Good Shepherd Sunday

“Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

This past Tuesday evening, just a few hours after the verdict was read in the trial of Derek Chauvin, a big bunch of Episcopalians gathered online for Compline. We were joined by Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, whose words were predictably perfect–challenging, nourishing, and inspiring altogether. He spoke about the people of ancient Israel returning from their exile in Babylon. After being away for so long, they just wanted things to get back to normal. But like everyone who has ever experienced massive disruption and return, they learned that life is far from normal on the other side of trauma, and when you get back home, you often find the work has just begun. His word to us was that on the other side of the trial, on the other side of this past year of pandemic, our work on the long road to freedom and justice is really just beginning. 

If we are to be faithful to the call of the gospel, joining the Spirit’s work of racial healing and justice must now form a core part of how we spend the rest of our lives. Our work of racial justice and healing, and our work of re-building a more vital and faithful church, are only just beginning. 

Today, the Fourth Sunday of Easter, is usually called “Good Shepherd Sunday” because our gospel reading is always taken from John 10, where Jesus describes himself as the good shepherd. So as we, like our ancestors in ancient Israel, begin to emerge from the trial of pandemic and the trial of Derek Chauvin to our work that is just beginning, Good Shepherd Sunday invites us to ask: who will we trust to lead us? Whose model and example and guidance will we follow as we set out on this journey?

There are, today as ever, lots of shepherds vying for our attention and allegiance. There is the shepherd of political party, that wants to make the reality of systemic racism either a red or blue issue. There are the shepherds of millions of daily Facebook posts shouting this opinion or that. There is the shepherd of our own urge toward self-protection, who would have those of us with the privilege to numb ourselves and tune out the pain of those who cry out. There are all those shepherds and no doubt countless more, vying for our attention, calling to us to follow. 

And then there is Jesus this morning, the Good Shepherd. What makes Jesus good in the midst of all the voices calling for us to follow is that Jesus offers the voice of almighty God Godsself, and invites us to walk in the way of love, the only way that can lead us to healing, to peace, to new life. In the midst of all the hired hands and thieves calling us to be right, Jesus calls us to be love. 

So what does that love look like? 

The first thing Jesus reminds us of is that the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. Holding all the power and privilege of the God of all things, Jesus chooses to lay it all down, and give it all away. But, we are told, he lays it down and takes it back up. Jesus is no mere martyr, who simply rolls over in the face of the world’s evil. Rather, Jesus shows us the way of meeting the world’s evil with endless, giving love, and reminds us that we must die to our self-centered obsessions in order to be caught up in full and abundant life. In the post-trial, post-pandemic world, can we learn how to die to ourselves in order to live?

And Jesus is clear that the power to live this way of love does not come from our own efforts or strength, but from being tethered to the living God. In John’s gospel in particular, the important thing about Jesus is not just that he is crucified and risen, but that he ascends into heaven, where he provides for us a constant connection to the very heart of God. So if we choose to follow Jesus as the shepherd on this journey, walking in his way of love means instead of trusting ourselves, our goodness, and our abilities, we surrender our hearts moment by moment, and day by day, to the almighty power of God. 

Psalm 23 tells us: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” That well-known phrase doesn’t quite capture the aggression with which the Hebrew imagines goodness and mercy follow us. The psalmist doesn’t imagine goodness and mercy kind of hanging around at a safe distance, lurking somewhere behind us, but that they are pursuing us, chasing us down, seeking us out at every turn. And to follow Jesus the good shepherd means that, having been pursued always by this goodness and mercy, we then pursue the world around us with the same goodness and mercy. It means we commit our lives to seeking out everyone we encounter with the same goodness and mercy we have received. 

If we choose Jesus as the leader on the journey we are walking after the trial, and after the pandemic, then we will learn to really live by dying. We will anchor each moment of our lives in the real power of God’s love. And we will pursue the world around us with goodness and mercy in the same way we are relentlessly pursued by God. 

If we choose to follow Jesus the good shepherd as our new old work begins, then when the world looks at we who bear the name of Jesus, they will see not just pretty buildings and ancient rituals. They will see, more than anything, mobilized love. 

As our epistle lesson from 1 John puts it: “Little children, let us love, not in word and speech, but in truth and action.” 

To follow Jesus is to affirm that love is the most powerful force for change in the world. The question for us after the trial, after the pandemic, is, can we look like mobilized love? Can we look like mobilized love as a congregation, as families, as individuals? Can we look like mobilized love as we move into the center the people and voices that have been pushed to the margins? Can we look like mobilized love as we reimagine policing? Can we look like mobilized love as we work to restore and repair the massive injustices that have been written into every corner of our society, including our own church? Can we allow the Spirit to rewire the very cells of our bodies to perceive difference not as a threat, but as a gift? 

In the aftermath of the trial, as, God willing, the pandemic wanes in the months to come, let us agree that we will not return to normal, because normal was full of massive pain and injustice. Normal, in the church and in the world, so often did not look like mobilized love. Can we instead, on this day, commit to choosing Jesus, the good shepherd, as our model, as our leader, as our Lord? Can we commit, on this day and for the rest of our lives, to following Jesus’ way of mobilized love?

“Little children, as we return home to rebuild, let us love, not in word and speech, but in truth and action.” Amen.