Fourth Sunday in Easter 2003

A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on May 11, 2003. 
Based on John 10:11-16 (4 Easter, Year B).

Can you guess the theme of today’s service? Here’s a hint: in our readings we’ve now heard the word ‘shepherd’ 16 times. The word sheep? 17. That doesn’t include the hymn before the Gospel reading “Savior, like a shepherd lead us.” And we haven’t even gotten to the offertory anthem, “My shepherd will supply my need.” 

In recent years, the 4th Sunday of Easter has, for obvious reasons, become known as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” Today it feels like sheep and shepherds are running amok all over the church. There’s nothing subtle or mysterious about this theme. It’s in your face pastoral imagery. After awhile we may find ourselves muttering, “enough already, I get it. Jesus is the Good Shepherd, we’re the sheep, let’s move on.” But the sheep just keep coming. Mary may have had a single little lamb but we get wave after wave of these fluffy creatures. It’s hard not to feel overrun after awhile.

Maybe the whole sheep theme lacks subtlety because sheep are, to put it delicately, not the brightest beasts in the barnyard. They need constant reminders and reinforcement. They wander off; they get lost; they have trouble following simple instructions. And in this light it’s not too flattering to get lumped in with a bunch of sheep. Being led by Jesus the Good Shepherd is a much more pleasant image when we don’t reflect on what it actually means to be a bleating sheep. Especially for you and me. We live in Westchester County after all. We’re smart. We’re leaders. In this sheep-eat-sheep world, we’re at the top of the food chain. We must at least be the alpha sheep.

And if we think there are a lot of sheep and shepherds in our service this morning, there are also a whole herd of them in Scripture. Cain’s brother Abel was a shepherd. Sheep were on Noah’s ark. Moses was a Shepherd. David was a shepherd. Sheep are all over the psalms. Shepherds followed the star to the manger in Bethlehem. And Jesus is referred to as the Lamb of God. It’s no wonder that the image of Jesus as a shepherd is such an ancient Christian symbol. And if we can get past our modern disdain for being called sheep, it is a wonderful and helpful image. Jesus as the tender nurturer of the flock is an important image of God. It’s especially important for those of us who don’t like to admit our own vulnerabilities and insecurities. We all have them and they all run deep. But some of us spend an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to cover them up. Sheep don’t have this luxury, of course, because the minute they think they’re so independent that they can make it on their own, they’ll get consumed by a wolf. You never hear any one talk about being a lone sheep, like you hear about a lone wolf. Because a lone sheep is a dead sheep. They can’t survive without the tender care of a shepherd.

And so, we too, cannot survive without the tender care of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. Oh, we think we can. We think we can do everything on our own, that we can be successful without God. But the Good Shepherd not only helps us to survive by protecting us from the dangers that lie in wait, he helps us to thrive. To live in green pastures, to enjoy all that life has to offer.

There are many images of God that we use in liturgy and in prayer, everything from father to king to judge to rock. But sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in these images of omnipotence and forget about the image of God as comforter, nurturer, and shepherd. God of course, is found in all of these images and yet God is also so much more than any of them. Our own human images of God are always limited simply because they are human projections. But Good Shepherd Sunday invites us to remember the image of God as shepherd. Some of us may spend too much time with this image at the expense of others, but my experience is that too often it’s just the opposite. We don’t allow ourselves to be fully embraced by the tenderness of God’s love.

At the Washington National Cathedral, there is a small chapel in the undercroft known as the Good Shepherd chapel. It’s a tiny space with room for only about ten people. But above the altar is a stone relief of Jesus as the Good Shepherd tenderly holding one of his sheep. Never forget that this sheep is you and me. No matter how clumsy or unworthy we may feel at a given time, it is Jesus who holds us in his arms and protects us and keeps us safe.

So, on this Good Shepherd Sunday, let the Good Shepherd tend to your needs. Let him wrap his arms of love around you. Be a sheep. Recognize that we cannot live life by ourselves. Sometimes we must allow ourselves to be taken up into the arms of the Good Shepherd. And life’s not bad from this perspective. We can place our whole beings, our souls and bodies, into his loving arms and let the Good Shepherd take care of the rest.

 © The Rev. Tim Schenck 2003

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