Christ the Good Shepherd

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Community Eucharist

The written version of the sermon is here:

Every year on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, we hear a Gospel reading that reminds us of Jesus as the Good Shepherd.  As far as sheep farming might be from some of us, there’s something almost archetypal about the idea of a shepherd as being strong, kind, watchful, pursuing the lost, binding up the wounded, eager to gather in more sheep (and goats, too.) One of the Church’s best children’s education programs is called the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, because its developer, steeped in the wisdom of the Montessori method, understood that very small children get the concept of a shepherd who loves them and calls them by name.

A loving shepherd empowers us to be loving and to share that love. We see that in our continued readings from the Acts of the Apostles, as Peter and the other disciples move about healing and preaching. They get into trouble, but they’re undeterred. They know the Good Shepherd and they know the Good Shepherd knows and loves them.

The simplicity of a child’s faith is in that classic poem by the English Romantic poet William Blake. Blake has a child ask,

Little Lamb who made thee
        Dost thou know who made thee
Gave thee life & bid thee feed.
By the stream & o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing wooly bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice!
         Little Lamb who made thee
         Dost thou know who made thee?

I sometimes wish we lived in such a world of streams and meads in which everyone had clothing of delight, softness and safety. 

As I pray about the ongoing shootings and gun violence in our country—the shootings by crazy, disturbed individuals, as well as the shootings by police—I watch some of the British crime shows with wonder as I notice that most police do not carry weapons.  Not only does that mean there are fewer police shootings, but it also reminds us that the UK has fewer citizens who understand gun ownership as an extension of their identity.  Can’t we go back to easier days? Or as Rodney King asked—with the hopefulness of a child, “Can’t we all just get along?”

We know the answer is more complicated.

Psalm 23 reminds us that we sometimes walk in the valley of the shadow of death, that evil exists, and there will always be those “who trouble us,” enemies….nevertheless (and there’s faith in that word, nevertheless) THOU, O Good Shepherd, art with us.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus also is clear-eyed about the pasture.  Thieves and bandits try to climb over the fence. Strangers try to mislead. Some just want to kill and steal and destroy. There will be wolves, and hired hands who are unreliable. These are Jesus’s words, not the cynical notes of my faith. Jesus should know, after all, because he is the sacrificial lamb, who gives his own life for the clearing away of death and evil and injustice. By identifying as the victim, Jesus has turned the system inside-out.  Yet, nevertheless, Jesus calls us by name.

And what’s even better is that the folks we see and know as those within the fold are not even the half of it. “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.”  We don’t know exactly who Jesus means—maybe it’s the Jews who have not understood his coming. Maybe it’s the foreigners. Maybe it’s the cynical or the doubtful, but whoever they are, Jesus’s comment seems to suggest that we never give up praying for others—for their conversion to love, for their healing and hope, and for their joining us in everlasting life.

Literature professors, poets, and people far smarter than me will say that for one to really understand William Blake’s poem, “The Lamb,” one also needs to read and keep in mind, the parallel poem, “The Tyger.”

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?

In other words, how could a benevolent, loving God, a God who creates and loves little sheep, also be the creator of something as vicious, cold, and killing as a tiger?  What was God thinking? Was this a mistake? Where do we place evil in a world in which we insist on good?

It comes back to those shady characters Jesus mentions in the Gospel, doesn’t it?  This side of heaven, there will always be thieves, murderers, and swindlers.  But the Good Shepherd continues to lead, to love, and to call us by name.

If you recall the first stanza of Blake’s “The Lamb,” you recall the child asks the sheep, “Who made you?” In the second stanza, the child speaks with the wisdom of faith and assurance, answering their own question:

Little Lamb I’ll tell thee,
         Little Lamb I’ll tell thee!
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb:
He is meek & he is mild,
He became a little child:
I a child & thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
         Little Lamb God bless thee.
         Little Lamb God bless thee.

Blake has two different poems to express the Christian dilemma of good and evil, of light and dark, of hatred and love existing in the same world. We are not to despair. We are never to give up.  But to keep listening and following our own name, as Jesus calls us. We’re called to keep working and praying for the conversion of the world, as the Good Shepherd has a lot of other sheep and much bigger pasture. (Our beloved Sheep’s Meadow in Central Park will be magnified by the thousands and millions in heaven.)

The choir sings the beautiful Bairstow paraphrase of Psalm 23 on our behalf a little later (but we’ll sing it ourselves before too long,)

And so through all the length of days
Thy goodness faileth never;
Good Shepherd, may I sing Thy praise
Within Thy house for ever.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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