A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter – 26 April 2015, by Louise Browner Blanchard, Interim Associate Rector
Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away– and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 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. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.” – John 10:11-18
Late one afternoon earlier this week, the phone rang here at St. Mary’s, and I answered it. A friendly-sounding man said, “Hey, is John Miller there?” I told him that John was out of town and asked if I might take a message. “Well, I’ve known John for years,” he said, “I’m not an Episcopalian (he actually said “Whiskypalian), but from time to time, I like to call John up and ask him some questions. Since he’s not there, do you mind if I ask you a question about the Bible?”
He said that he was interested in what I had to say about a certain verse. Answering a question about a single Bible verse makes me a little nervous because some, at least, are really susceptible to being taken out of context, so I cautiously agreed. “Here it is,” he said, “‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.‘ What’s the Episcopal position on that?” he asked. As I said, some Bible verses are susceptible to being taken out of context. Where was John when I needed him? I took a deep breath. “If you’ve been talking to John about stuff like this,” I said, “you know there’s hardly ‘an Episcopal position’ on anything. We range from one end of the spectrum to the other on just about everything. I’m not saying that John and I would disagree, but what I would say isn’t necessarily what he would say. Don’t you want to wait until you can talk to him?” No…he said that he was interested to hear what I thought.
To make a long story short, I said that it saddened me when verses like that were used to exclude people rather than welcome them, because during his life on earth, Jesus was constantly expanding the circle of people who are in God’s kingdom – children and women, the sick and the Samaritans, those who were poor and uneducated and those who were rich and seeking – and inviting all of them into a closer relationship with God. Jesus spoke this verse itself in a very intimate setting – at the last supper – to very particular people – his disciples. It doesn’t make much sense to me that the same Jesus who railed against the rigidity of the Pharisees and their ilk meant for this saying to be used against people who might never have heard of him. I believe that goodness is at the heart of God’s creation and God’s relationships with us–all of God’s creation and all of us.
John’s friend didn’t catch me so off guard after all, in part, I’m sure, because I’d been so steeped in today’s gospel about the good shepherd. It’s a shift from what we’ve heard since Easter – those wonderful, powerful, and sometimes even funny stories of Jesus’s post-resurrection appearances to people who had known and loved him – a shift to Jesus’s testimony of who he is for us. It’s as if we’ve been watching a riveting play unfold on stage and all of a sudden the main character is standing in front of us and talking directly to each of us, reminding us that we – all of us – are part of the story.
And that story is breathtaking in its portrayal of faithfulness – not our faithfulness to God, which is, despite our best intentions, fickle at best – but Jesus’s faithfulness, and through him, God’s faithfulness, to us, no matter what. We can hardly begin to fathom how much we are already cared for, how intimately we are already known, how deeply we are already loved, but the image of Jesus as the good shepherd and us as the sheep is a good place to start. The good shepherd will lay down his life for us. He knows us the same way that God knows him, and he seeks to bring all of us to him, to God, to One. No matter how lost we are, how far astray we go, he will search for us. And he reminds us that we, the sheep, know him. We know his voice; we can hear his call. He is waiting for us to hear it, and he is anticipating that we will.
There are, of course, many competing and often noisier voices: the one that convinced the rich young ruler that the money he already had was worth more than Jesus’s promise of abundant life; the one that assured the Pharisees that people’s afflictions were the avoidable consequence of someone’s sin; the one that persuaded Peter that he was better off not admitting that he knew Jesus, to name just a few. We, too, are susceptible to depending on wealth and possessions for happiness, blaming people for their unfortunate circumstances and ours, and looking away from injustice. We tend to make God someone who thinks like we do, especially about the things that scare us the most, so that our ways are God’s ways instead of vice versa. But the call of the good shepherd never ceases. It is the foundational lesson for us in this post-resurrection season, the first and foremost lesson not only about who Jesus was, but who the risen Christ is, to us, for now and for all time.
And something deep inside each of us actually knows it. The Rev. John Philip Newell, a renowned expert on Celtic spirituality and international peacemaking, often tells of the time that he was giving a lecture about the essential goodness at the heart of God and God’s creation. One woman in his audience, who had been raised with a more fire-and-brimstone vision of God, was overcome by how much John Philip’s words resonated with her. “I knew it, I knew it, I knew it,” she exclaimed afterward. In our hearts, so do we.
This is not just feel-good sentimentality. The life of a shepherd and his sheep is fraught with danger and threats, as is ours. But the 23rd Psalm, which we said together a few minutes ago, reminds us that we are guided even in the valley of the shadow of death, that we are cared for even in the presence of our enemies. Kate Moorehead, dean of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John in Jacksonville, tells the heartrending story of a 14 year-old boy whose older brother was killed in a tragic accident. The boy was at an age where no one would have expected him to do anything other than seek the solace of his friends and lose himself in video games. Instead he visited his brother’s grave, where he laid a wreath of flowers and took a picture, and posted it on Facebook, and wrote about the peace that he felt there. That boy heard the shepherd’s call, and we hear it through him. The promise is not that no harm will come to us, but that no harm will destroy us–that God’s love can and will accompany us, sustain us, and, perhaps most remarkably, dwell within us.
It’s one of the reasons that we come here together this morning – to remind ourselves of the essential goodness that is at the heart of our faith and of each other, to draw strength from and to encourage each other to listen for the shepherd’s call, as we witness to it in our own lives and the lives of others. Nothing can take that away from us. It’s the way, and the truth, and the life. It’s the resurrection promise, and today’s gospel reminds us that it belongs to us. Deep inside, we know it. We know it. We know it.
 Kate Moorehead, Resurrecting Easter: Meditations for the Great 50 Days (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2013), 53.