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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Lessons from the Shepherd #3

As promised, today I turn my attention to the Gospel lesson appointed for Easter 4, Year B.  Each year, on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, we hear a portion of Jesus’ Good Shepherd monologue.  That’s how Good Shepherd Sunday is a thing.  And, each year, the focus is slightly different.  In Year A, it is about Jesus as the gate to the sheepfold.  In Year C, the focus is on hearing and knowing the voice of the shepherd.  Here in Year B, the message of the Good Shepherd is all about death and resurrection.

According to Osvoldo Vena of Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary, in the Old Testament tradition, the ideal shepherd was one who was willing “to sacrifice themselves for the welfare of the community, to give one’s life so that others may live.”  By calling himself the Good Shepherd, Jesus takes on the fullness of that Hebrew Bible imagery and places it over and against the image of leadership that he sees in the Pharisees (an image that John sees even more clearly in the post-Temple Pharisees of c. 90AD) that is “exclusive and self-serving.”

Of course, for John, this is all looking ahead to the Garden scene wherein Jesus isn’t approached by his betrayer, but rather, hands himself over for arrest, torture, and death.  From the Good Shepherd in John in Year B, we learn about self-giving love.  What we, as preachers, should be careful of, however, is lifting this ideal up as something that we can attain.  Despite several commentaries that suggest that God is calling us to be good shepherds, I’m off the mind that says this isn’t a simple moral lesson that Jesus is giving.  He isn’t saying, “look at me and do as I do,” but rather, Jesus is the only Good Shepherd, and we are and always will be the sheep.

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A good shepherd, not The Good Shepherd

What we learn from this lesson isn’t how we can be good shepherds, but rather, that we ought to follow, and even worship, the one Good Shepherd.  In Christ, God has established us as part of the one flock whose pasture is the fullness of the Kingdom of Heaven.  As sheep, we ought to listen for the voice of the one who was willing to lay down his life for us, and then follow where he leads.  That is our prayer, after all.  Each Easter 4, we ask God to help us both to have ears to hear and hearts to follow.  May our ears be open to the call of the Good Shepherd and may we be blessed to graze in the pastures of the Kingdom of God.

Lessons from the Shepherd #2

I promise I’ll get to the Gospel lesson before the week is out, but as I continue on my quest to see something new in the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, my focus is once again on the comfortable, and comforting, 23rd Psalm.  Moving beyond the first verse, we come to the reason why it is read (in its King James form) at the vast majority of Episcopal funerals.

4 Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; *
for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

lostsheep

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 an important one.  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, fellowship and isolation, the redemption that occurs through Christ is less than whole.  It is only in the cry of dereliction that the truth of Psalm 23:4 is made full.

God walks with us, not only in those times of happy, clappy fun, but even to the pits of hell – be it forced upon us, or, quite often, a hell of our own making.  The solace that comes in knowing that even in our darkest moments a) God has been there and b) God is 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 helps to reinforce that even in those moments, God is there.  It assures us, as Jesus says in our Gospel lesson, that as a shepherd, Jesus is willing to go so far as to lay down his life for the sheep.  He will not abandon us.  He will never gonna give you up.  Never gonna let you down.  Never gonna run around a desert you.

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Sorry, not sorry

Lessons for the Shepherd #1

As I mentioned yesterday, the well worn image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd makes me uneasy as a preacher.  I have to work a little harder to overcome what feels like the easy options in preaching and look for something new or different.  I have to be willing to spend some extra time turning the crystal to see this image in a new way.  So, this week, I’m trying just that.  I’m not sure how successful I’ll be, but I know a sermon will be preached on Sunday, so I’ve got until then to come up with something to say.

psalm-23

Today, my mind is drawn away from the Gospel lesson and toward the comfortable, and comforting, twenty-third Psalm.  Here, maybe more so than in the Johannine lesson, we get some unpacking about what it means to look at God as a shepherd.  Since I don’t know any shepherds, and the only people I know who carry a shepherd’s crook also wear pectoral crosses and purple shirts and usually do their roaming in the driver’s seat of a fuel-efficient SUV crossover, I need something to help me wrap my mind around this metaphor.

The Lord is my shepherd,*
I shall not be in want.

The first thing we learn from the psalmist is that the image of God as shepherd includes God as giver.  Sheep aren’t primarily raised as food.  As such, to bring it into the 21st century, the goal of the shepherd isn’t to plump up the sheep as quickly as possible to put a lean, dry cut of meat on your plate in as little time as possible and at the lowest cost.  Rather, sheep are raised for the long-haul.  They are raised to provide wool season after season.  The provision that the shepherd tries to give to the sheep, then, isn’t about immediate gratification, but about the quality of the final product.  It means that want is a term that requires some nuance.

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 on our washed and waxed weekly Suburbans.  But 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 our shepherd means trusting that what we have in our lives is what we might 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.

Good Shepherd – Again?

Here at Christ Church in Bowling Green, the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd holds something of a special place.  Since near the turn of the twentieth century, in both the second and third iterations of the Christ Church building, worshipers have looked above the altar and seen Jesus, face somewhat scowled, holding a lamb and a shepherds crook.  Recently, a local artist, John Davis Thompson, took on the project of painting the Mary Wilkins memorial window, and our choir has sold numbered prints as a fairly successful fund raiser.

Christ Episcopal stained glass

We aren’t known as Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, and there are plenty of other stained glass windows that have been added over the years to depict various events in the life and ministry of Jesus, but it seems that the image of Christ as the Good Shepherd had something to say to the people who rebuilt Christ Episcopal Church after the Civil War, and it continue to speak to those who took care to move the window when they built the new church in 1912.

This care of the image of Christ as the Good Shepherd is instructive to me this week.  I can get kind of surly about the oft repeated images in our lectionary.  I don’t feel the need for an annual remembrance of one of the many ways Jesus described himself, but the Wilkins memorial window would remind me that for many, this image of Jesus is a helpful one.

As I try to get my head above water and think about preaching for the first time since Easter Day, I’m trying to let this image in.  What does it convey?  What does it lack?  What can I learn about God’s work of redemption through the image of a shepherd?  Where in it can I find a place to rest and find refreshment.  It will be a particularly challenging week to wrestle with a familiar text, but I suppose that is part of it as well.  When these images come up, again and again, it is a helpful reminder that trusting in the Spirit will produce more fruit than my own frustrated efforts ever could.  So, come Holy Spirit, come and open my eyes to see Christ as the Good Shepherd and open my lips to proclaim the truth.  Amen.

Abundance is more than a platitude

I preached this without notes at the Parish Picnic, so the audio on the Christ Church website doesn’t quite match the text below.


There are two kinds of preachers in this world: those who get to choose their own texts and those whose texts are chosen for them.  I am the latter.  Our Prayer Book in a section opaquely titled, “Concerning the Proper of the Church Year” requires that we use the lessons prescribed in the Lectionary.  Most of the time, I love being a Lectionary preacher.  It means that neither I, nor you, are subjected to my whim and fancy when it comes to preaching.  Even if I wanted to preach a sixty-two-week sermon series on John 3:16, I can’t, thanks be to God.  Of course, this also means that some weeks, I’m stuck with what is set before me.  For me, this comes to a head every Fourth Sunday of Easter, which is affectionately called (by some) “Good Shepherd Sunday.”

Good Shepherd Sunday marks something of a transition in Easter season.  We move from resurrection encounters like Emmaus Road and the Upper Room back into stories from the life and ministry of Jesus.   On Good Shepherd Sunday, in each of the three years in the lectionary cycle, we hear portions of John 10 totally removed from their larger context.  It is here that I have the most trouble being a Lectionary preacher.  I have long lamented that bad theology lurks nearby when we read the Bible out of context.  And yet, this is exactly what happens on Good Shepherd Sunday when we take a small portion on one long story and split it into three lessons read on the Fourth Sunday of Easter over three years.  In the end, all we get are fuzzy platitudes like “I came that they might have life and have it abundantly;” “I am the Good Shepherd;” and “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.”

According to Massey Shepherd’s Commentary on the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, Good Shepherd Sunday is a nod to the early Church in which, during the first waves of persecution, the most common image of Jesus in artwork was as the Good Shepherd, carrying his fold through hardship.[1]  This is all well and good, I suppose, but without the understanding of that hardship, we end up with a Google image search full of sappy paintings of a handsome, blonde haired, blue eyed Jesus carrying a single baby lamb with a long line of well-behaved sheep queued up behind him.

the-good-shepherd-wallpaper1

Instead, I’d like to suggest that we reclaim Good Shepherd Sunday for what it really is: a portion of a longer teaching by Jesus in which he uses the extended metaphor of sheep, shepherds, and sheepfolds to explain why he healed the man born blind on the Sabbath day.  During this teaching discourse, Jesus calls himself both the gate for the sheepfold and the Good Shepherd, indicating that he is the way into the Kingdom of God as well as the one who will lead God’s people there.  He talks of other sheep that do not yet belong to the fold who will come to hear his voice and follow.  He alludes to his crucifixion and resurrection, and how they are both completely within his power and control.  He promises that those who listen to his voice will follow him to eternal life.  All this is said in response to the Pharisees who find themselves so threatened by Jesus’ ministry that they will remove from the Synagogue anyone who claims him as the Anointed One.

This larger understanding of what is going on in John’s Gospel then helps us to understand what is happening in the specific portion that is appointed for Easter 4 in Year A.  This is especially true of the oft quoted but rarely thoughtfully considered promise from Jesus, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”  Abundant life can be defined in really unhelpful ways.  Abundance can mean material wealth, but it seems clear from Jesus’ life that this isn’t what he meant.  Abundance can mean happy and healthy relationships, but again, Jesus didn’t seem to have many of those himself.  His healing miracles were often done to those who were socially outcast because of their infirmity, but as we hear in the story of the man born blind, simply being healed doesn’t guarantee restoration of relationship as even his own parents are afraid of what his healing might mean for them.  Abundance can mean power and prestige, but Jesus’ very undignified death on a cross seems to preclude that.  So, what does abundant life mean for this man who was born blind and has received his sight, but as a result has been totally ostracized from his community?  And what does abundant life mean for us, who can follow Jesus with relative comfort and ease in 21st century America?

I think we have to turn to the Acts of the Apostles to answer these questions.  After the mass conversion of 3,000 on Pentecost Day, those who were stayed in Jerusalem got about the business of being the Church.  They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.  For the early church, as for us, abundant life in Christ is the life of faith lived out in intentional community.  There is no I in church, and the only way we can truly live out our Christian vocation is through the regular pattern of gathering with other disciples.  The man born blind may have lost his community in the Synagogue, but Jesus returned to welcome him into the sheepfold of the Good Shepherd.  It is in gathering as the sheep of Christ the Good Shepherd that we can teach one another, enjoy one another’s company, share meals (symbolic here in this service, and really good barbeque to follow shortly), and pray for the needs of the world.

As the Church began to expand beyond Jerusalem, the importance of Christians regularly meeting together grew exponentially.  The young Church needed to develop leaders, needed to work out what discipleship looked like, needed to understand what difference Jesus really made in their lives, and the only way to accomplish those things was to be together, to pray together, to learn together, to break bread together, and to celebrate God’ grace together.  I might struggle with Good Shepherd Sunday, but even in my frustration, I am thankful for another reminder that abundant life in God’s love is truly experienced through discipleship in community.  When we commit to studying, to fellowship, to shared meals, and to pray together, we experience the fullness of abundant life in Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd.  Amen.

[1] Massey Shepherd, The Oxford American Prayer Book Commentary, p. 172.

Where the Shepherd leads

shepherd-with-sheep

A quick image search of the word “shepherd” will bring you any number of bucolic images of Jesus with a crook in one hand, a baby sheep in the other, and a flock of well behaved, perfectly aligned sheep following dutifully behind.  I don’t know much about sheep or shepherding, but I know enough to know those images are garbage.  Jesus didn’t teach the Parable of the Lost Sheep because sheep are well known rule followers.  Rather, as you can see in this photograph of a modern-day shepherd, sheep kind of do what they want, even as they reluctantly follow.  Notice in the back left, as a parcel of sheep veer off to find green pasture while those in front look eager to run off on their own.

This Sunday, we will pray not only that we might hear the voice of the Good Shepherd and hear him call us each by name, but that we might also, by God’s grace, follow where he leads.  That’s all well and good when the Good Shepherd is leading us beside still waters and right pathways toward the green pastures of Psalm 23, but what happens when the path of life leads us through the valley of the shadow of death?  Following the Good Shepherd doesn’t mean we will forever walk in green fields below bright blue skies.  There will be times when the grass looks a whole lot greener on the other side.  There will be moments when the path ahead looks dark and foreboding.  There will come a time when we have to make a real choice between following the Good Shepherd and forging our own path.  What happens when where the shepherd leads looks like a place we don’t want to go?

That’s where trust comes in, I suppose – trust that comes through an ongoing relationship.  When the path ahead looks scary, we can recall other moments when the shepherd safely brought us through moments of trial with care and love.  We can take solace in knowing that the goal is always green pastures and still waters, even if the natural course of life sometimes brings onion grass and dangerous rapids.  It isn’t the moment by moment promise of safety and security that God offers.  Instead, it is the ongoing presence of the Good Shepherd, who has a plan, who watches the skies, and who knows then and where to slow down, hold back, and wait for the storm to pass by.  The journey long, and arduous at times, but the Shepherd is good and there is a whole flock of other sheep who walk alongside to encourage us to stay the course toward the ultimate goal of life abundant.