Fourth Sunday of Easter- Sermon
5/11/14- Year A
Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!
This morning we come to Good Shepherd Sunday, always the 4th Sunday of Easter on the Church’s lectionary calendar, and I admit I’m always a bit reticent to preach on this Good Shepherd Sunday. It is undoubtedly the most popular image of our Lord depicted throughout Christian Art and iconography. The image of Christ the Good Shepherd is so popular within Christianity that if the world knows anything about Jesus its likely that they know and remember Him as the Good Shepherd. They’ve seen the windows or the icons, and they’ve heard the psalm depicting His relationship to His people, The Lord is My Shepherd, I shall not want. For these reasons, one might think that preaching Good Shepherd’s Sunday is a joy, and let me assure you it is! It is truly good news and another sign of His love and compassion for us. There is much joy in preaching of Him who leads us beside the still waters of the font, and prepares a table for us in the presence of our enemies in the Eucharistic Meal. I am not reticent about proclaiming and heralding that He is indeed our Good Shepherd, but rather about what that means for us: it means we’re sheep.
We more than likely know sheep are not the brightest of God’s critters. Yes they may look sweet and innocent, wooly and cuddly, because that is about all there is to them. Sheep if they get caught it a fence will not work to free themselves, but rather will stay there until the worst happens. Sheep are not the likely candidates to win nature’s survival of the fittest contest. They rather quickly and easily fall prey to the wolf. For sheep have no natural defense against predators who seek to steal, kill or destroy them, except for two things 1) being faster than sheep next to them, and 2) the crook of the shepherd watching over them. Being called sheep, isn’t really a boost to our self-confidence. Humanity, the height and pinnacle of creation, the top of the food chain with big brains and opposable thumbs, are God’s dumb sheep. In a culture built on self-affirmation, self-confidence, and self-esteem Good Shepherd Sunday comes like a steamroller every Easter to humble us and flatten our self-interest, self-security, and our sense of self-importance. For though we think we are mighty we are no better in the eyes of God, in the eyes of Christ than sheep.
Fortunately though, despite their inability to defend themselves against the wolves and their tiny brains roughly 10% the weight of and about 1/3 the size of ours, sheep do have at least two redeeming quality, besides being tasty. Back in Iowa, I knew a couple of shepherds and one of them, a trusted friend, told me that sheep are actually quite good in their ability to hear. They can discern their own shepherd’s voice from any other voice in a crowd. For instance, if there were two shepherds calling to their flocks who were mixed together in the pasture land, the sheep would actually be able to discern which voice was their own shepherd’s, separate from the other sheep and follow him. They can easily discern the voice of their shepherd’s because it is familiar to them, one that they’ve heard ever-since they were a little lamb.
How fitting then that this Good Shepherd Sunday falls upon the culture’s celebration of Mothers, because it is that ability to hear a voice and discern whose it is that we humans and the sheep find their true connection. I think all it would take is but a few seconds for most of us to close our eyes and think of our mothers an instantaneously hear her voice. Perhaps she is saying that saying that she always said. Perhaps it is the voice of her calling us by name, or by two names, or feeling the anxiety build our first middle and last names. Perhaps we hear that voice speak a word of love to us, and for some, unfortunately, the voice of their mother is burned into their memories, but for other reasons. But a good mother like, The Good Shepherd, speaks words of tenderness that become a transformative and definite sound wave pattern imprinted upon our brains, and branded onto our hearts. For like sheep, the kids lost in the moment at Disneyland always know which voice is there mother’s calling to them.
Hearing isn’t the only redeemable trait that sheep have, there is still one more. Sheep not only have a natural ability to hear and to discern voices, but they also have an innate proclivity to follow. Sheep are natural followers. If one goes, they all go. If the shepherd calls, they follow. For sheep hearing and following go hand in hand. They naturally respond to the commands of the shepherd. They step where he steps. They go where He leads. Humanity does the same, though more often than not rarely is it the voice a Shepherd that we follow. For as we know the world is filled with many loud and clanging voices attractive, appealing, and alluring. Not only is the world filled with such noise constantly surrounding us, we are also constantly burdened with the sound of our own neurotic voice as well. Indeed we are all too quick to replace our Lord’s voice with our own or with another’s. Because sin has so disordered our hearts and lives we sheep are quickly fooled, stolen, deceived, killed, and destroyed by these other voices. We like our four legged companions are defenseless.
Defenseless against ourselves and defenseless against the voices of the world Christ our Good Shepherd knows we need His crook and His voice to shelter and protect us. Thus, He never stops speaking to us. For He has given His word to us to hear and to be shaped by. He has given us His sacraments, His very life as a constant voice to the sheep: you are mine, you are beloved, here I call you by name to save and redeem you. Our Lord speaks to us this morning, “The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.” An image that John’s gospel beautifully depicts as our Resurrected Lord, calls the mourning Mary by name, and at once she knows who exactly is speaking to her, and follows Jesus from grief to unending joy, from death to abundant life.
It is that abundant life that Christ bids us and gives to us in His Word to hear and by it to keep ourselves within the comfort and safety of His pasture. How else do the sheep know the shepherd’s voice or the young child his mothers? But that they’ve heard and listened to it over and over and over again. It is so familiar to them that nothing could be confused with it. So too must God’s holy Word, the true and loving voice of Jesus Christ become for us that we can not mistake it for anything else. Through the noise of the world, Christ speaks so that we might hone in on that one lone voice who calls us by name and go where He leads and follow like sheep. It is the very reason we stand and sing and herald the Gospel’s reading, “Lord to whom shall we go, You have the words of eternal life.” Because there are no other words, no other voice that gives us life, but His. He alone is the gate. He alone is the door. He alone is the True Good Shepherd through whom alone we have eternal and abundant life.
Alleluia! Christ is risen. He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!