a sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter [Year B]
John 10:11-18 and 1 John 3:16-24
All year, it seems, we’ve been aiming for what they call herd immunity. Herd immunity is what the scientists and doctors say will enable us to live with a sense of freedom from a disease. Herd immunity comes when each individual realizes their personal immunity is only a part of a bigger whole. Herd immunity protects those who are especially vulnerable and can’t, for whatever reason, receive a vaccine. It essentially asks those who are healthy, who would probably whip the virus if they got it, to roll up their sleeve and, in some small way, lay down their life for others, to love “not in word or speech but in truth and action,” as the writer of 1 John tells us this morning. That is how we get to those greener pastures in the future. Because of distrust of the COVID vaccine, because of misinformation and conspiracy theories, and because of how the pandemic itself has become politicized, some are saying we may never achieve herd immunity against COVID. Time will tell.
Sisters and brothers, whether or not our herd achieves that status, today we are reminded that we are a flock, and that ain’t changin’. And we’re not just any flock. We’re Jesus’ flock. He knows his own and we know him. He has laid his life down for us. He leads us beside still waters. He restores our souls even as our bodies face harm and hardship. He walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death, through all kinds of harmful and frightful scenarios, through the isolated stretches of pandemic life, and we don’t get worried about what might happen to us because he is with us. He has already been there and he comforts us. Our Good Shepherd prepares a meal for us in the presence of people who might be contagious, he gathers us together with strangers and friends alike over Zoom and Facebook and YouTube so that we may be fed with the word. He showers us with blessings that we don’t expect even in the midst of this crazy time, and our cups still manage to run over. They have run over here with record charitable donations for our community. Our cups can’t contain all the thoughtful gestures and extra-mile actions that people have given one another to get through this. Yes, we are a flock, and Jesus our shepherd has power—power to lay down his life in love for us.
Images and lessons about sheep images are everywhere in Scripture. Sheep farming was a main source of livelihood in ancient middle eastern times, and people interacted with sheep almost on a daily basis, even if they lived in cities. One time when I was living in Cairo, Egypt, I remember sitting in my apartment and hearing a bleating over and over again. This went on for a day or two. There I was in my apartment on the fifth floor of a downtown high rise, trying to figure out where this out of place animal noise was coming from. Finally I realized it was from a ram that a family beneath me had brought in and tied to a post in the small inner courtyard. It stayed there for a few days until it was slaughtered for the Muslim feast of Eid al-Adha. along with all the other sheep that had been brought into the city—a densely packed metropolis of about 16 million people.
With so many sheep around everywhere, Jesus and the people of his time could relate to what shepherds go through and could often see themselves in the lives of the sheep, themselves. They could see how sheep were not armed with much in the terms of natural defense and so they needed to stick together or get protection from a higher power—a shepherd of hired hand. They could see how they were extra vulnerable if they ever got separated. People also knew that sheep learned the voice of their shepherd and could follow just by gentle commands. They could see that sheep held all of their resources in common and that pastures and streams were for the livelihood of all. Overall, though, it was probably that communal nature of sheep that stood out the most.
Jesus understands that about us. He sees us in our need for shelter and protection, in the fact that we thrive more when we’re together, no matter the circumstances. He knows we need freedom, that we can wander at times, that openness is good for us, but that we also can’t completely overcome the dangers of life by ourselves. He knows wolves will come and devour us, scatter us about. And there are also people sometimes in charge of us, people we give authority to, who don’t have our best interest at stake. They are like hired hands that run away at the sight of danger. They may stick by for a while, but at the end of the day they are only in it for themselves.
Jesus, however…he’s the good shepherd. He cares about the flock more than the flock may ever know. Unlike the hired hand, he seeks his own welfare last. Jesus has power, and he uses it for the good of others. He gets his power not from taking up arms against the wolf. Jesus does not derive his power from lording his authority over the sheep. Jesus does not demonstrate his power by dazzling the sheep with his masterful knowledge of the science of sheepherding. Jesus gets his power from his love, from laying his own life down for the sake of the sheep. In fact, there are others not in the fold he is seeking to bring together. Everything Jesus does is to group together, to round up, to gather in. His Father aims to have the flock as one.
However we want to describe or define who Jesus is and however we may understand what he’s up to, we have to come to terms that being with him is not an individual enterprise. Jesus does love me, the Bible tells me so, as the song says, but there are others on the journey with us. And Jesus loves them too. Our togetherness with them is an unmistakable part of faith. Jesus doesn’t like the wolves because the wolves snatches and scatters them. Being apart is not how they are supposed to live. Jesus doesn’t define who the wolves are in this lesson to his disciples. They may be corrupt kings or the leaders in the Temple who thrive on corruption, those who would eventually lead him to be killed on the cross.
However, as I reflect on this past year and the challenges of living as a flock that you have overcome, I wonder if the wolves that Jesus has in mind aren’t actually people at all, but other things that devour the sacredness of community. A coronavirus may be one example. It certainly has snatched some of us and scattered the rest. But I’m also thinking things like selfishness and self-righteousness. False information and gossip. Apathy and complacency, stealth wolves that eat us from within. I wonder if Jesus means things like the wolves of individualism and idealism, things that are not necessarily bad, but when they’re turned loose to the extreme, the almost always damage the way we travel together.
Against all of these things Jesus offers his life. He puts the flock behind him and stands in the way, knowing that all of those wolves of sinfulness and pride will tear him apart on the cross. Jesus is the good shepherd. He shows us the power of love, and how the love from his Father radiates out through his life to you and me. Because of that powerful love we learn a new and better way of being community.
Last week our 9th and 10th graders in confirmation class hosted a panel discussion on vocation and baptismal call. As they prepare for affirming their baptism, they are thinking through the promises they’ll make—promises like serving all people following the example of Jesus, proclaiming the good news of Christ through word and deed, and striving for justice and peace in all the earth. Members of our congregation from various careers came in and spoke about the ways in which their faith impacted their job on a daily basis. One school administrator, for example, spoke about her goal of increasing racial representation among school teachers. The former magistrate regional supervisor spoke about treating all people, even those accused of crimes, with respect, and of the importance of listening to everyone’s story. It was fascinating to hear how each of them, from such a wide range of careers, could articulate how their livelihood in some way was where their faith was at work.
The woman who teaches special education preschool in the public school system gave a memorable answer. Many of her students are developmentally delayed and most are unable to use speech to communicate. When she was asked, “How does your faith impact your daily work?” she did not speak in terms of broad, overarching concepts and goals that guide her, but instead gave a very specific instance, one that really stopped me in my tracks. She explained how back in the fall she received a letter from stating that their work was essential, that the preschool services could not be shut down, and that if employees still wanted their jobs they had to show up for work. Every day she teaches kids by holding them in her lap, wiping their noses, holding their hands. Her kind of special education could not be done over Zoom. Scared of working in an environment where she might easily contract COVID, but also not wanting to forfeit her job and leave her students, she told the confirmation class that she really struggled with what to do. How did her faith impact her job? Well, she told us she stopped and prayed that day. She thought, “My Lord is a Good Shepherd. He has always led me well. He won’t stop now. No matter what happens, he will take care of me.” And so this woman reported for duty and held those kids in her lap, kept showing them how to communicate, how to live, in the midst of a pandemic. In her own way, she laid her life down, or was at least willing to, in order to shelter and teach her little preschool flock.
I’m thankful those confirmands heard that witness that night, glad for all that they heard. But I’m grateful I heard it too. A real-life shepherd in our midst, she was. Not a hired hand. Because more often than not our faith isn’t made known in some grand overarching narrative that links everything together, but in everyday situations wherein we’re called to trust the Shepherd and love. It was a good reminder of what we are all called to be all the time—people called to love in truth and action, not giving in to the wolves. We are each one of the flock that has been named and claimed by an uncommon power of humility…sheep of a Good Shepherd who always chooses to hold us in his lap—who always reads that letter from above and chooses to hold us close. no matter the danger, no matter the loss.
Thanks be to God.
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.