May 8, 2022 Sanctuary Worship, Sermon, "The Crucified Shepherd"

May 8th  |  The Reverend John Vanderzee |  John 10:1-16

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It seems that now during this waxing and waning pandemic we still wonder when real face to face, hand to hand, shoulder-to-cry-on communal affection will ever return. Our Session will be dealing with that very issue this coming week, so stay tuned. For the time being, social distancing is up for grabs and Zoom remains a necessary evil.  We’ve become more and more casual with and dependent on technology. More on that later.

Meanwhile, there are some people who are less savvy with their cell phones and computers that cause them to be easy targets for others like themselves who are desperate for easy intimacy and hasty relationships.   

There are dissolute callers out there who want to take advantage of the elderly or unsuspecting of any age with deals that are too good to be true or who try to lure the lonely into false intimacy and even sexual servitude, or imposters who scare unwary people into doling out money for the purpose of benefiting a person supposedly in dire trouble.

The earliest church had a similar problem. Not with cell phones, but with imposters. John, writing during the time of the early Church, wants to warn the faithful that there are charlatans and false prophets out there, and he recalls how Jesus used the familiar metaphor of sheep and shepherds to illustrate his point. 

In chapter 10, Jesus describes those who would lead his flock astray for their own selfish ends as thieves and bandits who are even willing to kill to serve their evil purposes. They are like fraudulent shepherds who do not care about the sheep. 

Jesus makes it clear that he is the way to abundant life for the sheep, describing himself as the gatekeeper who is the true shepherd. 

There may be a few sheep farms in and around Vanderburgh County and northern Kentucky, but I think it’s safe to say that pastoral illustrations of shepherd and sheep are somewhat foreign to our everyday frame of reference. 

Yet, these images and their meanings are not entirely lost on us. We may not know a shepherd or even have a particular fondness for sheep. But we have Psalm 23, this chapter of the Gospel of John, and so many similar references in the Bible that bring comfort and consolation in times of trouble, disability and death.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures;

He leads me beside still waters; He restores my soul.

If we are honest with ourselves, we might grudgingly recognize ourselves as not too different from sheep after all in certain respects, which is not really a compliment when you think about it. Sheep are vulnerable, messy, easily led astray. They are inherently dependent creatures in spite of their stubbornness. Sheep are willfully obstinate. They can bite and can be mean-spirited. 

They need a shepherd who the sheep will follow because of her tender knowledge of them, calling each one by name. They will run from the call of strangers because they are not familiar with their voices. But the voice of the shepherd they recognize. He is the one whose sole purpose is to ensure the safety of the flock. He will lay down his life for them. I think you get my drift:  we are vulnerable, stubborn, often ornery creatures, just like sheep, and we need a shepherd. That shepherd for us, of course, is Jesus the Christ. 

Interestingly, this passage follows actual circumstances that occur in the pastures of the Middle East. Both past and current experience there confirms that the sheep follow the shepherd who knows each sheep by name, and they, in turn, recognize her distinct call.

 

In contrast to Western practice, where the shepherd follows the herd, in the land where our Lord once walked, one can even today see shepherds in front of their herds, repeatedly calling them to keep them together. In John’s scene, therefore, the true shepherd leads the flock safely to pasture.

As strange as this practice may be in western sheep herding, the spiritual lesson should be clear. As difficult as it may be sometimes to discern the voice of Jesus in our lives, it is just as important now as in John’s time to distinguish Jesus’ voice from that of a false shepherd. I will say more about that a little later.

It is interesting that in verse 6 we read that when Jesus used the figure of the shepherd as gatekeeper, his disciples do not seem to understand what Jesus was trying to say to them. 

And so Jesus switches metaphors:

Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved and will come in and go out and find pasture.  The thief comes only to steal, kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.

When Jesus was talking about himself as the shepherd/ gatekeeper who knows his sheep, his disciples seemed oblivious to the danger of the voice of outsiders. And so along with Jesus’ message of comfort and security, there is dire warning. There are those out there who would steal and kill and destroy. And so, to further protect the sheep, Jesus proclaims himself as the actual gate within whose bounds the enemy cannot enter. Within the safety of the gate and the immediate surrounding pasture there is abundant life.

All this begs the questions for us: who represents the fraudulent shepherds in today’s world? Who or what threatens the life and well-being of modern followers of Jesus on their journey of faith? Let’s start where we began: information technology exemplified by our cell phones, computers and other gadgets.

A retired clergy friend of mine does not have a mobile phone and refuses to buy one. He still relies on his old land line. He says if people really need him, they will call him at home, and if he’s not there, they’ll leave a message. I tried that once, and a female voice came on and said that his mailbox was full! I’ve concluded that he must be a sociopath. Actually, I kind of admire him for his consistent nonconformism.

Perhaps my friend was ahead of his time in recognizing that cell phones, computers, and other gadgetry so prevalent in our common culture have become idols cloaked in the garments of personal freedom and ingenuity.

David Zahl in his book, Seculosity, writes,

I don’t remember hearing the word optimize outside of technological circles before 2013. You could optimize the hard drive on your computer, or the transmission of your car, or the space in your closet.

Now we optimize our time, our finances, our bodies, even our relationships. . .

It is no accident that the lexicon of efficiency has worked its way into everyday jargon. Language reflects our priorities, conscious and otherwise, in this case a view of human beings as machines. Thus, we talk casually about how we are “wired” and liken the brain to a computer, our bodies to hardwire, and our personalities to software.

Data is everywhere, and its use in our information age has become one of the idols of our common life. The hope for those stuck in this idolatry (or seculosity as Zahn calls it) is a hope in the reality of a God who does not abandon us to our compulsions; a God in Jesus Christ who gave up control for the sake of an embittered and hell-bent world.

Secondly, the false shepherd of greed and lust for wealth has afflicted this society for decades now and has produced the widest disparity between rich and poor in our nation since the 1920’s.

The fixation on success, financial or otherwise, occupies an expanding amount of human endeavor, and it is eventually unsatisfying and ultimately destructive.

If the prophets of the Old Testament were alive and among us today, they would literally be preaching hellfire and brimstone against the idolatry of wealth amassment.  The prosperity gospel is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The abundant life that Jesus offers has less to do with physical or material abundance and everything to do with love and joy and peace that comes from the One who is our redeemer and friend.

The third false shepherd that needs exposing today is that of nationalism which is just as prevalent now as was viciously displayed on January 6, 2020. Not to be confused with honest, authentic patriotism that is not afraid of self-sacrifice and to speak truth to power, nationalism fosters the misguided belief that our nation, or any one nation, is superior to all others in God’s eyes. 

Nationalism in its extreme form means maintaining a pure national identity that is based on certain exclusive characteristics such as language, religion, race, skin color, or a belief in the superiority of a common ancestry. It is a false prophet and not the prize for which our forefathers and mothers, sons, and daughters sacrificed their lives.

Nationalism also leads to the belief that we should stand apart from the rest of the world and not work with other countries to promote clean water here and abroad, or address the threat of climate change that is reaching the tipping point.

This misdirected idolization of country should not displace nor come between or before our love of God and his command to love our neighbor as ourselves, whoever our neighbor may be or from wherever they may come.

 

Finally, in verse 11, Jesus returns to the metaphor of shepherd once again, this time making the identity of this shepherd clear and unambiguous. 

I am the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.

And then after talking about the cowardice and unfaithfulness of the hired hand who abandons the sheep out of fear of the wolf, Jesus says again in verse 14,

I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for my sheep.   

Jesus says it twice, word for word, “I am the good shepherd. I lay down my life for my sheep.” 

While the blossoms of Easter lilies have long faded, we are invited to continue to embrace the mystery of the Christian faith in this season of Easter: it is by dying and rising that the shepherd Jesus still offers abundant life. And because he did, even though we walk through the darkest of life’s valleys, we need not fear any evil, any danger, any threatening circumstance, any enemy, because he is with us. His rod and staff, which is now his cross, is always before us to provide comfort and courage.

This word, dear people - that God will not abandon us, that Jesus will hold on to us through all things, that God will never, ever let us go - needs to be spoken and heard today more than ever.

 

To the child afraid for her safety at home; to the spouse victimized by domestic violence; to the distressed or suicidal gay or trans who wonders whether there are any people out there who will understand their need for acceptance and recognition; to the person fearful of being stopped by police because of his skin color; to the police officer who never knows what will happen when she arrives on a crime scene; to the homeless men and women and children who wonder whether they will ever have a place to call their own and to the renter who is being priced out of theirs; to those caught mired in grief at the loss of a beloved spouse and father, and pastor. The shepherd is there to comfort, to console, and to guide.

There are so many times when life conspires to make us feel unsafe and unworthy and it is our job to proclaim in the face of these harsh realities the even greater reality of God’s undying, unconditional, and unyielding love. “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. No one will snatch them out of my hand.” 

 

One last point: the passage we read this morning ends with this directive from Jesus in verse 16:

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.

It is believed that when John wrote his Gospel in the ancient city of Ephesus, the church was still struggling with its identity.  There had been a long, continuous argument among the apostles, even despite Paul’s impassioned pleas, as to whether Gentiles should be admitted to the church and be baptized. 

John wanted to make it clear, along with Paul, that the doors of the sheepfold were open to all, Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, rich or poor, saint, or sinner, or seeker. 

Any who recognizes the crucified shepherd’s voice is part of his flock. May this church of the risen Christ always be a place where all are welcome, discover real community and find fertile pasture for their Christian walk. To God be all honor and praise and glory.

Amen.