Sunday, April 13, 2008

That Reminds Me--a sermon for Easter 4A (Good Shepherd Sunday)

Rev. Teri Peterson
That Reminds Me…
John 10.11-16, Psalm 23
April 13 2008, Easter 4A

‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.’

I have to tell you that Sundays like this one are either the easiest or hardest days to preach. Everyone knows the story, we’ve all heard 100 sermons on how Jesus is the good shepherd, we’ve all seen the various paintings of the strangely western-European looking Jesus with a lamb across his shoulders, and for many of us the image is comforting and wonderful—maybe even a favorite. Plus “good shepherd Sunday” comes up every year on the fourth Sunday of Easter. It’s hard to imagine that I could stand here and say something original or even mildly interesting.

But as I thought about this problem, I spent some time wondering if it’s really a problem. Why is it that we hear this story of Jesus calling himself the good shepherd, or really any of the stories in the Bible, and immediately wonder what might be new that we can find in it? I wonder if it might just be enough to hear Jesus say “I am the good shepherd” and to allow ourselves to spend some time with all the images and associations that come up when we hear those words?

Jesus’ first hearers would listen to these words and immediately think of the kings, who were called shepherds of the people, and of the psalms, where God is named as being our one true shepherd. When we hear these words of Jesus, I suspect that we also, with those first hearers, immediately jump in our minds to Psalm 23, though I’m not sure that we have the same theological or political associations with the word “shepherd” as they did.

Many of us have spent some quality time with the 23rd psalm. It makes regular appearances at funerals, in the lectionary, and in devotions to help us when we need comfort or guidance or reassurance. The church I attended in college used it every time we celebrated communion—in fact, it wasn’t even printed in the bulletin. They just assumed that everyone who came to church had at some point memorized the King James version of the 23rd psalm.

How many of you have at some point committed the 23rd psalm to memory? (probably a lot…) Did you memorize it in the King James version or another? This psalm is, for many of us, woven into the fabric of our faith. But I suspect that it’s hard to say the whole psalm from memory on your own. I know that I often leave out a phrase and then have trouble picking up the next line in the right order, and I’ve recited this psalm from memory more than a few times, not to mention all the times I’ve read it and sung it. One of the things I have learned is that sometimes you just need a little help from your friends. So I wonder if we could just recite the psalm together now. If you don’t know it, that’s okay—this is a great opportunity to hear a community remembering its own story together and to be supported by the voices of others. Shall we?
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures,
he leadeth me beside the still waters,
he restoreth my soul,
he leadeth me in paths of righteousness for his own name’s sake.
Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for thou art with me,
thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies,
thou anointest my head with oil,
my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

I find it so interesting what things are part of the memory of a community. I would be willing to bet that a large number of Western Christians have the 23rd psalm as part of our communal memory. When we hear Jesus say “I am the good shepherd” this is what we really hear—still waters, green pastures, a companion through death’s shadows, a feast, and a promise. But it can be hard to put it all together on our own. We need each other to put the whole story together.

This weekend I was at Stronghold with our confirmation class and we spent most of our time together talking about the body of Christ—how is the church Christ’s body on earth? Who in our congregation is the feet, the hands, the eyes and ears and mouth and heart? What part of the body do our confirmands see themselves as? The most important part of this metaphor is that every part needs the other parts—we work together to hear God’s word, to do God’s work, to share good news and to practice the kingdom of God. We need each other. When we sang the doxology at our closing worship service yesterday afternoon, we only had one copy of the words and everyone just worked together to get all the words in. Every voice was important, and we couldn’t have done it alone.

The doxology is one of those songs that I think is often part of the memory of people who have attended mainline churches all their lives. It too was not printed in the bulletin at my college church, and I, as a newcomer, was too self-conscious to look up the words. I had to rely on the voices around me to teach me that part of our common life and story.

There are some songs like this that are not only part of a church’s community memories but are also part of our culture’s memory. I think of the song Amazing Grace, which is the only churchy song I ever heard my mother—a decidedly un-churched woman—sing. It’s stunning how, when we get together, we know all the words to this song even if as individuals we aren’t able to sing them all in the right order. The memories we share as a community are strong, they hold us up in times of trouble, and they grow when we share them.

I don’t know if you noticed what Jesus said after he called himself the good shepherd. He said that when a wolf comes, he scatters the sheep—making them weaker, easier to hunt down and pick off. Jesus said that he will call his sheep and even other sheep and all will come into one big sheepfold. Sheep by themselves are vulnerable to attack and to forgetting where they belong. Sheep together in a flock are safer, they learn the voice of their shepherd, they know who they are and to whom they belong. I might say that they are better able to keep their memory and their story when they join their voices and their ears together as a flock.

Scripture and our faith tradition are both studded with these stories that are designed to remind us of other stories. Our lives are full of experiences that remind us of stories. It’s almost impossible to tell a story without calling to mind another one! When we share our stories and songs and memories as a community, when we tell them over and over, even every year at the same time, they become a part of us. And when we need a little help with the words, there are always people around to lift their voices with ours, supporting or leading or just making it a little less lonely in the sheepfold. To me, that sounds like really good news, and so it leads me to say “Thanks be to God!” Amen.


  1. Great job, Teri! I think this is much better than you realize. Way to go. :)

  2. This will preach!!! Thanks.

  3. Wonderful...and I thought you said you were in trouble....loved the song/memory/voices threads and images...get some rest tonight!