4th Sunday of Easter
May 15, 2011
Being a city girl, I don’t have much connection with the references to sheep. I only know what I’ve heard about them. In small, desert places like the hilly Mediterranean countries of Israel and Greece, sheep and goats are much more common than cattle, so the references to livestock being sheep and goats makes much more sense to the people who originally told these stories and who passed them on to the next generation and the next.
So what I notice in these stories and references to the Good Shepherd are likely different than what the writers had in mind. I’ll tell you what strikes my heart in this reading we have before us today:
First of all, the reference to naming: the Good Shepherd calls his sheep by name and leads them, they follow because they know his voice. Anyone who has read science fiction or anthropology or Harry Potter knows the power of naming. Telling someone your name gives them power to call you. The magic of that has been lost a bit in our day when people are introduced so casually. Grownups are introduced to children by their first name these days, not even by their title, Mrs or Mr or Miss. So, much of the power of naming has been lost to us. We capture some of the magic when we baptize: Tiawana Dean McDowell, we named her, you are baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. At the graveside of people who are being committed to their final resting place, I usually use their baptismal name, first, middle, maiden name, and married name. I feel as if it bookends their entry into God’s kingdom from the first public recognition of them as God’s own to the last. And so we, too, are named and claimed by Jesus, the great shepherd of the God’s sheep, whose voice we follow because we know it.
His naming of us and his call to us are filled with grace. There is no control or “power over” in that call. It is an invitation to a place of peace and provision, as the Psalm indicates. The images of green pastures and still waters, right pathways and confidence even in scary places seems metaphorical to me, until you come to the core of the Psalm, “for you are with me…”
The second thing that strikes my heart in this reading is Jesus’ closeness. The title of shepherd is a standard metaphor for kings and leaders in the ancient world. The Prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel rail against the leadership of Israel in their day, calling them unfaithful shepherds. So Jesus identifies himself as faithful and close, holding the care of God’s people close to his heart and leading them where they need to be. He accuses all other leadership of being false and self-serving, leading people away from God’s love and mercy. I’ve been rereading a book called “Christianity Rediscovered” by Vincent Donovan, a missionary to the Masai in the 60’s. I have been profoundly moved by his struggle to get past the cultural baggage he brings from the American-European church to speak the Gospel to these pagan people in a form that will really change their lives. In asking them if they know God, he finds that they do indeed. It is a god who is far away, who looks on them with great expectation for how they should behave. This god of theirs loves rich people and people who have much to offer, but despises and has no time at all for poor people, for people who suffer, who cannot please him. The god they know is stingy with forgiveness and sometimes forgiveness is not ever granted.
The missionary’s first realization is that God has already been there, even before he arrived. These people know God, but they just don’t know that God is close, that God loves them even though they are not rich or powerful or perfect. His work, the missionary finds, is to tell these people that he has come to them because God has sought them out, and that they are God’s people already. It is to preach about forgiveness as a free gift, not something for which they must struggle alone. It is to confirm for them that God knows them, and in the man, Jesus, God understands what it means to be human. That is how close God is.
I hear this story of the Good Shepherd as the gate, as the one who names us so that we can follow with confidence in light of the story of the Masai, who embraced a God who was already there for them, who had searched them out to bring them into God’s own community. Their fear was changed into joy. They learned of God’s love and generosity and most of all that God wanted to share life with them.
What about us? Does our God seem far away? Do we have to work hard for forgiveness, doubting that it will ever be possible? Have we heard ourselves named by Jesus, who brings abundant life, and been able to recognize the love which calls us? Have we come here because we are seeking God, only to find that God has been calling us all along, walking with us even when we didn’t recognize it? Can we share our own story of being found and loved to others who also think that God is far away and only loves those who are rich and successful?
May you find that being named and being called and walking through the Gate of God’s kingdom is a story worth sharing with all who long for God’s love.
Now may the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.