IN THE FLOCK OF THE GOOD SHEPHERD
John 10: 11-16
Last week as part of my Continuing Education, Mary Ann and I visited countries in the Balkan region of the world. The countries included Austria, Hungary, Croatia, Romania, Serbia, and Bulgaria. Each country is almost entirely Christian, including Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant Christians. We heard about their culture; their politics; their religion; their geography, and their cuisine. Each day as we sailed the Danube, the crew loaded fresh vegetables and meats from the country we were visiting, and the food was prepared for our dinner. We tried wines from the regions, watched children, youth, and adults perform dances from the region, and we even were invited into a woman’s home to watch her prepare some authentic food; then we were invited into her kitchen to cook too! Our tour guides were from each region; they gave their perceptions about their country and spoke wonderful English as a second language. We saw plight, buildings that were bombed 20 years ago still untouched, extravagant cathedrals, magnificent farms and vegetables, and cities whose shopping areas would rival Paris or New York City. We toured the Parliament building of Bucharest, the second largest in the world with the Pentagon being the largest. It was opulent and extravagant. Each time we departed from a country we knew we had created a brief bond with the people we met. Today I want to think about those people, and people in our country, and people of other countries in the context of “the flock of the good shepherd.”
Often people think of pastoral music or pasture scenes as calm or serene pictures. We hear Jesus say, “I am the Good Shepherd; the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Even the picture of a shepherd in a field with sheep sounds peaceful. But being a good shepherd is hard work; being willing to lay down one’s life for his sheep. If we see ourselves as sheep—the way David saw himself in Psalm 23, or the way Isaiah saw the people of Israel in Isaiah 53—then we have nothing to worry about. A good shepherd brings down the anxieties of his sheep by attending to their health, their safety, and food, and finding fresh water. To be in the flock of a good shepherd keeps sheep healthy and happy; if they become afraid or skittish, they grow thin and their hair can fall out. So a good shepherd is vital. That’s what we have; and if we just stay with the metaphor that we are like sheep, there would be very little we would have to do in the world as Christians; we just have to bask in the love and care of Jesus, eat, drink, and sleep. Wow. Are we really just like sheep? Or can a different metaphor be more helpful on this side of the cross? When Jesus said these words it was in John 10; it wasn’t until John 14 that he said he would be departing; not until John 17 that Jesus prayed for his disciples; not until John 20 that Jesus arose from the dead; and finally in John 21 Jesus told his followers—and I believe he is tell us too—“feed my sheep, tend my lambs, feed my sheep.” That is part of our call today. In our Disciple classes, we learned that before Jesus departed from the earth, he empowered his disciples with the Holy Spirit—the power of God—given to them to proclaim, to heal, and to invite. Those early disciples no longer were sheep; at least not in their job description. They were Christ-bearers; those who brought the light, love, and message of Christ to the world. The world cannot change if we simply see ourselves as sheep in the flock of the good shepherd. We are that; but we are more; we are the Body of Christ! If Jesus is going to work for justice and for change in today’s world, not just the first century world, he is going to do it through the church; through Christians like you and like me! No longer can we think of ourselves as sheep; when Jesus said those words he was still a living breathing man in Jerusalem. At later times, after his resurrection, he counted on, and empowered, his followers. We, reading our Bibles, are the ones Jesus counts on today! We cannot say: “Let Jesus do it” when we see human brokenness and human need. Jesus counts on you, and on me to decide where the intersection of our gifts and our passion is.
As we visited the Balkan countries, we experienced hospitality from other Christians; but more than that, we could see those who were working to be not sheep in the flock of a good shepherd; some were being Christ-bearers for justice and reconciliation. As we visited a holocaust museum and a cemetery in Croatia—holding the memories and the bodies of thousands who were annihilated in the 1991 and 1992 war with the Serbs, we met some who were stuck in the past; angry, wounded, and weeping. But there were others whose eyes had hope and whose voices were strong, saying: “We have not forgotten, but we have forgiven.” Many Serbs and Croatians were doing what Jesus would do: moving groups of people to build bridges where they had been burned. Our charge is to do the same. The group FAITH in Daytona Beach, Fighting Against Injustice Through Harmony, works with the city government on behalf of the haves and the have nots. They are working to be the voice of Jesus for justice. Tobias Caskey and our Friends of Francis ministry helps families of incarcerated persons and helps those who need connection back into society, even connection with a church. Well done. Halifax Urban Ministries functions in large part through its hot meal program and the donations of food and funds. We are a part of those ministries. Just this week our Women’s Gathering heard from fellow Christians Don and Mary Teasley, who, in their retirement, joined a Christian group that went to the Philippines for one year, working to break up the human traffic rings and the sexual slavery pimps that entrap young girls for a lifetime. Their Christian mission was to rescue the enslaved, restore them to their families, prosecute the perpetrators, and strengthen the justice system. That is where Jesus would be working; there and all the other places I have named. Our own Presbytery has people from churches, just like you and me, working tirelessly on the huge human trafficking issue in the state of Florida as well. No longer can we just rest in the flock of a good shepherd; the Savior has need of us, not to rest in Christ, but to be the arms, and heart, and hands of Christ. And his task, which becomes ours, is to have eyes to see the lost sheep, and to bring them back into the fold.
The New York Times this week had a startling editorial called “Serving All Your Heroin Needs.” Sam Quinones, the author, described a frightening darkness that even wealthy youth and young adults can fall prey to; it is not sexual slavery, or stealing, or assault, but it can lead to that when money runs out. It is heroin addiction. A doctor from Columbus, Ohio said young people are dying every day, not from wars, but from addictions. Quoting him now, “Just the past Friday I saw 23 patients, all heroin addicts recently diagnosed….” “The victims-mostly white, well-off, and young—are mourned in silence, because their parents are loathe to talk publicly about how a cheerleader daughter was hooking for dope, or their once star-athlete son overdosed in a fast-food restaurant bathroom.” Friends, we cannot just save the lovely people; Jesus was always looking into the eyes of broken, and hurting, and even combative people. There is a world that needs the Savior, and he is counting on you, and on me, to continue the ministry he started in Galilee. Where is your passion? Where are your skills? From teaching a young person to read, to sitting with a tired caregiver, to feeding hungry people, or loving children, there is a way for you to serve. Jesus needs us; and Jesus calls us.
Jeffrey A. Sumner April 26, 2015