Life in the Flock

+ A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter (Year B) at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on April 25, 2021 +

Text: 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:10b-18


Do you want to improve your life?
It’s easy!
Don’t believe me?
Just watch TV or scroll through Facebook or listen to the radio.
And soon you’ll realize that you’re just one purchase, one pill, one…something away from the life you’ve always dreamed of.

There’s no denying that there are a lot of demands on our lives.
Maybe it’s stress from our jobs, navigating online school, or the challenges of parenting during a pandemic.
And really, for more than a year now we’ve put our lives on hold to protect our own health and the wellbeing of our community—sacrificing hugging our loved ones, going out for a meal, even worshiping in person for the betterment of our society.

Perhaps that’s why there seem to be so many solutions that promise to improve our lives.
Feeling down?
Maybe try some retail therapy.
Feeling isolated?
Just scroll through Instagram or Facebook to connect with your distant friends.
Feeling the weight of your role in a large multinational corporation more focused on profit than the wellbeing of their employees or the planet?
Have you tried turning off your email and going for a walk? Grab a coffee—we’ll call that “self-care.”

But ultimately, these promised fixes never seem to solve the problems.
The walk ends, the coffee buzz fades, and the pressure to check your work email finally overwhelms your resistance and you find yourself in the same work grind.
Your time on social media becomes mindless scrolling—or worse, doom scrolling—or you start feeling a strange sense of inadequacy because your last post didn’t generate as many likes or comments as you thought it would.
And that thing you ordered online? Wow, it does not look like it did in the pictures.

There are just so many claims around us that promise a better life that just fail to deliver.
Like how switching your car insurance will not only save you money, it will fulfill all your dreams.
Or how this is the politician, or the party, or the president that will finally fix everything so we should blindly follow their lead.
Or how a heavily armed police force will somehow bring peace, security, and prosperity to our streets.

When you really look hard at these promises, you might start to realize that they all have some things in common.
They’re all rooted in narratives of fear—of scarcity, of loneliness, of your worth being determined by what you produce.
And each one of them emphasizes the individual over the community—that the people around you are a measuring stick to compare yourself to, your competition for limited resources, or even a dangerous threat you should guard against.
Each solution one promises to put your life ahead of everyone else.

I wonder if these types of empty promises would fit what Jesus had in mind when he talked today about the hired hands.
Those who promised to care for the sheep but fled at the first sign of danger.
Those who seem to be on your side but are quickly revealed as faulty, flimsy, even flippant when you need help the most.
Those who were never truly there for your benefit in the first place, but only for their own gain.
Those who saw you as nothing more than a source of profit for them.
Those who would eagerly seek to add more sheep to their flock but will abandon them in a heartbeat.

Latimore, Kelly. Good Shepherd, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

Perhaps these types of promises are what Jesus is comparing himself to when he says to us today, “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd.”
Every year on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, as our gospel texts move from hearing accounts of the Resurrection to hearing about the implications of the Resurrection for our life together, we hear Jesus tell us that he is the Good Shepherd—or the True Shepherd.
And we can recognize that Jesus is the true shepherd because he has laid down his life for the sheep.
That we can see how Jesus, our God made flesh, has come among us in pure love, was born as one of us, lived as one of us to teach us what it means to live together in community.
That rather than bringing quick fixes with shallow solutions, Jesus came that we might have life and have it abundantly.

Every year we hear this Good Shepherd Discourse, as it’s sometimes called, from the tenth chapter of John, and it can be easy to disconnect this idea of Jesus as the Good Shepherd from what happened in the ninth chapter of John.
Just before this, Jesus finds a man who was born blind who had been rejected by his family, who was forced to live on the streets and beg to scratch out a living.
And when Jesus found this man, out on the margins of society, he healed him by restoring his sight.
But even after this man’s healing, he was again rejected by his family and his faith community—driven out to the margins and left abandoned and alone.
And yet again Jesus goes and finds the man, embraced him, and brought him into a new family, a new community where he would be loved and accepted as he is.

That’s the context of this text we heard today.
This whole chapter is an explanation by Jesus about what he has just done.
That unlike the hired hands who ignore the sheep on the margins, who flee when things get a little messier than they anticipated, Jesus has come to bring all the sheep into the flock.
To bring all people into a community where they are loved and valued as they are; embraced in all their uniqueness and messiness and diversity.
A community rooted in that self-giving, abundant, and steadfast love of God we have experienced in Christ, our Good Shepherd.
A community that cares for the flourishing not of a select few, but of the entire flock.
A flock based in trusting our shepherd who deeply knows us and loves us and embraces us beyond our wildest understanding.
And a flock, by the way, that is much larger, much more expansive than we can even imagine, because all people are deeply known and loved and embraced by Jesus just as much as we are.

Now, since it’s Good Shepherd Sunday, it’s traditional for the preacher to throw down some knowledge about sheep that they either just learned that week or is purely apocryphal.
And to be clear, I have never lived on a farm and really don’t know all that much about sheep, so I’ll be fulfilling this traditional part of the sermon by sharing some new-found knowledge.
According to what I read online this week, flocks are vitally important to the life of the sheep—perhaps even more important than the presence of a shepherd.
Flocks develop into a sort of family, a deep connection and bond.
And there is nothing that gives more anxiety, that is more dangerous, more life threatening, than for a sheep to be separated from their flock.
Because when a sheep becomes threatened, when a wolf appears and the sheep can’t flee, they will flock together to protect the more vulnerable individuals within a larger group.

Now, in this metaphor of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, it’s pretty clear what our role is.
We are not the shepherd, we are the sheep that Christ has brought into the fold.
And the author of First John urges us that, since we have known the love of Christ in this way, we should also model our lives together in the flock on the example of our Good Shepherd.
That we should use our lives to show that same self-giving, abundant, and steadfast love that we have known and share it with everyone around us—not just in word or speech, but in truth and action.

And if we know love by Christ’s laying down his life for us, perhaps we can start to see what we have to lay down as well.
Perhaps we see how we must lay down the idea that my life is more important than your life.
Perhaps we must lay down the idea that there are not enough resources for us all to thrive.
Perhaps we must lay down the delusion that my wellbeing can somehow exist without the wellbeing of the whole community.
And maybe, just maybe, when we lay these things down, we finally recognize what they were in the first place: false promises from the hired hands that had actually been burdens all along.
And by sheering them off from ourselves, we might feel the weights lifted from our shoulders as we are freed to live in the abundant, beloved community to which God has called us.
We allow ourselves to fully live together in the flock.
And when those wolves do appear, those forces that actively seek to destroy community and undermine human dignity, we will recognize that we cannot exclude the members of our flock on the margins, but rather we bring them all the closer, into an embrace of love and safety that will protect them from danger.

Now this is a tall order to be sure.
Especially when we cannot see our Good Shepherd among us, guiding us in right pathways.
This is a word that may sound more like condemnation to our ears when we honestly look at our lives and compare them to the example of Jesus.
I mean, just speaking for myself, I am well aware of the material goods I possess and have yet refused to help all my siblings in need.
I know that I have failed in living into this community in ways known and unknown.
But remember, beloved, that this is not a formula for us to earn God’s love.
This is not how we punch the ticket into life everlasting.
God has already come down.
God has already laid down God’s life for us by coming among us in pure love so we can experience the abundance of life God intends for us.
And God has also given us an example in Christ Jesus, showing us how we can experience the fullness of that abundant life.
Because, just as the ultimate purpose of Jesus’ coming among us was not for him to die, but for us to experience the fullness of resurrection life, neither is self-denial or sacrifice or even death the purpose of us laying down our lives.
Rather we lay down our lives, following Christ’s guiding, for nothing less than the flourishing of our whole community.
And we have seen how to experience that flourishing, that abundant life—by shifting the focus from ourselves, by throwing off the false promises of those hired hands, and listening instead to the voice of our Good Shepherd.
To live the abundant life together in the flock God is gathering from all humanity.
And to see where our Shepherd is guiding us, enfolding us with loving care, and pursuing us with goodness and mercy our whole lives long.

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