Saturday, April 28, 2012

Easter 4B 201

Acts 4:5-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18

Since Easter we have been hearing the events of the Resurrection from the various Gospels.  But on the fourth Sunday of Easter every year there is a dramatic change in the character of the Easter readings.  Every year on the fourth Sunday after the Resurrection, we hear something about the Good Shepherd.  We move from those stories about the resurrected Jesus to the first image of Jesus that was ever developed.  In early Christianity, it was not the cross or the fish that became the most prevailing image of Christ.  It was the Good Shepherd. 

Having grown up here in Texas, I must admit I didn’t grow up with a really good image of sheep or shepherds.  Being called a shepherd or a goat-roper were fighting words here in Texas and I didn’t think much of sheep. I related this to one of my early parishes up North in a sermon once and from that point on, I was ‘visited’ with some kind of ‘sheep’ icon at various moments of my career.  A fuzzy little sheep inserted into the altar book, a sheep pillow on my chair, a marshmallow sheep in the bread box, a new stole with a sheep on it. At one point I had a collection of well over 200 'sheepy things'.  Until one Good Shepherd Sunday morning my Junior Warden knocked at the door of the rectory before the first service inviting me to meet our new ‘landscape assistants’ for the rectory and the church.  There was a flock of sheep on the lawn and in the graveyard that separated my home and my suburban parish!

Shepherds and sheep have been a part of Christian consciousness since the beginning.  They had been a part of the Hebrew consciousness since the time of the pastoral progenitors of the tribes of Israel.  Their ancestry drew upon the time when they were Bedouin-type nomads and came to know their God in the grasslands of the Fertile Crescent.  Good leadership was described by the images of those who cared for the flocks. Kings and governors were compared to those who cared for the flock  long after the Hebrew people had become agriculturalists or traders.    And the Messiah, the one who was to come and straighten out the problems of Jerusalem, was described over and over with images of sheep herding and care for  sheep. 

Today we liken bishops, pastors and priests to the shepherd even though the majority has never even seen (or smelled) a sheep.  Most of us don’t know that that by Jesus’ day that shepherds were not even allowed to give testimony in the local courts because they were so distrusted.  It is the reason that the witness of shepherds to the birth of Jesus is so ironic in the gospel of Luke.  By Jesus’ day the iconic value of the Good Shepherd had been totally removed from the reality.  

The image of the Good Shepherd has been overlaid with so many levels of meaning that it is hard for us to clearly see Jesus without it becoming saccharine.  I am glad that we don’t have one of those stained glass windows of the Good Shepherd in this parish—the ones with the lamb slung over his shoulder.  I grew up with that image and I knew that she shepherd was Jesus but the sheep was supposed to be ME!  And that did not convey the image of Christ the liberating Spirit that finally opened my heart to the faith in a God who loved beyond all measure.

What images of Christ speak for our own time?  What icons of our lives draw us to know Christ more intimately?  We need to be able to translate our visual images into relationship because it is relationship that marks our faith.  Our faith is not based on what we see or what we believe.  Our faith is based on intimacy with the God who loves us more than life, whose passion for us goes beyond death—who entrusts us with creation, who calls from us justice, peace, love and respect  and enjoins us to  live fully the lives we have been given. 

The image of the Good Shepherd reminded the people of Jesus' day that the leader, the king, the governor, the pastor, needed to be willing to know the sheep. “I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father,”  Jesus says, today's Gospel.   Sheep responded to the voice of the shepherd and would not follow those with a different voice.  Christian leadership does not have that much to do with preaching good sermons—Christian leadership has to do with loving people so that people can know the voice of Jesus when they hear it.  That is the image that comes down to us today from this Good Shepherd image. 

At this point in the redevelopment of our diocese we will soon confirm a new provisional bishop.  What images do we have for that person?  For some of us, we want someone who can manage.  For some of us, we want a person of compassion.  For others, we want someone with vision.  Others want a leader who ‘will stand for something.’  I daresay those are the same attributes that we find for us when we are trying to imagine who we might want to lead our business, or our governmental structures…Leadership that is mindful of the rank and file—that is mindful of the needs of the least as well as the great. And this image still holds for us.  Do we turn to the image of the Good Shepherd when we elect our politicians?  Do we look for the image of the Good Shepherd when we hire people into managerial positions?  Do we look for sheep-sense among the teachers who teach or the preachers who preauy7ch?

In this new technological age, I think that the world needs to find new icons –new ways of describing the God-infused images of leadership for a world that is becoming more visual.  Just as the image of the shepherd has changed over the millennia we will need to claim new images of Christ.

I think that the popularity of such things as Facebook, Twitter, Social medias of all kinds are icons of the human need for contact and intimacy no less than the image that image the Good Shepherd provided for first century Greeks trying to reconcile the loneliness and defeat in the face of the Crucifixion or the fall of Jerusalem. 

The sign of the Good Shepherd provided hope for the first century.  What provides hope for our generations?  What calls us to trust in one another?  It is the same thing as knowing the voice of the one who calls us.  There are people on the internet with whom I have corresponded with for some time that I trust as friends.  Now, I am aware that that I shouldn’t do that with most, but there are those whose voice I have come to know on the screen and know it to be that of a friend just as surely as I hear the truth of the Gospel.

   ----  Notice I did not say fact of the Gospel.  We need to distinguish between the truth of the Gospel and the facts—Jesus was never a real shepherd that we know of— he was most likely trained as a carpenter. But the Truth of the Gospel is that he was and IS the Good Shepherd.  It is the IMAGE or icon that draws us into God’s truth of human relationship.  It is this truth that allows us to trust one another.  And it is this truth that is conveyed by the image that we know how to live as Christ’s own in a world that has grown more and more distrustful. 

 Perhaps Friend is the icon for our new world. Through facebook we can 'friend' folks thousands of miles away.  Lamentably, that word too has become so popularized as to not convey that deep trusting relationship that God has with us and we have with God.  And yet Jesus does say in the Gospel of John that he no longer calls his followers 'disciples' but he calls them 'friends.'  At the end of his ministry, Jesus moves the relationship from teacher/student to that wonderful equal relationship of peer, of friend, of beloved.

Trust is essential in leadership.  The sheep must know and trust the shepherd’s voice in order to follow.  Trust is what every group must have in order to function in society or to follow the Holy with fidelity.  And yet just basic trust in one another has been eroded from a shake of the hand to reams of legal contracts.  So how are we going to acknowledge, how are we going to claim a new vision of what we want in a leader for this new age?  We need to do this for church, for our nation and we need to do this to enhance our  own relationship with the God of our lives. 

This week I would encourage you to think about who and what you trust.  I would ask you how you image—how you visualize that trust and why and how you can connect that with your relationship with  Christ Jesus.  In that conversation with yourself ask yourself how you envision Christ in your life? Do those images take you deeper into relationship with him?  Can you reveal yourself more with him?  Can you reveal more of yourself to yourself in his presence?  It is always easier to reveal yourself to Christ when you know that judgment is already past and over.  It is this friendship that centers the friendships that we have with others—allows us to trust our friends and step out in intimacy and community with one another.  And while you are at it, think of images of Christ that work for you—that claim that intimacy for a future world and share them. I would love to know.  Amen.

1 comment:

Grandmère Mimi said...

Muthah, I read your excellent sermon several days ago, but I did not have time to comment. I especially like what you say about the difference between truth and facts and about leadership through trust.