The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks ; Easter 4—Year B; Acts 4:5-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18
I have been waiting for this Sunday since the middle of last July, but we’ll get to that.
Okay, the gospel for today begs to be acted out. I need some help. I need sheep, I need a gatekeeper, I need a thief, I need a hired hand, I need a wolf.
The images in John 10 keep sliding around, so bear with me while we sort this out. To get to the images from the gospel today, we have to back up in chapter 10. So, Jesus tells us that there’s a sheepfold, inside of which resides sheep. And across that sheepfold is a gate. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for the shepherd, and the sheep hear the shepherd’s voice. He calls his own sheep by name, and he leads them out, and when he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and they follow him, because why? They know his voice. Okay, freeze.
Jesus thought this image was brilliant, but his listeners didn’t get it at all. Oh, every preacher has been in that boat. So, take two.
Jesus is like, “Okay, scratch that last image. Let’s try this one. I am the gate. All the others who’ve come before, they are thieves and bandits, but the sheep didn’t listen to them.” Why? Because they don’t know that voice. “I am the gate, and whoever enters the sheepfold by me will be saved, and the sheep will come in through me, and go out through me, and they’ll find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” Okay, freeze. Jesus looks at his listeners, “Got it now?”
“Okay, scratch that one too. Let’s try this one. Take three. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. Why does the hired hand run away? Because a 13hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15just as the Father knows me, and I know Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. Everyone gets a shepherd; no one is stuck with a hired hand. No one will be left insecure, left on their own to fend off the wolves with their life in the hands of someone who will abandon them at the first sign of trouble. God loves me because I am all-in with my sheep. God loves me17God love because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own free choice. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. This is what God has called me to do.”
Okay, freeze. So, Jesus is the shepherd. Jesus is the gate. Jesus is the good shepherd. Any way you cut it, Jesus loves his sheep, and his sheep love him. Jesus knows his sheep, and his sheep know him. Jesus knows their name, and his sheep know his voice. Hired hands are fly-by-night operations with no skin in the game; Jesus has all his skin in the game, his body, his flesh, his life. Jesus has the freedom to lay his life down, but not to end it, but SO THAT he can fall into a bigger life, a bigger “YES.”
Okay, you may go sit down.
But for John, there is more to the story. And we get it in John 21. Shepherds don’t just guard the sheep, but they have to feed them, personally. After the resurrection, Jesus asks Peter three times, “Simon, son of John do you love me?” Each time, Peter answers with some form of, “Yes Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus replies with this progression, “Then, feed my lambs…Tend my sheep…Feed my sheep.” And this is where last July comes in.
Last July, we were on the Isle of Iona. Now, there are a couple of things you need to know about Iona. It is stunningly beautiful. It is incredibly remote, hard to get to, and rugged. It is holy ground; one of those places, as they say, where the veil between heaven and earth is very, very thin. And, it is full of sheep. Sheep fenced in pasture, sheep roaming freely, sheep in the middle of the road, sheep in the sand traps on the golf course; sheep in the fairways; sheep tending the flag on the 18th green.
So, Julia made it her mission to feed the sheep. With handfuls of freshly picked grass, she embarked on her mission. And every time she attempted to do just as Jesus said, the sheep did what? They scattered like water bugs as fast as they could. +++ She ran toward them, they ran away faster. This is when I first learned that sheep are incredibly skittish creatures. It is not easy to feed sheep. They do not trust easily. You have to win their trust.
Well, this went on for a full 24 hours. But Julia was in touch with her inner shepherd, and she was not to be denied; she was bound and determined to feed those sheep. This took some figuring out though; this was going to take some strategy. So, Julia changed her tactics. Instead of chasing the sheep, she bent down low, she extended her hand full of grass, she got very, very still, and she waited. And lo and behold, this one sheep, he came over to her. And that sheep, whom she named “Chester,” Chester ate right out of her hand. +++ I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more beautiful sight. I, realist that I am, I had come to believe that it just wasn’t possible to feed these sheep, they were too skittish. But Julia never stopped believing. Quite simply, it was her mission to feed sheep, and feed them she would. Even more, she wouldn’t give up until she had made that connection, and that connection involved knowing that sheep by name.
Humbling when the priest-kid gets the gospel more than the priest. “And a little, though not so little anymore, child shall lead them…”
Jesus is indeed the good shepherd in John 10, and we are lost without that deep trust that he has our back and can lead us to the still waters and through the valley of the shadow of death out into that place where we can feed on the abundant life. He wins our skittish souls over by being very patient and very still, and inviting us to leave our skittishness, our wariness, our cynicism that this is just one more hired hand trying to take something from us, maybe even our very life, Jesus invites us to leave our skittishness aside and to join him in this stillness where we can come close, where his hand can meet our hunger, where he can feed our hungry souls. And in that moment of encounter, we hear him call our true name, and not all the names and roles and identities that the world calls us. He calls us by our soul name—Chester, beloved lamb of God; Cyndi, beloved daughter of God; Peter, Michael, Judy, Allan, your neighbor’s name, your enemy’s name, your very own name, beloved child of God.
Jesus is the good shepherd, but by the end, he commissions us to feed his sheep. Going deep in love always flows back out to the world as a feast. And so, we, with Peter, with Julia, we have a mission to feed the sheep. But here’s the thing, the sheep out in the real world, they are skittish, they don’t trust us, and why would they after all the ways that, down through the centuries, we, as the church, have acted more like hired hands, if not downright wolves, when it comes to feeding and connecting to the sheep?
No, we will have to build relationship one sheep at a time. We will have to build trust one sheep at a time. When we want to cram the grass that we think the sheep need down their throats, we have to cultivate patience. When the sheep we earnestly want to feed flee from us, we have to sit down and get real honest about our methods and motivations—is this about feeding sheep, or something else?
We have to learn to be still first. We have to take the time to extend a hand and wait. We have to be willing to know the feel of this particular sheep. We have to learn how to call their true name, which means we better well know our true name, so that they can recognize the sound of the good shepherd’s voice calling to them through our own. We have to be willing to lay down our life, our agendas, our timetables, so that we, and those we seek to feed, can fall into that bigger life, that more abundant life that Jesus promises will be ours when we finally connect in that deep communion with another. And we must always remember that we are at one moment shepherd and the next moment sheep. We must be able to receive, as well as give; feed, as well as be fed.
I learned more about the Good Shepherd and our call to feed the sheep that day last July on the Isle of Iona than I ever knew was possible. All I know is that when we slow down, and that moment of connection happens, there is nothing more beautiful in all of this world.
Jesus is bent down low, hand extended, perfectly still— you can trust this shepherd; make your way to him and let him feed you from the palm of his hand. And then, with your belly full, go and do likewise. Every last sheep in this world deserves to know a shepherd who is good. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
April 26, 2015