Sunday, May 7, 2017

Father Riley's sermon from May 7, 2017 at Christ Episcopal

EASTER IV -A - 17           JOHN 10: 1-10


Today is “Good Shepherd” Sunday throughout the church. The readings, along with today’s collect, lend themselves to the image of shepherd. The Psalm we all know well, and the gospel is somewhat familiar to most.
However, the image that comes to my mind on this day is that of a former senior warden. I was rector of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Texas before my coming to Louisiana. The senior warden was known to be a bit dramatic, and on my first Sunday as rector, that being Good Shepherd Sunday, she more than proved it.
When it came time for the announcements, after I had finished making mine, as usual, I asked if there were anymore. To my surprise, she walked in from the back of the church dressed from head to toe as little bo-peep! She even had a shepherd’s staff in her hand as she processed to the front.
The point she made was to remind the congregation of our namesake and of our need to “shepherd” one another in the faith and especially those who were new to the faith. Her point was well taken. As you can see, I have never forgotten the image or the point she made over 20 years ago.
In today’s passage, Jesus is in conversation with the Pharisees who are supposed to be the “shepherds” of the people. However, the people no longer follow them, nor do they listen to their voice. In Jesus’ eyes, they have failed as “pastors” of God’s people and Jesus is calling them on it. The word pastor, interestingly enough, comes from the Latin shepherd.
Their leadership has been marked by deceit and pride and has lacked compassion. Christ, on the other hand, fulfills all virtue. Christ, then, is contrasting their leadership with his own. He is talking in an abstract way about the difference between the true shepherd and the false ones.
Jesus is the true shepherd whose sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out and the sheep follow him. The love of the true shepherd is accentuated by his willingness to lay down his life for his sheep, not so with the false ones whose only concern is for self.
Even more so, Jesus says he is the “gate,” by which the sheep go in and out and find pasture. The emphasis is on safety and the fulfilled life of the sheep. As such, Jesus declares himself to be the only Mediator of salvation. Christ not only leads where we are to follow, but is the way we are to follow. It is in him and through him; we have life as God intended it.
I have been fortunate enough to have visited Ireland and the British Isles on more than one occasion. Besides the beauty of the countryside, I was amazed at the ingenuity of the local shepherds in creating their sheepfolds, that is, the enclosures for their sheep. The countryside is littered with stones. Not surprisingly, the shepherds have learned to put them to good use.
They stack the stones high enough to create walls that will keep their sheep enclosed and at the same time safe from predators. The gate to the sheepfold is likewise made of stones stacked on top of one another, again just high enough to keep the sheep from jumping over it.
The sheep cannot get in or out until the shepherd comes and removes enough of the stones from the gate that will enable them to follow him to pasture. Jesus’ image is clear. He is the “good shepherd” and we are the sheep of his pasture. He along can remove the “stones” in our lives that enables us to follow him, to live the new life to which we have been called in Him.
Now we do not like to think of ourselves as sheep for more than one reason. Sheep are considered dumb. They need a shepherd to lead and guide them or else they go astray on their own. We prefer to think of ourselves as independent, leading our own lives, going where we wish.
And to a great extent that is true. We have many freedoms as individuals. We make our own decisions. The choices we have made and continue to make identify us, even in some cases cause us to stand out from the crowd. Some of them have been good and some of them not so good. At least they are ours, as we like to say.
However, as Christians, we acknowledge we have often gone astray like lost sheep by some of the decisions we have made. We have not always listened to his voice. We have not always walked along the right pathways for His name’s sake.
However, by God’s grace we realize our need of God. In Him, we have come to know that our life is not our own but is hide with God in Christ. Our future is with God. He has a plan for each of us that can only be discovered by following where the Good Shepherd leads. Our proper response is from the heart. In love and trust, we follow Him.
Like the Good Shepherd he is, Christ stands ready to lead us back to “green pastures,” and to “revive our souls.” He is the shepherd and guardian of our souls, as Peter writes. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sin, we might live for righteousness.”  In Him and in Him alone is the life that is overflowing.
Both the Old and New Testaments, are replete with the image of God as shepherd and his people as his sheep. The relation of the shepherd to the sheep is linked to that of the Father and the Son and magnifies the intimacy and love God has for each of us.
God knows that we need him to guide and protect us, to keep us safe, not only from the many dangers of this world, but from the danger of our going astray if left to our own devices.
Jesus said, “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” AMEN+

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