Fourth Sunday of Easter
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the Good Shepherd. Amen
Sheep, well shepherds
appear all over our readings for today,
it’s why this Sunday has the nickname,
Good Shepherd Sunday.
I don’t claim to know much of anything about shepherding
other than it is the shepherd’s job to take care of sheep
which generally means leading them to food and water,
finding them when they wander off
and protecting them from things that want eat them, like wolves.
At least this is the portrait of the shepherd
that is painted in the Bible,
a theme that Jesus takes up when he proclaims in John 10:11
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.”
which in this Easter season
we are well aware that he does.
Jesus is the good shepherd,
he promises to take care of us
and that is comforting,
no matter how independent or tough we are
or pretend we are,
we all long to be cared for,
to be assured that everything will be okay,
that there is someone looking out for us.
And Jesus does,
but he also has expectations for us
as we follow him
and that leads to the truth
that lies behind all the talk of the tender care of the good shepherd,
the truth there is no guarantee
that life lived in and with God
will be free from dangers or hardships,
in fact Jesus is quite clear
that those who follow him
should expect danger and hardship,
what Jesus does guarantee, promise,
is to be with us,
in the midst of these times.
Take our beloved Psalm 23
even as the psalmist describes the green pastures
and still waters provided by the shepherd,
what sounds like a pretty cushy life for a sheep,
the psalmist acknowledges walking through the valley of the shadow of death
and the presence of enemies,
what makes the difference for the psalmist
is the presence of God in the midst of these experiences.
The danger is there
but the psalmist does not fear
because of the comfort of the Lord.
These themes are present as well in our reading from Revelation,
Revelation or the Apocalypse of John
is an odd book
but rather than being a prediction of the future to come
as so many have thought,
it falls more into the category of resistance fiction.
A story written to convey truths
to an oppressed group of people
in a way that will not bring down the wrath of the empire upon their heads.
The Christians to whom John wrote in Revelation
were living under the Roman Empire,
their proclaimed belief that Jesus is Lord
rather than the Caesar
placed them at the margins of society at best
and subject to death for treason at worst
things were going to get worse before they got better
this is the setting for our reading from Revelation,
where John in his vision
sees a great multitude around the throne of God in heaven,
from every nation and language praising God
John finds out that this crowd
are the people who have come through the “great ordeal”
they have suffered on behalf of Jesus
so now they get to spend all their time worshiping God
“and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat, for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
These are images are familiar,
they are the words of the prophet Isaiah
to the Israelites in exile,
God promised to bring them out of exile and God did,
now God promises to bring the people out of the tribulation to shelter,
but God will do this as a shepherd,
walking with the people,
through the danger
to the promised land of safety and security.
Once again God does not promise that there will be no suffering or hardships,
what God does promise is to be there with the people through the hardships.
It’s the way God works,
Jesus is the good shepherd
And we follow him because he knows us.
“My sheep hear my voice, I know them, and they follow me.”
Jesus says today in our gospel reading,
and that is the key to the good of the shepherd,
the knowing of the sheep.
This knowing is a heart knowing
rather than a head knowing,
the kind of knowing that means the shepherd can pick individual sheep
out of what looks to the rest of us like an undifferentiated mass.
It’s the kind of knowing that anticipates
that some sheep like this kind of grass,
while others favor another
so the shepherd makes sure to frequent both pastures,
it’s a knowing that heads off that one sheep
that always wanders away from the rest,
And the sheep,
knowing they are loved and cared for
follow the voice of the one who loves and cares for them.
Even if it means going through some dangerous spots,
they follow because they know the shepherd will go with them
and take care of them.
Jesus is the good shepherd,
he knows us with the knowledge of love,
a knowing so deep we cannot help but respond
in the good times and in the times of trouble,
and when we wander away
Jesus comes to find us
and bring us back into the fold.
And now some of you are sitting there thinking
‘that’s a pretty message pastor but how’s that going to work out?”
In this Easter season we’ve been spending time with the disciples
who have been saying pretty much the same thing,
Jesus has appeared to them post resurrection
and given them the good news
and they wonder ‘how’s that going to work if you’re ascending to your father Jesus?’
and Jesus has told them,
you’re going to do it,
I will be present in you.
Last week we heard the final conversation between Jesus and Peter
where Jesus told Peter to feed his sheep and tend his flock
and in that instance the lamb became the shepherd.
Just like in Revelation where the lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
we lambs are to be shepherds to one another.
It sounds kind of funny
but again that’s how God works,
so here we are,
lambs that are cared for
and shepherds that care for others,
we have both roles to play.
Sometimes we’re more lamb
and sometimes we’re more shepherd
but we are always bound by love.
We’ve been lambs this morning,
we have heard we are loved and known,
and now it’s time to put on our shepherd hats,
I want you to look around
and notice who is missing this morning,
think about who you haven’t seen for a while,
this isn’t a rhetorical point
I want you to take a moment and pick one person or family
you haven’t seen here for a while.
Everyone got someone in mind?
Okay, now it’s your turn to be the shepherd
this week I want you to reach out to that person,
write them a note,
give them a call.
It doesn’t have to be complicated
just a simple I noticed you were gone,
I missed you
And in this way they will know they are cared for,
that they are known,
that Jesus is with them wherever they are in life,
just like he promised. Amen
All Saints' Sunday
Psalm 34:1-10, 22
1 John 3:1-3
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the one who names us children of God. Amen
Our readings for today,
this All Saint’s Sunday,
make it abundantly clear
that life as a saint,
that is a baptized child of God
is not easy.
John of Patmos, in his vision,
sees a great multitude gathered around the throne of the lamb,
and what seems to qualify them to be there
is that they had passed through some great ordeal,
persecution and martyrdom perhaps
and now finally, having washed their robes in the blood of the lamb,
a rather ironic image symbolizing forgiveness from Jesus
they are free to worship God day and night,
no longer afflicted by hunger, thirst, heat or sorrow.
In the beatitudes from Matthew
Jesus names those blessed by God
whose earthly life indicate that no such blessing is present,
those who mourn,
are poor in spirit,
who seek righteousness
and especially those who are persecuted for the sake of Jesus.
And Jesus makes clear
that his followers can expect to be persecuted,
‘those who want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me’ Jesus tells the disciples.
Contrary to the false gods of society
who promise to make life immediately better,
given the right incentive of course,
our God names the reality
that it is often darkest before the dawn,
that things will get harder before they get easier
and God promises that it will be worth it,
it will be worth it to participate in the struggle
to live on earth the ways of heaven.
Because in the words of the great multitude
standing before the throne and the lamb
“Salvation belongs to our God”
that is the simple truth of it,
salvation belongs to our God,
and what is interesting about this great multitude
proclaiming this great truth
is that it is an all inclusive crowd,
people from every nation and tribe,
proclaiming in all the languages of the earth
that salvation belongs to our God.
I think we’re suspicious of labeling something as true,
especially when it seems like many of the things
we have trusted as true
have proven themselves false
but truth transcends nationality and language
and here all nationalities and languages
are proclaiming the truth.
truth transcends time as well,
it was this truth that our ancestors knew,
the saints whom we remember today
and it is the truth that we intend on passing to the next generation,
and in all honesty,
that is a struggle,
we wonder how do we pass along this message of salvation from our God
to people who are suspicious of truth claims
and who are skeptical of the need for salvation
Well, we build on the work of the saints who have gone before us.
We remember their faithfulness and perseverance
as they faced the struggles of their time,
we are inspired by how their legacy continues
and we are thankful for the faith
that they passed on to us,
entrusting us with the present and the future.
This past week I attended the fall theological conference
for the Nebraska synod pastors.
The topic was reformation,
particularly looking to the future
now that the commemoration of the 500th anniversary is past.
The gospel and our tradition call us to continue to reform,
to live on earth as in heaven.
One speaker, former presiding Bishop Mark Hansen
made an important distinction,
in his discussion of the future of the church,
the distinction between nostalgia and living memory.
Nostalgia, he named as a virus,
a virus that gets in the way of living in the present.
Nostalgia, is remembering the good old days,
naming them as a better time
and longing to go back so badly
that churches infected with the virus
attempt to replicate the good old days
using the same techniques, with the same expectations.
Nostalgia provides a buffer against cultural change,
which is another way of saying that it prevents churches from being culturally relevant.
It is okay for us to remember when Sunday school was filled to the brim,
it’s okay for us to lament that for very practical reasons
we don’t have that kind of attendance anymore.
What is not okay
is to throw up our hands and say it’s hopeless,
and it’s a shame that people just don’t come anymore
and then continue doing things the way they were done
in the good old days.
What the gospel calls for,
what God calls for is living memory,
which Bishop Hansen defined as
being oriented in the narrative of the people of God
and through it being turned toward God’s promised future.
In other words
If you don’t take time to remember where you’ve come from
you’ll have a hard time knowing where to go in the future.
We see God calling for living memory again and again in the scriptures,
the Israelites are told to tell the story of their ancestors,
before they enter the promised land,
to remember how they were a wandering people
so that when they take possession of the promised land,
they will remember what it was like to be wanderers
and they will treat other wanderers with hospitality.
Jesus started his ministry
by going into the synagogue,
reading from a scroll of the prophets
and telling the people that the scripture had been fulfilled in their hearing,
he was locating himself within the memory and the mission of his people,
to provide a way to understand why he was going to do the things he did,
heal the sick, preach good news to the poor
and ultimately give his life for the sake of the world.
Jesus calls us to this living memory as well,
each time we gather around the table
we hear the story of Jesus’ last night with the disciples
and his command to remember,
to break the bread and drink the wine in remembrance of him,
a remembering the recalls us to the gift of forgiveness
that Jesus has given us,
a gift he has called us to share with others.
In this command to remember
Jesus calls us even deeper
toward the promised future of God,
where there will be enough for all to eat,
as people from all nations, tribes and languages
gather together to worship God and the lamb.
We remember the saints today, and each year
because we love them and miss them yes,
but also because remembering them
locates us in our story,
a story of a people who came as immigrants and refugees,
who worked hard to form a community
where they could worship in their own language
and serve the God of salvation,
and when the younger generations spoke a different language
the worship changed with the community
so that the message could continue to be shared,
we are a community that supported missionaries both near and far,
a community who took seriously the job of instructing children in the faith,
this is a community that has been present for over 125 years
one that still holds the values of our ancestors
even as we find new ways to achieve the same goals of worship, service and learning.
And yes, this is not always easy,
we struggle with change
but there is one thing that will never change,
who we are and whose we are.
Baptized children of God.
Hear again the words from 1 John
“Beloved we are God’s children now, what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.”
Amen Thanks be to God
Pastor Emily Johnson preaches weekly at Christ Lutheran. These are manuscripts of her sermons given at Christ Lutheran. Feel free to engage with them in the comments section of the blog.