Easter 4, A
1 Peter 2:19-25
Today I stand before you joyous to give testimony to one of the most singular, most miraculous, most extraordinary events of all time. The sun came out in Northern Minnesota.
We actually had the windows open yesterday – oh, that gentle breeze felt so nice, smelled so fresh. Sunbeams dancing of the surface of the lake. Ok, they’re dancing off ice crystals, but they are dancing.
And it’s Mother’s Day today. Happy Mother’s Day! And – Happy Good Shepherd Sunday. 4th Sunday of Easter – it’s always Good Shepherd Sunday.
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters. And from the Gospel “the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.” Hence, Good Shepherd Sunday.
Sunshine breaking through the gloom, Mother’s Day, that most sentimental of all holidays, and fat, woolly, social, bleating bundles of cooperative fluff. Could you find a day any more suited to warm fuzzies? Safe and protected within our fold – the courageous shepherd laying down his life for our welfare. We may have to work on our bleating skills just a titch; but otherwise, oh, it sounds nice, doesn’t it?
Or does it? What’s all this talk about thieves and bandits, killing, stealing, destroying? They’re not outside, they are inside the fold. The thieves and the bandits – calling the sheep away from the gate, away from the shepherd. These are the things that call us from Jesus’s teachings? But let’s be honest, shall we? Not all of following the Way seems all that warm and fuzzy anyway, does it?
Look back to Acts, “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” Generosity – great. Sharing with our neighbors – of course. Distributing to all in need – what higher calling? But “all”? All things in common? All things to those in need? And by all, do you think he means “all”? Like the real all? My lovely flannel sheets, thick and warm and soft? And my books. What about my books? They are practically friends – how do I give those away?
My warm fuzzies are cooling off a bit here.
And Peter. Peter is so far off the warm and fuzzy beat. “It’s a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly.” Really? Can I just go back to my nice, safe sheepfold, please? This is not sounding good at all. 1) Give everything away. 2) Trust the future to fellow believers and to God (presumably without first setting up a prudent retirement plan and insurance policy), 3) suffer unjust abuse without so much as objecting, much less retaliating. This makes no sense.
Before you head back to your safe, familiar, spiritual sheepfold, consider the possibility that we, we the church, have been missing something. We traditionally read this Gospel and its synoptic counterparts the warm and fuzzy way. Jesus is the gate. Jesus is the shepherd. He said as much. By extension, we are the sheep. We walk through the gate; we are guarded by the shepherd. Baa. Life is good, predictable. We know who we are. We know our fellow sheep. We are confident in our safety. Baa.
According to the Rev. Delmer Chilton, Peter holds the key to a deeper, richer understanding. “‘For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. (emphasis added)’ Jesus suffered for us; we are called to suffer for others. It is a recurring theme with Jesus. The father sent me, I send you. I forgive you, you forgive others. I feed you, you feed others. I heal you, you heal others. I suffer for you, you suffer for others. I shepherd you, you shepherd others.”
What if Peter was right? I know, Peter wasn’t right all that often when Jesus was alive, but he did have his moments. What if Peter was right here? About that whole footsteps following thing. What if it is our turn? What if we have been shown the gate, passed into the fold, been held safe, and now we are called to follow Jesus’s footsteps and shepherd?
There is a world of sheep out there. I don’t mean that to be in any way insulting, despite the ovine reputation of dim-wittededness. In point of fact, sheep have shown an ability to problem solve and have excellent memories. They can remember at least 50 individual sheep and humans for years. Depending on the day, this may be more than I can claim for myself with any confidence. Sheep display emotions, have clear facial expressions (at least clear to other sheep), even make vocalizations that can communicate specific emotions. Sheep have been known to find and eat appropriate medicinal plants when ill. Mother sheep (back to that Mother’s Day theme) form deep and lasting bonds with their lambs.*
The bad rep of sheep comes not from true stupidity, but rather from a truly horrible sense of direction (I can relate to this). This horrible sense of direction is combined with a strong need for social belonging and a unenviable venue at the bottom of the predator/prey food chain. Consequently, sheep will follow the crowd anywhere just to try to stay safe. Again, sounds disturbingly familiar.
So I say this without any sense of condescension – there is a world of sheep out there. There is a world of the lost: the frightened, the wandering, the lonely, the ill, the hungry, the preyed-upon, the suffering. We have been lost and shepherded – are we now called to shepherd, to follow the footsteps of The Shepherd?
Jesus never promises warm and fuzzy. That is our construction. Jesus promises life abundant. A life replete with love and caring. A life rich in compassion, not STUFF. A life worth giving for.
Again the Rev. Chilton, “There is a world full of hurting and needy people walking through the valley of the shadow today. Will you take up your rod and your staff and walk with them? Will you give up your comforts so that they may have necessities? Will you suffer so that their suffering might end? Will you help Jesus shepherd the world?”
*Sheep facts from OneKind.org
Thanks to the Rev. Delmer Chilton, Lectionary Lab, for the basic concept