Sermon: Shepherds and loving

Sermon 26 April 2015

Felicity O’Brien

Acts 4:5-12, 1 John 3:16-24, John 10:11-18

Can you imagine what was going through the minds of Annas and Caiaphas? Those names are familiar from the trial of Jesus – they are the high priests who questioned Jesus before handing him over to Pilate. Maybe they had many people brought before them on questionable religious grounds, like claiming to heal someone, or claiming to be the Son of God. Now they thought they had dealt with the problem from Galilee, that Jesus fellow. But here were two more guys healing someone! I think that they must have known what the answer might be when they asked,By what power and in whose name have you done this?”Maybe they were bracing themselves for the answer. I wonder what sort of dreams they had been having since Jesus’ crucifixion, and all the rumours of resurrection? Peter answers their question quite plainly, as was his manner. ‘This man is standing here completely well because of the power of Jesus Christ from Nazareth.’There is no ambiguity, no denying. Here we see a transformed Peter. He was still blunt, but there is a time for bluntness. ‘You put Jesus to death, but God raised him to life. ‘

Can we be as blunt about how things happen? Are there miracles in your life, that you are modest about? Maybe next time someone you pray for is healed, and they will be, you will be able to say, Jesus did that. Be blunt. The world needs clarity.How was this unschooled fisherman able to speak to the nation’s leaders and elders without his knees knocking, and his words jumbling? He was filled with the Holy Spirit. We too can be filled with the Holy Spirit. We just need to ask, and it will flow through us. It will give us the words we need, and the love we need. You see, it’s because of love that Peter and John asked God to heal the crippled man. It was not to demonstrate their power, or their specialness. Rather, it was to show how special the man was. We don’t know his name, but God knows it. Peter and John were able to step out boldly, risking the wrath of the authorities, because the love they had was greater than their fear.

Jesus’ love for us was greater than his fear too. It took him to Gethsemane, sweating blood as he prayed for his Father to take the cup from him. His love conquered death so we can come to God in confidence.

Our reading from 1 John talks about what that love can look like – seeing people in need, and doing something about it.Last week I was at the National Deacon School, and we went on a couple of field trips, one of which was to the City Mission. Trish Malcolm, the City Missioner, told us the history of the Mission and their work, as it has changed through the years. They have been doing wonderful service to the poor of our city, and it was very heart-warming to hear what their role is. But what brought it home was the fact that we weren’t just having a talk about the Mission. In the adjacent room, people were coming in for a free, or nearly free breakfast, and we could see the very real work of helping these folk. This was where the ‘comfort zone’ was challenged, as I saw a young Maori man dressed in many layers of black, with gang patches and chains, tattoos and piercings, dreadlocks swinging. Even longer than the bishop’s…My background has not prepared me to work with these sorts of people, I thought. He looked quite frankly scary. But then I saw this young man going into the kitchen, not just finding his own breakfast, but helping prepare it for others. The ordinariness of the scene was familiar – it looked like my kitchen when my son’s friends are over, and everyone is passing things to each other. In fact there was no fighting in the mission so there the similarity ended…

Something moved me in that sight – something convicted me about being swift to judge.That’s why our scripture says ‘Children, you show love for others by truly helping them, and not merely by talking about it.’ This is a real challenge for the church, and for all those would consider themselves ‘social activists.’ I think that with so much ease of media access today it’s all too easy to just talk about things. If I want my point of view to be available to everyone in the world with a computer, I just make a post on my blog. Easy. But it’s not action. One of our friends gave up arguing on Facebook for Lent, and I know he found it hard to stick to, especially when people needed their on-line heads knocked together. There’s so much arguing and commenting backwards and forwards, that nothing really gets done. In the church talking about helping people can be encouraging, but it can also be a sort of oneupmanship. I’m sure none of you do that, but cluster meetings can be a bit that way!

Looking again at the passage from 1 John, the CEV translation says ‘When we love others, we know that we belong to the truth, and we feel at ease in the presence of God.’ This is much clearer than the same passage in the NRSV – ‘and by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him.’ I like that phrase ‘we will feel at ease in the presence of God’. It’s quite profound isn’t it? When we feel at ease visiting someone, we can relax. My sister-in-law says she always likes coming to our place, because she can feel at ease. The kids can be noisy, and move stuff, and flop all over the furniture, and it’s not a problem. They’re not going to leave it any messier than it was to start with. Have you ever visited a house where you didn’t feel at ease? It’s quite common when you bring a small child to a house which isn’t used to them. It feels horrible doesn’t it? Just as I’m not going to chase my nephews around with a cloth to clean up the fingerprints they leave on the glass, so God wants us to feel at ease. How about bringing children to church? Do we help visiting families feel at ease, let them know that their children are welcome even if they are noisy? I think we’re quite good at this here, but we can’t get complacent. We feel at ease in God’s presence when we love others, when we know we belong there. We are assured that even if we don’t feel at ease, even if our nerves get the better of us, God is bigger than that and welcomes us. And if we know that we can come near God, we can ask God for whatever we need.

The loving, welcoming image of God is painted more sharply in our Gospel reading – ‘I am the Good shepherd, and the good shepherd gives up his life for his sheep.’ Or her life for her sheep. It doesn’t need to be gender specific. Let’s have a think about that image of a shepherd. In New Testament times, there was a close relationship between shepherd and sheep, and so it still is in many places. New Zealand’s sheep farms are a bit different really, with thousands of sheep dotted around distant hills, mustered in occasionally for drenching and shearing, and all the other tasks that keep them well. We are fortunate here that there are no wolves – but hang on, last week on the radio there was a report of hundreds of sheep having been slaughtered and semi-butchered in Southland. There are wolves, but they have two legs, and guns. The shepherds were putting measures in place to care for their sheep – sensors, alarms, and other technology. They care for their sheep in just the same way as the Palestinian shepherd.

Sometimes when we think of shepherds, we have the image of a little lamb being bottle-fed and cuddled. Jesus cares for his orphaned lambs too. A shepherd needs to drench and worm the sheep – sometimes we feel like we have been submerged in something unpleasant and scary, and a horrible taste has been stuck in our mouth. We are cared for that way too – it might not be pleasant but it’s for our good. It’s when the weather turns nasty that we have many images of shepherds and farmers on our televisions. Farmers feeding out, rescuing sheep from snowdrifts, getting them to higher ground in floods, sheltered places in storms. Jesus does that for us too.

We have a painting at home which my grandfather David Davidson painted, and after he died, I was able to claim it. The title is High Country Shepherd, though we’ve always called it ‘The Good Shepherd.’ It shows a shepherd in the snow, back to the viewer, as he faces the hills. There is a sheep slung over his shoulders, and two dogs are at his feet. He is steady and confident in the winter weather, doing what is need to rescue that sheep, and alert for others in trouble. Sometimes we are that sheep over Jesus’ shoulders, being rescued. It may not feel like it at the time, but often looking back we can see when we were carried. Did you notice that other bit of the reading? ‘There are other sheep too, that are not yet in the home paddock.’ Jesus needs to bring them back, when they hear his voice. This reminds us that the kingdom of God is not limited to those with the right theology, the right language, or even the right creed. One flock, and one shepherd. There may be some funny-looking sheep in the paddock next to you. But they belong there, just as we do. Can you love the funny-looking sheep?Today, I urge you to dwell with the image of the shepherd, caring for the sheep, and see whether the shepherd’s hands and feet look a bit like yours.

 

 

 

 

 

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