Lessons from the Shepherd – a sermon

According to the centennial history of Christ Episcopal Church, Bowling Green, compiled in 1944 by Elizabeth Coombs, the window behind me, depicting Jesus as the Good Shepherd, was given in memory of Mary Wilkins.  It was originally placed in the second Christ Church, which was built in the late 1860s, on College Street between Seventh and Eighth, somewhere near Cecelia Memorial Presbyterian Church, to replace the original church that had been destroyed during the Civil War.  The Mary Wilkins window replaced the original altar window in the College Street church after it was destroyed in a storm, and was eventually moved, along with the altar, pews, and several other furnishings to 1215 State Street in 1912. The Juliette Adams Carson and John M. Wilkins windows were then added to the right and left.  When the nave was expanded in 1991, all three windows were moved to their current location.  I tell you all of this to note that the image of Christ as the Good Shepherd has long been an important one in the life of Christ Church.  In fact, for more than 100 years, until the expansion and the addition of nine new Christ windows, Christ the Good Shepherd was the only image of Jesus we had in stained glass. For centuries, stained glass was a primary teaching tool for the church.  In a world where illiteracy was the norm prior to the Reformation, the images depicted in windows helped the uneducated learn the story of God’s redemptive love.  For the people of Christ Church, since before the turn of the 20th century, the prevailing image we have had of Jesus is that of Christ the Good Shepherd.

Christ Episcopal stained glass

This Mary Wilkins window has been helpful to me this week because I often struggle to preach on what we commonly call Good Shepherd Sunday.  Each year, on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, we hear a portion of Jesus’ Good Shepherd discourse from John’s Gospel.  Not only is this teaching removed from its larger context, but we don’t even hear the whole thing, just small pieces of it spread out over a three-year period.  What happens when we do that, I think, is that we end up with a sappy Hallmark image of Jesus, lovingly carrying a sheep, with no real sense as to why this image is important.  Couple that with the reality that 21st century Americans don’t really have much contact with shepherds, and this lesson easily becomes a feels-fest about a Jesus who likes to give hugs.  Thanks to the Friends of Music, who commissioned John David Thompson to paint the window, I’ve been able to find some deeper meaning.

The first thing I noticed when I saw John David’s painting was how stern Jesus looks.  Even as you look behind me, while there is a subtle softness to Jesus’ expression, there is a steely look in his eyes, and a startling lack of a smile on his lips.  This image of Jesus, not as a meek and mild shepherd, but as one who knew the hardships of such labor, is in keeping with the larger narrative into which the Good Shepherd discourse falls.  It all begins a chapter earlier when Jesus healed a man born blind on the Sabbath.  In the back and forth of the story, the once-blind man was expelled from the Synagogue and a controversy arose between Jesus and the Pharisees in which Jesus ultimately accused the Pharisees of being blind to the work of God in the world.  He then launches into this good shepherd teaching, where he places himself, as the Good Shepherd, over and against the thieves, bandits, and hired hands who don’t care about the sheep, but are only concerned about themselves.

If Jesus as the Good Shepherd isn’t simply an image of a gentle Jesus, what can we learn from this challenging Sunday?  This week, I’ve discovered three lessons from the shepherd image.  The first two come from the 23rd Psalm that we also read every Fourth Sunday of Easter.  In the opening line of the Psalm we hear these words, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.”  Sheep aren’t primarily raised as food.  As such, the goal of the shepherd isn’t to plump up the sheep as quickly as possible to put a lean cut of meat on our plates in as little time as possible and at the lowest cost. Sheep are raised for the long-haul.  They are raised to provide wool season after season and to provide milk for cheese, year after year.  The provision that the shepherd gives to the sheep isn’t about immediate gratification, but about the quality of the final product.  To our 21st century American ears, not being in want sounds extravagant.  It means a shiny new iPhone every year to connect to the blue tooth in our shiny new SUVs.  In context, to not be in want means to be taken care of with our best interests in mind.  Rather than being a call to engage in the commercialism of today, following God as a providing shepherd means trusting that what we have in our lives is what we need for the moment.  I guess it means really believing when we pray, “give us this day our daily bread.”  The Good Shepherd has our long-term spiritual health in mind.  We are being prepared not for today or tomorrow, but for eternal life.  As such, we are called to follow the shepherd who provides all we need, not for the immediate, but for the eternal.

Which leads me to the second lesson I learned about the Lord our Shepherd this week.  Moving to the fourth verse, we come to the reason why the 23rd Psalm is read at so many funerals.  “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with my; your rod and your staff they comfort me.”  Thinking of God, and by extension Jesus the Good Shepherd, as being present with us, even in the depths of the valley of the shadow of death, is important.  It is part of why the cross is so important as well.  Without God having experienced the fullness of our human experience, highs and lows, joys and sorrows, excitements and fears, the redemption that occurs through Christ is less than whole.

It is only in the cry of dereliction that the truth of Psalm 23, verse 4 is made full.  God walks with us, not only in those times of joy, but even into the depths of hardship.  The solace that comes in knowing that even in our darkest moments God has been there and God is still there, is part of what makes the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd so appealing.  In those moments when it seems as though we have nothing left, when it feels like everyone has abandoned us, this image of Christ as the Good Shepherd reminds us that God is always there.  It assures us, as Jesus asserts in the Gospel lesson, that as the Good Shepherd, he is willing to go so far as to lay down his life for the sheep.

Finally, then, this image of the Good Shepherd teaches us that Jesus isn’t merely a tender shepherd, but a strong savior.  In the Old Testament tradition, we learn that the ideal shepherd is one who is willing to “sacrifice himself for the welfare of the community, to give one’s life so that others may live.”[1]  By calling himself the Good Shepherd, Jesus takes on the fullness of that Hebrew Bible imagery.  In the larger narrative arc of John’s Gospel, this is all looking ahead to the Garden scene wherein Jesus isn’t approached by Judas, but rather, walks out and hands himself over for arrest, torture, and death.  From the Good Shepherd in John in Year B, we learn about the self-giving love of God in Christ.

Sure, these pictures of the Good Shepherd as a provider, as one who is with us in the tough times, and as one who will lay down his life for the good of the sheep are comforting, but they are all also rooted in the darkness of this world.  It isn’t meek and mild Jesus the Good Shepherd, but Jesus the Good Shepherd who knows adversity, knows what it means to be in want, and knows that he will one day die so that we might live.  I think we see all of that in the face of Jesus in the window behind me: the face of deep love, tinged with sadness. The face of one who has walked through death to open for all of us sheep the gates of eternal life.  The face of a truly Good Shepherd.  Amen.

[1] Working Preacher commentary by Osvaldo Vena http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3628

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One thought on “Lessons from the Shepherd – a sermon

  1. Thanks for many good things in this sermon–but I especially thank you for the history lesson. I appreciate your quest to engage the history of this church and the fact that you include us in that. I have been reading George Herbert, he often preached or wrote poems on church architecture as an aid to worship.

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