A sermon by Jenny Koops
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, Saint Paul, MN
Sunday, April 30th, 2023
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.
After being invited to preach today I went in search of what the gospel lesson would be, so that I could prepare my sermon. I saw on the liturgical calendar that it would be the fourth Sunday of Easter, but as someone who still considers themself a toddler when it comes to being part of a liturgical tradition like ours, I failed to remember that the 4th Sunday of Easter had any significance in regards to my preaching. But as I began reading the gospel lesson for today I became excited and recalled that this was referred to as ‘Good Shepherd Sunday’ because each year on the 4th Sunday of Easter, no matter which cycle of the lectionary we are in, Psalm 23 and the story of Jesus as the Good Shepherd from the Gospel of John are the lessons. As I glanced back to confirm the exact verses for this week’s reading though, I was taken aback. This was not the story of the Good Shepherd! In today’s gospel reading we do not even get to the verse where Jesus calls himself the good shepherd, how could this be good shepherd Sunday? While this may sound rather dramatic, and it is, it’s because the story of Jesus as the Good Shepherd holds great meaning and memory for me during my time here at St. John’s.
During my early years at St. John’s, while volunteering with the youth group, one evening three of the youth excitedly and in vivid detail recalled the Parable of Jesus the Good Shepherd from their early years in Godly Play. At that time I was still a Godly Play skeptic and was quite surprised and impressed at their ability to recall the details of the objects used to tell the story and to describe what it meant for Jesus to be the Good Shepherd. Fast forward a few years and I began telling Godly Play stories as well. The first time I got to tell the Parable of the Good Shepherd I was converted to whatever it is about Godly Play that seems to work. In Godly Play as you begin telling the story you present objects that symbolize a part of the story and occasionally we pause to ‘wonder’ what these objects could be or mean. As I began setting out the objects for the Good Shepherd parable that first time, I saw a few of the older kids’ eyes light up and smirks of knowingness come across their faces. By the time I had sat down just the third object, a long brown rectangle made of construction paper, some of them already knew what story I was about to tell. As best as elementary aged kids can, they held back shouting what the story was, so that our younger friends could experience it for the first time just like they had. But by the time I brought out the first laminated sheep, there was no holding back, and someone exclaimed that it was, “The Good Shepherd!” [PAUSE] So when I realized we wouldn’t even get to that part of the reading today, I was a bit upset, because it’s one of my favorites. And I have seen what an impact it can have on our youngest members. But after meditating on
today’s passage and seeking some outside wisdom I realize that we still have much to learn in just these ten verses, before we ever get to my favorite part.
In today’s reading it can be easy to get caught up in the idea of the gatekeeper. The person deciding who is in and who is out. But Professor of Biblical Preaching at Luther Seminary, Karoline Lewis, says that to read this passage as a way of God deciding who’s in and who’s out would not only be an oversimplification of just two sentences of scripture, but also would go against the theology the Gospel of John presents us, that God is a God of love!
Instead, Lewis invites us to see Jesus as the gateway into abundant life. Jesus isn’t standing at the gate to exclude but standing with open arms to offer a place of refuge for those who are most vulnerable to the world and to keep out those who wish to harm us.
To better understand this we must first know the context in which Jesus begins telling us about the gate and the gatekeeper. In John Chapter 9, ust before today’s reading, is the story of the blind man being healed. Without knowing who he was, the blind man responded to Jesus’ voice and then his command to go, wash the mud off his eyes, and be healed. The Blind Man is healed and then questioned by the Pharisees because of this miracle. When the blind man refers to Jesus as a prophet, the Pharisees drive him out of the community. As we move into Chapter 10 today, Jesus is responding to the audience gathered as he rebukes the Pharisees for not seeing who he truly was and for their treatment of the blind man. But Jesus isn’t just speaking to the Pharisees – he’s speaking to the Disciples that are with him, to the others who have seen this miracle take place, and to us.
By healing the blind man, Jesus has restored him to community – he no longer has to beg outside the city walls or live in darkness. This is the abundant life Jesus is speaking to in our lesson today. The sheepfold we are being invited into isn’t one of exclusion but one that provides refuge by creating boundaries to protect the most vulnerable among us, and give us respite from the evil of the world. The gate keeps out the thieves and bandits who wish to steal, kill, and destroy.
Abundant life may not always mean physical healing for us, but it can mean deeper communion with God and one another. Abundant life in the sheepfold that Jesus offers us entry into provides refuge and solace for when we are lost and unsure, for when the world says we are not enough.
The sheepfold stands in contrast to the reality in which we live, where we are told that we cannot rest, because there isn’t and never will be enough, that we must always keep working for more and more and more. But the sheepfold is a place of rest that God is calling us to, to lie down in green pastures as we read in psalm 23, and taking time to rest in our physical sacred spaces like the one we are in today, helps not only reinvigorate us to go back out into the world to share and invite others into God’s abundance, but also to center us in God’s love so that we may hear and know God’s voice when we are called.
In a world marked by cynicism and isolation we have a God, a Shepherd, who stands calling us back to the gate by name. That God is offering us a life so full that before God is even done telling our story we notice what we are being called into, and maybe our excitement will be such that we
cannot wait to get back to the gate to share it, that in our lives the abundant love of God would burst out of us like a child who can no longer hold back the answer that they know is true. And time and time again as we venture out into the world may we recall in vivid detail the love that God, the Good Shepherd, is offering to us and to the world.