The Fourth Sunday of Easter
Good Shepherd Sunday
Our Readings for this week are:
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Sheep get a pretty bad rap in our culture. Sheep are seen as obedient, simple, and sometimes rather stupid animals in God’s great Creation. Sheep follow without thinking, do what they are directed to do without much foresight or reflection, and often get themselves into trouble. There’s a word in pop-culture, “sheeple”, that is a merger of the words “sheep” and “people”, and it means that people who are, simply, sheep: they are dull, uninteresting and uninterested people who just follow the status quo. Sheeple are not individualists, striking out into unfamiliar territory and striving against expectations. Sheeple, sheep-people, just do what they are told.
And so it is, perhaps, a little strange that we Christians are so often described as, and describe ourselves as, sheep. In our Baptismal Covenant, we are asked to continue in the apostles’ teaching, persevere in resisting evil, proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ, seek and serve Christ in all persons, and strive for justice and peace among all people – not exactly dull and unimaginative work. Christians are called to be a people apart from the world. We are called to be not citizens of our present world but of the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus proclaimed. We are to be in the world but not of the world.
If we are, then, sheep, we are a very strange sort of sheep. You see, when we Christians talk about “following”, we are saying something very special. It’s not “following” like a duckling follows a mother duck, all nice and tight in a row, or how a train car “follows” the locomotive, just being pulled along a track without much will of its own. It’s more like how we talk about how we’re asked to read and “follow” the Bible. The Bible isn’t just a rulebook, like you use when you open up a new board game but don’t know how to play it yet; or when you are preparing your taxes, and you don’t understand the forms and so you look at one of those instruction sheets for which figure to put where. Parts of the Bible are about instructions, certainly, and there are a few books that are, quite literally, a set of laws: when this happens, do this; when that happens, don’t do this. But on a whole, the Bible isn’t a set of do’s and don’t’s, but is instead a story, and we follow stories much differently than laws books or instruction manuals.
Think back to some of the stories that you’ve told me since I arrived last summer. I’ve heard stories about how you celebrate: and not just Christmas and Easter, but birthdays and anniversaries, Thanksgiving and even that light, calm, joyous celebration of coffee hour. I’ve heard stories about Ann Drake, Barbara and OJ Endicott, about who brought you into this church and why you stayed. I’ve even heard stories about the different plants and trees around the church building, so that when the bushes outside the office erupted with blossoms, I had already been waiting all year in joyful anticipation for them. You’ve told me stories while laughing, while in tears, while in hope, and while in grief. You’ve told me stories of your life. And while I’m sure some of those stories were meant to teach me something specific, or to make sure I do something (or don’t do something) very specifically, you told me these stories because you love your church, you love one another, and because you love your life in God. And you want me to be a part of that, not just because you hired me to be your priest, but because you want me to love St. James, too, and to love you all and the way you all live your lives to God. And I do, which helps me (I think) lead you into a deeper love of all those things as well.
This is how we follow the Bible. We hear its stories and we allow its love and hope to work within us. And yeah, sure, there are times when Jesus says do this and don’t do this, and St. Paul, it seems, even moreso. But are these the parts that really speak to us? Truly? Those parts that move us, that dig deep into us and challenge us to live more fully and opening and with more love, are those parts like the Annunciation, where the angel comes to Mary and says, “Rejoice! For you shall bear the Son of the Most High!”; or Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, where he prays, “May this cup pass from me; but not my will, but your will.” We read about Adam and Eve, about Cain and Abel, about David lamenting the death of his son, his son who betrayed him and revolted against him but was still his son and so beloved. We read these stories and don’t learn something that we could answer on a test but, instead, learn about life and what it means to love God through thick and thin. And even in that great passage in St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, where he writes that love is patient, love is kind, love is not envious or boatful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Even here, where Paul seems to be teaching specific lessons to be followed and obeyed, we give ourselves to this sort of love not because Paul said so but because we know, in our hearts and minds, in our guts and in our spirits, that love is the ground of all Creation. And we want to live a life to God in love not because it has the greatest results in controlled experiments, but because the call to love answers something at the center of our being.
And so we answer that call, given forth by Jesus on the cross and on the morning of the Resurrection, and follow the way of love.
We are sheep, we Christians. We are sheep, and we are called on to follow God in Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit. But in doing so, in following and modeling our lives on our great shepherd, we are led to freedom. And this freedom is a freedom from sin and despair, from hatred and malice, from our own slavery to evil. In this freedom we find true health, true hope, true goodness that is so great that it cannot be contained in this world but smashes even death, which seemed to have the last and final word for we humans. We follow, not just to obey, but to live, and to live without end, forever and ever with our God.