Looking and listening for the Good Shepherd
by The Reverend John Beddingfield
A sermon preached at the Episcopal Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, New York City, at the Vigil Mass (Saturday night) for the Fourth Sunday of Easter in Year C. The lectionary readings are Acts 13:15-16, 26-33; Psalm 100; Revelation 7:9-17; and John 10:22-30.
There’s an old preacher’s story about a priest who was traveling with members of his parish in the Holy Land. Like some priests (certainly none around here), this priest liked to talk. While going through Israel, this priest liked to tell his parish about what they had seen, what they were seeing and about what they were about to see.
The priest had particular information about sheep and shepherds. He told the people on the tour bus to be on the lookout of sheep and shepherds. “Notice how the shepherd always leads the sheep,” he said. “The shepherd knows the way and the sheep follow.”
But as the tour bus rounded a curve, there just beside the road was a flock of sheep and a man who was walking behind them. He looked determined and seemed almost to be driving the sheep. The priest was outraged. Here he had been carefully explaining to his people what they should see, and here was something that just didn’t fit. He asked the bus driver to stop the bus, they all got out and he ran up to the man and said to him, “Sir, I’ve just been telling my friends here that the shepherd always leads the sheep, and then we look out and we see you walking behind them. What’s going on?” The man looked at the priest and said, “No, you’re absolutely right. The shepherd does always walk in front and leads the sheep. But I’m the butcher.”
One moral of the story is “beware of appearances.” Another is simply, “Be careful who you follow.”
There’s a lot of sheep and shepherd imagery in the Bible. Sometimes it might not exactly resonate with us—after all, when is the last time you identified with a sheep? (I sometimes feel like a black sheep, but I’m not sure that’s really the same thing.) But for many of those who were the original hearers of scripture, sheep were a familiar thing. People who heard the prophets, and especially those who listened to Jesus preach all through Galilee knew that sheep tended to move along sometimes following a shepherd, but other times finding themselves having wandered off entirely. Sometimes the sheep would wander into danger and by the time they realized they were in danger, it was almost too late.
Certainly those who heard Jesus preach or tell stories knew that there were many who were asking to be followed. Biblical and historical scholars tells us that during the time of Jesus, there were many who claimed to be messiahs, who claimed to prophesy the future, who claimed to be magical, and even a few who claimed to heal. Who, then should we follow?
In today’s Gospel, Jesus reminds us of one way that we can always tell. He says, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand.” If we stay close to Jesus—through prayer and silence, through involvement at some level with a Church, by making sure we spend some time occasionally with a few holy people—we will recognize the voice of Jesus, we will feel the presence of the one who never forgets our name.
There are so many who would have us follow them—whether it’s George Bush or Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump or Tyra Banks; whether it’s the advertisers, the sports figures, the leading voices in academics or the arts--- there are many, many possibilities asking us to follow. But as Christians, we recall that we are named at baptism, and God whispers that name again and again, inviting us closer, inviting us to a life of love.
Today’s epistle from Revelation reminds us of the care God gives to us. Not only does God never forget our name, but God stands ready to extend to us love beyond imagination, where we are “sheltered by God’s presence.” it is a time and a place where we “hunger no more, neither thirst any more; the sun shall not strike [us], nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be [our] shepherd, and he will guide [us] to springs of living water; and God will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes.”
As we continue to celebrate the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ and look for evidence of resurrection in our lives, may we indeed “hear his voice, know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads.”
© 2007 John Beddingfield
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