Texts: Ezekiel 34:11-15, 23-24, 31; Psalm 23; John 10:1-16
Sermon: "Have Life and Have It Abundantly"
The first time I had an opportunity to visit a real sheep farm, I was excited. I looked forward to meeting a real shepherd and seeing in real life the relationship of shepherd to sheep. I had never seen that before but, oh, I had imagined it. I had imagined it just like Psalm 23 and like the Good Shepherd described in the tenth chapter of John.
Well, it was a revelation. I did see many sheep. And I did meet their shepherd.
And, yes, the shepherd knew his sheep; and the sheep knew him.
They knew his voice and he knew the meaning of every move they made. It was sweet. And it was lovely. But there was so much more.
Most of us do have idealized visions of sheep and shepherd. They come from the twenty-third Psalm and from the tenth chapter of John's Gospel and from other places in the Bible, including a parable about a lost sheep and David, the shepherd boy who became King of Israel.
My first visit to a sheep farm taught me some new truths about sheep and shepherd and gave me new visions of our Shepherd Jesus and how he cares for us.
On that first visit to farm, it was "lambing" time. The barn was filled with mothers giving birth to their babies. There, in the barn, I saw another side of the shepherd, who cared for the mother sheep and the new babies. I was struck, awed, really, by the raw reality of it all -- by the odors and the noises and, yes, by the messiness that happens in times of life's most profound moments -- even and maybe most of all between the shepherd and his sheep.
That is where I found myself settling into the Scripture this week, with Jesus the one who comes to minister to us when life is at its barest for us, when reality truly is raw, when we are most vulnerable and our needs are pulsing and painful, when we are in the middle of the deep and messiest of times and could lose our way without him -- without Jesus, who plucks us from danger, pulling us out of the holes we have dug.
These recent weeks have been such days as that, days for remembering the Shepherd Jesus.
This is where many of you have been and there is good reason to feel numbed by the days of loneliness and fear. Am I being safe, you wonder? Will tomorrow be worse than today? How many died today, how many more cases of the virus have been confirmed?
Today is a good time to see what the beautiful psalm promises about the shepherd; and to listen to the Gospel, the good news about Jesus the Christ as the shepherd who will open the gate to the good life, lead you out and gather you back in.
I believe that the images we find in the metaphor of our Lord as our Shepherd touch our souls and feed our deepest hunger and thirst. The hunger and thirst are not for foods and drinks of the usual kind. That's not what causes our yearning.
It is a yearning instead for the gifts from God that renew us and make us whole -- like the bread and cup of the Lord's Supper and like the Words of life from the Holy Bible.
That is why the shepherd grabs our hearts and won't let go if we let him in.
The shepherd is the one who pays attention to the smallest details to make the sheep feel cared for -- the bathing and drinking in a cool stream, the soft place to lie down, the food that can be eaten in safety of the shepherd's protective gaze, and the promise of goodness and mercy.
In other words, it is about abundance of the life-giving kind of gifts that we need every day but maybe most especially right now -- abundance from God's heart.
Yes, our shepherd invites us -- come have life; and have it abundantly.
Yes, the shepherd acknowledges, there may be pain and messiness in life. Life that is real IS raw; and you may have to step back at times, and it may feel that you are alone; but the shepherd says: I will always be there.
How do we assimilate and absorb all of these truths into our lives right now?
Every day, we get up; and it seems we are standing at another crossroad.
Every day we hear voices; we make choices.
Most often, the choices we make are based on trust.
Especially these days of Covid-19 fears, the question is -- whom do we trust? What do we trust?
Do we trust our leaders? Do we trust each other?
How can we hear the voice of the Shepherd who knows our name asks us to come, follow, let HIM take us into the world and back out of it when we need protection, rest, and nourishment? How can we let him be our guide and provider always?
This is the shepherd who is also the gate. This image has different meaning for us today than it did even a year ago.
The shepherd is the way in and the way out. This is the one who leads the flock home and the one who shows the flock how to go out into the world despite the dangers.
How we need to hear today the call of this shepherd.
Is it time to go out again?
Are we ready for the world around us that has changed so much in the last few months?
Will the shepherd lead us in the right path as we decide how to make plans to come back together as a church community?
Can we hear in a new way the call from Jesus to be his church, to gather where he promises to feed us?
He has not abandoned us as we have worshiped in physical absence from one another. He has been here to nourish and to guide. Now we are beginning to think ahead to the day when we might be safe together again.
How do we get there? How do we know what steps to take before trusting that we are safe to stop our physical separation? We turn to prayer. We turn to Scripture. We turn to God. And we work out our plans carefully and with God's guidance.
During all of this time, the world has continued to be a place filled with scattered sheep who are without adequate food and drink, without protection from evil and danger, sickness and pain; without resources to fight the powers that dominate them.
Jesus calls us still, in the midst of all we are suffering, to be courageous shepherds ourselves in standing up for just those kinds of people as we make decisions about our own safety and pray for theirs.
And we pray for God to provide shepherds for us, too, so that we can trust the care they have taken in providing a way forward for us.
We know the ones we can trust because they have looked to the One we ultimately trust with our life -- God alone, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The Good Shepherd has led us into a safe place and will lead us back into the world one day. It may not be perfectly clear. But as the days and weeks ahead come to pass, there will be plans we can trust because we know that the plans were made in a season of prayer.
When we lose the courage that it may take to walk the walk Jesus lays before us, whatever it might be, we have only to go back to Scripture to get the courage to take the next step.
God says through the prophet Ezekiel: "I will seek the lost sheep. I will rescue them from their scattered state. I will feed them in good rich pasture land. I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak. I will save my flock!"
God said, "I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep" (34:15).
In Jesus Christ, God fulfilled the promise to become a true Shepherd for the people -- one who would lead the people in and out of the green pasture, who would feed and bless and protect the people. Enemies may be all about; bad things might happen; but the ending already has been written. "I will be with you always," God promises.
Yes, this Jesus, this Good Shepherd -- this is our gentle God, our shepherd God, who leads us into the green pastures and beside the still waters any time we cry out to have our faith and courage strengthened.
This is the God, the Shepherd who comes to us in the messiness of life, when we are most vulnerable and needy.
This is our relentless God, who never stops seeking us and finding us, ready to love us abundantly, bringing us back from danger and despair into peace and joy.
So whom shall we fear, indeed?
May the holy name of our great God be blessed, Father, Son, and Spirit. Amen.