Sunday, May 7, 2017

Listening for The Good Shepherd's Call

Easter 4A, 2017
Acts 2:42-47
1 Peter 2:19-25 
John 10:1-10

O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

There is a story about an Easter pageant at a Christian school. The little boy had just one line in the play it was “He’s not here, he is risen.”  He must have been playing one of the angels depending on which version they were doing. But the little boy was nervous and excited and not sure he could remember his line and the teacher and his mom were there helping him. (Here’s my chance for a shout out to all those moms since I won’t be here next week. Thank you for everything, including helping us get through scary stuff like school plays!) So the little boy practiced, and practiced, “He’s not here, he is risen,” “He’s not here, he is risen,” and just before the performance of their play he said he felt confident he could do it and so they started. But, when they got to his line he froze. He got out the first part - “He’s not here,” but then he just froze. So his mom was whispering his line to him from the wings, “He’s not here, he is risen.” And she said it again, “He is risen.” And finally the boy came to himself and he said, “Oh yeah,” and then he said loudly, “He’s not here, he’s in prison!”

So today we arrive once again at what we affectionately call “Good Shepherd Sunday,” the fourth Sunday of Easter.  These readings are packed full of imagery and metaphor. The focus of this portion of the gospel of John, however, is on Jesus as the door or gate of the sheepfold.  Now, the image of Jesus as shepherd makes for a far more natural comparison than comparing Jesus to a gate. These two images are part of a richly layered, extended metaphor that speaks of sheep, shepherd, gate, gatekeeper, strangers, thieves, bandits, and wolves. All of these, except for the wolves, are introduced in the first ten verses, and all of the elements of this extended metaphor contribute to understanding who Jesus is, and who we are in relation to him.

But Jesus begins by describing who he is not. Those who climb into the sheepfold in a sneaky way are thieves and bandits who do not care about the sheep but only about their own gain (10:1). By contrast, the shepherd enters the sheepfold openly, by means of the gate (10:2). He is recognized immediately by both the gatekeeper, who opens the gate for him, and by the sheep, who know his voice (10:3). When he calls his sheep by name, they follow him, and he leads them out to pasture (10:4) where they can graze and roam safely. The sheep will not follow a stranger but instead will flee from one whose voice they do not recognize (10:5).

The function of the gate is to keep the sheep together in the sheepfold during the night, safe from thieves and predators. During the day the gate is opened so that the sheep can go out, following their shepherd, to find pasture. The gate and the shepherd work together for the well-being of the sheep, so that the flock thrives. Jesus is both the gate and the shepherd at the same time; he guards and protects his sheep from danger, and he provides for their nourishment, for their life in abundance.

It is important to note that the metaphor of the gate is not one of exclusion, it is not a license to think of ourselves as Jesus’ true sheep while we think of others as outsiders. If we use it that way, we become like the Pharisees. The purpose of the gate is not to keep out other sheep. Indeed, Jesus says (in verse 16), “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.”  The purpose of the gate is to guard against all that threatens the well-being of the sheep -- thieves, bandits, and wolves.

Much has been written about how sheep are rather unintelligent animals. It is true that without a shepherd, they will not necessarily be able to find food or water, and that they will easily get lost and not be able to find their way home. However, the thing that Jesus emphasizes about sheep is not that they are stupid but rather that they know the voice of their shepherd. Whatever else one can say about the mental capacities of sheep, they have this in their favor: they recognize the voice of the one who cares for them. They follow their shepherd, and they won’t follow a stranger whose voice they don’t know.

A Story: 
Winnie the Pooh went for a walk one winter morning.  Piglet saw him from a ways off while sweeping the snow from his front stoop and decided to join him.  Pooh Bear seemed to be walking in circles and Piglet was curious to see what he was up to, maybe, even if it was hunting Woozles.
Hallo!” said Piglet, “what are you doing?”
“Hunting,” said Pooh.
“Hunting what?”
“Tracking something,” said Winnie-the-Pooh very mysteriously.
“Tracking what?” said Piglet, coming closer.
“That’s just what I ask myself.  I ask myself, What?”
“What do you think you’ll answer?” asked Piglet.
“I shall have to wait until I catch up with it,” said Winnie-the-Pooh.  “Now, look there.”  He pointed to the ground in front of him.  “What do you see there?”
“Tracks, Paw-marks” said Piglet, with a jump.  And then, to show that he hadn’t been frightened, he jumped up and down once or twice in an exercising sort of way.  “Oh, Pooh!  Do you think it’s a-a-a Woozle?”
“It may be,” said pooh.  “Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t.  You never can tell with paw-marks.”
The two went on from there around a spinney of trees until they came upon another set of tracks.  With increasing anxiety and excitement, they ventured on discussing at first the possibility they might be tracking “Hostile Animals” and then later they talked about trivial things to distract themselves from fear.  Around they went twice more finding more tracks each time.  When they came upon a fourth set of tracks Piglet couldn’t take it anymore and invented a lovely reason for returning to his home saying he just remembered something he forgot to do and just then, Pooh heard a noise above them, someone whistling.
He looked to the sky and saw none other than Christopher Robin sitting in the branches of a big oak-tree above them.  Their dear friend came down from the tree and comforted them with merely his presence while Pooh tried to explain why he and Piglet were walking in circles around the tree examining their own tracks in the snow.

This is my favorite story by our beloved A. A. Milne and it takes me back to a time in my life when I lived each day in childhood’s bliss of no worry but only excitement about the next adventure I might enjoy.  It was a time when I was surrounded by family and friends and everything in my life seemed cohesive.  

Here is another story from that time, a memory.  We were at a church camp, near Damascus.  I can’t remember the details, but I remember an experience I had one summer evening that has stayed with me for life, as lessons learned through experience are apt to do.

We were finishing up our day and were playing one last game.  It may have been Tag, or our more elaborate favorite, Fox and Hounds, or some new game, I don’t remember, but there was a “get ready, get set, go” called and a group of about 12 children took off running scattered into the woods.

It was a sparse grove of tall hardwoods that seemed to have spilled out of a thicker forest beyond.  I took the lead ahead of my two best friends.  We were strategizing and giggling as we ran.  I was pushing myself to run as fast as I could, probably trying to beat the boys to whatever the goal was, when it happened.

I stopped cold and realized that dusk is much darker in the woods than in the meadow I had just run from.  I was suddenly afraid to go on and turned to tell my friends but they were gone.  It was as if they had vanished into thin air.  I guess they found the ball, or whatever the goal of the game was or the game had ended, and they had returned to the meadow.  But I was left behind.  I could see no one.  In fact, I was very much alone in the dark woods.  I could hear voices in the distance, but they seemed miles away.  I stood there frozen, aware only of my panting breath and the touch of a cool evening breeze from the river nearby.

All I had to do was follow the voices back to the meadow where my mother would hug me and my father would carry me to the car.  All I had to do was follow the still laughing voices of my siblings and friends.  And I did.
But for that brief moment, I was lost.  And I knew it.  And I realized how easy it would be to get lost for good and not have such an easy way of finding home.

So, Jesus is not in prison. He is risen.  There is no need to go looking for him, he will always be there, looking for us. But it is important for us to remember to be watchful for thieves and bandits who do not care about the sheep but only about their own gain. Still, the best route in our effort to follow the Good Shepherd is not in obsessing about our own tracks in the snow but rather in listening for His voice, that voice we recognize in our hearts and when we do this we will know what to do next.


Amen.

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