A sermon preached (virtually) by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
On 3 May 2020 [Easter 4: Good Shepherd Sunday]: Acts 2:42-47; John 1:1-10
By the lights of our liturgical tradition, today, the fourth Sunday in Eastertide, holds the title of “Good Shepherd Sunday”. There are several things to be noted about this identification.
First, the “Fourth Sunday of Easter” reminds us that our celebration of Jesus’ resurrection is not limited to one specific morning.
One of the things that Jesus’ resurrection indicates is that Easter is the “new normal” (to use the phrase many are kicking around because of Covid-19). That our liturgical tradition marks Easter as a season of fifty days suggests that we need time to rub shoulders with resurrection’s reality in order for us to grow into what we have seen in the Risen One. Like new shoes, we need time to break-in our resurrection treads so that in them we may walk-on into the life of Christ. Easter morning is just the beginning of our living life on God’s terms, and we need to take the time to adjust to our “new normal” where fear and death do not define life.
A second thing to note about Easter as a season is that the Great Fifty Days remind us that Easter isn’t just about what happened to Jesus a long time ago.
The point is that as earthshakingly important as Jesus’ resurrection is, the ongoing message of Eastertide does not stop with Jesus being liberated from the tomb. Rather, what his resurrection also includes is seeing in the Risen One what God intends to be visible in us.
In other words, when it comes to Jesus’ resurrection, it is most definitely a matter of “what you see is what you get”. That we are called to move into Christ’s image and likeness is what this present life is for: namely, continually growing into what is eternal, what is of God – now.
In the words of the old gospel tune, “People get ready!” It’s Easter!
And now, today, we come to “Good Shepherd Sunday”. And once again we are faced with this double-sided Easter message: the one about Jesus and the one about us.
At first exposure, “Good Shepherd Sunday” reverberates deep within our hearts, conveying the tender message of comfort: that we belong to Jesus and, as such, are not alone in this life, not left to our own devices and resources. In unmistakable ways, “Good Shepherd Sunday” touches us emotionally and speaks to us of our deepest need, which is our need to be loved – no matter what; to be cared for – no matter what; and yes, to be included – no matter what. So it is that our worship this day is filled with compelling and dare I say very emotional strains that speak to these most tender points. With heart-rending music and vivid scriptures, the image of Jesus as our “Good Shepherd” comes across in this mid-Easter Sunday in comforting, deeply reassuring ways, in a particularly discomforting time.
Psalm 23 is the shining example of “Good Shepherd Sunday”. Of all the 150 psalms, the 23rd Psalm is the one it seems that everyone knows in some form or fashion and the one that even the most wayward of sheep seem to cling to: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want …”. Just hearing those opening words has a calming effect.
My mother taught her four sons to say prayers at bedtime. I suspect that each of us still remembers the words she said with us every night. Those bedtime prayers began with these words: “Jesus tender shepherd hear me; bless thy little child tonight. Through the darkness be Thou near me; keep me safe til morning light.”
Of the thousands of nights that my mother led me in these prayers, perhaps the most compelling memory I have of them ironically and surprisingly came when I was a senior in college. In that fateful count-down toward graduation, when I (for one) was faced with the unclear, unknown, prospect of “what’s next?” in my life, I increasingly found myself tossing and turning in the darkness of the night. My mind was filled with pressing issues, and my heart felt empty amidst the uncertainty of how I would put my education to good use and what my ongoing life would entail.
Consequently, sleep eluded me, as my mind ground away in the night hours. Then one night, I was unexpectedly overcome with the desire and the need to pray.
Now I must pause to confess that at that time in my life I was a sheep that had stubbornly and even arrogantly pursued the notion of being my own shepherd. While I hadn’t left the Shepherd’s fold, I had most certainly “erred and strayed like lost sheep”. (The words of the old Prayer Book’s Confession nailed my condition perfectly.). In point of fact, after a few trial years of exploring seriously the possibility of self-shepherding, I had begun to sense my need to review such spiritual independence and, thereby, to reacquaint myself — more thoughtfully — with Jesus.
In fact, I had returned to church in search of what I still knew was God; but having been delinquent in updating my God-operating system, moving it from the simplicity of my childhood to the demands of growing up, I wasn’t quite sure how to proceed. Finding myself compelled to pray was certainly not what I expected to feel.
Maybe it was partially because I had returned to a praying community and their example had rubbed off on me; maybe it was that my college explorations of the God-stuff had taken flourishing root through my discovery of the Episcopal Church. I still don’t know; but it was (as they say) on a dark and emotionally stormy night, on the verge of thrashing my bedsheets with my restless soul, that I did the strangest thing. I rolled out of my bed and knelt at the bedside and prayed the prayer that my mother had taught me to pray at bedtime: “Jesus, tender shepherd, hear me; bless thy little child tonight. Through the darkness be Thou near me; keep me safe til morning light.”
I finished that venerable family prayer (one my three grandchildren now know) and felt a bit shocked at what I had been compelled to do. Even so, I got back into bed to sleep; and I slept the “sleep that knits the raveled sleeve of care” (as Shakespeare tells it) – the very care that is the Good Shepherd’s care.
Now just remembering my mother and our bedtime prayers conjures up a huge wave of emotion for me; and that’s ok to be sure. Yet, it is not helpful (nor is it honest) to leave such things at that emotional level of comfort. You see, the Easter goal is not simply a matter of attaining that sense of the Good Shepherd’s care, as important as that is. The Easter goal is also to accept the Good Shepherd’s comfort as a strengthening – a strengthening that allows us to be more and more Christ-like.
Too many of us stop at the goal of the emotional recognition of being loved and cared for and rescued by the Good Shepherd. Like the shepherd of my childhood bedtime prayers, I continually need to confront (and even be shocked by) the fact that I will not outgrow the heartfelt intent of that prayer – no matter how old or sophisticated I become. Yet, there is a reason for the tenderness of such a faith experience; and the reason is revealed in the two-sided meaning of the word “comfort”. And this meaning is honestly conveyed in the 23rd Psalm, if we will pay attention to more than our emotional responses to its words.
There are two meanings to the word “comfort”. One is that experience of being cared for, supported, encouraged, soothed, consoled, cheered, loved. Yet, the other meaning of the word “comfort” puts these reassuring tones – the ones we invariably like — into true perspective. For the other meaning of “comfort”, the deeper meaning of “comfort” is “to strengthen”. And the “Good Shepherd” comforts us, strengthens us so that we can move beyond the fearsomeness of life and into the confidence of God’s life.
The question at hand, then, is to ask how consoling emotional efforts strengthen, which is the true heart and intent of love, specifically God’s love.
This (I believe) is the full message of Easter, of Jesus’ resurrection. We are comforted in all our fears and in all the deaths we encounter. We are held and supported and bolstered by the love and life of the risen Christ; but unless that emotional experience of “comfort” also helps strengthen us into new and transformed life, then let’s be honest about this: We are just dealing with an addiction to feeling good, when our deepest need is to be strengthened, to be transformed step-by-step, day-by-day into what we have seen in the risen Jesus.
This two-sided Easter reality is about being comforted by the assuaging love of the shepherding Christ and being strengthened to adopt for ourselves what we see in the Risen One.
In a time when we need the Good Shepherd’s comforting, when confusion and fear linger nearby, what is our request of our Good Shepherd? What is the purpose of our prayer as we face our respective versions of the night terrors? What kind of “comfort” do we truly seek?
Yes, we need to be comforted in the sense of being reminded that we belong to Jesus, our Good Shepherd, that we are not alone to face what we cannot control. In this, we receive encouragement and tenderness when we are raw with fear and loneliness and the frustration of being lost. And this comforting, this loving rescuing matters: It matters a great deal. Yet, the purpose of such tenderness is to help reset our vision so that we are not only strong enough to endure but also with the risen Christ faithful enough to prevail over the time of wilderness and exile. At such times we often need to be “comforted”, that is strengthened, transformed so that we will continue to be able to move through “the valley of the shadow of death” into the reality of resurrection: that is, into our “awakening to” the reassuring care and transforming love that we can find in all of Easter.
Christ is risen. Come let us rise with him. Alleluia! Amen.