Sermon preached on the 4th Sunday of Easter, Year B, at St. Francis House. These are the readings assigned to the day: Acts 4:5-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18.
[Last Wednesday night, some of us were talking about a bunch of things and the lectionary came up. The lectionary is the schedule that tells churches when to read which readings. While the arrangement isn’t perfect, there are a couple of significant perks to reading the Bible together this way. One is that we hear more of the Bible read than we would probably hear if we were only reading the parts we liked best or with which we were most familiar. Another is that, on account of the lectionary, many churches across the world end up hearing the same scriptures on a given Sunday, which is a neat witness - a reminder that the Church throughout the world is one. Yet another perk of the lectionary is that it lifts up themes that connect the different lessons we hear on a given Sunday. So, a few weeks back, when Jesus said he’d be lifted up like the snake Moses put on a pole, the lectionary helpfully assigned the snake story from the book of Numbers in the Old Testament reading slot, so you and I would know what the heck Jesus was on to.
Sometimes the connections provide, as with the snakes, contextual background. Sometimes the connections are more generally thematic. Other times, the connecting threads are so thin as to stay mostly hidden from view.
In any case, after having that conversation on Wednesday, it happens that today’s lessons provide a great example of the lectionary in action. Assuming the lectionary builds around the gospel, our starting point today is these five words of Jesus: “I am the good shepherd.” This quote and what Jesus says after it set off at least two thematic lectionary alarms - shepherd-ness, generally, and, more specifically, this shepherd’s particular readiness to lay down his life - that trigger all our other lessons today (except Acts, which is a kind of stand alone reading each week in Easter). At it all up, and you get a Sunday that regularly goes by the nickname “Good Shepherd Sunday.” That’s our starting place. That’s where we pick up the story.]
The good shepherd is, well, good. This much we know. Being good, for this shepherd, means knowing the sheep and being known by the sheep. Between them, shepherd and sheep, there is a mutual trusting. They run to his voice! The good shepherd stands between the sheep and the wolves. The good shepherd is ready to lay down his life for the sheep. The good shepherd has already laid down his life for the sheep.
Elsewhere in Scripture, we learn that because the shepherd is good, he will leave all the others to go find one sheep that is lost. “What shepherd wouldn’t?” he asks, with lighthearted laughter and a note of self-deprecation in his voice. The shepherd’s modesty aside, the answer is obvious: “NO SANE SHEPHERD WOULD!” But the good shepherd does.
To be a sheep of this shepherd is to belong to the flock. You know you belong to the flock, that the flock will not turn on you or leave you behind, because the shepherd has promised to leave the flock where they are to reclaim you. So the flock will never simply forget you. The flock knows your importance to the one who tends you. You belong to the flock, because you belong to the shepherd, the only shepherd in town who would lay down his life for you. There is no dismissing any sheep of this shepherd.
To belong to the flock, moreover, is to be learning the love of the shepherd for you and the others - the rest of the flock - for whom the shepherd has also dropped everything to be. To be in the flock is to know you are both surrounded by and one of those whom the good shepherd treasures. For sheep of this shepherd, kindness toward the other sheep is not an abstract moral virtue, arbitrarily imposed; kindness is the practice of looking at, treasuring, the other sheep the way the shepherd does.
Now, for the preacher’s unexpected and brilliant sermon twist: you are not a literal sheep. And Jesus, our good shepherd, was a carpenter by trade. To head for a farm following worship tonight, to stare at and cuddle the lambs - while, not a bad thing inherently - would be to mishear the opportunity these scriptures present to you. That opportunity begins with the reminder that to be a Christian is to be engaged in life-long training to see the others and the world around you through the eyes of Christ.
The eyes of Christ are a challenge to the wisdom we’ve grown up on. In the sermon we call the Beatitudes, or blessings, Jesus sees and lifts up the poor, the hungry, the meek, the mourning, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted. To these, says Jesus, the kingdom, mercy, and comfort of God belong.
Elsewhere, Jesus sees tax collectors and sinners as occasions for God’s grace to be felt in its fullest, in ways the very best of the rule keepers can’t feel or receive. He sees a handful of women and some backwater fishermen as a good place to start. Jesus sees a boy’s fish and bread lunch as a banquet in waiting, and his enemies as a good place to aim a man’s love. He sees the death we live our lives denying as a thing we need not fear. Because he exposes the impotence of death’s sting, Jesus sees the vulnerability that reconciliation requires as a risk worth the taking.
For us to see the world through the eyes of Christ like this may sound ambitious, but we metaphorical sheep can start simply: in John’s short letter tonight, we are invited to begin with the other metaphorical sheep of the metaphorical flock that is the Body of Christ, the community of faith: “We know love by this,” says the letter’s penman, “that he laid down his life for us -- and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”
Of course, learning to love one another in the community of faith is not always easy, in the same way it is sometimes easier to get along with strangers than with family. But if we start with a strong commitment to love the other proverbial sheep in our wonderful proverbial flock, we will find even our love of strangers deepened beyond a superficial niceness. We will begin to insist on seeking and finding Christ in them. And we will have discovered more of our truest selves - in the truth and vulnerability of the worshiping community - with which to share with strangers.
Tonight, I want to suggest two steps toward loving one another in this community of faith. The first is to let yourselves be friends. The second is to let Christ live in your friendships.
We talk a lot about friendship here - how to be a holy friend and what you can expect of the holy friends you find here. But I was still surprised when, this past Friday, Terri brought me a copy of a welcome booklet from the 1940s iteration of St. Francis House - located with the help of the UW Archives Department - and it listed, in the chaplain’s message (way back in nineteen-forty-something), friendship as the first quality of this place. Maybe great minds think alike, but more likely we continue in the legacy of the holy friends who came before us.
The first step toward loving one another is to let yourselves be friends: friends who care for each other, reach out to each other, inside and outside of the hours we share in this place; friends who remember and show interest in one another’s lives; friends who eat together, pray together, laugh together, sometimes cry together, trusting that the shepherd who loves you has given you one another by virtue of our sharing one flock. To be friends is to see one another as gifts of God. The first step toward loving one another is to let yourselves be friends.
The second step toward loving one another is to let Christ live in your friendships. Realizing that this second step runs the risk of sounding pious, I think what I mean is that I hope you share with one another the parts of your lives that matter most: the true parts, the God-at-work-in-you parts. I hope you will talk about how God is moving and what you are seeing of God’s movement in this world and in your life. I hope you will ask questions of your friends here that let others tell you what they see. I hope, at some point, you will experience the great gift of being prayed for by a friend, and praying for a friend who needs a prayer especially from you. I hope you will become friends who struggle through the hard parts of Scripture together, and the best parts of Scripture together. I hope you will never forget the gift it is when you show up for each other, and that you also remember how, at various points in the course of the year, you have teamed up together, to reach goals you could not have accomplished alone.
There are two steps toward loving one another in this community of faith. The first is to let yourselves be friends. The second is to let Christ live in your friendships.
To be friends is to see one another as gifts of God; is to see one another with the love Christ has for you.
For sheep of this shepherd, kindness toward the other sheep is not an abstract moral virtue, arbitrarily imposed; kindness is the practice of looking at the other sheep the way the shepherd does.