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Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 26, 2015

When I was young, I remember watching “Superman” on television. In every episode, someone or some community of people would be in danger from which only Superman could rescue them. The villains are too strong, too deceitful, too fast on their feet be caught by just anyone. They want to grab power from the people, not caring how many were destroyed in the process. But Superman cares about the people of his city. He is always there for them, to rescue them from whatever mess they are in. Sometimes he ends up risking his life by being stuck with kryptonite, the only thing that can sap his powers and destroy him. But in the end Superman always wins. The captives are free, the lost are found, Jimmy Olsen is rescued. Everything turns out alright.

Jesus is the Good Shepherd, the one who provides for and protects the sheep. Jesus feeds them, keeps them together, locates the lost and helps the ones in danger. He too is willing to risk is his life for the sheep because he loves them so much and wants the best for them. He is intimately connected to them in a bond that is like the one he shares with the Father, an unimaginably close relationship that reassures and comforts sheep, who are anxious and fearful creatures.

Jesus the Good Shepherd has come so that the sheep may have life, and have it abundantly. Psalm 23 describes the abundance of food and drink, protection and care that Jesus provides the sheep.  Jesus as the Good Shepherd and us as the sheep is a powerful image, but perhaps not one we can relate to today unless we are like my sister, who has a farm. She is always talking about the sheep in her “News from the Farm” emails, how this one is doing, what that one did yesterday. They call the vet in to care for the sheep. They shear the sheep to cool them in the summer. They have two guard dogs to keep the coyotes away from the sheep. Lucy and Jamey want their sheep to have life and have it abundantly.

Today we have our own fears and anxieties. We are communities of people, not sheep, and we can well imagine from reading the newspaper and from personal experience the dangers we might fall into. But Jesus does not want us to be worried. Jesus wants us to know that he has sent the Holy Spirit to guide us in every aspect of our lives, down to the smallest detail, if we will allow it. He wants us to experience life fully, with all our senses, all our feelings and to accept life on life’s terms. There is no question that life is difficult, but we have Jesus beside us to provide for us not only in our joys but in our sorrows as well. We may not think God is present in death or job loss or sickness or famine or war, but Jesus is there, working for peace and plenty, for newness of life after loss. Abundant life for us brings to mind plentiful food and drink, good times with friends, satisfaction from our work and our play, and being part of one or more circles of love in which we can rest, knowing that we are accepted unconditionally.

Jesus knows his sheep and his sheep know him. He know them by name and he calls each one to come to him. I have a colleague who says when you ask him what to call him that God calls him Gray and you should too. Names are powerful. They represent our identity, the very core of who we are. For the Good Shepherd to know us each by name is amazingly wonderful. Our name is not used as an epithet or with any negative adjectives in front of it. It is used as a word of love, the signifying of an intimate and satisfying relationship. My sister and I are always chagrined when we call our children our brothers’ names or vice versa. I am still doing it, and Evan is still correcting me. We all tend to correct people who miss our names. I am Ann without an “E” and it is often spelled with an E. I am quick to set the record straight. Some of us have unusual spellings of our names or unusual names and we take pains to make sure people get them right. But we don’t have to do that with the Good Shepherd. We are known, we are listened to, we are loved and we are called out to carry the message of love to others.

The other important part of this relationships between shepherd and sheep is that we know Jesus’ name and we follow his voice. Just as mothers know the cry of their children, children know the voice of their mother or father. They go to them in times of distress. They seek their help when they don’t know what to do. Well, we know Jesus in the same way. If we belong to him, we strive to be tuned to his voice above all others – the voices that draw us toward power, money, one-upsmanship and some ideal of beauty, cultural correctness or people pleasing; the voices that stir up fear, insecurity, condemnation and discouragement. Jesus still calls above all that and he promises we can hear his voice if we listen for it.

Jesus the Good Shepherd wants to gather other sheep into his fold so there can be one flock and one shepherd. Some ideas about those other sheep include drawing all Jewish Christians who may have identified with different apostles into one group who identify solely with Jesus; the mission to the Gentiles; or future generations who would know and listen to Jesus’ voice through the proclamation of the generations before (Fred Craddock). Jesus also reaches out to those who are unbelievers, are not yet sure about faith or have lost their faith. In our day we think of the many denominations divided over some aspect of religious doctrine, and we have set aside a week of prayer for Christian Unity to pray that our divisions may cease. Jesus the Good Shepherd is still working, is still calling, is still hoping to expand his circle of sheep to include everyone, so that all might have the good things Jesus offers.

Most importantly to this author, Jesus lays down his life for the sheep. Unlike the thieves and bandits who come to destroy or the hired hands who run away at the first sign of trouble, Jesus faces the enemies of the sheep with confidence and calm. He proclaims his message of the kingdom because that is what his Father has commanded him to do. And that message requires that he lay down his life out of passionate love for the sheep. But it is not crucifixion that this gospel focuses on; it is resurrection. Jesus knew he would lay down his life but also that he would take it up again. He does not want to leave the sheep alone, so he is resurrected to once again be with the sheep in the power of the Holy Spirit, to guide them and bring them together and give them the abundance of eternal life with him both now and in the future.

We are used to seeing ourselves as the sheep in this story – anxious and fearful, with a tendency to get lost in ravines or wander off somewhere. We see ourselves as the ones Jesus protects – removing burrs from our coats, leading us to good pasture, protecting us from enemies, sheltering us in his arms. But let us consider that Jesus’ ministrations to us are designed to give us life and give it abundantly. We are happy sheep. We know the shepherd by name and he knows us; we are loved unconditionally. Perhaps with all this love and care, we are called to be something else as well as sheep. We are called to be Jesus’ hired hands – hired hands who have the benefit of the Good Shepherd’s care and are thus able to take care of Jesus’ other sheep, not with fear and trembling, running away at the first sight of trouble, but with compassion and esteem for those whom Jesus wants to share our abundance – the lost, the hurt, the strayed, the oppressed, those whom the false shepherds have worked their worst on, the ones whom the frightened hired hands have abandoned because it is dangerous to help.

The Good Shepherd wants us to be all together in community, to have the best that God can offer in terms of God’s presence in our lives. Let us rejoice in both our roles, the beloved sheep and the shepherd’s hired hands. The Resurrection has made it possible for us to live abundantly. Rejoice and be glad in it.

AMEN

     - Rev. Ann Barker

Work Cited:
Fred Craddock, Preaching Through the Christian Year, Year B (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1993), p. 254