A_Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany_NY
by Rev James Eaton_Pastor – © 2020 All Rights Reserved
Fourth Sunday in Easter • May 3, 2020
We’ve all had about a month or so on pause here in New York. What are you doing with the time? One of our long time members posts accounts of her day most days. There is a poetic valuing of the ordinary there that often makes me smile. One thing I’ve been doing is watching videos online and I’ve stumbled across videos of guys—and they are all guys so far—making plastic models. Did you do this when you were a kid? A lot of our childhood play involves modeling, whether it’s building them, or dressing up or playing with dolls. Even as adults, we look to models. A woman who decides to change her hair will look through a book of hairstyles. So a good question to ask is, “What is our spiritual model?” What do we want to look like, what do we want to show in our daily life?
Today we read a portion of the gospel of John with a famous verse we’ve all heard: Jesus saying, “I am the good shepherd.” Now the word that’s translated ‘good’ in this passage means more than just what we mean by good. It really means: “I am the ideal shepherd”, a way of saying, in effect, I am the model shepherd. Jesus hopes to be our model and he models life in his way with his disciples.
Israel had a long history with shepherds. Abraham was a herdsman so right from the beginning, God’s people had this picture in front of them of a shepherd with a flock of sheep. Sheep aren’t raised in towns, they are raised up on the arid, rocky hillsides. In ancient times, wilderness places were full of dangers: lions, wolves, and the simple possibility of falling down and injuring yourself. Add to that the bandits who frequently roamed and you can see that being a shepherd was difficult and dangerous.
So when Jesus says, “I am the model shepherd,” he’s invoking an image that has meaning for those listening. It’s as if someone said, “I am the model cowboy”. The meanings cluster around three things. First, a shepherd and the sheep have a relationship of mutual care. The shepherd is sustained by the sheep; the sheep are nurtured and protected by the shepherd. We see these images in the what has become perhaps the most famous psalm in o ur Bible, Psalm 23. Now I know as soon as you heard this, you recognized it and may have thought, “Oh! Funeral psalm.” But it’s only recently and in our culture that the psalm became associated with funerals. It began as a song of praise.
Right from the start, the psalm establishes the singer’s relationship: “The Lord is my shepherd”, and immediately he follows that with praise for the shepherd’s fulfillment: “I shall not want” is to say that the shepherd is the source of everything the singer needs. He does this, according to the psalm, by leading to green pastures. Now I grew up where there are lawns, every house had a pasture. That, after all, is how lawns began: a bit of pasture set aside for beauty. I’ve been around cow pastures, too, and maybe you have. So what we often imagine when it comes to green pastures is that sort of expanse of grass, green, flourishing, lush.
But that’s not where sheep grazed in Israel. They were moved to high, dry, rocky slopes. On those slopes, bits of grass grow mostly around rocks because the rocks condense water out of the breeze of the Mediterranean Sea. Grass grows in the crevices and sheep feed by going from one rock to another, eating what’s there, moving on to the next. That’s the job of the shepherd: to keep them moving. The green pastures are nothing like a lawn; they are a place where you can continue to find what you need but only if you keep moving. That’s part of the shepherd’s job: to keep the sheep moving.
The other part is to keep them safe. What does safety mean? Jesus teaches that our enemy isn’t death, it is the fear of death. The psalm takes this on too. “Even in the darkest valley,” he says—more poetically but less accurately, “the shadow of death”—I will fear no evil.
The good shepherd, the model shepherd, promises that we don’t have to worry about where we will get what we need—he will provide it. The good shepherd, the model shepherd, promises that we don’t need to worry about the darkness of evil—he’ protecting us. The good shepherd, the model shepherd, is there so we don’t have to fear anything at all.
Jesus is the good shepherd and this is the psalm of the shepherd, a psalm we need to hear. Because this is a time when our lives are being bounded by fear. One way people are dealing with it is to deny it. The people gathered in groups on the beach in Florida yesterday, opened because of the fear of politicians, believe they can ignore a virus. The people who assaulted the capitol of Michigan with automatic weapons this week believe they can assault a virus. They’re fearful people, acting out of fear.
But the good shepherd, the model shepherd, has a different way. His way is to seek a fearless life by following him, moving at his command, living in his model. That’s what’s going on in the section we heard from Acts today. Written about 50 years later, the church is looking back to an earlier, ideal time for a model. We know that conflict existed in Christian congregations from the beginning. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians are all about church fights. But here the church is looking back and remembering a different a model, a model of a church where they are all together and mutually sustain each other so that no one lacks anything. They’re looking back to a time when the church was closer to the model of the good shepherd.
So we have this model: Jesus is the good shepherd, the model shepherd, we are the flock. How do we use it to help us construct our lives day to day? Because we are in different places, different situations. One writer said,>
I heard that we are all in the same boat, but it’s not like that. We are in the same storm, but not in the same boat.Your ship could be shipwrecked, and mine might not be. For some, quarantine is optimal. A moment of reflections, of re-connection, easy in flip-flops, with a cocktail or coffee. For others, this is a desperate financial and family crisis. For some that live alone, they’re facing endless loneliness. While for others it is peace, rest, and time with their mother, father, sons and daughters. Others want to kill those who break quarantine. Some are at home spending two to three hours a day, helping their child with online schooling, while others are doing the same on top of a 10–12 hour workday. Some have experienced the near death of the virus, some have already lost someone from it, and some are not sure if their loved ones are going to make it. Others don’t believe this is a big deal. We are not in the same boat. We are going through a time when our perceptions and needs are completely different. Each of us will emerge, in our own way, from this storm. It is important to see beyond what is seen at first glance. Not just looking, actually seeing. We are all on different ships during this storm, experiencing a very different journey. — Unknown Author
We are in the same storm but in different boats.
But if we are in the same storm, we also have the same model to turn to, a single point of reference for how we should act, how we should live, how we should believe. It’s simple: Jesus is the good shepherd, the model shepherd. So each day, every day, a good way to begin, a good way to end, is with the shepherd prayer: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”
We are in the same storm, but in different boats. But we all seek the same harbor, we all seek the green pasture that will sustain us, we all seek safety. So in this time, in this storm, let us build lives modeled not on some common sense or made up idea but rather on the model of the good shepherd, who comes to give us life abundantly.