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Sunday, April 25, 2021

What Kind of Sheep are You? Sermon for April 25, 2021 - Good Shepherd Sunday


John 10:11-18 Easter 4, 2021

Christ is risen, Alleluia! He is risen indeed, Alleluia!

            With our rallying cry at the beginning of worship we remind ourselves and each other that we are still, indeed, in the midst of the Easter season, and that this is cause for jubilation.

Jesus is risen from the dead! Easter joy and Easter life abound.

While Easter tells of the miracle we can neither fully explain nor fully appreciate, celebrate it we do, not only this season but throughout the year in worship, as we celebrate each Sunday as a little Easter, celebrating in the Eucharist the resurrection hope and the new life that come to us through Jesus.

Imagine it is first century Palestine in that first “Easter season,” however. The women have seen the empty tomb, and some have heard the report of angels. A few of the disciples have also gone to check out the burial-site and found it to be as the women reported; not only the body of their friend and master gone, but his grave clothes neatly folded on the place where the battered, bruised, dead body of our Lord had been lain following the crucifixion.

            Then, there are the post-resurrection visits by Jesus. In the first, (not counting the “gardener” who appears to Mary Magdalene in John’s tomb-side report), on the very night of the discovery of Jesus’ missing body, the comforting words of Jesus, “Peace be with you.” Again later, a week later in fact, when the confounded Thomas sees and believes in the risen Lord, he blurts out the greatest refrain of faith in Jesus, “My Lord and my God!”

            Back in the 21st century now, here we are. We have just about another month to dwell in this liturgical Easter season.  The song and prayers of the church continue to reflect our Easter wonderment and Easter joy, and we continue to dwell in the immediacy of resurrection hope.

Yet, our church life was never meant to separate us from our lives as citizens of the world, neighbors who absorb the uncertainty, pain, and upheaval of our creation and society. Rather, the faith we have received, and which is fed through worship, with the reading and proclamation of the Good News week after week, prepares us to live in the world, sharing the mercy and love of God with our neighbors and witnessing to the new life that comes through Jesus.

The Good Shepherd whom we celebrate today in our Scripture experienced and acknowledged the brokenness of the world and strove to both point out that brokenness and to charge his followers to be leaders in the world, working to ease suffering, being intentional in our care for the poor and outcast, and witnessing to the  peace and hope that only Jesus can give.

            Jesus the Good Shepherd is one of our favorite images for Christ. But I wonder if the reality of Jesus as shepherd isn’t subsumed by artwork and imagery that imagines the iconic Jesus rather than the real flesh-and-bones Jesus.

            First of all, look at the images we have for Jesus the good shepherd – a scrubbed-clean, handsome young man with trimmed hair and beard, holding in one arm a pure-white placid little lamb and in the other a shepherd’s staff; in this image Jesus himself is dressed in a clean white tunic and robe.


            Let’s get real for a moment. We live in Lancaster county, after all; have you ever seen sheep that look as scrubbed and clean as the sheep in our images related to this text?

Have you ever been close to any sheep or lambs around here or anyplace else? The annual Farm Show doesn’t count – you know those animals have been washed and prepped for show.

            If you have gotten close, then I suspect you know what I am referring to: sheep are smelly. Lambs are cute and all, but they are messy. Touch them and you will find their fleece oily – part of the reason for the stink that emanates from them.

Shepherds in Jesus’ time slept out in the field with their flock. There was no outdoor plumbing. It was a rough life. It was dirty work. You didn’t get to go home at the end of the day and take a long hot shower. So, the images that we carry and that we cling to may not be realistic and may in fact keep us from understanding the Jesus-as-Good Shepherd texts as Jesus intended them.

So, let’s look at the context. In the Gospel of John, what precedes this text is a story of healing that Jesus performs on the Sabbath, enraging the religious elite. Jesus gave sight to a man blind from birth and rather than rejoice in the man’s healing and new life, the religious authorities condemn Jesus for his actions.

The Good Shepherd passage that we have today is part of a longer passage that is divided up and rotated in its annual sharing on the 4th Sunday of Easter, or Good Shepherd Sunday each year. In the previous section, heard last year, Jesus contrasted the shepherd with thieves and bandits; then in the section we just read Jesus compares the good shepherd and the hired hand.

The emphasis is in the level of commitment and the motivation between the two; A hired hand isn’t committed enough to risk his or her life for the flock – many will disappear at the first sign of personal danger. They don’t work out of love for the sheep, but for pay. They are in it for themselves, for their own survival, for their own gain you might say. They have little genuine concern for the lives of those entrusted to their care.

We have all probably encountered people like them before; people in it for the paycheck – people who demonstrate little true dedication or concern for their work, or for those in their care, or for the welfare of the organization, group, or institution for which they work. You may have encountered people who demonstrated little work ethic or integrity, because it just didn’t matter much to them.

There are those who have meaningful and worthwhile work to do, but they do it for their own glory, sense of self-importance or gain; they care little for those entrusted to their care other than as means to an end. The world is filled with this kind of “hired hand.”

They are motivated by self-interest. In our world today – both people and institutions with legitimate and important roles may seem to have little to no regard for those they are called to serve.

Then, there is Jesus. And make no mistake about it, Jesus is the Good Shepherd. He will give his life for the sake of his sheep.

The point is, this metaphor goes deeper and means more than we have ever given it credit for. We have made Jesus’ clothes milky white and his image picture-perfect. We are often offended at artwork that depicts a Jesus that is dark, dirty, scarred, and gruff-looking.

It is hard for us to face and embrace the bold, gritty, tenacious Jesus who aligns more closely to the more realistic picture of shepherd. This Savior of ours is self-sacrificing, and tends to hang out more in the wild, untamed, impolite, dirty, and difficult places in the world. He continually seeks out the sinner, the hurting, self-destructive ones.

I saw a video this week that depicted the kind of sheep Jesus looks out for:

The video shows a sheep that has apparently fallen head-first into a narrow crevasse. Its plump body has become lodged and for the first minute or minutes and a half of filming all you see are it’s back legs and hind end as its savior pulls and yanks and tries with all his might to loosen the wiggling, objecting animal. Finally, after a great deal of pulling and twisting and working at the stuck sheep, he manages to loosen it and then free it from the crevasse. All is well.

Except that the moment he lets go of the sheep, it flees, runs up a short incline, and then leaping, ends up right back in the crevasse, stuck once again. The caption reads, “When Jesus left the 99 to rescue the 1 and the 1 was me.”

As we celebrate Easter we consider the story of the Good Shepherd. The one who did not self-serve, stay clean and safe, abiding always in peace, carrying docile sheep cradled in his arms.

Rather, in Easter we celebrate the sacrificial love embodied by God who became muddied and bloodied to save the foolish, obstinate sheep who cannot keep themselves out of trouble, but leap back into the fray as soon as we are freed.

This is the Good Shepherd loved and sent by the Father to claim, rescue, revive, and restore life to the cosmos and all who live within it. This Shepherd continues to work in the world because Easter is ongoing – it is not a once-and-done.

The Good Shepherd promises peace and presence and protection to those in his care, and he never ever gives up on them. He never runs away. He never truly gets those garments gleaming white, because he does carry us, even when we are stinking, and struggling, and wiggling, and fiercely fighting to jump back into the crevasse.

This is the real shepherd. This is the Son of God sent to be the savior of the world. This is the Shepherd that for my life and your life did die and rise again. This is the savior and Lord of Life that will remove any barrier, heal every wound, and overcome any obstacle to keep you and claim you, all for the sake of love that is so deep and so wide and so high we cannot even imagine it.

This is Jesus.

Our savior.

Our shepherd.

Our king.



Sunday, April 18, 2021

What is the Truth We Can('t) Handle? Easter 3 April 18, 2021

Luke 24:36b-48

Christ is risen, Alleluia! He is risen indeed, Alleluia! Amen.

            Even if you never saw the movie, “A Few Good Men” you may be familiar with the contents of one, pivotal scene. It is a courtroom scene between a military lawyer played by Tom Cruise, and a tough military officer played by Jack Nicholson. If you know anything about those two actors, you can imagine the intensity of the scene.

            In the climax of a difficult and dramatic cross-examination scene and of the movie, Cruise’s character shouts at the Nicholson the witness, “I WANT THE TRUTH!” to which tough-guy Nicholson shouts in response, “YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!”

            Without all the shouting but with equal intensity, the gospel today reflects Luke’s report of the events of the evening of t

he resurrection and the disciples’ experiences of that day
. Early that day the women among them had visited the tomb and reported back to the rest what they had found – an empty tomb but for the presence of angels who reminded them that these events were just what Jesus had predicted; then the other disciples went to see for themselves, and saw only the empty tomb; then two of the disciples met Jesus on the road to Emmaus, recognizing him only when we sat and broke bread with them.

            As they sat together sharing the details of all these events and discussing what they might mean, Jesus came and stood among them. As the evangelist John reported in his writing of the events of Easter night, the first words Jesus speaks are, “Peace be with you.”

            In their conversations, the disciples were after the truth, yet it was a truth they, too, could not yet handle. “While in their joy they were still disbelieving and still wondering” what all this could possibly mean, Luke reports.

            Rather than shout at them, THIS IS THE TRUTH YOU CANNOT YET HANDLE” Jesus shows them what they need to see in order to believe their very eyes and the reality that Jesus is indeed risen and he is right here with them.

            In order to dispel the thoughts that might be circling in their minds or later charges that might be tossed their way, Jesus acts to prove that it is truly a resurrected body and not a ghost or a vision that they are experiencing – he invites them to touch him, to see that what stands before them is flesh and bone – not something a ghost can conjure up. Then he eats real physical food, the same kind of meal he has shared with them countless times before – again, physical evidence of a presence that is not simply ghost or spirit, but real.

            Once the disciples can accept who is in their presence and can absorb what he is telling them, Jesus opens their minds to understand what they could not understand before. They want the truth. They want understanding. Previously, they could not handle the truth. They could not accept the reality of what Jesus being Messiah truly meant and what God had done among them to produce faith. “You are witnesses of these things,” Jesus tells the disciples.

            Through the power of Jesus’ revelation to them, the disciples could finally see who Jesus was and appreciate what his presence among them meant. Jesus was equipping them to be witnesses to people in far-flung places and from diverse backgrounds, people who would be filled with fear and longing and doubt.

            The disciples would be able to connect with the people they were being sent to because they themselves had experienced fear and doubt and longing. But because they had seen the Lord, because Jesus had revealed all these truths to them, because Jesus had opened their minds and equipped them for the testimony and teaching, they would be able to testify to the power of God among them, the healing God sends through Jesus, and the divine power present in our Lord and Savior.

            Today we live in a world filled with skepticism. We are people of faith. We know who Jesus is. We believe that God has saved us from the power of sin and death through the incarnation of Jesus and his death on a cross and his resurrection.

            Yet, despite our faith, our trust, and our “knowing,” don’t we sometimes fear and doubt and wonder at the workings of God? If this were not true, there is not a scene we could behold or an experience we would encounter in life in which we would fail to be able to see and witness to the presence and activity of God in our world. Yet, so often the question, “Where have you seen God’s presence this week – month – whenever” is met with the silence of fear, uncertainty, unknowing.

            Doubt is what happens when the brokenness of the world and the finitude of our lives takes hold and challenges us in ways that seem beyond our ability to hold them in tension with God’s presence. When we can’t understand God’s actions, or understand the vulnerability we contend with in life, it is only natural to doubt.

            We are part of a world in which skepticism regard

ing religion, politics, medicine, how to apply biomedical advances, vaccine science, climate science, moral values, ethics, the biology of sexuality and identity, economic equality, basic human rights and more is rampant. As a result, we seek community that helps us believe in something more – something sacred – something meaningful, and lasting, and ultimately truthful.

            In our minds, we too might shout, ”WE WANT THE TRUTH!” The question is, can we handle the truth? Can we hold the tension of uncertainty co-existing with faith deep inside and absorb what Jesus has revealed to be true?

            The Easter season is all about celebrating God’s “something more” – the truth to the ultimate grace and mercy that God has made available to us through Jesus. That truth is—

·         God’s love for us is displayed for the world through Jesus’ victorious resurrection from the dead.

·         Jesus is the glorious first-fruits of God’s promised redemptive acts for the good of the world.

·         The resurrection of Jesus and all the events that followed hold deep relevancy for us, for our lives of faith, and for our salvation.

As vulnerable, mortal human beings, what happened on Easter is the triumph of love in the midst of suffering, and is the reason for hope.

We need the good news that comes to us from the Easter story that is more than story, but is, rather, our Easter truth. This is the truth we struggle to understand, the truth we cling to nonetheless. It is this story that illustrates to us how -

·         God’s love is stronger than death;

·         God’s love has triumphed over sin and the grave;

·         God triumphed in Jesus’ death and resurrection, giving us hope that is real and hope that will not be disappointed;

·         We can believe that God will triumph as well over our sin, our pain, our suffering, our failures, and our death.

God can and will triumph in us.

Christ is risen, alleluia! He is risen indeed, alleluia!

The same God who raised Jesus from the dead will give life to our mortal bodies and sin-broken souls, will equip us for witnessing to his love, his presence, and his activity in the world.

God can and will triumph in us.

This truth – the truth for which we may not have been prepared, the truth that without the advocate working within us we cannot handle – is transformative. It carries us as it carried the disciples from fear and doubt and wonder to realization, faith, and trust.

This transformation moves us from hesitation and reservation to acceptance and embrace; it makes us no longer simply frightened human beings, but rather, joyful witnesses to the love of God in Jesus Christ, and his mercy and grace for which we give thanks today.

The TRUTH is that the resurrection promise comes to us as Jesus himself comes, giving us hope for healing, hope for ultimate peace and joy, hope in the presence of the risen Lord who bears bodily scars and brokenness but transcends the mortality and death we so fear.

Because Jesus lives, because he indeed is present with us as we gather today, because he has breathed on us in baptism and blessed us in communion with one another and with him, we who suffer from pain, disease, struggling minds, diseased bodies, endless grief, and broken spirits immeasurable and deep, we are the glad recipients of  hope the truth gives us, which is life-giving and equally transformative.

It changes everything. Because now there is more to our story and that “more” conquers the mortal reality with the divine.

Perhaps it is understandable that we question the physical resurrection. Even Christians who believe in Jesus as the Son of God wrestle with the reality of the resurrection and prefer to reduce it to a spiritual or psychological experience they can better understand. After all, the resurrection is not logical; it doesn’t make “sense” as the world sees it.

But as W. H. Auden writes in his poem For the Time Being, as the shepherds making their way to Bethlehem declare, “Nothing can save us that is possible. We who are about to die demand a miracle.”

Jesus really is resurrected because God truly intends to redeem, save, and bless us as we are: physical, mortal, limited, and vulnerable. Truly - because God love us, desires us, and has mercy on us just as we are. Truly.

Thanks be to God. Amen.