Good Shepherd Sunday 2019


Nothing and no one can snatch us out of the hands of our loving Lord. That’s really all the sermon you need to hear – although it won’t stop me from going on a bit. But whatever else I say, don’t lose track of that core message: no matter how crazy or difficult or scary or chaotic or broken our lives might be, no matter how far we feel from God, we are held, we are loved.

Sometimes it can be hard to hold onto that message, harder still to believe it. When we are in that bleak place, it can be far easier to listen to other “promises”  — for immediate comfort, pleasure, or power. Wayne Muller, a minister and therapist, writes that our soul is “the quiet hollow reed through which the wind of God blows and makes the music that is our life.” But we can fill that hollow reed with other voices if we aren’t attentive.

We can choose to listen to those voices which are persuasive, which are persistent – and which seem to know exactly who we are and what we want—like those ads on Facebook that pop up tailored to whatever I’ve just searched for: durable socks, salt free spices, a book, the best microwave, a vacation. The way these ads are worded often seeks to touch the deepest part of us, the part that yearns for belonging, for recognition. They seek to touch our very souls.

Think of all the places that pretend to be paradise; I just read an ad for a Cambridge hotel that promises to “replenish your soul” with access to shopping sprees and happy hour. And in the most recent AAA magazine, there’s a page headed “Portland Pilgrimage” – but it’s not about holy places, unless you count Holy Donut; it really is all about the best places to get donuts in Portland.

And don’t get me started on political promises….  Jesus knew better. In his conversation with the devil in the wilderness, Jesus rejected political power and authority before he ever began his public ministry. And in today’s gospel, Jesus recognizes the temple authorities as ones who have chosen not to hear his voice, who don’t let themselves hear his words of welcome and love and belonging, but listen instead to the siren song of power and position. (Now Jesus doesn’t turn his back on them. He will continue to speak to them – “I have told you,” he says when they ask him to “tell us plainly, are you the Messiah” – always the invitation is there, and always the choice not to listen.)

Listening to the words of Jesus may not lead us to sunny beaches or the best donuts, to halls of power and or places of honor; they probably won’t even help me find a pair of really comfy socks. Mind you, I could totally binge on maple bacon donuts at Holy Donuts, and my aging feet delight in comfortable socks, but Jesus – Jesus offers the bread of life and the garments of salvation. His promises are for now and for eternity. He insists that we already belong to him. “I have called you by name. You are mine.”

And he promises that nothing and no one can change that. “No one will snatch them out of my hand.”

However, hearing his voice is only the first step. Jesus does indeed want a relationship with each of us, but it doesn’t stop there. After all, after saying, “My sheep hear my voice,” he says, “I know them, and they follow me.” They follow me.We are expected to respond to his love by loving: “As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” And it’s more than loving socks and donuts, more than loving friends and family, more than loving those who share my views and my lifestyle. As another advertisement says (and this one I like), it’s one for a sign to put on your lawn:  “Love your neighbor. Your black, brown, immigrant, disabled, religiously different, LGBTQ, fully human neighbor.” No exceptions. Or as Jesus says: “Whatever you do to the least of these my sisters and brothers, you do to me.”

The snarky part of me wants to say that those who ignore these words of Jesus, who cage children and deny health care and housing and even school lunches, who destroy the earth for profit and seek not peace but deliberate antagonism, cannot call themselves Christian. But Jesus also says not to judge.

It’s just that sometimes the state of the world feels so overwhelming that I lie awake in the night, anxious and obsessing. I recite psalms – but then argue with them. This past week it’s been the 23rdpsalm:

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. – But I do want, and there are so many people in desperate want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures –What of those dying of hunger in our cities?

He leads me beside still waters—What of Flint Michigan, whose water remains poisoned?

He restores my soul – Oh, yes, please, would you? Now? Tonight?

And leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.  – Ah, here we are back to following Jesus: lead me in paths of righteousness.  No matter what advertisers tell us, life isn’t really “all about me.” It’s about those paths of righteousness, about being called and loved by Jesus, and then joining him in his work.

And I need to hold before me the words of John’s revelation, his image of how those who have suffered “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.”

I want everything fixed in this life – preferably today – but Scripture points to eternity. Our job is to hear and follow Jesus faithfully, as best we can, knowing that those beyond our ability to save are still held in his hands, as are we, and not even death can change that.

“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”