A sermon preached for Easter 4, Good Shepherd Sunday, on Psalm 23, John 10:11-18 & Acts 4:5-12 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas on April 22, 2017
The Children’s Message that took place before this sermon learned some new ways to understand Psalm 23 with gratitude for the commentary on Workingpreacher.org.
The Lord oversees and guides my journey, giving me rest and nourishment when I need it (a temporary repose!);
The Lord leads me in finding righteous grooves to travel or ruts in the ground to follow, so that I have right and healthy relationships with others that honor God.
The journey doesn’t go from green pastures to the house of the Lord, I will go through hard times (like Jesus did), and I get through them because God is with me.
I survive the hardest parts of my journey because God is with me to guide, protect, help, and comfort me.
God provides me with everything I need, and even when I think all is lost, You remind me I am your beloved child and you sustain me.
With God I know that only goodness and kindness will pursue and chase me every day I walk this journey.
I will continually return to God’s presence in thanksgiving my whole life long.
Have you ever wondered why Jesus calls himself the “good” shepherd in this Gospel reading from John? Why isn’t he the “Awesome” Shepherd, the “Most Excellent” Shepherd, the “Outstanding, Amazing” shepherd, or the “Greatest Shepherd the world has ever seen?” Surely Jesus fits all these descriptions. We do hear such lofty language in other passages of Scripture—In Isaiah 9 for example—Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
We just affirmed in Psalm 23 with the children, that Jesus really is the “wonderful, mighty, incredible” shepherd of our lives. He provides for all we need: strength in our weakness, rest in our exhaustion, guidance in our confusion, hope in our fears, comfort in our sorrow. He gives us rest when we need it, and a prod in the behind when we want to linger too long beside still waters. Life is pretty good as sheep with Jesus as our Shepherd wouldn’t you agree? That’s why Psalm 23 is the most popular and beloved Psalm, and probably the best-known passage in all of Scripture. As the Shepherd, he even provides salvation from our sins. Jesus even says so in verse 15 of our John passage: “I lay down my life for the sheep.”
So if he does all that, why does Jesus describe himself as just the “good” shepherd? I’m not sure we’re going to like the answer. Perhaps Jesus only refers to himself as “good” because Jesus is not the only shepherd he’s referring to. Our passage from John 10 foreshadows a later passage in John 21 when the resurrected Jesus meets the disciples at daybreak after their night of fishing on the Sea of Tiberias. They enjoy a breakfast of grilled fish and bread. And then Jesus begins to quiz Peter:
'Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?' He said to him, 'Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.' Jesus said to him, 'Feed my lambs.' A second time he said to him, 'Simon son of John, do you love me?' He said to him, 'Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.' Jesus said to him, 'Tend my sheep.' He said to him the third time, 'Simon son of John, do you love me?' Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, 'Do you love me?' And he said to him, 'Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.' Jesus said to him, 'Feed my sheep.'
Did you catch the shift? Who’s the shepherd now? Peter, and not just Peter, but all the disciples—who are called “apostles” after the resurrection. And not just the apostles back then, but all of us who follow Jesus today. Jesus calls all of us to follow in his footsteps and become a shepherd. It’s so easy to focus on how great it is to be the sheep, that we miss this part of the story. We love being sheep! We’d like to stay over there with the children’s message and remain sheep. They can stay sheep for now, but we adults, we apostles, we followers of Jesus the Shepherd—it’s time to step up and become a shepherd. Part of our experience as the sheep, is to prepare us to become a shepherd.
For we know how important it was to be found when we were lost, to be guided when we were confused, to be comforted when we were afraid, and to be helped when were in the valley of the shadow. We know that WE would be lost without Jesus as our Shepherd, so Jesus calls us to use the truth of our own experience, as the motivation to shepherd other lost and lonely sheep into the fold.
Maybe that’s why Jesus uses the word “good” shepherd. If he were the “extraordinary, out of this world, most awesome” shepherd, we would give up before we even tried to follow in his footsteps. We would come up with every excuse we could and say, “it’s not our job to seek and save the lost. I’m not extraordinarily awesome. I’m much happier just being a sheep, thank you very much!”
But Jesus doesn’t let us off the hook—the shepherd’s hook so easily. With Peter, he says to us, “feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep.” You see, this whole good shepherd discourse in John begins with Jesus healing the man born blind at the beginning of chapter 8. Jesus finds the blind man, this lost sheep, where he’s sat his entire life—begging for anything that might keep him alive. Then he tells the religious leaders that Jesus healed him, and they kick him out! Jesus goes and finds him again! Jesus finds the blind man in his lostness and brings him back into the fold of his love, not once but twice—he kept on trying until he stayed!
That’s why in our passage today, in verse 16 Jesus says, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them in also.” And Jesus looks at us and asks, “Will you? Will you follow me as a good shepherd and bring in the missing sheep? Will you seek out the lost sheep, and welcome them, love them? Will be the shepherd who finds the rejected, the downtrodden, the refugee, the hungry, the lonely, and the homeless begging on your street corners? Will you make sure that those who have been previously rejected—people who are mentally ill, or have special needs, or are lesbian, gay or transgendered—will you go out of your way to reach them with my love, so they can hear my voice, and come into my fold? Will you? Will keep trying until they stay?”
We don’t have to be the “most awesome, incredible, greatest shepherd the world has ever seen,” but Jesus does call us to be “good” shepherds who really do seek those outside the fold. And I’m sure you’ve noticed that the lost sheep that Jesus welcomed into the fold, were the ones the established religion hated the most—prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers, and blind people. It's the same issue in our passage from Acts. The apostles are in trouble with the religious extablishment because they healed a crippled man--another outcast--and brought him into the fold. It’s why our inclusive welcome—on the altar and on the website—must be explicit. Because the people you don’t see among us have always heard that they are rejected, outcast, and should stay away.
To welcome lost into the fold is uncomfortable, challenging, and can cause disagreements. But of course, you know that because you’ve done the hard work of creating St. Luke’s welcome statement. I hope we can continue an intentional, inclusive, transparent process to consider becoming a Reconciled in Christ congregation—the official welcome of LGBTQ-friendly congregations. A faithful process and conversation does not guarantee nor manipulate an outcome, but because shepherds are in the “welcome and protection” business, it’s important to continue the conversation and discern to whom God calls us to give an explicit and generous welcome.
We need to have a similar conversation about welcoming homeless people—I met Kenneth at the corner of Belt Line and the North Dallas Tollway this week—and about how we will interact with our interfaith partners, and others to whom God sends us in this community. There will be times when we want to go back to being a sheep with other sheep who are just like us. And Jesus, our Good Shepherd will love us, and forgive us, and then prod us forward when we want to linger too long beside the still waters, and he will say, “try again.” Jesus will ask us if we love him and we will say, “yes, Lord, you know everything, you know that we love you.”
And Jesus will say to us, “Feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold, yet. I must bring them also. Will you? Will you follow me as a good shepherd here at St. Lukes?
“Will you tell the lost that I oversee and guide their journey and will give them rest and nourishment when they need it? Will you find the lost and tell them I have helped you find your righteous groove to follow so you can have healthy relationships that honor me? Will you? Will you find the rejected and the lonely and reassure them that I am with them through the darkest valley and that I will guide and help them as I have done for you? Will you, St. Luke’s? Will you tell the outcast that when think that all is lost and there’s no way forward, I will remind them they are my precious child and I will sustain them? Will you? And will you find the lost sheep and tell them that goodness and kindness are chasing after them, and I will keep chasing them until they’re found? Will you? Will you seek the lost and hungry and invite them to return with you here, to my presence so that I can love them as I have love you? Will you, St. Lukes?"
And we will answer, “yes.”