April 22,2018 – The Rev. James Richardson

Fourth Sunday of Easter

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

Today we celebrate what is commonly known as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” Good Shepherd Sunday is one of these unofficial church holidays we get each year that isn’t listed on the calendar exactly, but which comes with the same regularity as Christmas and Easter each year.

Good Shepherd Sunday can sound a little cuddly and fluffy. You might think of this like the beautiful window behind me.

And hear again the words of the gospel lesson today:

“I am the good shepherd,” says Jesus. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

Yet, if you listen closely, there is an edge to the words of Good Shepherd Sunday. Not all of the words spoken today are comforting – words like we hear in the Acts of the Apostles – the first record of the Church’s history.

In this passage, we hear Peter speaking in anger:

“There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”

That certainly sounds a little narrow.

Good Shepherd Sunday is further complicated by John’s gospel. Just before the gospel passage we hear today, we hear sharp words from Jesus.

Here is what comes a few verses earlier: “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.”

Sharp words leave us with sharp questions: Who is saved? Who is on which side of the gate? Who are the sheep; who are the bandits?

Who are we?

So rather than avoid the elephant – or sheep – in the room, let’s look at this squarely today.

One way to hear these passages, would have us always anxious about being on the wrong side of the gate; we need to be extra careful about who we associate with, because if the bandits get in, we are all in danger.

And in an even more anxiety-producing way of hearing this is to worry that the gate will be closed before we get through it.

And if you want something else to worry about, where does this leave most of humanity that is not Christian, or even a particular kind of Christian? Did God create humanity to leave most of humanity outside the gate?

Well, that is one way to hear these words.

But there might be another way to hear the Good Shepherd – the way, I believe, Jesus intends us to hear him when he describes himself.

To hear these words this way, I need to back up and tell you about an experience I had a few years ago.

It was on a Saturday night, and in fact, on the Saturday night in the hours before Good Shepherd Sunday.

I was summoned to the bedside of a longtime parishioner in my previous church.

His name was Paul, and he was nearing the end of his journey on earth. His wife and daughters were there, and everyone was in tears as we said goodbye to a husband and father and friend.

Paul died a little past midnight – the clock had brought him to Good Shepherd Sunday.

The words of Good Shepherd Sunday rang in my ears in those moments. The words of that night still ring in my ears.

These became words not about gate keeping, or keeping people out, but words of promise and hope; words of inclusion and invitation. The words of Jesus the good shepherd were especially words of healing and courage:

“I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.”

I am convinced that this shepherd calls to every human being on this planet, in words every human being can understand, in words that are our own, that will touch us to the depths of our soul with healing, wholeness and grace.

Ultimately, all of us belong to this good shepherd, and he belongs to all of us.

This shepherd knows each of us by name – each and every one of us: “The sheep follow him because they know his voice.”

The good shepherd is not concerned with religious labels or doctrinal purity, or with or tribe or nationality. The good shepherd will find us in whatever tribe we belong, with words in whatever language we speak, and in whatever place we live.

This good shepherd belongs not just to us, but belongs to all humanity, everywhere, in all times and all places.

“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold,” the Good Shepherd declares. “I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.”

These words are ultimately about the promise to us of resurrection and the new life of Easter.

I caught a glimpse of this at the bedside of my friend Paul as he died.

Each of us carries burdens and wounds that steal from us the best of who we are. Those parts of us will be left outside the gate.

The shepherd brings the best of us inside the gate to be healed and made whole. He abides in us, and we in him, declares the letter writer John.

Sometimes this healing comes in this world, and sometimes this healing comes in the next. The line between is really very, very thin.

There is a challenge to us here. How do we bring the good news of the Good Shepherd into our world?

There are many, many people out there hungry to hear these words. I would venture, more than a few are hungry to hear these words here.

We have no greater privilege than to make these words real in our world by how we live. The question isn’t whether we will get into heaven – that is already taken care of before we ask.

The question is how we will make heaven real on this earth.

The good news is that Great Shepherd is our guide and will show us how.

Hear these words from the Good Shepherd once again:

“I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.”