Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10
Many of you know that I have a special affinity for angels. These mysterious figures show up throughout scripture and fill the depths of my imagination with stories of their continual worship in heaven, especially as described in the Revelation to John. If I had to say there was a runner-up for the affections of my heart, it would probably be shepherds. This is in part because they were the first to hear the news of Jesus’ birth, announced to them by a multitude of angels. The main job of these country-dwellers was for the husbandry and protection of flocks of sheep placed in their care.
When I first began to pray with our Collect for this morning the phrase ‘good shepherd of your people’ caught my attention. I began to think back throughout my life to people who had been shepherds to me, and thank goodness there have been many. I recall the youth program at my elementary school that occurred every summer sponsored by our local Department of Parks and Recreation. While parents were working, neighborhood kids could ride their bike up to the school where young adults employed by the Parks and Rec would be on hand to facilitate games, art, physical fitness, and field trips. Being an only child experiencing the ups and downs of family life that was not always happy, I craved and needed special attention. There were two or three young adults during those summers who recognized that need and would play board games with me when no one else showed any interest. They shepherded me when I, in a way, was a lost sheep, bullied by other kids and isolated because I was not popular. When I received the attention I so desperately needed from these councilors I felt happy, content, and most importantly, safe. Perhaps this is what inspired me to ask my parents one Christmas if I could have an older brother. I wanted someone who cared for me, looked out for me, and who had walked the very path I had walked earlier in his life; someone who could guide, affirm, and encourage me when I felt especially alone and vulnerable. I think this is as true for the 49-year old Jim as it was for the 9-year old Jim.
Our Collect names Jesus as the good shepherd of God’s people and we make two main petitions in that prayer: First that when we hear his voice, we may recognize it; and second that we may then follow where he leads. The funny thing about sheep is that when they discern that you are their caretaker and you earn their trust, they will become cognizant of your voice and will follow you at all cost. The reason it is important to recognize Jesus as the good shepherd and to know his voice is because in our world there are many voices vying for our attention. While many of these may not be intentionally malicious (even though there are wolves in sheep’s clothing among them), they do not especially have our best interests at heart. For instance, the façade of friendship is often experienced by those who share a common enemy. We see many instances in our society where people use others as a means to protect or foster their own self-interests, using perceived trust as a mode of self-preservation. Preachers of a ‘prosperity gospel’ use and twist the message of Jesus in an attempt to fill their coffers. Gaslighting is very prevalent and is used persistently in our culture which touts the illusion that the one who dies with the most toys wins the game, even though we take nothing away with us at our death. So how do we discern the voice of Jesus?
In our Gospel lesson from John, Jesus gives us guideposts to use in our discernment. First, he points out a specific behavior of a true shepherd of the sheep: the shepherd enters the sheepfold by the gate. This gate, while it may not be obvious to everyone, is the clear way into the sheepfold for the shepherd. It is in this manner he enters and then calls out to his flock who will instantly recognize his voice and follow him out of their enclosure to frolic, graze, and experience a life of abundance. The shepherd will protect them and guide them back to sanctuary at the end of the day. We hear this echoed in our Psalm: He makes me lie down in green pastures, leads me beside still waters, revives my soul and guides me along right pathways. Jesus says, the one who climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. This predator could be animal or human, looking for a free meal for their stomach or wool to keep them warm. Jesus says, the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.
The second guidepost of discernment that Jesus points to is that the shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. What’s in a name? you may ask. A name is the key to the gate of the sheepfold, a means to direct access to the enclosure. When someone yells out “HEY!” you may not turn to look who is calling unless you know the sound of their voice. But, if someone yells “Hey Jack, Esther, John, Berit, Aidan, or Anna Lisa…then that named person will instantly turn and a portal of communication will be opened. Not only do the sheep know the shepherd’s voice, but the shepherd, especially ‘the good shepherd,’ knows the name of his sheep.
So how can we pray with this passage during Easter? First, ask yourself, what is the sheepfold for you, and even more specifically, what is its gate or entry point? I would say that the sheepfold or enclosure is your heart. It is that spot where you keep your most intimate treasures: your desires, hopes, wants, needs. It is intimately sacred, with true access given to only a precious few during a lifetime. Perhaps you can name in your life those whom you have given access to your heart, or have the key to get in. You may also know the experience of having a broken heart. It could be that you have known the pain of forced entry or exit by someone who has not held your heart in high esteem. You may feel pain where a hole in your heart has been created by a thief who has taken something from you. Perhaps you feel anxious and vulnerable as a result of this breach of trust. This may be the place of entry for Jesus the good shepherd, who desires a life of abundance for you and who desires to mend and heal your broken heart, strengthening this enclosure with the aim of abiding with you and keeping you safe.
Second, I would say that when we pray this morning’s Collect, note that Jesus does not desire to enter your heart by means of force, deceit, or for hope of his own gain. Jesus desire is for intimate relationship with his beloved. Jesus is calling your name with the hope of gaining your trust for the invitation to enter. In John’s gospel we hear Jesus say, abide with me as I abide with you.[i] Jesus is patient and will bear with you until he gains your trust. And when he does, he will guard the door to your heart and help you to steer away from those who would seek to do you harm. But we have to heed the warnings of his voice. Our prayer to know his voice and follow where he leads is one of intentional submission not a result of ‘herd’ mentality. As a child, when getting in trouble following the example of a peer I wanted to impress, I remember my Mom asking me, “If someone told you jump of the Brooklyn Bridge, would you?” The founder of our Society, Richard Meux Benson, once taught: “The power of Satan is bruised now since Christ has conquered him; but it is not really destroyed. He has a good deal of power still; for he goes about like a ‘roaring lion seeking whom he may devour.’ Now, however, he is like a lion whose leg has been broken; and who is chained. He cannot hurt us unless we go within his tether. It is our own fault if we go into danger. He is like a dying wolf lying wounded and lame, just outside the sheepfold. Keep within the enclosure and he cannot harm you. We must not mind his howlings.”[ii]
Know that the good shepherd seeks to give abundant life to those in his care, so much so that he gave his life on the cross. Jesus said, No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.[iii] This is how we come to know Jesus as the good shepherd: We shall fear no evil in the face of death, we are comforted by his direction and guidance. Just like those councilors who played games with me when my peers would not, we are honored in the presence of those who trouble us, anointed and sated with abundant love. When we turn our lives over to Jesus, recognizing him as our good shepherd, we will be able to pray with confidence: Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Amen.
[i] John 15:4
[ii] Benson, Richard Meux. A Cowley Calendar. London: Mowbrays, 1932. Print.
[iii] John 15:13
Please support the Brothers work.
The brothers of SSJE rely on the inspired kindness of friends to sustain our life and our work. We are grateful for the prayers and support provided to us.