April 26, 2015 Easter 4: Good Shepherd Sunday
Prayer: Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life. Good shepherd, we give thanks for your presence, for your shepherding, for those you sent to shepherd us, and those you send to be shepherded by us … into your presence. Fill our hearts and minds with you. Be with us, as we bear your presence to the world. Amen
I have very limited experience with sheep – field trips, visits to farms, the sheep barn at the state fair, that’s it. But both today’s gospel and psalm invite me to find myself in God’s flock, gathered and tended, guided and attended in all things by the Lord, who is my shepherd. Jesus names himself in the gospel – “I am the good shepherd.” The Twenty Third Psalm, perhaps the most familiar of all the psalms, reminds us that the Lord, as our shepherd, is with us through it all,
- makes us lie down in green pastures, fed and rested, soothed by the still waters
- helps us face our fears, our enemies, even our death
- gives to us the abundant life Jesus promised – restored, lead in right paths, anointing our heads with oil and with the waters of baptism, giving us cups that overflow
Jesus’ last words to us in Matthew reaffirm that promise – “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Then, we must be the sheep that Jesus tends and loves. So, what do you and I have in common with sheep?
- Sheep, just like me, are short and near sighted. They cannot always see or hear accurately where the shepherd is leading. So, when the shepherd leads, the rod is held high so that sheep can see and follow.
- Sheep, just like me, are not too bright. Coming to the edge of a cliff, they step right over the edge. The shepherd uses the rod to create a safe boundary, to keep them from going over the side of the cliff.
- Sheep, just like me, are easy prey … and there are predators out there. The shepherd uses the rod to keep the wolves away. The hired hand might run away to protect his own life, which he cares about more than he cares about the sheep. The shepherd, on the other hand, will lay down his life for the sheep … which is precisely what Jesus did.
- Sheep, just like me, are easily wounded. At the end of the day, as the sheep go into the sheepfold for safe keeping overnight, the shepherd stands beside them as they enter, separating the wool with his rod, looking for wounds, culling out the ones who are injured to give them special attention and healing care.
But it isn’t just about us, the ones in the flock now. Jesus declares, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” Consider the role Jesus has for us in gathering the rest of his flock. First, consider who it was that Jesus sent to shepherd you into the family of Christ? No, really, I want you to remember who it was that Jesus sent to gather you into his family. Remember and give thanks for them. I was blessed with faithful parents and clergy and Sunday school teachers who nurtured faith in me. But there were five “unlikely suspects,”
- Miss Joy cared for me from birth to age three in the nursery at House of Hope, not far from here. She had no helpers or toys or books or music. She rocked us in the faith. Sang us songs of faith. Loved us into the faith. And long after we were four or fourteen, she called out to us from the nursery: “Is it well with your soul?”, “How can I be praying for you?” “What are you learning about Jesus?”
- Mr. Fink was head usher at the 9am service, the same time my dad ushered. Mr. Fink greeted me in the narthex with a warm smile and the offer of a lifesaver, always present in his pocket. For Christmas, he gave me a book of lifesavers! He taught me the sweetness of the faith.
- Miss Kirk sat in the back pew, far left hand side at the 9am service, the pew in which my father parked me while he ushered, before he took me to Sunday school. From age four to eight-and-a-half, I don’t think I ever let her prepare her heart or mind for worship. I think I might have talked to her. This very shy woman just listened to me and remembered what I told her and cared about me. She invited me to come to her Victorian home for high tea, just the two of us with real tea in china cups with a green flowered K for Kirk. When she died, her nieces brought my mother a tea cup to save for me. It is in my corner cabinet now, where I can see it every day and remember that sometimes it is our listening that invites others into the faith.
- Mr. Cain was an “old guy,” he was 23 and a recent graduate of Macalester College, when he came down Summit Avenue to teach my high school Sunday school class. He listened to the stories of our lives and helped us find God in our stories, then find our stories in God’s bigger story.
- My Gramma Carlson, my mom’s mom, came to visit my parents for two weeks when my mother was pregnant with me … and stayed for 25 years! With only a fourth grade education in Sweden, the only book she knew by heart … not by memory, but by heart … was the Bible. She tucked my brother and me into every Bible story. We had a front row seat. She always named Jesus’ presence in her childhood and ours. She prayed about everything all of the time … and couldn’t have done it in Elizabethan English if our lives depended on it. From her heart to God’s ear. She taught us those daily faith practices that are part of our lives today.
So, who were your shepherds of faith? Who brought you into Jesus’ presence and Jesus into your life. Thank God for them.
But, we’re not done. Who are the ones God has sent into your life for you to shepherd … and how will that look? They may be neighbors, friends, or colleagues that need you to invite them to worship here at St. John’s or to offer to pray for their concerns or their celebrations. You and I are called to be on the lookout for them, to reach out, to shepherd them into the Good Shepherd’s presence.
And this amazing congregation has beautiful children. At their baptisms, you made promises to support them in this journey of faith, to support their parents in raising them to know and love Jesus. You offer wonderful faith formation in Godly Play and in so many other ways here at St. John’s. But it needs to be faith formation for all of the generations, so that all adults are equipped to do that high holy work identified by the writer of Deuteronomy 6: Keep these commandments that I am giving you today in your hearts. Recite them to your children and talk about them, when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.
So this is to fill all of life – at home, not at home, lying down, not lying down. Jesus taught adults and blessed children. Adult faith formation is “shepherds’ training.”
You also have wonderful worship. Research over the last 30 years tells us that it is children who worship alongside their parents and the other adults who love them that are the ones most likely to grow to be adults of mature faith, engaged in the life of a congregation and living that faith in the world. Isn’t that what we all want for all of our children – a faith that lasts a lifetime and transforms lives? My parents took my brother and me to worship weekly from the time we were very young. We needed to be taught to worship. We did the same with our children … and I have a son with ADD, so we sat in the front pew. Talk about a weekly leap of faith. Our kids learned to worship well, learned that they are beloved members of Christ’s community … and now they are teaching their children.
It takes all of us to welcome and love the kids into our faith family. All adults need to smile a greeting to the children, get to know them by name, and let them know that they are not the future of this church. They are its present, too.
Now, may God grant us gratitude for Jesus’ shepherding and give us willing hearts to go out, in Jesus’ name, to shepherd the next generation and those not already in his flock. The Good Shepherd is waiting.