Sermon: Easter 4 RCL A – The Shepherd

The podcast is available here.

The service via YouTube is available here.

As we are in the great outdoors today, I thought I would share with you a recent environmental event and study that comes out of California.

It seems that the California Department of Transportation recently found over 200 dead crows on the highways and given that we already dealing with one pandemic there was real concern that the crows may have died from Avian Flu. A Pathologist examined the remains of all the crows, and, to everyone’s relief, confirmed the problem was not Avian Flu. The cause of death appeared to be from vehicular impacts. However, during analysis it was noted that varying colors of paints appeared on the bird’s beaks and claws. By analyzing these paint residues it was found that 98% of the crows had been killed by impact with motorcycles, while only 2% were killed by cars.

The Agency then hired an Ornithological Behaviorist to determine if there was a cause for the disproportionate percentages of motorbike kills versus car kills. The Ornithological Behaviorist quickly concluded that when crows eat road kill, they always have a look-out crow to warn of danger. They discovered that while all the lookout crows could shout “Cah!”, not a single one could shout “Motorcycle!”

At this point, I am beginning to wonder if all this isolation is effecting my mental stability.

So we are getting back to nature today. We don’t have any crows around and I’m fairly certain that if a sheep showed up in Mary’s backyard we would be having a bit of mutton alongside that big ol’ fish I caught last weekend.

Ok… enough silliness for one day. Sheep and shepherds.

Today, the closest time most of us come into contact with sheep is when we put on a wool sweater. As for the shepherd, it is imagery that we know from pastoral paintings, but it is a role that we know very little about. Yet, in the time of Jesus and even today in the Middle East, the shepherd still plays a very vital role, which accounts for the high number of times sheep and shepherd are mentioned in Holy Scripture. We are most familiar with the appearance of the shepherds in at the nativity, but they appear 246 more times.

I’ve always thought of the sheep as being a relatively stupid animal, but it turns out they are extremely intelligent. After being separated for years they can remember individual sheep and humans. They display emotion, primarily with their ears (although they will wag their tails like a dog when happy). They form very close bonds with one another and even have best friends/sheep. If they get to feeling ill, they know which plant to eat to make themselves feel better. They are highly independent, but love to socialize. And they do in fact know the sound of their masters voice. You can go online and watch videos of a flock of sheep with person after another calling to them and the sheep could care less, but when the master calls, they stop and come running. It is quite impressive. (I would show it to you, but the copyright police would come after me.)

When the weather is good, the sheep are allowed to graze the countryside and the shepherd watches over them with his rod (“Your rod and your staff they comfort me”), a long stick with a knot on the end, which is good for bonking wolves on the head and protection from would be thieves. However, when the weather turns bad, the sheep are taken to the sheepfold. This is an enclosure that is surrounded by a rock wall (about three feet wide at the base and narrowing at the top) that is about six feet tall. At the top of the wall are placed very thorny vines to keep out thieves and predatory animals. There is a low building on the inside for when the weather gets worse. Finally, there is one entrance, one gate into the fold. At night, the gate is where the shepherd sleeps in order to keep the sheep in and the riff-raff out.

Now, hear the lesson again: Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way (who climbs over the wall and through the thorny vines) is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate (the only gate) is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. (They are very intelligent animals, remembering a human for years after they have been absent) He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. (In the video – that I can’t show you – the sheep do not listen to anyone else.)

Jesus said, “I am the gate. (I am the one place where you may enter into the safety of the sheepfold.) Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. (He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters.) The thief comes (climbing the wall and breaking in) only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. (“…and my cup is running over.”)

The Lord accomplishes all this. He is the gate. Through his life, he gives us water to drink, nourishment, one another, green pastures, security, and more. As he said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” He came so that we could declare with the Psalmist, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.” But here’s the funny bit (but not, Haha funny). The atheist philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, stated it best, “If Christians want me to believe in their redeemer, they need to look more redeemed.” The author, Marcellino D’Ambrosio, reflected on this statement: “To Nietzsche most Christians looked just as burdened, clueless and lost as everybody else. When he looked into their eyes, he did not see hope, excitement, joy, and a sense of purpose. They seemed to be still wandering around the Sinai desert, emaciated and anemic; their faces full more of impossibilities than possibilities.” (Source)

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. Jesus came that we may have life and have it abundantly. Nietzsche would ask, if that is true, why do so many Christians appear to be in great want? Why do their lives not reflect abundance, fullness? Maybe Jesus gave us a clue: “All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them… The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.” Why do we, though we are in fact very rich, appear to be paupers? Answer: I think, on occasion, we listen to the thieves and the bandits. Jesus says that he gives us all we need in order to live in abundance and joy, but then a thief comes along and says, “You would have a better life, if….” “You could experience joy, if….” “You could live in abundance of life, if….” That “if” works itself out in flagrant and subtle ways. Whichever the case, that “if” drives you to grab for more, instead of finding joy in what you have. That “if” pushes your eye to the future and what could be, instead of now and the blessings of today. That “if” does so many things: drives wedges in happy relationships, brings addiction, robs time, destroys families, conquers the joy of the present moment, and ultimately, that “if” bankrupts any possibility of an abundant life.

I shared this with you several years ago, but it is worth hearing again: Brennan Manning, in the Ragamuffin Gospel, writes about Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. The Rabbi had a heart attack and was near death. A good friend came to see him who reports that the Rabbi, with great effort, said to him, “Sam, I feel only gratitude for my life, for every moment I have lived. I am ready to go. I have seen so many miracles in my lifetime.” After a pause while he caught his breath, the Rabbi continued, “Never once in my life did I ask God for success or wisdom or power or fame. I asked God for wonder, and He gave it to me.”

The Rabbi never had much time for the “ifs” in his life and at the end of life, he had nothing but gratitude.

The “if”… the thief is no shepherd. That bandit comes into our lives only to steal and kill and destroy. Therefore, turn to the Shepherd of your life and follow him. In him and in the life he gives is true happiness, abundance, wonder; for when we no longer want, we’ll discover that we have all we need.

And on that, I hope that I can practice what I preach.

Let us pray: Father of Heaven and earth, hear our prayer and show us the way to peace. Guide each effort of our lives so that our faults and sins may not keep us from the peace You promise. May the new life of grace You give through the Eucharist make our love for You grow and keep us in the joy of Your Kingdom. Amen.

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