A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year B – Acts 4:32-37; I John 3:1-8; Psalm 23; John 10:11-16
“The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.” These are perhaps the most familiar words in all of Scripture. They are as old as King David, and even though very few of us have ever worked with flocks of sheep, we have no problem inhabiting this Psalm. “I am the good shepherd,” Jesus proclaims in this passage from John’s Gospel, appropriating to himself the role and the imagery of David’s meditation.
Today, the fourth Sunday of Easter, is traditionally known as Good Shepherd Sunday. All of the readings, and yes, most of the hymns, follow this theme. It is one quite familiar and accessible. They are very much “comfortable words,” and it is the task of the preacher to sit down with these passages and ask, sometimes with exasperation, “Is there anything new I can say?” It may seem that everything that needs to be said has been said already.
And yet, our ears and our spirits hear these familiar, comfortable words differently from year to year. We are not the people we were just one year ago on this Sunday. Our lives have changed, even if just a little. A passage such as Psalm 23 may have been with us as a companion as it were all along the journey of our lives. As a child we may have identified with the loving Jesus in flowing robes, seated by a babbling brook, cradling a tiny lamb in his arms. At other times we may find ourselves walking through the valley of the shadow of death. Still other times we may have experienced the chastising protection of the shepherd, what some would call the “business end” of God’s rod and staff.
With this in mind, I was inspired as I contemplated this fact to look back and revisit some of the past sermons I have preached on this Sunday, glancing backward at a bit of a timeline in my life, the life of this town, and the life of this parish.
In past sermons I have told the story of Corrie ten Boom, the Dutch woman who, with her family, was taken off to concentration camps because they hid Jews from the Nazis during World War II. I have told the story of Judy Shepard, whose son Matthew as killed for being gay, and how this mother’s heart, broken in her loss, has become strong and courageous as she continues to speak out for other children on the margins. In 2007, this Sunday was the first time I preached after the shootings on campus, and I wrestled with our emotions and questions during those difficult days: where was our shepherd when we needed him? How can we be shepherds to a flock of hurting and frightened young sheep?
Yet, it was my sermon on this Sunday from 2006 that found some particular resonance this year. In 2006, we as a parish were in the midst of searching for our next rector after the departure of Clare and her family. This year we as a diocese are finding our feet on a similar path. We are reflecting and dreaming as we begin the process of calling a new bishop. It is as if we have hung a sign on the front of every Episcopal parish in Southwestern Virginia – Shepherd Wanted.
As Neff often tells the children of any parish he visits, the bishop is a shepherd. The bishop’s crozier, that staff he carries, is inspired by a shepherd’s crook, used to both herd and defend the sheep under his or her care.
Recently, the clergy of the diocese were called together to be in conversation about this very important time as we call the next bishop, who will be for us both a spiritual leader and one who can make our jobs much easier. As part of this day, we were invited to reflect back over the bishops we have known in our lives. We told stories about good shepherds in our past, those who touched our lives in meaningful and helpful ways. Likewise some of us also had stories about bad shepherds, those who for whatever reason, rubbed our wool the wrong way or were downright negligent or even harmful.
The quality and the character of our next bishop will very much determine what kind of flock we would like to become, where we would like to be led and what kind of other sheep we would like to attract to our little corner of the fold.
We never know who God is going to raise up. Sure we could make a safe choice, but as the Holy Spirit works in this process, we might find that God has some surprises for us as well. As our church embraces our increasing diversity, recognizing gifts for ministry in women, people of color, gay and lesbian clergy, and even internationals, we dare not assume that our next bishop will look like any of our previous bishops.
There are unlikely shepherds like Barnabas, this faithful follower of Christ from Cyprus who gave so generously to the church. This passage is just the beginning of Barnabas’s story. Barnabas was one of the few who stood by the Apostle Paul immediately after his conversion when most others were either afraid of him or skeptical of his claim to have changed. Barnabas not only defended Paul when it wasn’t the popular thing to do, but he was also an integral part of the beginning of Paul’s missionary journeys. Barnabas broke with convention, himself an unlikely shepherd, and helped raise up an even more surprising shepherd – Paul.
The person we call to be our shepherd, no matter what their resume and biography look like, must be that person we sense is God’s choice to guide us, to comfort us, to challenge us, and to lead us into the future, deeper into our mission as a diocesan family, as a flock of faithful sheep. The shepherd we call must not forget that she or he is still very much a sheep, just as in need of a shepherd as we are if not more so. The shepherd we call must be listening for the voice of the Good Shepherd and teaching us how to listen for it as well. And the shepherd we call must be committed to the vision Jesus shows us at the end of the gospel lesson. There are other sheep out there. Are we prepared to welcome them in, no matter how crowded the sheepfold may get, or noisy or colorful? Jesus’ vision is of a unified flock under one shepherd. The shepherd we call must be of the same mind as our Lord. We are sheep, and God has provided for us all in the meal we are about to share. May we come to this table trusting God’s future for us and that God will speak. Most of all come to this table believing that we will hear God’s voice over the coming months and that we will have the courage and the strength to obey.
Wanted: A Good Shepherd. Amen.