Sermon – May 3, 2020 – Fourth Sunday of Easter

Hearing Our Shepherd’s Voice in Trying Times

The fourth Sunday of the Easter season is always Shepherd Sunday.  Today’s gospel reading is the preface leading up to Jesus assuring his followers that he is the Good Shepherd, the one who always watches over his sheep and cares for their needs, the one who has their best interests at heart and always acts out of his love for the ones in his care, the one who will, indeed, lay down his life for his sheep.

            He’s not the first to use the image of the Shepherd to express that kind of care, of course.  Most of us who grew up in the church, and quite a few of us who didn’t, can easily recall at least some of the Twenty-third Psalm, the one that starts, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”  Jesus himself would have grown up hearing, maybe even singing, that psalm in worship.  And many of those to whom he first spoke these words would have done that, too.  They all would have known the images it uses—not just the comforting ones of green pastures and still waters but the harder ones, too: the darkened valley of the shadow… the enemies that surround the banquet table even while the psalmist feasts.  The Twenty-third Psalm doesn’t shy away from naming the challenges we all face; it doesn’t try to pretend that life is all sunshine and roses.

            Maybe that’s why it is so beloved, so comforting.  It’s a psalm for the very real lives we live.  It’s a psalm for a time like now.  And Jesus knew that psalm, and his listeners knew it, and he wanted them to know that it was fulfilled in him; in him, God had come to them, to walk with them through even the scariest things, and God would never leave them, no matter what.

            In today’s reading, Jesus starts to unpack what that looks like.  He says that the shepherd knows his sheep, and the sheep know their shepherd.  The shepherd calls the sheep by name, Jesus says, and they listen for his voice so they can follow where he leads.  They trust the shepherd to bring them to the things that sustain life, to lead them to green grass and good water. 

            In these days, when our news is filled with so much death and so much fear, how we long for life!  In the midst of the challenge and the chaos on the one side, and the boredom and frustration on the other, we long—oh, we yearn!—to hear our Shepherd’s voice.  We long to know that God is with us still, even as we walk this darkened path, this rocky road with so many unexpected twists and turns. 

            But this is also the season of Easter, the season of resurrection and new life—even now, even here, in these times of uncertainty and challenge.  And through the pages of scripture, by the power of the Holy Spirit, our Shepherd is still speaking to us.  Do you remember what Jesus says when he comes to his disciples in that room on that first Easter evening, that room where the doors had been locked for fear?  He says to them then, and he says to us now, “Peace be with you.”  Peace be with you. That’s simply another way of saying, “Don’t be afraid.”  Don’t be afraid. 

Jesus knows that when our fear overtakes us, it becomes very, very hard for us to listen for our Shepherd’s loving voice in the midst of the crisis, that voice that reminds us that we belong to God and God will never leave us or forsake us.   Fear can be so loud, so overwhelming, but fear is not the final word.  Our Shepherd wants us to know the peace that comes from trusting him to be with us, trusting him to guide us, trusting him to sustain us with the things we need to live fully and freely, even in the very presence of trouble.

            And when we take a deep breath and let go of our fears, when we begin to rest in the assurance of God’s love, then we can hear that voice of grace again.  And we can remember what Jesus asks of us, what he commands us to do.  On that last night with his disciples, the night when he gave us the gift of bread and cup, the one thing he wanted them to hear and to remember, the one thing he wanted them to do was to love one another, to care for one another.  He held them close in his heart and said, “A new commandment I give to you—that you love one another, just as I have loved you.” 

And that’s the word he speaks us today, the thing he wants us to remember and do.  When we seek to love as Jesus loved, then we are released from our fear so that we can walk in his life-giving way.  While we are still his sheep—we will always be his sheep—we can act as shepherds, too, caring for one another, holding one another’s best interests at heart.

            Loving one another looks different in these pandemic days.  Sometimes it looks like essential workers going out to do their jobs so that the rest of us can stay safely at home.  Sometimes it looks like finding ways to get food or computers or internet service to the ones who need those things most, even as we practice social distancing.  Sometimes it looks like sharing the extra disinfecting wipes or paper towels or other supplies that we have an abundance of with someone else who needs them, too.  Sometimes it looks like taking out our checkbook or our debit card and making a donation to some organization providing essential services.  Sometimes it looks like showing up to help with the ongoing work of a ministry like Sola Gratia, working side by side six feet apart.

            Love need not be something big and grand to still be felt, to still be valuable.  Maybe you love others right now by wearing your mask when you go out, protecting them even as you trust them to protect you.  Maybe you sit down and make masks for those who need them and otherwise won’t have them. 

            Or maybe you fill the windows of your home with hearts to delight passersby and show your appreciation for those in essential jobs.  Maybe you hide a teddy bear in plain sight to give neighborhood children something to look for when so little changes in the neighborhood from day to day or decorate your house or your sidewalk with chalk to encourage others.  Maybe you clean out your bookshelves and fill a Little Library so someone else has a new-to-them book to read or you find a way to safely swap the jigsaw puzzles and games you don’t want or need now. 

            Maybe you pick up the phone and call someone you might not in the usual course of things, just to check in.  Or maybe you send a note of encouragement or appreciation to someone who needs those words.  Love looks a million different ways, and no act of caring is ever wasted.  Those acts are how we begin to rebuild a more compassionate world where we all can live, and thrive, on the other side of this.  That’s the work our Shepherd invites us to, calls us to, commands us to do.

            But to do that, love, not fear, must rule the day.  And so I invite you to remind yourself of what you believe by joining me in the Twenty-third Psalm to close this time of reflection.  It has comforted generations upon generations, and it still has the power to do that.  It can help us remember that what Jesus says when he comes to us is always, “Peace be with you.  Don’t be afraid.”  Please use the words you know best as we pray this psalm together—or feel free to simply sit quietly and let the words wash over you, bathing you in love and light.  Let us begin:

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
    He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
    he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
    for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
    I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
    your rod and your staff—
    they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
    my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
    my whole life long.

This is our God’s promise to us.  Thanks be to God for this indescribable gift of love.  Amen.