Sermon for Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 25, 2021
Read Pastor Julie's sermon as shared on Facebook Live. Visit https://www.facebook.com/saronstrasburg each Sunday at 8:30 a.m. for a brief live service of scripture, prayer, and a sermon by Pastor Julie.
Acts 4:5–12 | Psalm 23 | 1 John 3:16–24 | John 10:11–18
Appropriately enough for today, I’ve spent the last 3 months reading a book written by a modern-day shepherd who lives in the mountainous Lake District in England—called “The Shepherd’s Life.” The book was a Christmas gift from a friend; and a New York Times Bestseller. James Rebanks, the author, has gathered a following through his twitter feed (@herdyshepherd1) about his daily and yearly tasks. I’m sure that many—especially those in cities—live vicariously through him as he describes both the harshness and and wonder of a life based on caring for these creatures. For today, I would say, he also debunks any kind of romanticism surrounding the life of raising sheep with detailed descriptions of the filth and birth and death and family conflicts—surrounded by uncertain weather and disease and culture—like tourism, economics and government policies. James is mostly fine with all of this; though he’ll worry, too, and work like crazy. From a young age, this is all that he has ever wanted to do, like his father and grandfather before him, and finds a deep sense of satisfaction in his work- a calling, we might say.
In the spring, it’s lambing time; rain or shine. James tells about the first time his 6-year old daughter births a lamb out in the field by grasping it’s legs and pulling it from it’s mother—and her excitement and sense of accomplishment; he describes knowing all his ewes (female sheep) and the lambs they birth—how he can tell what is needed by the personalities of the mothers. Many do well, others need a little boost or some help to get going on motherhood- maybe because of some difficulty of their own. He knows a ewe’s distress when there is a stillborn- and there is a re-matching of motherless lambs and lamb-less mothers—often in coordination with neighbors. Or when a lamb is lost, how it can take a long time to find: But how he is urged on by the distressed mother. Like the one who got it’s front lets stuck between two trees just a foot off the ground…
Many of the sheep in this area are fell (or mountain) sheep, which are released to the highlands in early summer to graze, and so hay can be grown down in the meadows for winter feeding. Something rather magical happens now. Many different flocks are let into the rocky hills and each returns to the same place as before; as they have been doing for hundreds—probably thousands—of years; the knowledge of their ‘place’ being passed down from ewe to lamb, generation after generation. Of course this same knowledge of the sheep’s wisdom is passed down from shepherd to shepherd as well- because they have shepherded for hundred and even thousands of years. The term for this is being “hefted” to the land. That is, they are “bound” to it. Because of the work of James and others, this phenomenon has become more widely understood. We might think that this sounds a bit romantic or maybe too sheep-oriented. But because the shepherd knows the sheep —their health and well-being is attended to—and there’s a synergy between land and animal and human that is sustaining and sustainable.
So you know where I’m going with this… A couple thousand years ago and more—in the Ancient Near East where sheep were an important part of human activity and sustenance as well, people noted what it took to do the work of tending a flock. This became a common metaphor for measuring leadership. Kings were seen as shepherds and many found wanting, as we hear from the prophets who spoke for God; the leaders who did NOT know and care for the sheep; particularly those who NEEDED care. (And I can’t help but think of the ewes—the mothers—and the lambs that are so much a part of James Rebanks’ work).
No wonder we hear about Jesus being the Good Shepherd. Jesus is never sanctioned as some kind of official leader- and yet HE IS: in the knowing of the sheep and in being in the filth and difficulty and beauty of their daily life- and seasonal cycles. It seems to be exactly because of his humility that he is a good shepherd. How else could he do it? Jesus is the kind who “lays down his life”—literally this resurrection season—and which is not somehow a ‘giving up’—but an abiding accompaniment and work for the health and well-being of the sheep. It’s his basic stance toward all that is good for the sheep—along with all our wide varieties of personalities, dispositions and locations And while we think we can always “go it alone” and “with our own strength” there is also that deep longing- a knowing- that beckons us from generation to generation to a “place” rife with God-ness and goodness: “hefted” to the source of our Being. Where we go together for nourishment.
Whatever else out there that you thought would bring you happiness (power/ control; safety/security; affection/ esteem) is the hired hand. It won’t have you and your actual well-being in mind. I love Peter’s bold words as a prisoner in Jerusalem, speaking to those in power who want to know why these healing things are happening outside of their influence and control: Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’ There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” Amen.