness teaches us to recognize the sheep of Jesus’ fold by their unity, willingness to share, and unashamed proclamation of God’s victory over death. Their message to us is that when we are Jesus’ own, we know our own and are united with them in heart and spirit. We share what we have so that all will have enough; in Jesus’ fold, as some folks say, “If I got a dollar, you got fifty cents.”

Among the sheep of Jesus’ fold, people cherish what we cherish, but most important of all, they cherish us. They cannot know themselves without knowing us. We depend on them and they on us. We value one another’s lives as we do our own and will give our lives to protect those of our own, as Our Lord himself taught: “There is no greater love to give than to lay down your life for your friends.”

To live this kind of life in our day and age goes completely against the grain of our individualistic and materialistic social culture. But the Faithful Shepherd’s claim on our lives is one that calls us to courage. The witness of the Resurrection and of the millennia since is that courageous living is possible because fear no longer has power. We need not fear the illusion of loss when we live in the hand of Providence. We need not fear dying when eternal life is Christ’s promise. We need not fear the opinion of those who do not believe when our mission is to bring the presence of the Risen and Triumphant Christ directly into their midst. And we have the Passion of Christ itself as our strongest testimony, to the victory of God’s love over the death that is this life’s only real threat.

Jesus’ Passion was not a Love strong enough to kill for, it was a Love powerful enough to die for. And the death that the human can cause can never overcome the light of Christ as it touches, heals, strengthens and transforms the human spirit. No earthly possession can secure that power for us; no earthly force can take it from us. So in the spirit of the Early Christians, this morning we dare to stand on our faith in the midst of the faithless. We trust in God to embolden and empower us to speak the truth of Easter faith, as it is written: “And now, Lord, look at their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness, while you reach out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed in the name of your holy servant Jesus.”

As the apostle John has written, we are children of God, made in God’s, growing daily and progressively more like God as we move on in faith. We do not know what wonders God has in store for us, but we do know that God’s glory will be revealed in us if we listen for Our Lord’s voice and follow his leading. So let us come to the Table of Grace with hopeful hearts as we live into the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ—and let all the People of God say, AMEN.

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Christopher Sikkema