This Week's Sermon
May 14th 2017 Good Shepherd Sunday: John 10:1-10 Rev. Micol Cottrell
“I have come to give them life that they may live it abundantly.”
Every now and then I’ll take it out of my drawer and put it in my pocket if I know the day is going to be stressful, or if I’m not feeling confident, or I need a little help in the day. I put the chain of beads into my pocket and any time during that day when I feel I need to be grounded I say a simple prayer as I trace the beads between my fingers.
I didn’t grow up in a tradition with prayer beads but over the years I have formed a little collection of them. I have prayer beads from three different Christian denominations, most are made of small hard beads on a chain, one is made of knotted rope. They have different numbers of beads and different spaces between them. Periodically I’ll use them to say a prayer, or count my mantra while meditating – God give me strength, or God surround me in your loving care, or Maranatha (which means Come Lord Come in the language of Jesus, Aramaic), or I’ll use whatever words are in my heart that day. It’s a way of grounding myself in my faith, of finding strength and encouragement to face the day and all it brings with love and grace.
When I was preparing to leave my first congregation I kept my prayer beads in my pocket. When I interviewed here they were with me. Sometimes we need a grounding place, something that brings us comfort and strength so that we can live life fully and courageously.
“The shepherd calls to her sheep and leads them out.” Today in our Gospel reading Jesus describes a pastoral scene. While it would have been a familiar one for his followers and for those in the early church, for us in our 21st Century North American context the images of sheep, shepherd, and sheepfold are unfamiliar. Shepherding in our context has changed a lot over the last 2000 years. Scholars remind us that in Biblical time shepherds led their flocks through vast open areas to graze – “He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters.” The shepherds carried with them their staff, a tool used to walk on the steep terrain, to rescue sheep and to direct them, and to use for protection. They also carried a rod, something like a small, strong baseball bat to defend themselves and their heard from predators and thieves. “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, the dangerous valleys I shall not fear for you are with me.” At night the shepherds led their flocks to sheepfolds which were built into the sides of large hills that were naturally hollowed out. Walls made of gathered stone would extend these safe places creating a narrow entrance. The sheepfolds didn’t belong to a single shepherd but were shared with different flocks bedding down together at night. To keep the sheep in and thieves and predators out a shepherd would often lay across the entrance to the sheepfold – literally becoming the gate. The sheepfold was a pretty good place to be if you were a sheep or goat. It was warm, safe, comfortable, and secure.
And as a sheep it would be easy to want to stay in the sheepfold. Because in the sheepfold nothing bad can happen to you. In the sheepfold you are safe, warm, and protected. But sheep cannot live their entire lives in there. It’s a great place to sleep and rest but there is no food, and no water, no nourishment there. As Jesus reminds his followers the shepherd doesn’t just protect the sheep but also leads them out when it is time – out into the world to find nourishment and strength, to live and move as they are meant to- to live the fullness of life. The shepherd calls them out and because the sheep know the shepherd’s voice they trust and follow. The shepherd is the gate and protector and also the one who leads the flock into life.
The reading from John today about the good shepherd reminds us of something important. The Gospel of John says that Jesus is the Good Shepherd, the one who draws people together offering them comfort and care. Jesus is also the one who leads people out into the world – out to where life isn’t always safe, secure, or comfortable. Faith can be a comfort and secure place. It can ground us in a sacred love. Poems like Psalm 23, prayers like the Lord’s Prayer or Serenity Prayer, practices like using prayer beads, or daily reflections from sources like the Upper Room or Daily Bread remind us of the power of faith to bring comfort and security. Our faith, our trust in God and in Jesus, can bring great comfort and peace.Now, it can be easy and tempting to want to stay in the sheepfolds of life, in the green pastures and still water times. It can be so tempting when the storms of life hit, when danger is felt, when trouble stirs to just want to hunker down, hide away, stay only in places of comfort and security.
But in today’s gospel reading we are told that the Christ who shows us God’s comfort and care is also the one who leads us out to live life fully.
At the end of the today’s Gospel reading Jesus says to his disciples “I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly.” We are called to live an abundant life – to live the fullness of life. We are called to follow Christ into a life that is full and active, colourful and engaging, that is bursting with experience and knowledge. But abundant life isn’t about life always being comfortable and safe. Living in the way of Christ, living our faith, doesn’t mean that we will never suffer, or that we will never struggle, or that we will never taste the bitterness that life can bring. Even in living abundant life our hearts will be broken, death will shake our lives, souls will be bruised and scarred, emotions will get complicated, and hurts will happen. Faith does not mean we will never experience those dangerous valley times. Living the beautiful complexity of being human and being alive is what abundant life means
. The assurance that we receive today is not that we will never suffer or struggle. It is not that a life of faith brings only sheepfold moments. Jesus reminds us that our whole life is held within a blessing – a blessing that draws us into community, into comfort and healing. But the blessing is also one that leads us out – out into the world where life happens with all of its beginnings and endings, joys and sorrows, ease and pain. And when life gets messy, painful, and uncertain, because it will, we are assured that we do not walk alone. That is the powerful image of sheep and shepherds. We have a good shepherd, God, Christ, the Holy, journeying with us, guiding us, encouraging us, comforting us, and leading us. We have one another, fellow pilgrims on this sacred journey of life.
When we need it there will come the sheepfold moments, moments and places, words and practices of comfort and security.
And when it is time, the voice of the Shepherd calls; when we feel ready or when God knows we are ready the voice comes filling us with the peace, courage, and strength to step out. We are called to step out of those protective places back into life, back into abundant living. We are called to step out and risk ourselves again for love. We are called to step out and lose ourselves for others. We are called to dare to be truth tellers and honesty seekers. We are called to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with God. We are called to stand beside those who are marginalized and persecuted, with those who are suffering, with those who need a reminder that they are loved and of value. We are called to work to change the systems that marginalize and persecute, or tear away at people’s lives. We are called to examine the privileges in which we live and take for granted. We are called to change the balance of privilege. We are called to speak the truth even if our voice shakes. We are called to live in the light of God’s love and to help shine that light so that others can experience it too. We are called to step out and live in the abundant life Jesus reveals to us. In this Easter season and in all the days of our lives may we encounter the Good Shepherd, the one who brings us comfort and security and the one who calls us into life.
May we hear the call to live the power of resurrection – for life is stronger than death, love is stronger than hate, hope is stronger than fear, and compassion is stronger than division. May we risk and live into the abundant life that Jesus calls us into for we are part of the sacred story. Amen. Let it be so.