A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter

There is probably not a better known or better loved image of Jesus than the one he gives us himself today when he says, “I am the Good Shepherd.” When I read this passage the week before last a memory buried in me for at least 60 years came into view. I remembered walking down the hallway of the Sunday-school wing of the church my family went to. I was on the way to our Sunday-school room. The walls of the classroom were painted canary yellow. The room sort of permanently had the smell of kids in it, which was a mixture of milk and construction paper and that white paste glue that I remember a kid in our class ate one Sunday. There was a hand-lettered sign on the door that read ‘Little Lambs Room.’ Just below the sign on the door was a big picture of Jesus with a lamb flung across his shoulders.

How do memories like that stay in us after – in my case – 60 years of accumulating memories of the good, the bad, and the truly awful? I don’t know, but there it was suddenly: Jesus, our Good Shepherd on the door of the ‘Little Lambs Room’; and yes, with the faint whiff of white paste glue, construction paper and milk along for the ride with that memory.

This image of Jesus as our Good Shepherd is one of the first things we teach children in the Church: whether that church is a Pentecostal church in Guatemala, or a Methodist church in the Democratic Republic of Congo, or old time Lutherans in Sweden, or a non-denominational charismatic church in Kyoto, or a Roman Catholic parish in Mumbi, or an Orthodox community in Azerbaijan or Damascus, Syria, or right here told to your children by Amelia McDaniel or Brantley Holmes. All of us learn as soon as we can the thing that if you forget everything else (or even learn everything else) remember first that you are lamb of his flock, a sheep of his fold, he knows you by name, you can hear his voice calling you and come running when you hear it, he will find you when you get lost, he will watch over you and care for you. And in his company is the love that shakes the universe and changes this world. These are some of the first things we want to teach our children about who Jesus is and how he shows us that God is just like this too.

It’s also true that this ‘Little Lamb’s Room’ of my memory is a highly idealized image of Jesus and probably especially of ourselves – spotless, little fresh lambs that we all are. But, of course, also aren’t. I can’t be the only one here whose children were beautiful little lambs, yes, of course – especially in my heavily edited, airbrushed memory. But mine at least were also wild animals, feral, unreasonable, and also, somehow always sticky and dirty even moments after a bath.

We are the Lord’s lambs. But things change. We grow and learn about the kind of world we live in, and we learn about the world that lives inside us too. That the world out there is a dangerous, uncertain place is not news to children however much we try to shelter them. They know. Things go wrong: a pet gets hit by a car, someone makes fun of you for no reason, you make fun of someone else for no reason, someone gets sick and doesn’t get better, notes come from schools about active shooter drills. It’s hard. Things go wrong. Things get confusing. We get lost.

But this story of the Good Shepherd can help us know, little by little, that goodness abides, that we are not alone, that forgiveness can be given and received, that life can begin again and go on, and that whatever happens, hope is always worth having.

Which may have been as much as the first followers of Jesus could piece together as they tried to understand the world they found themselves in the days following Jesus’s death on the cross. Because first one, then another, then another heard his voice calling them still. Unmistakably, it was him. It was his voice. Which is all sheep really need: the sound of their shepherd’s voice. For all the things that can rightly be said about sheep (and maybe us too) – that they’re terribly not bright sometimes, that they tend to be short-sighted and reactionary, that they can follow their nose from the next batch of green grass to the next and the next till suddenly they finally look up and think, ‘uh oh, where am I?’, for being prone to panic and run headlong in the wrong direction, for on their own not really having what it takes to fend for themselves. For all of that, they are really good at one thing. Unlike cattle that you have to get behind and scream and holler and crack a whip and force them to go forward, sheep will follow their shepherd wherever they go. If you tried to get behind them and push them forward, they would just run around your and get behind you and stand there. And stay put till their shepherd goes. Because he is their shepherd.

Jesus says, I am not a hired hand who’s just in it for the paycheck or who will be literally unfindable if the going gets rough. In fact, there’s nothing, not even death – not his and not ours – that can separate him from his flock. So, with all of our shortcomings and flaws, with our inability at any given moment to know our right hand from our left, with our tendency to panic and head in the wrong direction, with our sins both grave and great, and simple and common, grace remains to hear his voice and come behind to follow where he leads us.

I have to admit, I hesitated to use my memory of the Little Lambs Room for this sermon. Because, well, it’s too sentimental, too rosy and too unrealistic. But what is not mere sentiment or fantasy is the longing to hear his voice clearly, speaking into our truest selves, and to come behind him with the flock and follow where he leads, and know that we are his, here and wherever his flock are gathered to hear him say, ‘I am the Good Shepherd,’ and hear our own lamb’s hearts say, ‘and I am yours.’ Amen.