Tag Archives: Good Shepherd

What the Flock?! [Good Shepherd Sunday] Psalm 23, John 10:11-18, and 1 John 3:16-24

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on April 22, 2018

[sermon begins after two Bible readings; 1 John reading is posted at the end of the sermon.]

Psalm 23 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; 3 he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. 4 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. 5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. 6 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.

John 10:11-18 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

[sermon begins]

Some of you may have figured out that I like a good movie. What you may not know is that I have favorites that I watch over and over again.  (My husband Rob can easily verify this claim if you need it backed up.)  Re-watching a movie is a bit like a kid asking to hear the same story that they’ve heard more times than can be counted. The story never seems to get old. I see new things about the characters or hear one of the well-written, well-delivered lines, and if Rob has drifted into the room I’ll turn to him and say, “I love that line.” Some of these tried and true favorites are the Lord of the Ring trilogy, The Hundred-Foot Journey, and A Knight’s Tale.  Every so often I’ll re-watch bits of disaster films like San Andreas or 2012. Towards the end of the movie 2012, the President is addressing the nation about the impending doom after giving up his seat on the rescue boat.[1] He concludes his remarks with the opening words of the 23rd Psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall…”  The doom cuts short his prayer as the television screens go static. Psalm 23 pops up in many movies. It’s one of the best known parts of the Bible to non-churchy people. My guess is that movie makers use it to say a lot in a little amount of time, to say something about hope and comfort in a dire situation.

In dire, scary situations the shorthand of Psalm 23 gets us to the same point quickly, acknowledging life and hope while walking through the valley of the shadow of death. This notion occurred to me during yesterday’s training downstairs here about what to do in an active shooter situation. I was getting myself to the church on time to join congregation volunteers and our staff, as well as our next door neighbors – the priest from the Greek Orthodox Church and the head of security for the Jewish Community Center. I showed up pretty sad that this was even a thing in the world to show up for.

Two City of Glendale law enforcement officers led the training. They taught us to, “Run. Hide. Fight.” They clued us in that fire extinguishers are every 75 feet in public buildings by code and can be used as a weapon when running and hiding are not an option. They taught us to apply tourniquets and pack wounds. They said things like, “Your body can’t go where your mind hasn’t been.” Based on their information, we’re to think about what each of us could and would do on behalf of other people and ourselves – like the President in the movie 2012 who gave up his seat in the rescue boat, like the writer of the First John reading whose example of Jesus laying his life down for us challenges us to lay our lives down for each other.[2]  We practiced together because it’s tough to actually do what we haven’t first learned to do. Afterwards, it occurred to me not for the first time that “shepherding a flock” has a very broad scope in the “other duties as assigned” part of the job description. It also occurred to me, not for the first time, that being part of Jesus’ flock holds a tension between being an individual person and being together as a group.

As a small part of what Jesus calls his “flock” in the Gospel reading today, we worship in a style that’s called liturgy. We stand and sit, pray and sing together which is one way of experiencing faith together. I’ve heard it affectionately called “Lutheran aerobics.” Our shared experience with the liturgy is also practice – because our bodies can’t go where our minds haven’t been. We practice our faith together here so that faith has a chance at weaving into our complicated lives. Last week, someone asked me a question about the liturgy. The question was something like, “Do you think that people experience the liturgy as rote and mindless?” I answered that I can’t speak for all y’all but that for some whom I’ve spoken with about it, the liturgy we do together creates a container through which we experience the mystery of God’s transcendence. We move as a flock to acknowledge the mystery and hear God’s promises yet one more time. Because like actual sheep in an actual flock, our brains don’t seem to be able to hold onto any one thought for very long.

As a flock, we often say Psalm 23 at funerals here. If it’s chosen, we say it together like we did just a few minutes ago. This does a couple of things. It makes it a personal prayer from each one of us as we pray in the first person. But, because we say it together, it becomes something we pray for each other as well.  Simply put, as a flock we hold faith when those among and around us cannot. We hold faith when the valley of the shadow of death is too dark for someone else in the flock. This is where I think we Western Christian types get hung up on being a person of faith rather than a people of faith, where we make it about our own individual power rather than about the power of the shepherd. We can talk about what our flock power can accomplish so much more easily that we can talk about what Jesus, the Good Shepherd, has already accomplished.

On the cross, as the Good Shepherd, Jesus accomplished the expansion of God’s love for the world into God’s covenant with the world. Out of the tomb, Jesus frees us into God and toward each other.  We are a flock set free and at the same time guided by the voice of the One who does the freeing. Borrowing the language of our Gospel reading today, there will always be wolves in sheep’s clothing and there will always be unreliable hired hands. It’s hard to understand why this is true but we can certainly acknowledge its truth. The truth of wolves and hired hands are evidenced by our own regrets of what we have done and left undone just as much as the truth of wolves and hired hands are evidenced by flashier sinners. As a flock, we can acknowledge this truth about ourselves because of God’s covenant accomplished by Jesus, the Good Shepherd, through death on a cross and life from an empty tomb. So we can proclaim together, “Have no fear, little flock, for surely goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our lives, and we shall dwell in the house of the Lord our whole lives long.” [3]

Alleluia and amen.

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[1] Video excerpt from the movie 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M5uBrXLpt8Y

[2] 1 John 3:16

[3] Plural flourish of Psalm 23:6

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1 John 3:16-24 We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 17 How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? 18 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. 19 And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him 20 whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21 Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; 22 and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him. 23 And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. 24 All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.

John 10:11-18 “A Good God is a Dead One?!”

John 10:11-18 “A Good God is a Dead One?!”

April 29, 2012 – Caitlin Trussell

House for All Sinners and Saints as well as Lutheran Church of the Master

John 10:11-18  “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

 

 

I have this memory of an image from childhood.  I’m not sure where it comes from or how old it is.  You may know the kind.  It’s a little hazy around the edges and slightly out-of-focus but a couple of things come through in crisp outline and color.  It pops into my head of its own accord when I hear Jesus talking about being the Good Shepherd.  In this image, Jesus is laughing in a group of children who are also laughing and he is holding a little lamb.  And, after my initial freak-out about overly-sentimentalized religion that would domesticate God, this image rings true for me as I think about the story a friend of mine tells about his Hebrew Bible professor tucking in her children at night.[1]  When she tucks them in she asks them, “Who are you?”  And they reply, “I am Jesus’ little lamb” – a sweet image of mothering and bedtime as she sends her children into the shadows of sleep.  And it rings true for me when I sit with families during funeral planning and they choose Psalm 23 time and time again.  I can hear the psalmist crying out through the families’ tears and from their broken hearts, “The Lord is my shepherd…”

 

And, for some of us, there are times when it is enough and sometimes quite necessary to allow those texts to wrap around us in the sweet, simple comfort of being cherished and celebrated as Jesus cradles us in light.  But what else might these texts have to say to us?

 

Wondering about Jesus’ claim of being a Good Shepherd is a good place to begin.  Psalm 23 gives us a glimpse into one of early Judaism’s understandings of God as shepherd.  And the words of Jesus echo deeply from within this tradition as he says, “I AM the good shepherd.”  The ante is upped as Jesus also says the words, “I AM”.  The “I AM” at the beginning of his words is the same “I AM” used in the divine claim by God, by Yahweh, in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Jesus statement is infused with so much divinity it simply spills out all over. In fact, it is THE claim that sets the cross in motion.  The bottom line for us today?  God is made known in Christ.[2]  But how so according to John?

 

Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays his life down for the sheep.”   Jesus is the good shepherd who died.  There’s a leadership model that would climb the bestseller list today.  A good leader is a dead one?  Why is this?  How is this a good thing?  How is the good shepherd the one who would lay his life down?  Why does the church call the day of Jesus’ crucifixion “Good Friday” anyway?  I know, that last question seems a bit out of order in this exuberant season of Easter resurrection but I will take the liberty of asking it anyway.  How is any of this good?  It is good because God in Jesus, dead on the cross, reveals the depths of God’s love and the lengths to which God will go to wrap us into God.  Belonging to a crucified God doesn’t mean that God is dead but that death is now captured up in the living God.

 

Jesus tells the story of the good shepherd not in an idyllic, cozy, safe location as my determined memory of the smiling image of Jesus from childhood would suggest.  In this story, there is howling that warns of threat and danger and hired hands who run away in fear, leaving the sheep to the wolf, leaving the sheep to death.  Ultimately the wolf means death in this story.  This infuses quite a different urgency into the mother tucking in her child at night and asking, “Who are you?”  And the child saying, “I am Jesus’ little lamb.”  The sweet image of mothering at bedtime, as she sends her children into the shadows of sleep, reverbs within a fiercer promise of love and protection.  And the wolf’s howl intensifies the prayers of a family and a community as they pray the words of Psalm 23 together during a funeral – “yea, though I walk through the darkest valley, (through the valley of the shadow of death), I will fear no evil.”

 

One of the things that I am privileged to do with my time over the last year while awaiting a call to a congregation is funerals – lots of them.  All excepting one have been the kind where I receive the call from the funeral director that a family is asking for a Christian minister to be the officiant for their loved one’s funeral within the following three to five days.  Either they or the person they have lost to death are often long unaffiliated with or never been part of any faith community and the element of having a Christian minister seems important.

 

One could argue lots of things – that there request for a minister is simply an example of a family hedging their bets or covering their bases or whatever might work as a metaphor for thinking their motivations shallow.  Or it could be that it is something that is a supposed-to-be-done.  In some of the stories these lines of thinking might be true.

 

But as I speak with these families, often torn open by their person’s death and their own grief, there is something more going on.  That something more has to do with the ways in which meaning in their lives had been suddenly shattered into a million pieces.  What had once made sense from the sum of their experiences and gave life meaning, no longer does.  Something more is needed.  This “something more” that is needed is a word that comes from outside of their own experience.  The story of the good shepherd offers meaning not crafted from within ourselves.  Rather it comes from beyond our experience – gifted to us from outside of ourselves through the cross of the one who laid his life down.

 

As the conversation about the funeral continues with the family, two things quickly become important as the life story about person who died takes shape – having the body or the ashes at the funeral and the commendation at the end of it.  Having the body there speaks a truth about the death that has happened, just as Jesus and the commendation speaks a promise of new life directly into the heart of that truth.  The commendation is a prayer that acknowledges God’s welcome of the person who died.  The prayer of commendation sounds like this…

“Into your hands, O merciful God, we commend your child. Receive her into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light.  Amen.”

 

When I pray this prayer on behalf of the one who has died, I take quite seriously in our text today, when Jesus says, “I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

 

In the Gospel of John we hear over and over and over again how Jesus came for sake of the world.  In day-to-day living, many, many realities are born out of Jesus’ gift on behalf of the world.  And in the day of dying there is one more.

 

So hear this gift, the promise of the good shepherd for you this day of Easter resurrection…

By the power of the Holy Spirit of the risen one who first laid his life down,  Jesus draws you through the cross of Christ into faith, into meaning, into new life.

Jesus, the good shepherd, laid down his life and took it up again for you.

Death is now caught up into God, for you.

New life is here and now, in you and for you, by the power of the risen Christ!

Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



[1] Justin Nickel, personal conversation, April, 24, 2012.

[2] Craig Koester. Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel.  (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 297.