Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 29, 2012. Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Grace Church, Amherst, Massachusetts.

Isaiah 52:13-53:12Hebrews 4:14-16, 5:7-9
Psalm 22John 18:1-19:42

“I am the good shepherd”

What do you make of the image of Jesus as the good shepherd? Does this image hold any interest to you, any power? Except for folks who have some contact with a farm, I expect that most of us here don’t have much of a relationship either with shepherds or with sheep. At least that’s true for me. I haven’t spent time at Hampshire College watching the lambs being born, and I haven’t gone to the Holy Land and seen how shepherds work with their flocks. At first glance the imagery of sheep and shepherds may feel rather quaint and out of touch, as if in pondering this image of Jesus, Christians were reaching back to some distant and long-gone agrarian past that has no relevance to today’s urban, fast-paced, and technological society.

And yet, interestingly enough, the image of Jesus as a good shepherd is one of the Church’s best-loved images of Jesus. Every year on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, we celebrate what is sometimes called Good Shepherd Sunday and we read a passage from the tenth chapter of the Gospel of John. What meaning does this image have for us today, and why does it carry such appeal? How we answer that question may change over the years, since every religious image has multiple meanings, and at different points in our individual lives and in our life together as a community, one or more of those meanings may suddenly stand out for us and have particular energy or ‘juice.’ What aspects of the good shepherd image speak most vividly to you this morning?

The first thing that I notice is that, as as our good shepherd, Jesus holds everyone and everything together. A shepherd is the person charged with keeping the flock intact, united, and heading in the right direction. I find something wonderfully reassuring about the image of God in Christ drawing us into something unified and whole, because at present we live in a world in which a good many things seem to be flying apart. Most Americans these days don’t put much trust in the institutions that we share — in the courts, the school system, the health care system, the political system, the financial system. Even the church as we’ve known it is in upheaval, as traditional denominations break down and new forms of worship emerge. In the midst of so much flux and uncertainty, it is comforting to muse on the reality of an abiding holy Presence, to ponder the good shepherd who contains and holds together all things. We don’t have to fear change — in fact, we may even want to throw ourselves with gusto into creating the changes we wish to see in the world — because within and beyond all the changes of life, there abides a loving Good Shepherd who is always drawing us into community and into communion with him.

Maybe you remember that puzzle1  in which you are presented with nine dots on a page, lined up in rows of three, and you’re asked to connect the dots by making four straight lines without once lifting your pencil from the page. Try it however many times you like, but the only way to connect all nine dots with just four straight lines is to go outside the borders of the box. Solving this puzzle is an example of “thinking outside the box,” of moving beyond a given paradigm in order to perceive or to accomplish something that otherwise couldn’t be perceived or accomplished.

When we turn to the good shepherd of our lives, we do the same thing: we move outside the realm of our five senses, where we normally perceive everything as separated, and we open ourselves to the larger, sacred Mystery that embraces our complex, dynamic world. In turning to the Good Shepherd, we turn to the sacred unity within and beyond all things; we encounter the Absolute, the Ground of our being, the One in whom all things hold together (Colossians 1:17). In the presence of the Good Shepherd, we know that there is more that unites us than divides us. The most breathtakingly diverse and varied group of people can be brought together and share a common vision and purpose because the Good Shepherd is with them, guiding them and loving them.

And that movement toward unity keeps getting larger. As Jesus says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16-17). Wherever I see communities gathering together in love and opening their borders in a larger and larger embrace to welcome the stranger, the “other,” the one who is different, I see the Good Shepherd at work, whether or not those communities name themselves as “Christian.” So that’s one thing I treasure in the image of the good shepherd: the crucified and risen Christ is the hidden unity at the center of things, and the one who inspires and impels us to create communities of love in which no one is left out.

And here is something else: the good shepherd that we meet in Jesus is someone who “lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). The hired hand doesn’t care about the sheep; he leaves the sheep and runs away when times are tough and things get scary. But Jesus the good shepherd is not like that. If, like a dim-witted sheep, you wander off somewhere along the edge of a precipice, as we often do, Jesus the good shepherd will come looking for you. If you get lost, he will search until he finds you. If you are abandoned by those who couldn’t care less, he will stand with you. If you are assaulted or bullied, he will weep with you and plead for you and work to turn the abuser’s heart. And if you are a hopeless case — as we all are, really — he will lay down his life for you. Wherever I see communities whose members are moved to reach out with compassion to each other and to the world, I know that they are listening to the Good Shepherd and that his presence is alive among them.

And what about our inner lives? What about all those energies and impulses within us that can be as chaotic as a bunch of sheep who have scattered hither and yon and who are vulnerable to hunger and thirst, to wolves and thieves? Can we learn to listen to the good shepherd who dwells within us and who gathers together all the various parts of ourselves and forms within us a unified community of love?

I remember sitting in prayer one day, patiently trying to keep my attention turned to God, when I noticed that a contemptuous inner voice was starting to lay into me, accusing me of one failure after another. To my great surprise, something else in me at once rose up and declared: “We don’t talk to each other like that in this house.” Whoa. The good shepherd had spoken. Out with the voices of self-hatred and contempt; it was time to listen to the inner voice of love.

In order to listen to the good shepherd who abides within us, we have to pay close attention. We have to listen with great attentiveness to our self-talk, and to notice whether it is loving and true. And we probably need to spend intentional time listening to the God who is greater than our hearts, and who does not condemn us, even when we condemn ourselves (1 John 3: 19-20). We hear the good sheperd in the divine voice of love that always speaks within us, for his voice calls us each by name, and he knows us through and through.

Before closing, I want to turn for a moment from the Good Shepherd of our souls to the good pastor of the Grace Church community. You may know that tomorrow Rob Hirschfeld is heading off to New Hampshire with his wife Polly, to take part in a series of interviews as he and the other candidates for bishop in the Diocese of New Hampshire meet and greet the people of the diocese. A bishop is something like a shepherd of the flock, and that big staff that a bishop carries — called a crozier — is shaped like a shepherd’s crook. It’s possible that Rob will become the next bishop, the next shepherd, of New Hampshire.

Now, the election won’t take place for three weeks, but already I’ve heard a few of you wonder: Will we be OK? Will it be OK if Rob leaves? And I have to say that, much as I would like Rob to stay here forever and for everything to keep going as it has for the past many years, whether he stays or whether he goes, we will be fine. This community will be fine. Thanks in good part to Rob’s devoted service among us, we know that we are held together by the Good Shepherd who is Christ. We have pulled together as a community. We are open to enlarging our boundaries to the wider world and to all who venture through our doors. We are learning day by day what it means to lay our lives down for each other, to offer each other a word of thanks or forgiveness, a listening ear or a helping hand. We are supporting each other to listen inwardly in prayer to the Good Shepherd who speaks within our souls.

Rob has been a dedicated pastor, and because of that, we’ve become a vibrant community. Paradoxically, the more faithfully a congregation follows Jesus Christ and the more carefully it listens to the voice of the Good Shepherd, the more we members of the community are inspired to become leaders ourselves — to step out and serve, to encourage and to guide, to take risks and to think outside the box. I don’t know what to pray for, when it comes to the New Hampshire election, except to pray that God’s will be done. But I do know that whatever happens, the Good Shepherd will be with Rob and with each one of us, calling us each by name, urging us to follow, and empowering us to become the servant leaders that the world needs. God willing, we will joyfully say yes, wherever the road takes us — and if there are no roads, we trust that the Holy Spirit will create them out in front of us as we go forward.

1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thinking_outside_the_box