Distracted by the Good Shepherd
The Church of the Good Shepherd
The Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 22, 2018
Text: Psalm 23, Psalm 100, 1 John 3:16‐24, John 10:11‐18
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil: for thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.
Worship the Lord with gladness;
come into his presence with singing.
Know that the Lord is God.
It is he that made us, and we are his;
we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
and his courts with praise.
Give thanks to him, bless his name.
For the Lord is good;
his steadfast love endures forever,
and his faithfulness to all generations.
1 John 3:16‐24
We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us —
and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.
How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods
and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?
Little children, let us love, not in word or speech,
but in truth and action.
And by this we will know that we are from the truth and
will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts
for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.
Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have
boldness before God;
and we receive from him whatever we ask,
because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.
And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name
of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another,
just as he has commanded us.
All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them.
And by this we know that he abides in us,
by the Spirit that he has given us.
“I am the good shepherd.
The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
The 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.
The hired hand runs away
because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.
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 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.
For this reason the Father loves me,
because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.
No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.
I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.
I have received this command from my Father.”
Every Sunday this congregation is treated to a spiritual feast for the eye and the ear: colorful linens on the altar; remarkable flower arrangements above; stained‐glass windows that voice in the silent tongue of images the mighty acts of God; a masterful prelude that prepares our hearts for worship; the procession of acolytes and choir amidst a congregation in song; readings from scripture; time‐tested prayers; hymns of praise supplemented by an Anthem in full‐throated harmony; on most Sundays, a stately eucharist of bread and wine that nourishes the body and the soul; and every Sunday, a moving postlude that sends us out to serve the Lord with gladness.
Taken altogether, it creates a worship of such beauty that only a spirit that is deaf and dumb could resist being lifted up. Of course, there are those in the body of Christ who prefer a more austere service, and they might caution us that such beauty can be distracting – distracting from the Word of God that is the primary focus of all Christian worship.
But I don’t find myself distracted. I am not distracted by the linens or the flowers. I am not distracted by the acolytes or the vestments. I am not distracted by the choir or the organ. In fact, I have even learned not to be distracted by the constant reference back and forth between the prayer book and the hymnal – a juggling act that only native‐born Episcopalians seem to be able to handle without missing their place in one or the other.
I will admit. I do sometimes get distracted during worship. But none of these aspects of our worship distract me. No, the source of my distraction is the same whenever I worship in this sanctuary. It’s that stained‐glass window that distracts me!
The window of the Good Shepherd that stands front and center above the altar! Look at it! Look closely! Do you see it? Do you see what’s wrong with that picture?
I don’t have any problem with the image of Jesus. His face is sufficiently radiant, and the arms enfolding the baby lamb are clearly loving. But the lamb! That lamb is all wrong! That lamb represents us. Right?
Well, come on now! Let’s be honest. We are hardly fluffy little lambs with coats of snow white wool. I’ll grant you that we may be dumb as sheep. But we are hardly cuddly! The artist who created that stained‐glass window is guilty of the same error that photographers regularly commit when they are hired by new parents to provide a portrait of their first‐born child.
They regularly portray new borns as though they had been dropped from heaven without blemish or fault. This, of course, is the stock and trade of photographers. And yet during the early months of an infant’s life, every new parent begins to suspect – after innumerable nights of interrupted sleep – that the child lying in their crib is not actually the fruit of their loins. We wonder – Don’t we? ‐ if perhaps that ravenous creature who insists on being fed at God awful, irregular hours throughout the night is, in fact, the offspring of some other family. Perhaps those nurses in the maternity ward made a mistake. They switched our sweet little Johnny or Jane with that spawn of the dark side that we have taken home.
To give the Devil his due, every baby is cute – from a distance. But once we are on intimate terms with one of these little ankle‐biters, we soon discover that God has not issued us one of those kids pictured on the label of Gerber baby food jars – an infant with rosy cheeks and a rosy disposition to match.
This lesson came home to me recently when my daughter adopted a baby. Besides the normal trials that any infant brings to a family, my newly adopted grandson is blessed with acid reflux. Consequently, this past Easter, as his mother held him in her arms during worship, he spit up the remains of his morning breakfast all over his Easter finery as well as that of his mother. At just such a moment, my grandson was a child that only a mother could love.
What is true of new borns is also true of us. If we were accurately depicted in that stained‐glass window, our fluffy white coat should show the unmistakable signs of a bad case of the mange. You know what I mean, that disease caused by parasitic mites that results in a loss of hair and the proliferation of scabby little eruptions all over the skin. Such an unsightly mange seems an appropriate visual sign of the multifarious sins to which we humans fall subject.
Oh! And by the way, Jesus’s lilly white robe needs to be altered as well. It should be soiled – soiled by smears of mud from the hooves of we little lambs since there is no telling what unsavory paths we had trod before the Good Shepherd took us up into his loving arms.
My Friends, the job of a Good Shepherd is not all that it is cracked up to be. It is certainly not as sanitary as that stained‐glass window suggests. Sheep are dumb. Sheep are dirty. Sheep are smelly and, as a rule, sheep are a rather unruly bunch since they are easily led astray. Sheep must be watched like a hawk in good weather and in bad because their errant ways are a danger to themselves. Not to mention the danger presented by the varmints who commonly skulk around them and hope to lunch on any sheep that have lost its way and gotten separated from the herd. These varmints threaten the Shepherd as much as the sheep.
Shepherding sheep is so distasteful that one wonders why God the Son did not persuade God the Father to send a substitute – a hired hand, so to speak – to take on this unpleasant chore. Employing a hired hand is not unheard of in the scriptures. God hired on Moses to free the Hebrews. God called Joshua, Deborah and Samson to judge the people in the promised land. God picked, the young boy, David, to defeat the Philistine giant, Goliath, and David’s son, Solomon, to rule with wisdom over Israel. He even called a legion of prophets to keep the people of Israel on the straight and narrow.
So why did God not raise up a “hired hand” to deal with this stinky, treacherous business of shepherding his sinful sheep? Why did God’s own Son have to sully himself with such a foul task? The Gospel of John gives us the reason why this could not be. John writes:
“The 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.
The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.”
Just as there are babies that only a mother could love, so too we are sheep that only a Good Shepherd could love. A hired hand just would not do. Hired hands lack the Shepherd’s love for His own – His Sheep – even the mangy ones. This is why a stained‐glass window of the Good Shepherd stands front and center in this sanctuary of we mangy humans. While we were yet sinners, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” That Son not only knows each of us by name as any competent shepherd would. He also loves us so much that when danger threatened, he did not run away. Instead, he gave his own life so that we might walk even in the valley of the shadow of death yet fear no evil for we are His.
As Psalm 100 says, “We are His people, and the sheep of His pasture.” God knows! We wayward sheep needed such a shepherd. We are so easily distracted. We are so commonly led astray. We are so vulnerable to every varmint with false promises of wealth or power or affection that can defile the body and debase the soul.
No, in our case, no hired hand would suffice. We needed a remarkably good Shepherd. And do you know what the good news for today is? We have one! We have a Good Shepherd who loves us – one who loves us no matter what our age, weight, height, mental capacity, physical strength, depth of soul or station in life might be.
We have a Good Shepherd for whom each one of His sheep is precious to Him – especially the mangy ones. We have a Good Shepherd who loves us so much that He gave his own life so that no power in heaven or on earth – not even death – can separate us from his loving arms.
His name is Jesus, and he invites all who believe in him to join his flock in the green pastures of a peace that passes all understanding and will have no end in this life or the next.
Let us pray:
Dear and Loving God, we may be your people and the sheep of your pasture.
But our attention span is short, and our urge to stray so very strong.
We give thanks for our Good Shepherd –
His Rod of exemplary sacrifice humbles us when we err –
His Staff of life lived for others redirects our steps when we lose our way.
Together His rod and His staff they comfort us for, because of His care,
we know that goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our life,
and we shall dwell in the house of the Lord our whole life long –
on this earth and in your kingdom to come.
Praise be for the Good Shepherd – your Son – in whose name we make this prayer.