Good Shepherd Sunday Sermon- May 3, 2020

Sermon for May 3, 2020


     We have all heard of gated communities. This refers to clusters of very wealthy people with multi-million dollar homes, and you cannot enter unless you pass by a guard or the gate opened remotely electronically after your identity is established and permission given. In a parable found in the gospel of Luke, Jesus told of a rich man who enjoyed all kinds of luxuries. But at his gate a poor beggar named Lazarus was deposited. But the rich man’s gate was never opened for the likes of Lazarus. Here was a gated home that kept the poor man out.

Today is the Fourth Sunday of Easter: remember Easter is not a single date on the calendar but for the faithful it is 50 day celebration. But it is not only a number of days, but an eternal festival of joy, for we have ever with us our risen Lord and Savior Jesus. For the church it is a tradition to speak of this Sunday as “Good Shepherd Sunday”. The Psalm for today is the beloved 23rd Psalm. I made sure the banner was put up for you to see with the comforting words “The Lord is my Shepherd.” The reading assigned for today from 1 Peter spoke of Jesus, the Shepherd and Guardian of our souls.

In the Gospel we hear of Jesus giving a “figure of speech”, talking about sheep and the work of a shepherd, and the dangers of thieves and bandits or as one commentator translated “rip-off” artists. The background was Jesus’ serious discussion with important religious leaders of his day called the Pharisees, or the “Separated Ones”. They thought of themselves separate from the usual crowds of people because of their devotion to scripture and pious practices. They thought of themselves as the gatekeepers of true religion. Jesus was critical of them because they had just kicked out a man from the synagogue. This was a man who was born blind and Jesus healed him. This man believed in Jesus and worshiped him as his Lord and Savior. This displeased the Pharisees because they faulted Jesus for healing the man on the Sabbath. So we can guess whom Jesus was referring to as the thieves and rip-off artists, the very Pharisees who were in front of him. So when Jesus was talking about shepherds and sheep in a figurative way his purpose was not to give us a pretty picture beside green pastures and still waters. He was warning of dangers to people of faith, even from those who claim to be religious and righteous.

To emphasize his role as both shepherd and guardian of our souls, Jesus used the figure of speech of ‘gate’: “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” We are more familiar with the figure of speech of Jesus as our shepherd, and we have pictures in our sanctuaries of Jesus carrying the lost lamb back to the fold. But let us spend some time meditating on Jesus’ words, and he said it twice, of being the gate for the sheep. Certainly we know that Jesus did not mean his people, the church, is not like an exclusive gated community only welcoming the faultless and famous. He said, and this is the key passage I believe, “Whoever enters by me will be saved.” There is no clearer gospel message. The same meaning is found in Jesus’ well-known words, “For God so loved the world that that he gave his only Son. Whoever believes in him will not perish, but have the gift of eternal life.” By trusting Jesus, God’s revelation of love for this world, you enter shared life with him: a life of no condemnation but God’s compassion and total forgiveness. By trusting Jesus, God’s revelation of love for the world, you enter into life with him that death cannot cancel for Jesus made it clear that all who believe in him, even though they die yet they shall live.

I read one commentator who feared we can make Jesus words of good news, “all who enter by me will be saved” routine and file under the category of “so what else is new?” The commentator called us back to the background of the gospel reading: just think of the man born blind and how he was saved. Before he believed you can say that Jesus entered into his life and commanded him to wash his eyes in the Temple pool. He could see! Saved from a life of blindness. Even more, it was thought his blindness was judgment from God for sin. Jesus dispelled that idea with a clear act of compassion for the man revealing the glory of God. When this man was thrown out of the worshiping community by the self-righteous he was saved by the welcome of Jesus who made it clear he was under his protection, eternal life in other words or permanent fellowship with Jesus. For this man born blind, being saved made a real difference in his life, new and abundant life.

All who enter by Jesus will be saved. Jesus as the gate for the sheep means protection: we always have Him to turn to. Jesus, the gate is always open for those who are weary, heavy laden, and sick and tired of life’s heavy loads. So much in life can worry us. It is natural to worry but it can get the best of us and diminish our potential. As the reading from 1 Peter hinted, we can stray from Jesus, the Shepherd and Guardian of our souls. No wonder Jesus used two figures of speech: as the shepherd he seeks and saves the lost, he doesn’t ever count any of us as not worth saving. Human judgments are not Jesus’ judgments. Shepherd is a very active figure of speech; it does not mean Jesus is standing around. Jesus does not avoid our trouble, for “even when we walk through dark times, even the dark valley of eh shadow of death, he is with us to comfort. Jesus is also the Gate, the Guardian for in him we know we count, and sins are not counted against us. For as John the Baptist proclaimed in the Gospel of John, Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

In my first parish a man, a member of the congregation I served, died tragically at the young age of 29. The funeral was so large it was held in the community’s Catholic Church, much larger than my tiny Lutheran church building. Afterwards his wife wanted to give something to the church in her husband’s memory. Initially she gave two prints portraying Jesus as the Good Shepherd: finding the lost lamb and carrying the wounded lamb over his shoulder. But in the sanctuary the prints looked small hanging from bare walls. She wasn’t satisfied so she took them back. She came up with another gift. It was an expensive cross, and not something tacky made from plastic. It was wood with a carving of Jesus nailed to the cross, in other words a crucifix. It was not small, but was meant to be mounted in the center of the sanctuary. Initially I was concerned thinking some people may be uncomfortable with a crucifix, front and center, preferring an empty cross. But thankfully it was fully accepted. I share this memory because it came to mind as a parable. Pictures of Jesus as the Good Shepherd in a pastoral scene are wonderful yet somehow incomplete. Life is not always pretty. As Luther wrote we have to deal with sin, death, and the power of the devil. But the portrayal of Jesus graphically on the cross reminds us that he is the Gate for the sheep, that through him we are saved, through him we are forgiven of all sins; through him we are never alone in our struggles, and the crucified one is also the risen one. Risen from the dead and Lord, he still bears the marks of the cross reminding us he is with you and me in our suffering and nothing at all, not even death can separate us from his steadfast love and mercy.

Notice what Jesus said after the good news, “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” Freed from the fear of condemnation or the ultimate dead end of death, we are free to go out every day and know opportunities to share the joy of faith, the love of God assured by Jesus. We can witness freely and joyfully with our words about Jesus and our deeds of love. In this time of covid-19 sickness we hear on TV that we are all in this together. As Christians we know that Jesus is with us as we together encourage, console and care for one another. Scripture assures us that nothing we do for Jesus to help others is ever in vain.

There was an article in the recent New Yorker magazine comparing the responses of various states to the Covid-19 pandemic. Leaders that listened to health care professionals, the infectious disease experts and their warnings and directions did far better in reducing infections than states that pushed aside the health care pros in favor of politicians with their words of reassurance. It is important to listen to those who know, and not only to those who may be trying just to comfort us but not treat the sickness with all out seriousness. The text spoke of Jesus as Gate and Shepherd, and that his sheep follow him because they know his voice. How important for faith to never stop listening to the voice of Jesus: He is the Gate, through him we are welcomed and beloved; his is the Shepherd, who calls us by name, ever following us with goodness and mercy.