- Parish House
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter – John 10:11-18
The Rev. Dr. Kate Alexander
It is never boring at a downtown church. I can attest to this based on the fact that there is a bus stop right outside my office. More often than not, people are outside my window waiting for their bus. This would be unremarkable, except for the fact that there are some eccentric regulars who show up, who are, well, loud. One guy wearing ear buds belts out songs at the top of his lungs. And wildly off-key, I might add. Of course he always arrives early and has plenty of time to sing before his bus comes. There’s also an older couple that argues each week at the stop. And they don’t just bicker. We’re talking full out shouting with expletives, and you can catch every word. The other day, this made for an interesting premarital counseling session with a couple inside my office.
Whenever I hear our louder neighbors outside my window, I think, thank God for city bus drivers. Not only do they transport people routinely throughout the city. They are also on the front lines of whatever battles people are fighting. They pick up the singers and the fighters, the poor and the rich, the stable and the very unstable. They see it all. And the drivers take them all where they need to go.
Now, it might seem far-fetched, but if Jesus were giving his “I am the good shepherd” speech today, I think he might update the metaphor for us. Instead of a shepherd, he might be inclined to say that he is something like the good city bus driver. I’m afraid that in our affection for the image of Jesus as the good shepherd, we really have tamed what he actually said. We love the idea of a gentle pastor who calls us each by name and searches us out when we’re lost. Picture the popular image of Jesus with a little lamb over his shoulders. But his speech was far edgier than that. I think a bus driver making a scene might be closer to what really happened.
Jesus, you see, had just healed a blind man on the sabbath, and the religious leaders where outraged. Maybe they were jealous, or angry that Jesus was breaking rules, or maybe legitimately concerned about where Jesus got his power from. Who was this Jesus anyway? A leader who didn’t go to seminary or even get a lay license to preach, now claiming authority over the clergy. Our passage today is the second half of a longer speech by Jesus. Jesus tells the religious authorities that he is both the sheep gate and the shepherd, the way itself and the leader tho show people that way. The authorities would have been shocked at the shepherd idea. Remember that shepherds were pretty low in the social order, even scruffy compared to Pharisees in their fancy robes and offices. It was a deeply offensive snub. The speech is full of thinly veiled references to thieves and wolves, those who steal or just don’t care about the sheep under their care. In today’s context, it would be like a bus driver coming into my office, or better yet, into a bishop’s office and saying, “I’m the real leader here. I care for these people more than you do. I know them by name, and they know me. I’m on the front lines with the lost and the least, like that blind guy I just healed. I take them all of them where they need to go. And what’s more, I know God better than you do, and God sent me to show them the way to God. I’ll even lay down my life for them. What about you?”
Jesus’ speech didn’t go over very well, as you can imagine. People were conflicted about it. “At these words,” the next verses read, “the Jews were again divided. Many of them said, ‘He is demon-possessed and raving mad’… but others said, ‘These are not the sayings of a man possessed by a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?’”
We would do well to remember the edgier side of this story. When Jesus confronted the establishment, he essentially asked them who or what they followed. Rules? Greed? Power? The status quo? He asked if they loved those things more than mercy, more, for example, than the restoration of a man’s sight on the sabbath. Wouldn’t he say the same to us?
On this Good Shepherd Sunday, the question is: who or what do we follow? We know that the world around us provides plenty of suggestions for our allegiance. We are bombarded by ads suggesting that we sooth our appetites by buying more stuff, or that we find unhealthy ways to fill the voids in our lives, all for a price. The secular religion that surrounds us is one of greed and consumption. But it’s an empty creed. It seems that not much has changed since the 4th century, when St. Augustine said that the problem is that our wills are misdirected. We direct our appetites to the wrong things, thinking we’ll find peace and contentment in all the wrong places. The Christian path, he said, is the gradual redirecting of our wills to the right end, ultimately to Christ, the true source of good and abundant life.
The gospel of John tells us so beautifully that God sent the Son so that we might have abundant life, filled with grace and truth. We are all searching for abundant life. For wholeness and connection. The Son, the sheep gate, the good shepherd, the bus driver making a scene in the church – that’s the one to show us the way. Jesus promises that if we stick with him, we’ll find more joy and truth than we’ll find anywhere else.
Today, I wonder if Jesus might have opted for a more modern speech about being a city bus driver on the front lines of humanity. That driver has a speech to give about how God sees us and everybody else – with a merciful eye and a distinct lack of interest in whatever status or prestige or false fixes we chase after. That driver gets each and every one of us where we need to go. However, as fun as the Jesus as bus driver metaphor is, I’m not quite ready to toss out the old good shepherd metaphor. It reminds us that thinking of ourselves as sheep is strangely helpful.
We as a flock only make sense in relationship to our shepherd. Barbara Brown Taylor describes us like this. “So if sometimes you have trouble hearing the voice of your shepherd, be patient with yourself. . . and while you are at it, be patient with the rest of us too. You cannot follow a shepherd all by yourself, after all. You are stuck with this flock, or some flock, and everyone knows that sheep are, well, sheep. They panic easily and refuse to be pushed. They make most of their decisions based on their appetites and they tend to get into head-butting contests for no reason at all. But stick with the flock. It is where your shepherd can be found, which makes it your best bet not only for survival, but also for joy.”
Today [at the 10:30 service] we have the honor of welcoming two more little sheep into the flock, Andrew and Thomas. As infants, their appetites are pretty straightforward – they need sustenance, security, and love. And they already have instincts for giving and loving in return. As they grow, we’ll do our best to nurture those instincts. Gradually, their wills will adjust to seek Christ in their lives. And if we stick together as the flock, those little boys will find their shepherd who will take them where they need to go. Like us, it’s their best bet for abundant life and true joy.