A Message for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Good Shepherd Sunday
May 3, 2020
By The Rev. Fred Huntington
A Message to the people of the “Good Shepherd:”
The readings for this Sunday and the accompanying collect remind us of the relationship between the good shepherd and his sheep. After all, this is the name of our congregation and, in a deeper sense, of the one who is the true “pastor/shepherd” of all us who are his lambs. We can’t help but think of that image above the altar! Jesus in that picture actually looks a bit like a fellow priest I know in the Diocese of Virginia! He is a good priest, but he is not the Lord or the good shepherd!
The familiar words of Psalm 23 resonate with us in the midst of so much suffering around us during this difficult time. This includes not only the physical suffering of those who are sick and dying but also the separation of loved ones unable to be able to be close to those they love, even in their last moments of this present life. Of course, many of us are “isolated” and it may be easier to forget those other humans out there who are at risk and who do not have the special advantages we have in the midst of this pandemic. One thinks of refugees, particularly refugee children, the homeless, prisoners of all kinds and also people with severe “underlying conditions” and people who were already very afraid before any of this latest crisis unfolded.
“Even though I walk through the darkest
valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me”(Psalm 23:3).
God really is with us through all of this. Jesus, the good shepherd who is willing to “lay down his life for his sheep,” shows us this in the cross and in His daily closeness and concern for each one of us, his sheep.
With quite a lot of extra free time on our hands, we might also be tempted to dwell too much on the faults, failures, and shortcomings of our own lives and those of others. For that, we need to be reminded of Peter’s words about the Good Shepherd.
“He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.” (I Peter 2:24-25)
Having said this, acknowledging our familiarity with this image of sheep and shepherd, most of us in our contemporary modern life are pretty clueless about what it takes to be a good shepherd of literal sheep. There are in fact approximately 89,000 sheep of all varieties living with us here in Virginia.
Even with that, the shepherding of relatively small flocks not primarily for the meat, is perhaps not that common. Perhaps we can get some idea of what is involved, if we think of early childhood teachers shepherding pre-schoolers across a dangerous intersection or perhaps even the intrepid dog walker being dragged along by 15 very different looking dogs. (One wonders what they are all thinking). Philip Keller wrote a book some years ago entitled “A Shepherd looks at Psalm 23″. He was a real life shepherd for many years and understood shepherding deeply. Keller shows how the shepherd cares for each individual member of the flock because the condition of one can affect the rest of the flock. Sheep are intensely social. If there is sickness in one, or if one wanders off, it will put others at risk. There is also a profound difference between the animal driver who uses fear and violence from where he is behind the herd, to drive his animals into the slaughter house, and the shepherd who leads the flock out in search of good fresh pasture and clean water. He goes first before the sheep looking for pitfalls, predators and other dangers. He is concerned about the safety and well being of both the individual and the community.
In John’s gospel, we see quite clearly that Jesus is the “good shepherd” for us, His sheep. Unlike the “thief,” his purpose is not to cash in on the sheep, to use them commercially or to somehow enhance his own status. The heart of his message and mission for us, His people, is that “they (we) may have life and have it abundantly.” Only our relationship with this Good Shepherd, who daily gives us life, sustenance, encouragement and hope, is what ultimately gives us the grace to make the transition through “the valley of the shadow of death.”
Even the apostles, the church leaders in the Book of Acts, were not there to “herd” the people. Together with all of the other “sheep” of the one flock they
“broke bread from house to house and ate their food with glad and generous hearts.”(Acts 2:46)
Maybe as we are finally able to reassemble openly as the Church across our beloved city, we will see each other in a new way. With glad and generous hearts, with deep gratefulness for the gift of life even in the midst of real anxiety and grief, we will be the Body of Christ to our neighbors and with our neighbors and with all the members of other congregations of other flocks, irregardless of doctrines and denominations and the many other things that have divided and scattered us in the past. Whatever the “new normal” is, as they say, we as Christians, whether or not we are called to be “leaders,” need daily to seek to be followers of the Good Shepherd who is Jesus. The best way to start doing this is in prayer.
Here is the collect for this Sunday:
O God, whose Son Jesus is the Good Shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear His voice, we may know Him
who calls us each by name, and follow where He leads; who with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God for ever an ever.