Lessons for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year C: Acts 9:36-43; Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17; and, John 10:22-30.
We arrive today at Good Shepherd Sunday with lessons presenting the familiar shepherd motif.
In the lesson from the book of Revelation, it is declared that the “lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd.” John has pictured the victors, triumphant in the new Jerusalem. But it was not on their own. “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?,” Jesus asks the uncomprehending disciples on the Emmaus road (Luke 24:26). They have triumphed but not on their own. Victory is theirs because the Lamb has conquered. “Apart from me you can do nothing,” agrees the fourth evangelist (John 15:5). And also in Paul who writes to the Philippians, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (4:13). It is a lesson we need to take to heart. A glorious destiny awaits us, yes; but precisely as faithful disciples, followers of Jesus the Lamb. But we should also share John’s expectations and values. John saw through the empire of his day, discerning its distorted standards. Have we become so much a part of the contemporary empire, the lifestyle of the Western world, that we are no longer stirred by the prospect of heavenly joy?
The lesson from the Gospel reading is likewise about the shepherd and likewise about belonging to God. In this narrative, Jesus uses a familiar image of sheep belonging to a shepherd. In this scene, Jesus has claimed to be the eschatological shepherd of Israel, the one who will shepherd the people to the sheepfold. Now, the crowd asks in no uncertain terms, “If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” By now, of course, the reader is well aware that Jesus does indeed claim to be Messiah. But such is not always in the manner in which the people expect. Jesus’ answer indicates as much, “The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe…” Indeed, they do not belong to his sheep because they do not hear his voice.
The shepherd, particularly the voice of the shepherd, is often used in the Bible as a reference to political and religious leaders. In the Old Testament, bad leaders are portrayed as bad shepherds, while God and the future Messiah are described as good shepherds. It is the voice of the shepherds that lets people know their trustworthiness. Jesus tells us that his sheep will listen to and know his voice, not that of the hired hand. The sheep follow the shepherd and his sheep follow Jesus, the Good Shepherd because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.”
Whose voice is familiar enough for us to follow? Who voice do you trust unconditionally? What is that voice telling you? It is hard to distinguish between the voices of the good and the bad shepherds. One of the great dangers for us is in not recognizing Jesus’ voice in our lives, failing to discern his call because we cannot separate his voice from the voices of so many more…simply because of the large number of loud, public voices clamoring for our attention and our loyalty. Such is, perhaps, the nature of the 21st-century world, full of potential distractions. Everywhere we go, there is a voice calling out – “buy this” or “do this” or “say this” or “vote for this” or “go this direction” or “act this way” or “don’t tend to that need.” There are voices competing with one another, vying for our attention, seeking to gain control of our lives in big and little ways.
These voices attempt to shepherd us through confusing paths, often contradicting one another. It can be challenging to discern which voice to heed among the cacophony of speculations, opinions, and falsehoods that bombard our ears every day. So, let us consider the voices that we do heed, or should heed. Let us consider another voice that is constant but seldom heard or regarded. It is the voice of our planet, “this fragile earth, our island home.” Romans 8:22 states that “all Creation is groaning” alongside ourselves as we await redemption.
This Friday, April 22, is Earth Day – the 46th Earth Day since its inception in 1970. On this day we honor creation. On this day, we recognize creation’s groaning. I think it strange that we devote just a single day each year to reflect upon this earth, our home, and the tapestry of everything that brings forth and sustains life. Only one day set aside to praise and marvel at the unfathomable complexity and splendor of the earth and its place in the cosmos. And, likewise, only one day to repent of what we have done in turning away from God and betraying God’s trust as stewards of the gift.
What God has created we have begun to un-create. We do indeed walk through a valley in the shadow of death. This is a lamentable shortcoming of the Church and, lo, of me – one of its leaders. The created world is itself a glorious revelation of the divine. Saints through the generations have looked to the creation and the natural world as a way to encounter God and to know Jesus, the Word enfleshed. Saint Francis of Assisi spoke of brother sun and sister moon. Ignatius of Antioch employed the heavens and the earth in his exercises, strengthening his discipleship by understanding God in the cosmos. And mystics of all stripes and from all times and places have found the natural world a gateway to the presence of God.
Indeed, God has prepared a table before us. It is green pastures and still waters. It a finely tuned atmosphere and complex network of biodiversity. It is interrelated species and ecosystems that allow life to flourish. It is drinkable water and breathable air and consumable food. It is a sacred creation that demands sharing and moderation as antidotes for our excess and waste. And it’s the poor that are hurt the most with wealthy countries taking and taking, resulting in catastrophe whose victims are the poor and vulnerable.
So, serving as good stewards of creation means accepting the hard truths as we listen to the voice of creation – the groaning voice of creation. “I have told you and you do not believe,” Jesus tells the crowd. We are called to hear the voice and believe. But not just to believe, not just to honor creation and hear its groaning, but to act in response. I recently read a humorous headline, “‘How Bad for the Environment Can Throwing Away One Plastic Bottle Be?’ 30 Million People Wonder.” It’s a bit of a barb but it draws attention to a very real sentiment. I am sure that many of us feel: I am only one person – what difference can I make? The truth is, of course, that we are never just one. We are never alone. We must hear the groaning and act, alongside sisters and brothers and church communities, because God calls us to be engaged and fruitful stewards.
Where do we begin in the face of an apparent and large crisis? I will offer some more practical solutions for the Church community next week. For now, today’s lesson from Acts might offer some guidance. Peter is summoned by the community in Joppa to come to them for a crisis has arisen. Tabitha, a devoted discipline dedicated to good works, has died. Peter comes to Joppa. As the scene unfolds, we might find some direction for ourselves, here and now.
First, when Peter arrives he kneels down and prays. Peter grounds himself, his thoughts, and his coming action in prayer. So should it be with us: Our action should be grounded in prayer, in a deep abiding relationship with God the Creator. Next, Peter acts. Hear that – Peter’s prayer leads to direct action. Peter acts by telling Tabitha to “get up.” Some of us might relate to Peter in this story, so equipped are we to extract others from their deaths – their states of inaction and stupor. But others of us are like Tabitha and we need to be told to “get up.” We need ears to hear.
After the command to “get up,” Peter “gave her his hand and helped her up.” So Peter didn’t just command, he also assisted. Both giving and accepting encouragement is crucial in a long and difficult process or reawakening and enacting change. Finally, Peter “showed her to be alive,” demonstrating to all who had gathered the good work that had occurred.
As we reflect on God’s creation around us and the work that lies before us, we can know that we are not alone. We know that God walks with us, that Jesus moves with also, joining the earth in its groaning. This is the way out of this dark valley if we allow ourselves to be led by the trustworthy voice of the Good Shepherd.
And so may we be equipped to distinguish and heed this voice, one that guides, cajoles, urges us to follow the paths of goodness and mercy. May we recognize the goodness of the earth’s complex, beautiful systems and feel mercy. And may we have ears to hear the voice of the earth, one that has been speaking all along and desperately needs our attention.