Easter 4C – May 8, 2022
St. Paul’s, Bellingham – Easter 4C – May 8, 2022
Psalm 23 (Acts 9:36-43 & John 10:22-30)
The Rev. Rachel Endicott
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Today, we have one foot in each of two worlds. In the U.S., the 2nd Sunday in May is marked as Mother’s Day. Many of us might be getting ready to call our mothers, remember our mothers, or gather for a meal with our mothers. In our church calendar, the Fourth Sunday of Easter is in all three years of our lectionary cycle is known as Good Shepherd Sunday. The Collect starts us off with mention of Jesus as the Good Shepherd and this year we have both Psalm 23 which focuses on us following the Lord as “my shepherd”. The Gospel reading from John’s Gospel where Jesus talks about those he has come to shepherd being sheep and emphasizes his coaxing them by voice and his care that he uses in protecting them. The emphatic language he uses is that “No one will snatch them out of my hand.”
For me, we might be tempted to see Good Shepherd Sunday in a warm and fuzzy way. In my former church, my choir director emphasized that dimension. I remember the first year when I was there and came into church to discover small fluffy stuffed sheep on various pieces of church furniture. Not only was there a sheep on the organ and the piano, but when I went to preach there was a sheep hanging over the front of the ambo. I think just about the only place that didn’t have a sheep was on the altar.
But this warm, fluffiness hides something if you’ve ever had anything to do with actual real-life sheep. They can be – if freshly washed – fluffy and friendly. But they can also be not very bright, headstrong in a not-so-great way, and solely focused on being well-adapted grazing machines. A number of years ago, I was hiking along a small lane in Wales and came upon a sheep with his (or her, I’m not sure which) head stuck through a fence. The sheep had managed to push through the fence at an odd angle to nibble on some tasty grass outside the field, but then couldn’t pull back. So, I did my good deed for the day, climbed across the verge and turned its head so it could pull back through. And was I thanked for my good dead? No, instead the sheep treated me like a monster out to eat it. And perhaps, we are like that sheep a bit. Not always thankful for Jesus’s care and nurture of us as his sheep.
So who are Jesus’ sheep? After hearing the lesson from John’s Gospel, we might be tempted to believe that this is a small exclusive herd – perhaps because of the text including Jesus’ response to “the Jews” about them not believing. But – remembering Mother Lindsay’s sermon from a few weeks ago – John uses “the Jews” as shorthand for the religious and political powers that are in conflict with Jesus. Remember, too that in other places Jesus even accuses various of the disciples of having a lack of belief. But they are not cast out.
In today’s world, I think we forget about this all-encompassing love of Jesus for all people. And, in the present time, it shows up in all sorts of ways that are making the daily news. We have wars, like that between Russia and Ukraine, the ongoing conflicts in the Holy Land, and so many other places because we forget about our shared humanity and that we are all called to be one flock to use the imagery of sheep and shepherding.
In the Americas, we have the news coming out of El Salvador. If you aren’t already aware, this Diocese has a long-term relationship with the Diocese of El Salvador, particularly in establishing housing for LGBT folks who are cast out from their families and often physically mistreated by others in the community. The recent news, of which Bishop David Alvarado, the Anglican Bishop there, has grave concern, is about the government’s rounding up gang members in the wake of a spate of violence. While at first this may seem like good news, those rounded up – lots of people with unknown possible connections to gangs – are being held with no recourse to lawyers, long periods before they are being released, and some have died in custody in questionable circumstances. The Bishop, in his letter, laments both the gang violence which started this, but also the extreme governmental response. In his letter he specifically requests that “all our parishioners and the Salvadoran People … continue praying for our country, especially for our most vulnerable communities, where poverty and violence are not criminalized, as a Church we stand in solidarity with the families of people unjustly detained and urge the Public Ministry to act duly.”1
And even in the U.S., the recently leaked Supreme Court writings which indicate an overturning of the right of women to have autonomy over their own bodies concerning reproductive health and access to abortion brings a question of treatment of all of God’s people, the sheep of his flock. I wonder, in our country where sexism, racism, and economic discrimination exist, do we really treat all God’s people the same way? It has not been so long in historical terms, which still influence the present, that women were considered either property (of men) or less than men, so for example too unintelligent to vote. Even today, I wonder whether we’d be having the same conversations about abortion if men, rather than women, were the ones who potentially were compelled to carry pregnancies to term and would be more intimately affected by every pregnancy that they were part of generating?
And, yes, in case you’re wondering, The Episcopal Church does have a statement, actually several of them, concerning reproductive rights. The gist of it is that life is precious, given by God and that abortions should not be used “for convenience”. The legislation’s somewhat pastoral response talks about seeking out guidance from clergy and others and consideration about options. But the General Convention resolution from 1967 – reaffirmed by other later conventions – states “That the Episcopal Church express its unequivocal opposition to any legislation on the part of the national or state governments which would abridge or deny the right of individuals to reach informed decisions in this matter and to act upon them.”2
And I feel the need to say one other thing about Jesus’ care for his herd, in light of our tendency to classify people as “us” verses “them”. We can not talk about women who’ve had abortions as “them” because they are us: the woman sitting next to you at church, perhaps your biological mother (as most women who have abortions also carry other pregnancies to term before or after the abortion), your sister, your wife, your best friend, your child’s teacher. And it goes on. We are all part of the beloved flock of Jesus’ lambs.
And lest we make shepherding only about Jesus, remember that we are called to tend and care for Jesus’ flock – all people. Like Peter being asked last week by Jesus to “feed my sheep”, we are to feed his flock, and this is more than just literal, solely about food. It’s figurative. It’s about caring for and nurturing others. And, just in case we want to discount certain people, we have lots of examples of those for whom both Peter and Jesus cared and even raised from the dead. While we often remember that Jesus raises Lazarus, we must not forget of today’s reading in which Peter raised Tabitha, a woman.
So, sisters and brothers, today may be a hard day. It is not just about fluffy sheep. It is about being a world-wide herd, all of whom are loved by Jesus. And let’s not forget that sometimes it’s hard to be part of the herd, where we’re called to both graze and serve alongside those of other genders, economic backgrounds, races, and even political parties. But our loving God invites us to be there with each other, in his presence, with the plentiful flowing water of baptism in which we’re all washed and the nourishing food of the Eucharist to which we are all invited.
1 David Alvarado, letter from the Iglesia Episcopal Anglicana de El Salvador, May 2, 2022 p. 2.
2 General Convention Resolution from 1976 which reaffirmed 1967 Resolution: Acts of Convention: Resolution # 1976-D095 (episcopalarchives.org)