Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 25/26, 2015
Washington Memorial Chapel, Valley Forge, PA + The Rev. Roy Almquist
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. … I 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. [John 10: 11, 16]
This is Good Shepherd Sunday, one of my favorite observances in the Church Year. I treasure Christmas and Easter and Pentecost … the great Festivals on the Christian calendar. But I love Good Shepherd Sunday … a time when the texts are wonderful … the Psalm for the day is glorious and, for once, good grist for a sermon … and even nature begins to shout of new life, despite the cold wind blowing from the north.
As I reflected this week on the thrust of this Fourth Sunday of Easter, I was struck by the fact that the great figures of our Judeo-Christian tradition are really not super-heroes. One exception, perhaps, might have been the young David, who with his sling-shot and a large stone destroyed the scary Philistine warrior, Goliath. David qualifies as a true hero.
But for the most part, the great figures of Scripture are not heroes … they are shepherds.
They were outdoorsmen who rescue lost sheep … many of them were stellar characters, but they were not military strategists … they were restoration specialists.
With our enlightened, pragmatic approach to life … many of us may be underwhelmed by these redeemers of the strays, these reckless stewards who left many sheep untended in order to chase after one that was lost and irresponsible.
These shepherds had good hearts … they had compassion … but they were not noble conquerors … they certainly were not superheroes in the Marvel comics meaning of that term.
The great Biblical figures were shepherds, blue-collar guys. Think of it …
Noah was a super-shepherd, gathering and protecting all the animals on earth in the face of God’s righteous judgment upon a wicked humanity.
Abraham, the father of the people of Israel, was the keeper of great flocks.
Moses was tending his father-in-law’s sheep, when God called him to be the vehicle for delivering the Hebrew people from bondage in Egypt.
David was a shepherd boy, when God anointed him to become the King of Israel.
When Isaiah described the coming of the Messiah, the symbol he employed was the timeless figure of a dutiful Shepherd: He will feed his flock like a shepherd! He will gather his lambs into his arms.
Obviously Israel’s long history of living as a nomadic people, much like contemporary Bedouins, honored sheep-herding as a core factor in their culture and economy. No wonder the image of God as shepherd became both beloved and realistic.
The Roman economy was also dependent on herds and farming, but the Roman deities tended to be warrior-gods. The traditions of pre-Christian pagan and Celtic Europe also extolled the warrior, but overlaid these fighters with magical spears, legendary swords, chariots and glorious war horses … more of the stuff of superheroes.
Clearly the God of Israel was no warrior. Yahweh-Jehovah-Adonai-the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ was a Shepherd God, who led his people safely through perils: floods, famines, slavery, and the danger of marauding armies. When circumstances forced the people of Israel into slavery in Egypt and later carried them captive into Babylon, the Shepherd God rescued them, leading them to safety like a shepherd snatches a lamb from the edge of a precipice.
When we look at the Gospel witness to Jesus’ ministry … we see a Shepherd at work … a very good Shepherd at work. He came to free those in captivity to sin. He rescued the sick, the infirmed, the demon-possessed from the predators that were stealing life from them. With his healing words and inspirational messages, he led people away from the rough places to the green pastures and the still waters.
As we know, Jesus’ life and ministry ended suddenly, painfully in his crucifixion. But his shepherding duty was certainly not finished. In truth, he was only getting started. He had other sheep to reach … lost sheep to find.
In powerful words that we dare not gloss over, we hear Jesus say: I 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. [John 10: 16]
Today we proclaim that … the work of the Good Shepherd goes on. Jesus’ ministry did not end when he died … but it was re-established through his Resurrection.
This is not wishful thinking … this is reality. The work of the Good Shepherd has gone forward … the Gospel has been proclaimed to Jerusalem … Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
The work of the Good Shepherd has been continued through his ongoing earthly expression … his Body, the Church. For over 2,000 years the same message, underscored by the lives of devoted followers, has kindled a flame that cannot be extinguished.
The work of the Good Shepherd is forwarded by our hands … our hearts … our determination. From people who come here on a Saturday morning to make sure the altar is prepared for three worship services … from the choir that rehearses on Thursday evenings to make sure that our primary service is a source of inspiration … to the countless people who volunteer in the Cabin Shop … as greeters who welcome people at worship or as docents who help people understand the witness that is this glorious building.
The work of the Good Shepherd goes on:
through those who support all aspects of our Chapels mission and ministry … …
through our volunteers who support the breakfast ministry at the Food Pantry in Phoenixville … and through the food we collect regularly to feed the hungry
through the many folks who help at St. James School … from our volunteers who tutor students, members who help with building repairs, or in the case of my wife, Shannon, training the entire teaching staff to foster thinking skills … the work of the Good Shepherd goes on!
The work of the Good Shepherd is not finished and, indeed, it is expanding and spreading despite things that on the surface might discourage us. We may bemoan a decline in church attendance in this country. We may be troubled by those people who are dear to us … members of our own families, who would consider themselves Christians but do not worship or identify themselves with the Church. But all we have to do is look to Africa … Asia … South America … the Christian Church is expanding in great numbers … the work of the Good Shepherd is deepening and prospering.
Clothed in simple shepherd’s garb, Jesus entered our world, proclaiming nothing less than the reign of God in our midst with every word and movement that he made. That he called himself The Good Shepherd should not lead us to assume that he is wishy-washy or ethereal, as many works of art would suggest. No, this Shepherd is strong and determined and calls us to come with him as he accompanies his wandering flock. If we say yes, he assures us that we will live a life of purpose and adventure. Let us say yes … now and always. AMEN.