Joining the Good Shepherd

May 7, 2017

Bible Text: John 10:1-10 |

So today is sheep Sunday: Sheep in the Psalm; sheep in the second reading; sheep in the gospel. And of course we all know that sheep are cute and cuddly and I will get to at all this sheepiness in a minute. But first I want to back up to that part of the story that immediately precedes Jesus’ sheep parable, because that’s the story that sets the stage for his teaching.

It started with a blind man – a blind man who was a beggar because, after all, how else do you earn a living in Jerusalem in the first century if you’re blind? This is that story we heard back in Lent where Jesus spits into the dirt to make some mud that he rubs on the guy’s eyes and tells him to wash in a particular pool…and he’s healed. It’s a miracle! But the shocking part of the story isn’t the miracle as much as it is the controversy the healing creates because – dang-it, Jesus – you healed on the Sabbath again. And immediately he’s in hot water with the Pharisees.

And just to make it clear: the Pharisees weren’t priests; they were highly respected lay people who were really serious about keeping the law with precision. They knew that their covenanted relationship with God required strict obedience to the law and they wanted to make sure that the whole Jewish community followed the law correctly so they wouldn’t be abandoned by God again, like they had been in the Babylonian exile. And by their reckoning, Jesus was breaking the law by working – healing – on the Sabbath.

But the dialogue that ensues makes it one of my favorite stories in the gospels. The Pharisees are all up in arms; his parents are afraid of the Pharisees and acting all cagy. But this guy, this blind guy who can suddenly see, is just incredulous. He can’t understand how they can be so worked up over legal matters when, HELLO! Has anyone noticed that I CAN SEE!? Don’t you think that, maybe, the fact that this guy healed me trumps this little controversy you’re having? The story goes on and on and, clearly the blind man is the only one who can actually see the truth that’s now – blessedly – right before his eyes: that Jesus is the Messiah, that Jesus brings healing and life to hurting people, that whatever the purpose of the law is, Jesus embodies it fully and beautifully.

But in their religious fervor, they drive him out of the synagogue; apparently a heretic who can see has no place amongst the righteous who are blind. Jesus hears about what they’ve done and he goes looking for him and finds him (like a good shepherd!) and they have this beautiful conversation about sight and blindness. Some Pharisees overhear him and say, “You’re not saying we’re blind, are you?” And Jesus basically replies, “Well, if the shoe fits….”

And that’s where this pair of sheep stories that we read today picks up. Did you notice in both of these stories that – in addition to the obvious sheep motif – the more specific focus is actually “the thieves and bandits,” also referred to as “strangers:”

Anyone who does not enter by the gate…is a thief and a bandit.

[The sheep] will not follow a stranger.

All who came before me are thieves and bandits.

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.

So who are these thieves and strangers? Clearly, from the context of the story, it’s the Pharisees. The blind man is the sheep. Jesus is the shepherd whose voice the sheep instinctively knows and trusts when he hears it. But until Jesus came along, the only voice the blind man was hearing was that of the Pharisees. And if the Pharisees are the thieves, what is it they are stealing? Well, obviously they’re not kidnapping the sheep. But they are robbing him of truth. They claim to speak for God – to say what God wants and God requires. And for this poor little sheep, this blind man at the lowest rank of society, their message simply does not ring true. Theirs is an anxious fear of a petulant God, consumed with rule-keeping and punishment.

But the sheep knows the shepherd’s voice and knows the truth when he hears it. You don’t need anyone to teach you the worth and the virtue of kindness, of graciousness and mercy. You can argue all you want about the politics of how we attempt to institutionalize mercy as a nation. But there is no argument about its fundamental, intrinsic worth. People need food and clean water. Sick people need medical attention. Foster kids need a safe home where they won’t be abused. People who have made major mistakes in their lives need an opportunity for restoration – both theirs and those they have hurt.

The blind man doesn’t require a theology lesson. Jesus healed him. Jesus sought him out with kindness when the religious people rejected him. That’s all he needed to become a follower of Jesus and to worship him.

How often the church has been like the Pharisees, more concerned with the rules that will keep the institution pure or financially viable, when all around us are sheep who are just waiting to hear the shepherd’s voice.

A young man came to St. John’s last week looking for help. Laura was there and gave him a gift card that came from one of you. She treated him with dignity and respect. When it was time for him to leave, he looked at her with gratitude and said, “You’re really nice.”

Basic kindness. Helping people with the elemental things of living – that’s the first and simplest call for the people of God. It is through compassion like this that sheep will hear the voice of the shepherd. It’s like in the 23rd Psalm. Whenever we hear of the green meadows and still waters we think of a peaceful, serene environment – a kind of spiritual retreat from this manic world. But sheep aren’t looking for some Zen moment. Green meadows mean food. Still waters mean drink. The “Lord is my shepherd” is providing the basic things we need to survive. And as disciples of Jesus, that’s what we do as well.

There are gay men in Chechnya right now who are desperately in need of a good shepherd.

There are starving people in South Sudan dying for want of a good shepherd.

In our own backyard there are agencies like Safe Families that provide ways for normal people like you and me to give basic, practical support for families in crisis whose children are on the verge of being taken away by Protective Services. You can provide food, clothing, or temporary shelter for scared and vulnerable kids. Supporting agencies like these with our money and our time shouldn’t be something we do in our spare time or relegated to that slim “charitable giving” line item in our budgets, as if our faith were something on the margins of our identity. This kind of caring and compassion should be right-smack at the center of who we are and how we live. We ought to be making deliberate choices to live a modest life in order that we may live a compassionate life with our time and our resources.

I was at Costco recently, totally oblivious to the hot air balloon decorations that were all around the check-out area. But the little girl in front of me saw them and asked her father what it was all about. He didn’t know, so the sales clerk told her, “It’s to give money to Children’s Hospital, to help sick kids.” “Ohhh,” she said. “Do you want to do that,” the father asked. “Uh-huh,” she said. What little child, what little sheep, doesn’t know instinctively that helping sick kids is a good idea. So the man gave one dollar and the girl got to sign her name on a balloon and add it to the decorations. It was just a dollar. I hope it was a formative moment for that girl. I wonder, though: What would it be like if it were the nature of the whole Christian community to choose a deliberately modest life such that – when an opportunity like this presents itself – we’re open to the Spirit’s prompting, not to dither on whether to give five or ten dollars, but could easily say, “How much is my  bill? 125 dollars? Okay, then give me a balloon for $125 as well.”

It’s not impossible. But it’s never going to become true of who we are unless we choose to stop treating our religion as nothing more than a source of comfort when we’re feeling down, and our charity as some kind of bonus virtue that makes us feel good about ourselves. We’ve got to take our religion out of the margins of our lives and treat it as the central reality it is: of who we are and how we’re meant to be in this world.

And you know, there is a kind of life-giving energy and joy that happens when faith takes center stage. It’s like that first generation of believers we read about in Acts who “would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (Acts 2:45-47).

The sheep know the sound of the shepherd’s voice.

I wonder, though, if we do. How much have we in the church been distracted by the voices of thieves and robbers who have stolen from us the simple and beautiful message of the Kingdom of God, and offered us instead a selfish – and I would say heretical – religion whose chief object is to save our own souls and procure our own comfort? If such is the end of our religious intent, how far we have strayed from the shepherd and guardian of our souls.

In the silence that follows the sermon, I invite you to read afresh the familiar and beautiful 23rd Psalm. Let it be a gift to you. Let it be a comfort and assurance of God’s love and provision for you. But don’t stop there. Receive everything that God gives you with gratitude and security, then let that same psalm beckon you to join the Good Shepherd in bringing the basic things of life to those in need, for Christ came that all may have life, and have it abundantly. And we are disciples of Christ.

 

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