Sermon notes: The Good Shepherd, and the sheep

Good_Shepherd_wikicommonsSERMON NOTES, EASTER IV – GOOD SHEPHERD SUNDAY (April 26, 2015 – Church of the Good Shepherd)

If you were paying attention just now during the readings – if you were actively listening, as opposed to wool-gathering – you will have noted two dominant themes today.

The first is of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. The second is closely related to it: The good shepherd is the one who is willing to lay down his life for the sheep. They’re creatures who need the help.

Today, the Fourth Sunday of Easter, is known as Good Shepherd Sunday. This is the closest that the people of this parish [the Church of the Good Shepherd] are going to get to a patronal feast day, so it’s important to make the most of it.

Thanks to the miracle of computer searches, I can now tell you that there are a total of 118 references to shepherds, as well as 200 references to sheep, in the Bible when we combine the Old and New Testaments. 23 of the shepherds and 50 of the citations appear in the relatively brief New Testament. (That’s in the New International Version; your translation may vary.)

The ancient Israelites were herders, and the greatest portion of their flocks were of sheep. Jacob, whose sons would give their names to the tribes of Israel, was a herdsman.

Jacob was an intelligent and an observant man, and he used his understanding of what we would call the science of Mendelian genetics, of dominant and recessive traits, to conspire against his equally tricksy father-in-law, Laban. By encouraging the birth of striped and spotted sheep, which he got to keep, Jacob built the numbers of his own flocks, and thus profit for himself.

David, the youngest son of Jesse, kept his father’s flocks. He was out in the fields with the sheep when the prophet Samuel came calling, looking for the Lord’s new choice of a king to replace the disappointing Saul. David picked up some handy skills with a simple but effective technology, the sling, in protecting those sheep from predators.

By the time of Christ, the local economy had diversified somewhat. Other career paths had opened between “shepherd” and “warrior.” This was fortunate, since neither profession was very highly regarded.

The issues with soldiers, who were often indistinguishable from bandits, aren’t hard to figure out. Soldiers are strong, and armed both with weapons and authority. They take what they want, whether it’s your money, your food supplies, your person, or your life. It’s wise to keep a low profile around them.

The reasons that shepherds were held in low esteem are a little less obvious to us today, but they were then at the bottom of society’s ladder. They tended to be light-fingered drifters, men of no property and no repute. Although hired to tend the sheep, they were unlikely to endanger themselves on behalf of the flock. When the going got tough, they usually simply slipped away.

Shepherds have hard jobs, physically difficult and sometimes dangerous. In lambing season, they can be up all night, helping the ewes in their labor and then standing ready to drive off all the predators who crave newborn lamb as a midnight snack. They’re out in all kinds of weather, and their food rations were typically meager in centuries past.

This isn’t the pretty pastoral picture we get from images of shepherds leaning under trees, playing their flutes while the sheep doze in the shade. They have to work to build the trust of their sheep; the sheep do get to know the shepherd’s voice, and to come when called – sometimes.

We don’t think about how the tough job of the shepherd is when we hear the Christmas story. We don’t think of how radical a concept it is that shepherds first heard of the birth of the Messiah from a cloud of angels, instead of the more respectable and well-to-do folk in town.

But all this makes Jesus’s portrayal of himself as the Good Shepherd considerably more striking than it might have been on its face. Once again, he has identified with the poor and lowly, the despised, the rejects of good society. The shepherd was a part of the reality of first-century life, along with the crucifixion of criminals. but both were parts of that reality that the educated and people who strictly kept the Law preferred not to notice.

The one shepherd who would really care about the sheep, and about keeping them safe, was the owner of the sheep – or the son of the owner.

Then there are the sheep themselves. As the singing mice in the classic movie “Babe” told us, “Sheep are definitely stupid.”

Sheep may be herd animals, but they have a disconcerting tendency to wander off on their own. The paths they take on those journeys often seem to make no sense. (The phrase “wool-gathering” comes from the Scottish Highlands, where small children were sent to gather the bits of wool that caught on the heather and gorse plants as the sheep passed by. It’s a task that took them wandering in seemingly pointless paths around the fields.)

Sheep have ways of getting themselves into situations from which they cannot easily extract themselves. Sheep and lambs need a lot of care. They range over large tracts of land in order to feed themselves, and they can be tough to locate. They’re easy prey for all manner of killers, from wolves and wild dogs to eagles to people.

Sheep frequently act without thinking and against their own interests. Sheep, in other words, are a lot like people.

Both sheep and people need caring leaders to watch over them and lead them in the right direction, to guide them to a safe pasture, to find water and shelter, and, if necessary, to lay down their lives for them.

Shepherds need help in keeping the sheep together when it’s time to move. The traditional assistant has been the dog; now, according to a recent story in the Wall Street Journal, drones are increasingly coming into use to find and round up sheep. But regardless of the nature of that assistant, a shepherd must still be in charge.

For us, as God’s people, Jesus is that shepherd. He came not just for the House of Israel, as he tells his disciples in today’s reading from John, but for all of us.

Jesus, the good shepherd, is calling us, ready to lead us where we need to go. Our responsibility is simply to listen to him and to follow. We know, we have his promise, that he will lead us to the safest of pastures, and that no danger is too great for his protection. With his help, we can fear no evil.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

 

Sermon notes: Miracle sandwich

Jesus heals the woman with a hemorrhage. (Image from the catacombs of Rome.)

Sermon on Proper 8, Year B (July 1, 2012) Preached at the Church of the Good Shepherd, St. Louis

Most gospel readings that deal with the healings or other miracles of Jesus focus on just one marvel at a time. Today’s reading from the gospel of Mark is a little different: it gives us a sort of healing sandwich, with one miracle enfolded inside another.

By this point in his story, Jesus is a celebrity. He no sooner gets out of the boat than he is mobbed by people who want to see him for themselves, to hear his teachings. Perhaps they hope to witness Jesus work wonders; perhaps they want to be the focus of a miracle, to be fed, or to gain healing for themselves or a loved one.

We meet two particular miracle-seekers in these verses. One is Jairus, an important man, a wealthy man, a leader of the synagogue, begging for his little daughter’s life. The other is a poor woman, a sick woman, not important at all, who decides to take the matter of her healing into her own hands.

Jairus is so desperately concerned about his child that he goes to meet Jesus himself, rather than sending a servant. He falls at Jesus’s feet, and says, “My little girl is dying. Come and lay your hands on her and make her well, let her live.” And Jesus and his disciples – and the crowd, sensing a chance to see or hear something remarkable – go with him.

In the midst of this, the nameless woman sees her own opportunity, and takes it.

In first-century Palestine, life expectancy was short; if you made it out of childhood alive, you might hope to hit your 50s. There were no hospitals, and there were many, many ills, from skin diseases and eye diseases to epilepsy, death in childbirth, parasites to cancers. Too many of them had no cure.

Although there were physicians, the first step in treatments for most illnesses was still incantations and sacrifices. Greek innovations in medicine were much celebrated in Rome, but it’s not clear how deeply those innovations had penetrated in backwater provinces like Palestine.

If conventional treatments didn’t work, you might seek out a magician. Demons were generally thought to be responsible for causing not only madness, but heart trouble and asthma, among a host of other troubles. Or it might be that your sins, or those of your parents, were responsible for your suffering. We see that in the case of the man blind from birth, whose healing, recounted in the gospel of John, so irritated the Pharisees.

The woman in the crowd had suffered from hemorrhages for 12 years – which, interestingly, is the age of Jairus’s daughter – and spent everything she had on physicians. They had not helped her.

Besides being poor, she was probably physically weak from her condition. She was almost certainly a social outcast: Anyone with a flow of blood such as she had was considered ritually impure. Anyone who touched her would be ritually impure as well, and face time-consuming rites, with a seven-day purification period, in order to be clean again. (Who could afford the time to be her friend?)

Imagine suffering all this for so long – and imagine realizing that perhaps someone who could repair your physical brokenness was at hand. She knew about Jesus and his healings, and when he stepped off the boat she saw her chance. In what must have been a mixture of faith and deep-seated desperation, she burrowed through the crowd until she got close enough just to touch his cloak. And she was healed.

And here we get one of those disciple “duh” moments, when the very men who have been traveling with Jesus and listening to his teachings and observing his miracles demonstrate how little they really understand of him. Jesus feels the power going out of him, and asks, “Who touched me?” And the disciples say, “What? Look at this crowd. We can hardly move. Are you kidding?”

But the woman knows what he’s talking about, and kneels in front of him to confess. And Jesus calls the pariah “daughter,” and tells her that her faith has made her well. Probably no one but the two of them and a few disciples even realized what had happened.

Then he is gone, with Jairus and the disciples and the crowd, tells the mourners who have already gathered at Jairus’s house that they are mistaken, that the child is sleeping. He raises the little girl from the dead, and, compassionately, orders that she be brought something to eat.

The way these miracles are juxtaposed shows, in compact form, that Jesus and his love were available to all, of both high rank and low. The important may have had easier access to him, but Jesus never turned his back on those in need.

We see, too, that Jesus put all classes on the same level, that he imposed an unheard-of equality on those he encountered. In this, in his calling an outcast “daughter,” we see the truth of what Paul would later write in the letter to the Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

And this radical equality in Jesus is one of the things that sets Christianity apart. Whatever our status in the world outside the Church, within it we are all accounted equal. We all share in Christ’s love to the same extravagant extent, rich, poor, or somewhere in between, status-heavy or status-free.

The world and human nature being what they are, the Church has struggled with staying true to this concept. Right in the very beginning of the movement, the well-to-do would come to the house churches for the common meal, and eat their own dainties without waiting for others, not sharing with those who had less. We only need to glance at the later history of the Church to see even more egregious examples of a class-based structure within it.

But Jesus calls us to step outside social expectations, to recognize and greet our fellow Christians as sisters and brothers. He calls us to help those who are in need, not only with our checkbooks but with our time and energies. Jesus calls us to be as radical and inclusive in our love as he was. If we truly intend to follow him, we can do no less.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Sermon notes: Listening to the Advocate

Sermon for Easter 6, Year B. Preached 5/13/12 at St. Peter’s/Ladue and Good Shepherd/Town & Country

Jesus promises us, “I will not leave you orphaned.” Still, some days, it’s hard not to feel orphaned and abandoned, alone in a forbidding world.

Life has a way of piling on. To be human and aware of the world’s challenges and wickedness is to have all sorts of worries: for our own health and impending mortality, for the future and what it holds, for our children and families, for our friends and society at large. Sometimes life can feel like Chinese water torture, that incessant drip… drip… drip… that drives its victims mad.

But in today’s Gospel reading, we have the antidote to the dripping. We have Jesus’s word that he will not leave us orphaned, that he will come to us. We have the promise of God’s persistent love – and the promise of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, who will abide in us.

Many of us have seen and felt the workings of the Spirit, sometimes in subtle, quiet ways, and sometimes in ways that suggest that we’ve just been slapped upside the head with the spiritual equivalent of a two-by-four. Those present at the Day of Pentecost saw tongues of fire on the heads of the disciples as they spoke in the languages of all in that great crowd. They knew it for the Spirit.

The Spirit can move us alone or in a group. It can inspire us. But the Spirit does still more.

Jesus observes that the world has problems with the Spirit of Truth, and so it is. We tend to give a lot of lip service to Truth, but the fact is that Truth is not a particularly comfortable thing with which to live. It demands openness and honesty, and those are hard to come by.

Where would we be without the comfortable social lubrication of the little white lie, of being able to assure a friend that her new haircut is fabulous when it isn’t, to tell the ill  that they look great when they look anything but? Those are well-meaning and innocent enough, but how could we even have a political system without the ability to glide past unfortunate truths and strike a deal? The further along we go, the more slippery that slope becomes.

As Christians, we are committed to the Spirit of Truth. That Spirit is our Advocate – our other Advocate, because Jesus himself is the first. But we don’t always stick with our advocate. Like a defendant in court who ignores the advice of his counsel and shoots off his mouth, we tend to go our own way – and all too often that’s the wrong way.

Even in the Church, the Spirit can get short shrift. We invoke the Spirit’s presence at our meetings and elections, asking its assistance in making our decisions – but somehow, we usually seem to end up with the same results we’d anticipated ahead of time, before we ever uttered those prayers. We claim openness to the workings of the Spirit, but too often, as my friend Peggy says, “the Bird ends up beating its wings against closed windows.”

Let’s look again at the beginning of this passage. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” And what are Jesus’s commandments? At the most basic level, they are these: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind; this is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

If we truly keep Jesus’s commandments, it means that we must put God and our neighbors first. It means that we must love them completely and wholeheartedly. It means that we are called, first and foremost, to do Jesus’s work in the world.

Jesus says, “You know him, because he abides with you and he will be in you.”

And if we truly do Jesus’s work in the world – if we’re even ten percent committed to doing Jesus’s work in the world – feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, healing the sick, listening to the unhappy, helping those who need our help, whatever form that help may take – then the Spirit will indeed abide in us.

I believe that the Spirit of God works in many ways, and that one of those ways is through our hands and minds and voices. This idea is not original with me, but if you take a look around you this morning, at the people in this place who give and work as Jesus told us to give and work, then you are seeing the Spirit as it abides in the people of God.

We come together in church not just to pray and listen and sing, and then go to coffee hour. We come together as the Body of Christ, and when we leave we are to take Christ’s word and work into the world. It doesn’t end here; it only begins.

When we open ourselves to the Spirit of Truth, to the Spirit of God, when we take that love out to a sometimes hostile world, we are keeping Christ’s commandment. “On that day,” says Jesus, “you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”

– Sarah Bryan Miller