Sermon for Easter 4 B - April 29, 2012

Sermon for Easter 4 B
April 29, 2012
Michael Coffey

John 10:11-18
1 John 3:16-24

Jesus said: I am the good shepherd.
           Every year on the fourth Sunday after Easter
                     talk about that.
Well, he didn’t say that last part,
           but that’s what we do.
Every year, once we have heard the resurrection stories
           we go back, and get the heart of who this crucified and risen Lord
                     of ours really is:  And the first metaphor we always turn to:
                           I am the good shepherd.

Typically, we preachers spend a lot of time
           trying to explain that word: shepherd.
           What they do, how hard their lives were,
                     how terrible sheep are.
But what really caught my attention this year
           as I reread the texts:
           We place all the emphasis on the wrong word:
           The emphasis here isn’t on shepherd,
                     it is on the word good.
Apparently, there were bad shepherds.
           They neglected the flock,
                     drank too much,
                     got the sheep lost,
                     and when wolves came they ran off like cowards.

For anyone hearing Jesus talk about himself as the good shepherd,
           the word that most surprised them had to be the first one:  good.
The good shepherd is the one who protects, provides, and guides.
           Then the question isn’t so much about the shepherd,
                     but about the sheep:
                     Do they welcome protection, receive the provisions,
                     and follow the path with trust and gratitude.
                                A good shepherd is one thing.
                                Good sheep are something else entirely.
But yet, Jesus does say
           that his own sheep, his own people,
                     know his voice, follow, trust, receive with gratitude.
So something is going on here that makes it work well.

My favorite story for good shepherd Sunday
           is about some folks who took a trip to Palestine.
They were with a tour guide who was showing them
           all the sites of the cities and countryside.
The guide had told them about the biblical image
           of shepherd, and quoted Jesus:
                     My sheep hear my voice and follow.
                           I know them and they know me.
He told the tourists that the shepherd leads the sheep
           by walking in front and they follow behind
                     because they know and trust the shepherd.
Just then, out the bus window,
           the group saw a herd of sheep,
           and a guy behind them forcing them forward,
           using his stick to keep them in line, shouting at them.
                     It was just the opposite of what the tour guide told them.
Someone said:
           I thought you said the shepherd leads and the sheep follow.
                     This guy is behind them sheep and pushing them forward.
           The tour guide said:  Yes, but that is not a shepherd.  That is the butcher.

Jesus did not say:  I am the good butcher.
           No, he said:  I am the good shepherd.
He is the one who protects, provides, and guides.
           He isn’t the one who comes to force, push, or instill fear.
He comes to create in us enough trust in God
           that we can follow where we are led.

There was a book and a movie a while back:  The Horse Whisperer.
           It is a story about a woman and her horse,
                     both frightened away from trusting relationships
                     by a traumatic experience.
           No one has been able to get the horse to trust,
                     to be led, to be calm.
           A number of trainers had tried the techniques
                     that use fear, intimidation, dominance.
           Nothing worked.
           The horse whisperer, Tom, used another method.
                     Gentleness.  Slowly building trust.
                     Calm guidance. Patience and understanding when it didn’t go right.
It was the difference between a shout
                                and a whisper.
                     A shout pushes you way.  A whisper draws you in.

Well, we might say that a good shepherd
           is a sheep whisperer.
But what I’d rather say is this:
           In Jesus, God is a you whisperer.
           (Not the pun “ewe” but y-o-u.)
God is reaching out in gentle trusting love
           to create a new relationship that allows us to follow.
God knows there is so much fear and anxiety in us
           that trusting and following is nearly impossible.
God knows that some of us have trauma that still
           keeps us in mistrust, doubt, and terror.
My friend and colleague, Paul Bailie,
           created a blog while at his previous call.
                     He called it:  Not a Shouting Church.
We might call it:  Not a shouting God.
           In Jesus we know a whispering God,
           a God who works through the attraction of love,
                     not the repulsion of shouting and anger.
           In Jesus, we have encountered God
                     who woos us in,
                     who gently draws us closer,
                     who coaxes us out of mistrust,
                     who cajoles us into love.
This is the good shepherd,
           the you whisperer,
           who, through his very life, death, resurrection, and mysterious presence
                     draws us into God through God’s own enticing love.

Jesus says it like this:
           I lay down my life for my sheep.
           This refers, of course, to Jesus’ death that draws us in
                     to the God of compassion.
           It also refers to all the ways Jesus lays down his life:
                     through gentleness, through forgiveness,
                     through patient teaching, through slow building of trust
                                in those who follow him.

It’s an amazing and curious fact of church history:
early images of Jesus were most often
of Jesus as the good shepherd.
The church painted pictures of the resurrected Jesus
calling his church to trust, to follow,
to love in truth and action. 
Curiously enough, early Christians in the first 500 years of the church
never showed images of a crucified Jesus. 
In fact, it was almost 1,000 years before public images
           of the crucifixion became common and accepted.
There are many reasons why the early church
           avoided showing the crucifixion,
           and why the medieval church quickly made it so common.
But maybe the most important reason
           was that the early church knew, felt, celebrated
           that Jesus was their risen Lord, gently present to guide them
                     through the mazes and mysteries of life
                     as God’s own presence and assurance.
They saw their central understanding of Jesus
           as the one who protects, provides, and guides.
Their images of Jesus draw you in.
           They don’t give you an impression of a God
                     who is angry, or pushing you, or forcing you into anything,
                     or threatening you if you get it wrong.
           They give you the impression of a God
                     who attracts, who welcomes, who invites,
                     who guides, who forgives,
                     who whispers until you draw closer and closer
                     and hear it clearly:  God is love,
and you are loved with an eternal love.

The church that knows and celebrates the Lord Jesus
as the good shepherd, the risen one who is present in the assembly,
knows that trusting this voice means following.
The letter we call First John
           spells this beautifully and powerfully:
                     16We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us —
and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 
17How 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?
                           18Little children, let us love, not in word or speech,
but in truth and action.

As we get drawn into God’s love
           by God’s whisper to us in Jesus the good shepherd,
           we get drawn into a life of loving others,
           laying down our own lives to give life away.
                     We have to meditate and ponder
                     what that means as we live each day.

Anne Lamott tells the story of an eight-year-old boy
whose sister is dying of leukemia
and is in need of a life-saving blood transfusion.
When doctors discover the boy is the perfect donor,
he agrees to give a pint of blood to save his sister's life.
As the medical personnel place him on the gurney
and connect him to all the proper IVs,
the boy asks the doctor, "How soon until I start to die?"
Confused about what the outcome will be,
but out of love for his sister,
the boy is willing to lay down his own life.
Even if the boy’s understanding as misguided,
           giving his blood for his sister was giving his life,
                     and giving life away does cost us life.
We know love by this, First John tells us.
           We know love by this in Jesus.
           We know love by this in our own loving.
           Not in words or speeches,
                     but in truth and action.

For some of us it takes a long time, much of our lives,
just to be able to trust God and other people even a little,
or even to trust that we ourselves are worthy of love
and have something good to offer. 
That’s OK.  That’s how it is. 
God is patient and wise enough to wait for us,
and keep whispering in our ears until
we relax and trust and walk forward.
Our whole lives we are being coaxed and wooed
out of our fearfulness and mistrust,
into a loving relationship with God,
with each other,
with the whole the creation,
and with ourselves.

Jesus is the one who comes through the human journey
of life, death, and resurrection
so he can be our trustworthy guide
as we go through the same mysterious journey.
We are not being pushed and coerced through this life.
           We are being called, wooed, coaxed, and cajoled
           by the one who whispers in our ears:
                     You are loved by an eternal love.


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