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Sermons are preached within the context of a particular worship service, and are most meaningful when experienced in that way. We encourage you to view or listen to the entire worship service; click on the video camera icon.
April 25, 2021
Fourth Sunday of Easter
Grace and peace to you from our risen Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
,Last week, NPR featured a report on a family that fosters children and teenagers who are migrants and are waiting to be reunited with family here in the U.S. This isn’t a new situation; there have been foster families helping unaccompanied minors who cross the border for the last few years.
The family that was interviewed lives in the Southeastern U.S., in a politically conservative area. And they said they became involved after their pastor challenged their congregation to find something that breaks their heart and do something about it. And they described that challenge as a lightbulb moment and an opportunity to partner and make a difference in the life of a few families.
As they spoke with the reporter, the family mentioned the neglect of political administrations from multiple sides – that the situation has been ignored and the people who want to come to the U.S. have been vilified. And this family recognized there was nothing they could do about the political narrative. But they could help one child at a time.
And so over the last few years, they’ve brought children in from the outside and into a place where they are secure and nurtured.
Over this last year, these last 14 months, we have all felt – at least once – like we’ve been on the outside. We know what that feels like now in a way that we didn’t before because the pandemic has given us a unique perspective on that.
And we know the Bible is filled with stories of people who were on the outside. Today’s gospel reading is no different – it actually begins back in chapter 9, with Jesus healing the man who was born blind.
The uniqueness of that event is that the man who was healed had been on the outside of his community twice: first, because he was blind; and second, because he’d been healed, and the people didn’t know what to do with him.
When Jesus heard about that, he went and found him, and brought him back into his community, his fold. Into a place of safety and nurture, a place of abundant life and relationship. And as he did, Jesus revealed more deeply who he was and what he’d come to do. And as he always did, Jesus used images that would be familiar to the people who first listened to him.
And they not only knew what a shepherd was and what they did, they knew what made for a good shepherd. That a good shepherd wasn’t just someone who showed up for a day’s work and then went home. A good shepherd was someone who not only knew how many sheep were in their flock, they could also identify each one.
They caught the sheep before they wandered off and went missing; they knew when one wasn’t feeling well. They paid attention to their surroundings looking for predators, and fought them off when needed. The people who listened to Jesus knew that good shepherds didn’t just come along every day.
They also knew how important it was to feel like they were part of a fold, a flock, that was cared-for and loved. And they knew enough about Jesus by that point to trust that they were part of his flock and that he was indeed the good shepherd.
As their good shepherd, though, Jesus did more than just care for the people in his flock. He also created and nurtured community. The people who were in his flock didn’t exist in isolation from each other. As his people, they were a community. John’s gospel calls it the beloved community.
They did more than just come and listen to Jesus and then go home again. They learned to trust what he was teaching and live into it and care for each other as they continued to live under the care of their good shepherd.
In our culture today, we don’t often think of ourselves as sheep. In a manner of speaking, we’re encouraged to be the shepherd. We’re encouraged to be the one who takes charge and leads the way instead of being the one who is part of the flock and follows where the shepherd leads.
And being called a sheep often has negative connotations because much of what we know is what we see on the surface about their behavior – which is that a flock of sheep seems to mindlessly follow, and tends to stay together even in the face of danger. But as I prepared for today, I learned that…
Sheep need other sheep in order to feel safe; being part of a flock establishes connection, relationship, and bonding. So they flock together. Wandering away from the flock causes anxiety, but if a sheep becomes startled or threatened, it will flee back to the flock – often into the center of it. Because stray sheep and the ones on the perimeter of the flock are more susceptible to predators.
So, continually existing on the outer edges of a flock nurtures an ongoing sense of threat and susceptibility to real danger. When that happens or, ideally, even before it reaches the point of chronic stress or a near-encounter with a wolf, the sheep that are on the periphery need to be brought into the center. This means the sheep who are acclimated to the center of the flock need to move outwards so that others can move into that place of protection and security.
A good shepherd creates and nurtures that sense of safety because they have the interest of the sheep at heart – the entire flock. A good shepherd keeps the sheep out of danger in the first place. A good shepherd gives the sheep reason to follow them because they have reason to trust.
Jesus is the good shepherd. We are not; we are sheep within his fold, his flock. When we, as sheep of his flock, understand and trust that we’re in the care of Jesus, the good shepherd, it empowers us to shift our concern to each other. The sheep who are in his flock with us.
We know that, around any given issue, there’s a plethora of chatter and narrative that tries to sway our perspective. And it’s hard to sift through it all. But when we hold onto our identity as sheep within Jesus’ flock, when we strive to listen only to his voice and to follow only his teachings, it opens our hearts – no matter what the narrative might be trying to tell us.
It empowers us to make sure the people who need to be in the center, a place of safety, are there. It helps us to understand that, regardless of the political situation, unaccompanied minors at the border need a place where they’re cared for and loved.
And that when big events happen, like the verdict in the George Floyd murder trial, it’s a moment of accountability – and there is still much work to be done in matters of justice for racial equity across the board.
When we, as sheep, understand and trust that we’re in the care of Jesus, the good shepherd, we’re able to notice who among us has been on the periphery for too long and shift them back into the center. Because we come to understand that we don’t exist in isolation from each other.
As our good shepherd, Jesus nurtures our identity as his sheep. Not to be mindless followers, but to be those who listen to him and live into the trust he creates. As we do, our hearts are opened and he gives us the confidence to be the beloved community he created us to be. Thanks be to God! Amen.