Monday, April 23, 2018

Good Shepherds (4/22/18)

Anton Mauve, Landscape with Shepherd and Sheep 

On Sunday, April 22nd, we heard the story of the Good Shepherd. We considered some of the good shepherds in the congregation at Rehoboth Presbyterian Church and how we are called to tend our flock.
Good Shepherds (4/22/18)

          Good morning. It feels like we’re finally done with the cold and the snow. I want you to know that God wasn’t punishing you with all of that nasty weather. I know this because the snow was all my fault. When the weather started to get nice a few weeks ago, I started to feel a little sad. You see, I love to look at the snow on the ground in the cemetery out here. Also, in my apartment, I love to look at the snow on the roof of a house behind mine. And I thought one night, “Wow! I’m never gonna see that again!”
          Since I said that, that roof has been covered with snow a bunch of times. I brought this down on everyone. And I know that because I just said we’re done with the cold and the snow, we’ll probably get some more snow. If that happens, feel free to blame me. I don’t really think I have that power, but if it makes you feel better, go ahead.
          Shepherding is the major theme in both our Psalm and Gospel readings today. Really, it’s one of the central images of the Christian faith. Whether it’s God as the shepherd or Jesus as the Good Shepherd, we use these as guiding metaphors for our faith. When we’re at our best as the Church, we live into Christ’s call to watch over one another in the same way that Jesus cares for us.
          On Wednesday, I visited Elizabeth Keracik. It was a lovely visit. Linda told me a story about a time when Glenn Barnhart came over for a visit. They were out on the back deck and Glenn noticed there was no railing for the porch. Glenn said something to the effect of, “Linda, you really need a railing out here; this isn’t safe.” The next day, Glenn showed up with a bunch of lumber and his tools. He built a railing. Nobody asked him to do this. He simply saw the need. He acted as a good shepherd.
          When I think of good shepherds, I also remember all of the Sunday school teachers I had over the years. A lot of them were older women. I can’t say that I remember any of the lessons, but I remember these loving, grandmotherly women. I don’t even remember their names, but I remember their presence. As I look back on it now, I realize that a number of those Sunday school teachers never got to see the kids they taught grow up. And those elderly women had to know that. They served because they wanted to care for the smallest members of the flock. What good shepherds they were!
          It’s easy to count those women as good shepherds. In the same way it’s easy to look at some project that the guys on the building and maintenance committee completed and say that they were good shepherds. But it’s not always easy to identify a good shepherd because no two people have the same definition for the word, good.
          In this morning’s Gospel lesson, Jesus offers a definition: “What makes the good shepherd good is that he does not do what the hired hand does;” the good shepherd doesn’t run away when there is danger, the good shepherd doesn’t abandon the flock.[1] The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. And then Jesus says something really interesting: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold” (10:16).
          This is a very apostolic idea. There are other sheep that Jesus knows. They’re not in the pen with the rest of the sheep in this story, but the good shepherd knows where they are. This implies that, in the absence of the human Jesus, it’s our responsibility to go out and find those sheep. While I think this is correct, it’s too narrow of a reading of this story; it lacks context.
          From my first day in this pulpit, people have asked me, “How do we get more people in this church?” The anxiety is real. We had about a hundred people in worship on Easter Sunday, but the last two weeks we only had forty or so. We want an easy answer to bring more people in so that things look more like Easter Sunday than last Sunday. But I think we miss the mark when we focus so narrowly on finding and recruiting new members. I think we’re reading the story of Rehoboth Church too narrowly. I think we’re looking a little too much for answers outside of this congregation.
          The story of the good shepherd in the Gospel of John has to be considered in its full context. In the previous chapter, Chapter 9, Jesus heals a man who was born blind. The healing is a sign—remember, in the Gospel of John, these events are not called miracles. Jesus then spends the rest of Chapter 9 and most of Chapter 10 explaining the sign.
          The man who was blind from birth was one of those sheep from another fold. When Jesus healed him, the man heard Jesus’ voice and recognized Jesus’ authority; the man became a disciple. And yes, we need to be looking for people outside of this congregation who need relationship. But those aren’t the only people we need to reach out to.
          If we want to be good shepherds, we can start a little closer to home. Jesus is the good shepherd because he knows his sheep, his disciples, and they know him:
The relationship between Jesus and the disciples is modeled after that between Jesus and the Father, “just as the Father knows me and I know the Father” (10:15). Knowing in this Gospel is a category of relationship. To know the Father is to be in relationship with the Father.[2]
This is a story about relationship. Jesus is speaking to his disciples, explaining what it means to be in relationship. The healing of the man who was blind from birth is a sign of what it means to be in relationship. Jesus is explaining this to the disciples so they don’t miss the point—so they’re not blind to the saving power of being in relationship with God.
          I have told you, again and again, that I believe there is a future for Rehoboth Church. I believe this is still a vital congregation and it can be made stronger. I don’t believe it’s going to look like it did in the 1950s and 60s. I don’t think that’s realistic, but I do think you can find a sustainable balance. I wouldn’t have come here as your pastor if I didn’t believe this is possible.
          I also believe that you need to reach out to others in love and faithfulness. I believe that sort of outreach will bear fruit, which may include new members. That requires some small changes on your part, and I know some of you are hesitant about change. So, I want to offer you some baby steps toward the kinds of changes that I believe will bear fruit.
          I know that there are about 40 people in this congregation, give or take, that I’ll see almost every Sunday. I know I’ll see Louetta and Idalee if they’re both healthy and the weather isn’t really cold. I know I’ll see Al Freet, unless he’s off to visit his grandkids. I know I’ll see Bill and Carolyn Smith, unless they’re at a reunion in West Virginia or something.
          I know that there are many others who are here pretty often, say two or three Sundays a month. They have busy lives, so they come as often as they can, and we’re always glad when they’re here.
          And then there are some members of this congregation who are only here occasionally. Their lives are busier than most or more complicated than most. They have small children, or health problems, or jobs with crazy schedules, or they’re serving as caregivers to a spouse or an elderly parent. I’m talking about individuals and families who are here once a month or once every other month. They want to be here, but life is in the way.
          If we want to bring new people into the fold, let’s start with the sheep who can only come here occasionally. These are people we already know, yet they present us with a great opportunity—an opportunity to practice relationship.
          Reach out to the folks who aren’t here all the time. Call them. Invite them out to dinner. Better yet, invite them into your homes. Create spaces where you can be in conversation with them. Find out what’s going on in their lives. Understand their struggles and their challenges.
          The goal is not to find out why people aren’t in worship. The goal is to learn about their lives and build stronger relationships with them.
          This means you’ll have to listen. In fact, that’s the most valuable thing you can do. You may find that there’s something you can do to make their lives better, you may not. Listening is an act of love. You might also ask them about the church and what this congregation can do for them.
          You might get an ear full. Or you might not get anything at all. That’s okay. Remember, listening is an act of love. In our Gospel lesson this morning, Jesus says, “I know my own and my own know me.” This relationship is intimate and reciprocal.[3] Jesus knows his flock and they know the good shepherd by the sound of his voice.
          How well do we know our own flock here at Rehoboth? I think most of you know the folks who are here on a regular basis fairly well, but we can all do better. We can all move into deeper relationships with our brothers and sisters in Christ here at Rehoboth. The members of this congregation who aren’t here as often present us with an opportunity to practice relationship. This is what we need to do with people who aren’t members of the congregation, too. If we do a good job of practicing relationship with the folks who are only here occasionally, we might end up seeing them more often. Also, they might lead us to other people who are seeking relationship. By creating more space for conversation and relationship, they may come to know the voices of the good shepherds in this congregation and we may come to know them better through the conversations and relationships. Let us move into that space where we may all be changed. Thanks be to God. Amen.

          Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are called to be the Church, the body of Christ in the world today. Go forth and be instruments of God’s love and peace and reconciliation. Go forth and be witnesses to the resurrection. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!

[1] Karoline Lewis. John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries. Minneapolis: Fortress Press (2014), p. 144.
[2] Lewis, p. 144.
[3] Lewis, p. 144.

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