SJF • Easter 4b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.+
The fourth Sunday of Easter is known as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” The collect and the readings remind us that we have a good shepherd whose voice we recognize, a caring shepherd who calls us each by name, a shepherd who places us ahead of himself, and who has laid down his life for us. We are the sheep of his pasture, and he has called us together as a flock, a community.
If you’ve ever driven through the country you can tell just by looking which flocks of sheep are well-cared for and which are neglected. You may not be able to judge a book by its cover, but you can judge a shepherd by his sheep! If you see a group of scraggly, muddy, dirty sheep huddled near a broken-down fence in squalor, miserable and moping, you know what kind of a shepherd they’ve got. And when you see fat and fluffy sheep munching on lush green grass, reclining in the sunshine and taking it easy, you also know something about their shepherd.
So it is that when you look at a church you can discern what kind of relationship that church has with its lord and master — and who the master really is. For not all churches follow the Good Shepherd. Some have had the misfortune to follow wolves dressed as sheep!
A few weeks ago on Channel 13 there was a documentary about Jim Jones and the People’s Temple; or what he called the People’s Temple. The haunting thing about this film is that it wasn’t a Hollywood made-for-TV movie. It was made up of home movies and news footage, expanded with interviews from the small handful of people who survived the mass suicide — or to name it more accurately, the mass murder, that took place in that tropical paradise gone bad.
And as I watched and listened I thought — who could possibly see this man as anything like a Good Shepherd? Even without the final chilling evidence of the mass murder/suicide itself — the video and audio show a man out of control long before that tragic day, an autocrat who could brook no disagreement, a manipulator and power broker. Who can look at the images of the aftermath of the Flavor-Aid cyanide slaughter, over 700 bodies of men and women, and 300 children; who can listen to the audio tape that was recorded during the 45-minute massacre, and say, This is the work of a Good Shepherd? Is it not the work of a thief who came in to rob and steal, a wolf who murders and slays.
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It is easy to see such marks of a bad shepherd. But what does the flock of the Good Shepherd look like? Well, the first thing to note about the community of the Good Shepherd is that, as the reading from the Acts of the Apostles tells us, “there was not a needy person among them.” In the flock of the good shepherd you don’t have one or two fat and happy sheep and dozens of skinny, benighted, forlorn sheep. The community of the good shepherd is marked with the brand of Generosity. Everyone helps out together, pitching in and working together for the benefit of the whole community, not just the profit of one or two at the expense of all.
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I once heard the story of an old man who lived in a small country town. He didn’t have much money; to make a living he did odd jobs in the houses up and down the dusty roads of that country town. He was quite a sight: his shoes rarely matched and his socks never did — when he wore them. He’d decided years before that suspenders were frivolous and a belt a luxury, so he used a strip of leather from an old harness to keep his pants up. He shaved about once a week, but no one knew precisely when it was, as he always seemed to have a three days growth. He would stop at the kitchen doors up and down those dusty country roads and ask if there were any odd jobs to do, anything that needed mending. The surprising thing people learned was that in spite of his personal appearance, his work was always top notch. It seemed odd that a man who was such a raggedy jumble could paint woodwork with such exquisite precision and care. It was always a surprise that someone who appeared so hastily put together could plane a door to make it swing just right, and even patch a leaking pipe so as you’d never know it leaked.
One family in particular took a liking to him and would always have him in to dinner when he stopped by. The children soon learned it wasn’t polite to make fun of his mismatched shoes and his harness belt. In fact, one day the father of the family thought he’d teach his young son a lesson in generosity, and gave the boy a pair of his own shoes, some new socks, and a belt and a jacket, wrapped in a sack, and told the boy to sneak down the road leave them outside the old man’s house at the edge of town.
Later that week the old man appeared, still dressed as always, to ask if any work needed doing. The family said no, but asked him in for dinner, as always. He thanked them and as they sat at table, the father suggested the old man say the thanksgiving, as he had once or twice before. They all closed their eyes and bowed their heads as the old man began. “God is so good. I’ve got so much to be thankful for. I am thankful for these nice folks who have me in to eat, and set a spell. But I want to offer special thanks that just this week someone left some shoes and a bundle of clothes on my porch.” The father opened one eye to glance in his son’s direction and smiled, and saw his son was smiling too. But the prayer wasn’t quite over. The old man continued. “And I thank you, Lord, that just yesterday I met some folks that could really use those clothes. Praise God!”
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That’s the community of the good shepherd! For what is generosity? When you give of your abundance, are you really being generous? When the glass overflows and the water spills our, is that generosity? Isn’t it generosity when you take the half glass that you have and share it with someone else? The community of the good shepherd is generous, generous with the kind of generosity that puts other’s first. The members of the community of the good shepherd so care for the wants of others that it doesn’t occur to them to say, “I need this more than you do.”
And out of this generosity there grows another sign of their community. John the beloved disciple writes, “All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure. Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness… No one who abides in him sins.”
A good member of that flock will not sin against another member of that flock. Now, the root of sin is the opposite of generosity, right? It is self-interest, the attitude that says, my needs come first — the opposite of generosity. That root taps deep, in all of us, right back to the tree that grew in the middle of that other tropical paradise, the garden of Eden, where Eve and Adam put themselves first rather than God. And you know what they got for it, something we’ve all shared in since, the day’s wage of sin, parceled out to all their descendants.
Ralph Woods tells a story, another country story, that illustrates the dead-end of such selfishness very clearly. A farmer heard about some new experimental seed-corn that was reputed to give a much higher yield. Sure enough, the first year he planted it, it brought in a bumper crop. Other farmers in the area saw this, and wanted to know his secret. But he was unwilling to reveal his source. When the neighbors appealed to him to at least sell them some of his corn for seed, he refused that too. He ensured that all his crop — aside from what he stored up for seed the next season, went to feed processing plants. None of his seed corn would fall into his neighbors’ hands. What he didn’t sell, he saved to plant.
Plant he did, and was a bit taken aback to find that the second year crop — while still good, and better than that of his neighbors— wasn’t up to the yield of the previous year. Still, he was doing better than the other farmers; and still he refused to share his secret or his seed-corn.
The third year was devastating. His crop did no better than any of his neighbors — all of them came in a little better than in past years, but nothing like the first year when he had planted his special variety corn.
And finally it hit him: his plans had been undone by the winds that blew over his and his neighbors’ fields. The corn stalks shed their pollen, all of them on all those fields, from the tall tassels swinging in the breezes. It spread enough in the mid-western winds to cross-pollinate all of the corn in the whole area — both his and his neighbors. This natural process increased the yield for his neighbors by as much as it decreased his. How much better off all would have been if he had shared his secret from the get-go, in a community of generosity.
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I said before, like shepherd like sheep. And our Good Shepherd is not selfish; rather he sacrifices his own life for the sake of the flock. And the community of the Good Shepherd similarly shows forth that graceful generosity that comes from placing another first, stepping aside in the dance of charity and love, sharing even when it doesn’t seem like there’s enough.
And isn’t that the message of the gospel, again and again. Think of that woman who found the lost coin after sweeping her house. What did she do after she found that coin? Did she put it back in the sugar jar? No; she threw a party for all of the neighbors round about. That’s generosity.
This is what marks that community, that is what the community of the Good Shepherd looks like: generous, self-giving, pure and orderly. Now, it might not look perfect at first sight. I mean, if there isn’t really enough to go round, and even so they share it all out, well, you might wonder at first about those mismatched shoes, the old harness instead of a belt. But you will sense at once the willingness to share in the work, to be generous and not to place oneself first. That’s what the community of the Good Shepherd looks like.
Is that what Saint James look like? Look around you. Do you see people you are glad to see? Do you see people you help when you can, people you can count on to help you? I know what I have seen, and I hope to continue to see. I’ve seen generosity, and the courage to pitch in. I’ve seen sickness and death, yes, those old bruises we bear because our first parents back in Eden looked out for themselves instead of trusting God. But I have also seen, even in the midst of sickness, even in the face of death, that generosity and sacrifice that is the mark of the Good Shepherd’s flock. I’ve heard him calling each of us by name, and I’ve heard a whole flock of responding voices of a whole flock of people willing to follow where he leads.+