Sermon: Fourth Sunday of Easter
Psalm 23, 1 John 3, John 10:11-18
The narratives of faith we hear on Good Shepherding Sunday speak to us of being known, being called, and being gathered into one. We are given a glimpse that life as God intends - means - that those who don’t experience belonging, are meant to find belonging. This is God’s mission. We hear that while the world of want is never ending, God leads us to what we truly need. We see that the life of the shepherd is marked by humility and relationship between the shepherd and sheep. God is the shepherd and we are the sheep.
I am reminded how we often place ourselves into the best light and identify with the best character descriptions when finding where we fit in the God story in. We want to identify with the Good Shepherd and follow the Good Shepherd’s lead. A good thing. Understandable. There is definitely a place for this. We want our lives to reflect this God light gifted to us, that sets our hearts on fire or at least warms them so that we may live an inspired life that inspires others.
The spirit empowers us to live as Easter People in the risen life as communicated through the story of the good shepherd, yet we certainly are not the Good Shepherd. That is the one and only Jesus. The constant carer. The searcher and finder of the lost sheep. The shepherd of many folds. The community maker. The gatherer. The protector. The one who sets the table and leads beside still waters …
Now, the challenge I read a while back is this: it is helpful for us to also imagine ourselves as the less desirable characters in our faith narratives, especially so for people of privilege. The Goliaths, the Judas’, and the hired hands. To be clear, I don’t put you into this place. My default is to put in the best light. But perhaps when we go this route, another truth is spoken.
It’s rather bleak in the story for the hired hand who sees the wolf and the threat to the sheep and runs away. It’s like the bystander effect. Or the flight instead of fight response to danger. Or perhaps the hired hand is languishing
The hired hand flees while the good shepherd stays. The good shepherd offers protection while the hired hand cannot. The hired hand leaves too much room for the wolves to take advantage of the vulnerable in our midst. But the hired hand is human and God is God. Imagining ourselves as the hired hand is rather bleak but it might be a much more grounded down to earth and realistic assessment of our impact. Although the church does much good in the world, church people can over estimate our impact in the world and exhibit the Dunning Kruger Effect.
The other night while at the playground with my family, a group of teenagers were cavorting. They were using some foul language which wasn’t my concern. I’m fairly certain some flowery language came out if my teenage mouth from time to time. My concern was that one of the four was continuously being picked on by the alpha male of the pack which had a domino effect with the others. I knew the one being picked on. As I played with my kids, I was keeping an eye on the situation, rehearsing what I should say to the person I was starting to label as ‘the bully’ and what I would say to child being taunted. Do I need to call this kid out and have a heart to heart? On a few occasions I walked beside the group to say hello and call the kid by name. They’d move to another location. I didn’t refuse to help but I am left wondering if more was needed. The good news is, the story continues. There is another day to walk more fully into a just world.
Yes, we are often like the hired hands.
Now come with me a step further. It might be even worse than that of the hired hands. In some circumstances, we might be the wolves. In some circumstances, we are the wolves. The lost sheep are the most vulnerable in society and in the world. And let’s face it, as a collective, we and our systems are failing the most vulnerable. Profit is placed before people. As we’ve been hearing, the most vulnerable workers who do not receive paid sick leave are caught in the grasps of the pandemic. The pandemic is benefiting some and hurting others.
I was happy to hear that the region has opened voluntary isolation shelter in the region where meals, computer and free lodging are available. As well as a counsellor type person who can help you connect with your family.
Yes, we are also the wolves. But look at this glimpse of the Good Shepherd in our midst.
Even as a word of justice is spoken into George Floyd story with three guilty verdicts, we are dragged backwards once again with signs put up in our neighbouring town of New Hamburg, only a day after this verdict, that said white lives matter. The wolf trying to scare away equality and growth. Reinforcing the sentiment antithetical to the Gospel, that says you don’t belong here. White folks are in charge.
Yes, we are also the wolves. But look the Good Shepherd is in our midst.
God does not leave us where we are found. God invites us into more, into the fullness of the kin-dom, into the complexities of life. Gathering us together, I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me and they listen to my voice.
You see, we hear this on repeat: the Gospel sets people free. To know their worth in God’s eyes. To live into their god given human dignity even as the world fails to recognize. Even as the world repeatedly tries to withhold, placing obstacles to well being that many of us are only just now becoming aware of.
The word of the good shepherd is a word about relationship that walks us more deeply into community health and well being. To set free the lost sheep of the world. To empower the people who have an unfair yoke placed upon them.
I lay down my life in order that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me.
I lay it down of my own accord.
Today and throughout history, people lay down their life for their neighbour. This likely does not mean they died on a cross like Jesus but it does mean their life is focussed on living into a bigger vision and mission in the world.
Take Bernice Redmond for example. It has only been in the last 60 years, that black nurses have been admitted to nursing programs in Canada. A CBC podcast called the Secret Life of Canada, briefly introduces this story. Ironically, after many black people had fled to Canadian safety through the underground railway, in the 1940’s others were fleeing into the US to receive training that wasn’t accessible to them in Canada. Bernice Redmond was one person who left Canada in the 1940’s to attend nursing school in Virginia, where people of colour were allowed to study nursing. Here in Canada, such universities as McGill, Dalhousie and U of T still banned black women from being accepted into the program. The US was surprisingly ahead of Canada in this regard. In 1945, Bernie broke the colour barrier and began to work in Sydney, Nova Scotia, as the first black nurse, helping in rural areas and with the Spanish flu. It wasn’t until the 1950’s that black women were admitted to Canadian nursing programs. 60 years is a recent history of discrimination.
The first black nurses in Canada took courageous steps. Walking into God’s vision of belonging. When people do things like this, I often think they know their worth in God’s eyes and no one can tell them otherwise. In a way, they laid down their lives - their footsteps and resolve created an alternate path that aligned with the Gospel promise of being known and called by name.
Today during this third wave of the pandemic, nurses and health care workers across the province are faced with mounting challenges. Their resolve to get us through this third wave is noted. While I think the 7 pm knocking of pans has subsided, we offer our gratitude and prayers for those currently laying down their lives by serving their community and neighbours.
In closing, as we dig deeper into the shepherding narratives, we become aware of where this story is really meant to direct our heart, minds and lives.
The focus remains on people.
Once again, God is pointing us in the direction of relationship.
It’s a good metric. Much more powerful in a transformational sense than some the others. God nurtures relationship. So that we may be God’s people together, so we may be the church together. The building is not the church. The people are the church. The building helps the people fulfill the mission to which God calls us and provides transformative experiences which invite us to grow deeper into the love God has for creation.
Buildings can help us to do mission…
Bit I don’t think the building is our mission.
The people are our mission.
The relationships are our mission.
The transformative power of the gospel is what repeatedly calls us into this mission.
What are we as a community of faith shepherding among us during these pandemic and post pandemic times?
Especially in these pandemic times when many are languishing.
God has called and equipped us even though we most often do not we we ought but what we are able. Seeing how we fit into our faith narratives in more place than one gives us hopeful yet realistic assessment to grapple with the reality of being called and equipped but still in bondage to what keeps us captive, of the ideal and actual, of saint and sinner, the already not yet, dancing in front of us.
The Good Shepherd shows up. And there will be grace. And there will be life in those moments. And there will love. And there will be community.
For that is what we are called.