Rev. Deacon Ken Boccino's Sermon, Easter 4, Good Shepherd Sunday, the 25th of April 2021
Jesus as the Good Shepherd is perhaps the most renowned, beloved and comforting images in all of Scripture. Between the context of the words, the pictures we create in our minds, endless works of art and the occasions in which this is all used - it’s no wonder why. But did you know that the verses we hear of Jesus as the Good Shepherd in today’s reading is only a part of a larger thread of scripture. John’s depiction of the Good Shepherd actually extends for a full chapter (John 10:1-42) and we heard the middle piece of it today (v. 11-18), as we are in Year B (2nd year) of our Lectionary’s 3-year cycle. Last year in Year A, verses 1 - 10 are proclaimed and next year, for Year C, we will read verses 22-30. I commend the entire chapter to you as I believe that you might gain a better understanding of why Jesus chose these “figures of speech” (as quoted in John) instead of one who might care for goats, cows, oxen or pigs.
Closely correlating to John 10, is today’s psalm - Psalm 23. The Psalm is read every year on Good Shepherd Sunday in its entirety. Here as well the Lord is described as our Shepherd who looks after us and cares for us. He provides for us with abundant food and drink, leads us in on the right paths, cares for us in our time of need, puts our fears to rest and protects us. These are amazing and comforting words and we hold tight to these words when we are calling on God and Jesus to raise us up and get us through difficult times of trouble, pain and loss.
In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus describes to us how he is the Good Shepherd and exactly HOW he will care for his sheep, but the greater population and I don’t even think at this point, his disciples closest friends are really getting what he is talking about and what he needed to do in order to make this all happen and for Scripture to be fulfilled. The job of a Sheep Herder / Shepherd was fairly common in the Holy Land in Jesus’ time and most knew of the hard work, the commitment and the danger that shepherds faced and that they WOULD lay their life on the line for the sheep of the fold that they tended. My sense is that Jesus was trying to make it as plain and simple as possible in terms he hope that they would begin to understand. But alas - it was a lot easier said than done and I would think that after this attempt and many others, I can envision Jesus staring blankly, subtly shaking his head and letting out a **SIGH**.
As our Shepherd, Jesus commits to protect us. Throughout John 10, Jesus attempts to use a number of “figures of speech” or analogies to describe how he will protect us and what we need to do in order to benefit from that safety and protection. This is described in the verses we would have read last year - v. 2-5…The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. “The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” We hear Jesus’ name, we recognize him and we follow him and therefore we, in shepherd-speak, enter into his gate and into the safety of his fold.
In our Gospel reading today, Jesus further explains that he must and will, as the Shepherd, be willing to “lay down his life for his sheep”, where he continues to foretell of what is to happen “in order to take it up again” in which he is describing his own Crucifixion and Resurrection and affirms that this is of his own choice, in accordance with God’s will in order for Jesus to carry through on his earthly mission. Jesus performs this act not for his own self-satisfaction and glory, but for US.
While Jesus does make it clear that he will look after us and “have our back” he also takes some time explain who or what we need to be protected from. Here in Scripture, he talks of “thieves, bandits and hired hands” those who might not, or better yet, should not be familiar to he followers (i.e. “sheep”) who run the risk of leaving the flock and enter into another, not so safely guarded fold. Those who follow the voice and the commands of the shepherd will be guarded and remain a part of the fold, but there are those who will stray from the fold, hearing the other voices of ‘false shepherds’. Jesus continues to calls these sheep back into his fold. There are also sheep that are not part of the Shepard’s current fold, those that do not hear his voice, but eventually will.
From my personal perspective, I believe that this is one of the most complete discourses of Jesus describing his mission, what he was called to do by his heavenly Father, what is means for us and what we need to be mindful of entering into this sacred relationship. I’d like to share with and invite you to consider how I perceive the pieces of this dialog (or arguments with the crowds - to get to that piece, I encourage you to read from verse 19 on) all fit together.
Jesus is called by God to be our protector - our Shepherd. In order to do that, much like a Shepherd, he must be ready to give up his life for his flock, under any circumstance and he does exactly that. He selflessly gives up his life for the sole purpose of caring for his flock and guide them to richer pastures, namely salvation and everlasting life. Jesus also reminds the members of this flock that there is much wrongdoing in the world that they/we need to be aware and mindful. There are others - bandits, thieves and hired hands - who do not hear or heed the Good Shepherd’s word, and attempt to draw the sheep from his fold with the hope that no longer listen or hear the Shepherd’s voice and leave the flock.
My friends, the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is a wonderful and timeless. It also carries with it a message which I believe still resonates with us as a COTS Parish Family on this 4th Sunday after Easter in New Jersey in 2021 purely by us being here Zooming on a Sunday morning in April - listening to God’s word, remembering and celebrating the life of Jesus. We are following our Good Shepherd and are members of his fold.
We not only know his voice, but hear and also listen to his words and understand what is expected of us to keep ourselves and the rest of the flock safe. As Christians, we strive to follow in Jesus’ footsteps and be living examples of his Word and he stood, and lived and died for.
We know of the bandits and thieves and sometimes listen to their voices and stray ourselves or see others leave the fold. Even in this case we know the voice of our Shepherd and he calls one by on - by name to come back into the fold. We ask to be forgiven for straying and not listening and are welcome back both lovingly and unconditionally. I believe that we all have moments where we turn away from God and are not the best of examples in living out the life of Jesus, but by repenting & saying we’re sorry, we are forgiven and are welcome back into the flock.
Furthermore, when we do hear the voices of the bandits and thieves and choose to disregard it, we are not expected to ignore them. Our Shepherd calls us to ensure the safety of ourselves and those who are in the fold. As Christians we do this through acts of service as individuals and in community. We speak up and stand up our for the the forgotten, marginalized and those who are considered “the other” in our fold. We are called to care for our planet - looking for ways to lead ‘cleaner and greener’ lives. Over the past month, I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to a number of folks and learning about the many niches of outreach happening within our parish family and from what I can tell my brothers and sisters - there is so much more than meets the eye. I look forward to continuing these conversations to see what we’re called to do in the ‘care of the flock’ as we move into a post-pandemic world.
Being called into the fold of the Good Shepherd is a wondrous thing, but there are no promises to a life free from challenges, disappointments, hardship or loss. We know at these times we can call on the Shepherd, who knows and calls us by name, to be there along side of us giving us strength to overcome the difficulties in our lives and to keep from go astray by ignoring the bandits, thieves and hired hands. As a welcome member of the fold, our Shepherd calls us to ‘feed his sheep’ and ‘tend his lambs’ and not simply be one of them. He called his disciples to do the same.