A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 17, 2016. The lectionary readings are Acts 9:36-43, Revelation 7:9-17, Psalm 23, and John 10:22-30.
Listen to the sermon HERE.
According to many people who watch our political culture, our government structures, and our institutions, there is and has been a crisis in leadership. The buck never seems to stop, but is simply passed on from person to person. People become so desperate for a leader that, as we can see in the current presidential race, it sometimes doesn’t even matter what a candidate says, as long as she or he says it with conviction. While it might seem like we live in a time of special crisis, the yearning for a leader is, of course, not new.
The scripture books we know as the Old Testament could be lined up as a running debate on leadership. Some want a king, while others suggest that God alone is king. Some want a strong religious leadership, to counterbalance or replace the secular leadership. Some want authority figures with wisdom as much as military might, so a tradition of judges arises. Over time, the expectation and hope for a messiah develops and this seems to be a hope not from humanity, but straight from the heart of God.
Jesus is born and a few people see in him the hope of the nations. At the crucifixion, the light goes out, God’s plan seems scuttled. But then, beginning with Easter morning, Resurrection power is revealed. Not only has it raised Jesus from the dead, but it gives power to heal and raise and renew.
We here about this power among the early followers of Jesus in our first reading. On the Sundays after Easter, we follow an ancient custom of replacing the reading from the Hebrew Scriptures with a reading from the Acts of the Apostles. The Book of Acts tells about this power of the Resurrection alive and working in the early community of believers. For those who belief that Jesus has been raised, there’s new energy. They tell others, and the energy multiplies.
The story of Peter praying over Tabitha who was thought to be dead, but then Tabitha rising in the power of Jesus’s Resurrection—this story is told in such a way as to give hope that this power of Christ is unleashed in the world. For us. For all.
In today’s Gospel, the power of Christ is concentrated in a form that would have been very familiar to people of the first few centuries in the ancient Near East. Jesus identifies himself as one who uses power for love, for care in the same way that a shepherd would care for his flock of sheep. At times, the shepherd has to be strong and sharp, protecting the sheep from wolves or anything else that might attack. But at other times, the shepherd needs to be nurturing and caring, tending to a sheep that is sick, that wanders in the wrong direction, or that needs any kind of special care.
We’re asked to follow, from every direction. “Follow me for a better economy.” “Follow me for a thinner body.” “Follow me for whiter teeth,” on and on and on. Presidential candidates, advertisers, bosses, supervisors, activists, and many more. As Christians, we’re called to navigate a “narrow way,” getting along in the world of work and social interaction, but all the time, listening to a different leader. It’s our task to try to follow God, to hear God’s voice rising above all the others. Or, especially when all the voices seem really loud, it might be that God is still, small voice, the one that whispers our name; inviting us closer, inviting us to a life of love. It’s our task to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd in our hearts.
Today’s epistle from The Revelation to John reminds us that God’s care goes through this life and into the next. Not only does God never forget our name, but God stands ready to extend to us love beyond imagination, where we are delivered from the valley of the shadow of death. We’re carried to a place where we “hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike [us], nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be [our] shepherd, and he will guide [us] to springs of living water; and God will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes.”
Revelation uses the image of the lamb—so often the victim, the one that is sacrificed, but here—the lamb is restored and risen, whole and complete. These images of lamb and sheep, shepherd and leader come from a different time and place, but they can still speak to us of a Lord and leader who keeps an eye on us.
Jesus promises to watch out for us, to care for us, to keep us safe. If we begin to wander, there are other faithful people, there’s the church, there’s the scripture, there’s the voice of God in us that comes through prayer and meditation. But we need to do our part: to listen and to hear him when he calls our name.
There’s an old preacher’s story about a priest who was traveling with members of his parish in the Holy Land. Like some priests I’ve heard of (certainly none around here), this priest liked to talk. And so, as they traveled through Israel, this priest loved to explain to people what they had seen, what they were seeing and about what they were about to see.
The priest knew about the flowers, about the towns, and about the olive groves. But the priest had particular information—inside information, almost– about sheep and shepherds. The priest had grown up in the English countryside, so he felt like he knew his sheep.
One particular day, he told everyone on the tour bus to be on the lookout for sheep and shepherds. “Notice how the shepherd always leads the sheep,” he said. “As the scriptures remind us,” he said, “The shepherd knows the way and the sheep follow.”
The tour bus travelled on, but just as it rounded a curve, there just beside the road was a flock of sheep. But a man was walking behind them, not in front. Suddenly, the tour-giving-priest’s reputation was on the line. His credibility was at stake. He was outraged. This did not fit at all what he had been telling the people.
He had the bus driver to stop the bus. He ran out and went up to the man and said to him, “Sir, I’ve just been telling my friends here that the shepherd always leads the sheep, the shepherd knows the way and the sheep follow him. But here we find you, and you’re walking BEHIND the sheep. What’s going on?” The man looked at the priest and said, “Reverend, you’re absolutely right. The shepherd DOES always walk in front. The shepherd leads the sheep. I’m the butcher.”
One has to be careful who one follows.
Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand.” If we stay close to him—through prayer and silence, through involvement at some level with a Church, by making sure we spend some time occasionally with a few holy people—we will recognize the voice of Jesus, we will feel the presence of the one who never forgets our name.
As we continue to celebrate the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ and look for evidence of resurrection in our lives, may we indeed “hear his voice, know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads.” In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.