Pastor Barbara Thrall
In the name of the Risen Christ, Amen.
Once again, greetings to you on this Good Shepherd Sunday, an occasion our churches observe every year on the 4th Sunday after Easter. It’s a wonderful image, this depiction of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, an image that goes way, way back in history, scripture and tradition. Way back to the Old Testament, to Ezekiel and the Psalms, then is revisited in New Testament time in the catacombs in Rome, where there is a mural of a standing Jesus. He is remarkable because he has no beard, there are a couple of sheep by his side and one laid across his shoulders. He resembles a Greek god we’ve seen in sculptures, standing slightly off center. It is a remarkably beautiful painting that speaks a truth about our Good Shepherd, the gentle, yet majestically commanding Christ who has called us to follow him where he leads. Even through the valley of the shadow of death he will be with us, he will guide his flock and protect us, no matter what. Who would not want to be with a shepherd like that?
Then, if you travel to the town of San Pedro Sula in Honduras, you will find at the Cathedral and school there another kind of shepherd. He is seen in the image of “El Buen Pastor” and this Christ is a good deal more active and robust than our ancient Roman one. He has his shepherd’s crook, the staff mentioned in the 23rd Psalm, and he’s not afraid to use it. He stands, and his crook is not planted his side but is pointed downwards, and with both hands he has wrapped the hook around a sheep’s neck and is pulling. This Good Shepherd is also a commanding one, who has called us to follow where he leads and is determined to keep us there, to discipline us and will never let us get away. He offers a corrective, dragging us back from trouble, danger, wandering, and asserting overwhelmingly, “I am responsible for you and you are mine.” El Buen Pastor, he speaks to the faithful as well.
Then there is the Good Shepherd who might reside in Australia, one spoken about by a friend from there, who observed that for all the Good Shepherd’s attraction as someone to be followed, for all his appeal as a corrector and protector, if we were to use an Australian image, the Good Shepherd would get behind us, as shepherds do down under, and drive the flock forward. If we need to be moved to new pastures, if we need to find still waters, the Good Shepherd is there to push us, and often has to aggressively persuade us to advance, to try something new and different. I think that shepherd also speaks to us in our times, as one who leads, yes, and protects, yes, and also provokes us to stick together and to move onward into God’s future.
I think God was more in the Australian “Good Shepherd-mode” this past week as we were propelled into seeing the images that were on view for us. Those images swirling around the trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis were grim, stark, shocking if not familiar in the months since George Floyd’s death. Those images of one man killing another brought to mind the disturbing images of 2020, the explosions of rage in Minneapolis and other cities last year, when people were so full of anger, frustration, and despair. We felt the tension rise while we waited for a verdict last Tuesday night, pushed to face whatever reality would present itself, then we felt the release of tension in knowing that George Floyd’s little daughter was right. Her daddy has made a difference. A tragic difference, but a difference.
What we have now, I believe, is the continuation of an awakening, a first big step in our national recognition of the need for both justice and accountability. People want equal justice for all, as promised in our constitution, and they also want people like George Floyd, in his circumstances, not to die in the first place, and also not to have died in vain. We want everyone to live up to their responsibilities, especially their sworn responsibilities, and to be held accountable for what they do. The verdict in Minneapolis was a bold stroke in that direction and drove home the notion that in this nation it is possible for one man’s death to finally create a shift in corporate and individual thinking and action. May it be so.
Because you know, in addition to all the other things he does, all the other aspects of the Good Shepherd, Jesus stands at the gate of the sheepfold and beholds his flock, gathered in together. The sheep seek peace and justice, the assurance that they will get through this day in one piece, and rise and rejoice to see another. By day the Good Shepherd will watch over them, guarding and protecting them. By night he will lie down and sleep in the gate’s opening, so that if a robber or wolves should come along to menace the sheep, they will meet him first and he will protect them. We know the wolves and robbers will come. They are always out there – the wolves of prejudice and ignorance, the robbers of greed and sin, the wolves who seek to scatter the sheep and drive them into separate corners. The Good Shepherd will lie down, and he will even lay down his life for those sheep, so that they may have new life and have it abundantly. He offers a new kind of life centered in the Shepherd who will do anything, personally, to keep us with him forever, and who inspires us to follow him and serve him.
Yes, America is facing a time of reckoning. In many ways we have failed to live up to the promises we have made to all our citizens, the promises of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We are not there yet for everyone, but there is hope. I think you know that, and maybe you have seen glimpses of it. I came to know about that hope in the example of a little girl I knew some years ago, who went to school one day and made a discovery. Here’s the context:
In our small almost totally white New Hampshire town, and in our church, a childless couple made quite a stir by announcing they were adopting five Black orphan children from Sierra Leone in West Africa. We all prepared for their arrival, assembling furniture, clothes, warm coats and mittens for these kids who were flying in from Freetown to Boston in the winter. At last they arrived and after being enrolled in school, it was the kids’ first day.
Another nine year-old girl in our congregation came home that afternoon and made an announcement to her mother. “We got a new girl in our class today. Her name is Lovetta and she is really easy to spot on the playground.” “Oh boy,” thought her mother. “Here we go,’ but the mother said, “Really. How is she so easy to spot?” The little girl turned and looked at her mother and said, “Well, she’s the only one with a Snoopy backpack.” Nothing about race, nothing about skin color, nothing about speaking English with an accent, simply something that was at eye-level for a person whose eyes were open. Open to see the humanity in another person, not just the color of her skin, the country of her birth, the nature of her family. For those two nine-year olds that day, there was only one family. The human family.
When we think about it, the Good Shepherd has been leading us, and driving us toward this one-family consciousness forever, and for us over the last 45 years at least, we’ve articulated that consciousness in the promises we make at our baptism. To seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves. To respect the dignity of every human being. To care for others and the world God made and to work for justice and peace. This is where Jesus the Good Shepherd wants us to go, where he wants us to live, what he wants us to internalize. This is where he is pushing us, and this is where he is leading us. Be like children, be open to people who are different from you, and who at root, are the same as you. Every human being.
So on this Good Shepherd Sunday, may we follow where Jesus leads. May we hear his voice and know that he calls us each by name. May we be comforted by his presence and protection, and also be prodded when we need to be. May we take the lead in the direction to which Jesus is pointing, doing unto others as we would have them do unto us. And may our times be filled with Christ’s abiding presence, beside, before, and behind us. In the words of an ancient song-writer, may goodness and mercy follow us all, one flock, all of our days. Amen.