This sermon uses the lectionary readings for Easter 4 in conjunction with the observance of 'Vocations Sunday'. I was a visiting preacher, but the sermon was also preached in the context of an on-going circuit review. Readings are: Psalm 23 and John 10:1-10.
Today’s scripture readings offer to us the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd.
Now, I don’t know about you, but when the image of Jesus as a good shepherd is mentioned, what springs into my mind is a picture that looks something like this
Isn’t this classic? An idyllic country scene, with a beautiful sunset in the background and a flock of sheep obediently following Jesus. And Jesus is lovingly cuddling a little lamb in his arm.
This idyllic picture of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is a beautiful image. It’s a picture that we use with our children, both literally and figuratively. I couldn’t find the picture, but there is also picture that has been used in Sunday Schools of Jesus the Good Shepherd protecting human children as well as sheep and lambs.
A Foundation of Trust and Love
This is an entirely appropriate picture to use for our children. It is important to communicate to them that both God the Father and his Son Jesus Christ love them as fiercely as do their own parents. We want our children to learn that, no matter what happens in life, that the Good Shepherd is right there among his sheep and that his guidance and protection are to be absolutely trusted.
And this very same picture of the Good Shepherd is very often invoked at a funeral service. When we mourn, we especially need to be reminded of the fact that we are commending those who we love into the hands of a loving God who is, above all things, to be trusted. He is the good shepherd who protects his children from evil when they walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
And it is not just at the beginning and at the end of life that we need to be reminded of the goodness of God. Within the history of Christianity, all traditions of spiritual discipline ask their students to ground their spiritual growth and their discipleship on the firm foundation of God’s love and of his providential care for us.
Knowing oneself to be both lovable and loved are the basic requirements for human beings to grow into the people that God intends us to be.
This is the Good News in today’s Scripture readings from John and from the Psalms: Jesus is the Good Shepherd. God loves you and me and he knows us by name. God cherishes each one of us individually and he walks with us in our journey through life.
We are not Sheep Safely Grazing
Are you waiting for me to say ‘but’? OK, here comes the ‘but’.
The image of the shepherd and the sheep has its limits. And the image of Christian disciples as sheep is especially limited and limiting. I don’t think we really want to characterise the Christian life as being the life of an obedient sheep. Good sheep meekly follow wherever they are led. They always comply. They stay safe. They are not animals known for exploring or exposing themselves to risk.
The problem is that, as human beings, we need to be able to take risks from time to time in order to grow.
As I mentioned earlier, today is ‘Vocations Sunday’ and I believe that fundamental to the concept of ‘vocation’ is that it involves a journey of change and transformation. Who are we and who are we being called to be? Both as individuals and also as a Christian community? There is an image in verse 3 of today’s reading of Christian disciples as being called out: ‘He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.’
Being a Christian is not just about finding and remaining in a safe place. If we see God’s love as a safe place that we don’t grow beyond, then Christianity becomes something that is just for children but has very little to offer to adults. Several weeks ago, a young woman in her early twenties said this to me in so many words: ‘I went to Sunday School and to the youth club when I was a child, but church is for children, it’s something that you grow out of.’
If all that Christianity has to offer is a safe place with no transformation and no growth, then it doesn’t offer humanity very much. To be human is to be on a journey of transformation and change. We need to go on this journey in our work lives, in our emotional lives, in our family lives and in our spiritual lives.
So, while it’s very important and appropriate that Church should be the place where we touch base on a regular basis to remind ourselves of the love of God and of his presence here among us… It’s also important that our church and our faith help us grow and others to growth and that our faith doesn’t hinder us or cause us to stagnate.
So, how do we embark on a journey of transformation and change?
I think that we have to expect change and transformation and, dare I say it, we even have to pray for it and ask God to guide us in the process of change. Change is always somewhat difficult and sometimes it’s even downright painful.
Since church communities are often called upon to be pastoral to those in pain, I think that we sometimes assume that if a change is painful that it must not be of God. And I think that there is also a wider assumption in society that since God does not change that the church should not change either.
I’m not suggesting that our core doctrines should be altered, but beyond these, individuals and congregations might be called upon at different times to make changes that might feel painful.
Not just the obvious changes that people tend to grumble about like pews versus chairs or old hymns versus new worship songs, but God may call us to take up activities that we don’t feel entirely comfortable with. And he may ask us to give up prized activities that we are comfortable with which are no longer serving his purposes.
I’m a visiting preacher this morning. I have no idea what sort of transformation God is calling you to, either on an individual level or a congregational level. That is something that only you can discern through prayer, by looking at where your gifts and talents lie and by discerning the needs of those around you.
What I do know is that growth and transformation require change. And I do not believe that God has called the church to be unchanging (although you are always free to disagree with me).
Conclusion and Good News
The Good News in all of this is that the Good Shepherd is trustworthy and he wants to lead us.
Human beings were made for growth and for transformation and, just as certainly as the Good Shepherd is with us at the beginning and at the end of our lives, so too is he with us in the journey, even when that journey is difficult or confusing or downright painful.
So my prayer this morning is that we may each hear the voice of the Good Shepherd more clearly as he calls us and leads us in the journey of transformation. Amen