The Love of the Shepherd

John 10:22-30

For those Christian churches that follow the revised common lectionary, as we do here at St. James, and who believe that the church is not separate from the world but of the world, this weekend is one in which we gather together under the auspices of two title headings.  In the life of the Church, Good Shepherd Sunday.  In the life of the world, Mother’s Day.  I’ll let you determine for yourselves which of the two you choose to rank at a place of higher significance.

Inevitably, somewhere along the line in their seminary education, soon to be rostered leaders are taught to tread carefully when it comes to how they incorporate days like Mother’s Day into worship, maybe especially into sermons.  A delicate balance, wanting to lift up mothers and the gifts that they offer… at the same time, not wanting to inflict pain on those women, who for one reason or another, regardless of their wants and desires, have found themselves without children of their own, and too, on those children, regardless of age, who have lost a mother, finding themselves unable to celebrate the day in the ways they would like.

Like so many things in life, when it comes to Mother’s Day, and really, to reflections about motherhood in general, our thoughts and emotions are shaped by our experience.  Whether it be from those who give us life or those who come into our life… from how they tend to scraped knees and broken hearts, to the lessons they teach us, to the model of love they pass onto us.

For me, my own mother is and always has been, one of those mothers who has the ability to know just about everything about me, even in those moments I am unsure for myself.  One, who, without me even uttering a word, knows my fears and worries, my hopes and dreams, and my needs.  Who has always been there, even in those moments when I haven’t allowed her to be in the ways she would like.  Who taught me how to be “mommy” myself, when life required it…

As I have watched Christina enter into Gabrielle’s life and heart as “mommy”, my thoughts and emotions around motherhood have gained a new and deeper perspective.  That at its core, motherhood is defined not by biology… by the grouping together of nucleotide triplets of DNA and RNA molecules and the passing on of genetic traits (thank you Google)… but by something far more powerful… love…

As we move into the day of the Church, Good Shepherd Sunday, our focus is drawn to love of another kind…  To the love that all other love, motherly love included, should seek to model.  The protective, guiding, shepherding, love of Christ.

Today’s gospel reading of the Good Shepherd story, John tells us, takes place in Jerusalem, during the time of the Feast of Dedication.  The Festival of Lights, known by most today as the Festival of Hanukkah.  We read that as Jesus is walking through the temple, a group of Jews gather around him, hoping to put to an end the debate concerning his identity as the Messiah; “How long will you keep us in suspense?  If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.”

So, Jesus responds.  He identifies himself as the Son of God and explains what it means to be his sheep.  Him the leader and protector, the shepherd.  Those who follow him, his flock.

“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.”

Like so many words within scripture, Good News for those within the flock…  Not such good news for those apart…  To those who belong to Jesus, who hear and recognize his voice and follow him?  The gift of eternal life.  To those who do not believe, who are not His sheep?  As we read back in John chapter three, Judgement. “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already…” (3:18)

So, what do these words mean for those of us gathered here today?  Surely good news, right?  We are, many of us, cradle believers, born and raised in the Church.  Some of us even, cradle believers of the far superior, Lutheran sect!  We know our bible… at least bits and pieces of it.  We can recite the liturgy with our eyes closed… at least in part.  We say our prayers… at least here in worship and around the dinner table.  We confess our sins… at least those we care to admit.  We believe in Jesus Christ the Son of God, the Good Shepherd, our Messiah.  We know his voice and follow him in all that we do… through our words and deeds, and in the giving of our time, our talent, and our money…  Except when we don’t….  When we find ourselves in the place of those gathered around Jesus in the temple with doubts of who he is and questioning his presence and purpose; “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” 

In a simply reading, today’s text, can easily feel like Jesus is saying that our place within his flock comes entirely down to us.  That our place in his eternal home is reflective of our faith and our faithfulness or lack thereof.  And while, when it comes down to it, we really don’t know for sure how it all works, as Jesus goes on, he makes it clear…  He knows his flock…  They have been given to him by his Father and no one can snatch them from his hand…

The truth is, even at its best faith is far from perfect.  And even when life is at its best faith is far from easy.  My guess is, if our place in the flock was reliant on our belief, we’d all be food for the wolves… Yet, today offers us an image of God who walks with us through it all.  Further expressing this image of shepherd, assigned for Easter 4- always Good Shepherd Sunday– and linked to today’s words from John, is Psalm 23.  Among the bible’s most well-known scriptures uttering those words that even non-churchgoers could recite by heart.  “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.”

If the Lord is our shepherd, it says something about who we turn to in our times of need…  Trusting all the while that in those times when we wait in suspense for Christ to speak to us plainly, he does…

We hear his voice in a card from a friend in a moment of need.  Through the prayerful support of a family of faith when the weight of hardship is too much to bear.  By the gentle care of an attentive nurse as we sit along the hospital bed of someone we love.  In the smiling face of a child and the sound of laughter.  In a mother who has the ability to know just about everything about us… our fears and worries, our hopes and dreams, our needs… who is always there… In those people who come into our lives when we need them the most…  In these and so much more, the protective, guiding, love of the Christ…  The Good Shepherd.

So let us this Good Shepherd Mother’s Day weekend give thanks for the gift of Christ’s love that comes to us in its many forms and many vessels, guiding us to care for the flock and the lost alike… The one who holds us in his hand through whatever it is we face… who walks with us through our valleys of death….who makes a table before us of grace, mercy, and forgiveness, and leads us to springs of living water… who, out of love for the world, became the sacrificial lamb himself, giving his life on the cross that we would rise anew…

May Christ be at work in your hearts.  May he lead you in whatever paths come your way, trusting that even in those moments when you are so lost that you feel as though you don’t know yourself… that you are known by Christ…  “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life… no one will take them from my hand…”  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

~Pastor Andrew Geib

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