April 25, 2021
Fourth Sunday of Eastertide
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 the paths of righteousness for his 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 will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
John 10: 11-21
“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. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”
Again the Jews were divided because of these words. Many of them were saying, “He has a demon and is out of his mind. Why listen to him?” Others were saying, “These are not the words of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?”
This is the fourth Sunday of Eastertide. For the past few weeks, we have been considering the events that happened after Jesus’s death and resurrection. Today, and for the next four weeks leading up to Pentecost, we are offered some of the most significant stories from the life and ministry of Jesus, stories that reveal the most about what Jesus said about himself and his purpose on earth.
Today’s sermon is titled, On Providence. Right away, I want to draw our attention to the word providence. Providence is sometimes used synonymously with the word God. The definition of providence is as follows: “the protective care of God or of nature as a spiritual power.” If you can see the word providence in your mind, you will recognize the word provide therein. If we break both words down, we find that pro means “ahead or before” and videre means “to see.” So both words, providence and provide, carry a sense of consideration about what may be needed and how those needs might be fulfilled. To provide is not just an action, it is a relationship; to provide for others may well be the one practice that brings us in closest alignment to that which is God within us.
I am remembering the years my family and I lived at The Quaker Meeting School in Rindge, New Hampshire. We were a family of four then and we shared our house with 7 high school students. Our house was one of eight houses on a working farm that supported a community of 50 people and a population of animals that was in continuous flux. There were many living things that needed to be provided for and, in retrospect, it was this process of providing, this reciprocal relationship between those offering and those receiving, that made this school a transformative place for students and faculty.
Teenagers in our current culture are not known for their willingness and capacity to provide for others but I saw at the school, year after year, a pattern that runs contrary to our common assumptions about young people. New students would arrive at the school each September and begin the awkward and sometimes difficult process of finding their place in a larger community. After a few weeks of griping and complaining about getting up for morning chores, even the most unlikely of farmers began to realize the importance of their work. The animals needed them. In the depth of winter, the animals needed them desperately. Sleeping through morning chores was not an option because the lives of the animals depended on the care those students provided. The cows had to be milked, the pigs and sheep and chickens had to be fed and watered.
In providing for the animals, those young people became part of something much larger than just themselves as individuals and the hard work was experienced as something greater, something deeper, something vital because they were in relationship like they had never experienced before. It was a relationship very much like the one we read about in our scriptures for today, a relationship based on providence, a relationship based on the protective care of God.
The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. This is the beginning of a prayer, a meditation that we have likely heard dozens, if not hundreds, of times. This prayer, this meditation has been an integral part of the Jewish Sabbath each week for thousands of years, recited before the first meal. The 23rd psalm has been sung traditionally at the bedside of those who have recently died. A thousand years before the birth of Jesus, this psalm was sung in the temple, this psalm was sung while in exile, this psalm was sung in the homes when stability afforded the luxury of a shelter, and this psalm was sung in the open air, under the dome of heaven, wherever Jewish people gathered to observe the Sabbath or to honor their dead. The Lord is my shepherd…
So when Jesus stands before his peers and declares, “I am the good shepherd,” the people instantly realize the levity of his statement. In the Jewish scriptures we call the Old Testament, or First Testament, there are over 30 instances of the nature of God described as a shepherd. Jesus claiming to be “the good shepherd” would have been interpreted as blasphemous. This would be just one more thing on a growing list of things that offended those in positions of power in the temple. Jesus has just healed a blind man on the Sabbath, breaking yet another rule and challenging the temple priests to justify why a blind man should wait to be healed until after the Sabbath has passed. Jesus knows exactly what he is doing. He is, essentially, backing the temple priests into a corner. If they say that keeping the Sabbath is more important than restoring the man’s sight, then the people will surely demand an explanation. On the other hand, if the priests look the other way as the rules of the Sabbath are compromised, their authority is undermined. I imagine that the priests don’t know how to respond.
And now Jesus has the audacity to stand there and publicly proclaim to be the good shepherd? This can not go unchecked. In verse 24 of the same chapter it says, “…they gathered around him and said to him, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’ Jesus answered, ‘I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me.” And then we read that the people “took up stones again to stone him…they tried to arrest him again, but he escaped from their hands.” (10: 31, 39)
Jesus escaped and he continued to heal, no matter what day it was. He continued to speak his truth, to love the unloved, and to welcome the unwelcome. Jesus asks us to do the same in his command to love one another and to provide for one another with the same care and commitment that a shepherd tends their sheep…with providence, with “the protective care of God.” In doing so, we are changed, changed like those teenagers who found dignity and purpose in rising at first light to go and provide for the animals. To provide is not just an action, it is a relationship; to provide for others may well be the one practice that brings us in closest alignment to that which is God within us.
In closing, I pray that in some way, large or small, we experience the protective care that is synonymous with God. I pray that in the turmoil and threats of our time we will be led to still waters and remember to lie down, just for a little minute, in pastures of green. The Lord is our shepherd; may goodness and mercy follow us, all the days of our lives. Amen.
Pastoral Prayer: Source of Love that we call God, we try to name you although you are nameless; we try to interpret you, even though you are unfathomable. Help us, Holy One, to be at peace with your vastness that can not be named and your message of unconditional love that includes us all, each and every one. For those who are ailing, we pray for comfort. For those facing death, we pray for peace. Through your strength and grace, Lord, given to us through the Holy Spirit, help us to extend ourselves as disciples of your love. Empower us to make choices that consider the well-being of the earth and the well-being of our brothers and sisters. In all things, remind us of the power of prayer, especially this prayer, that Jesus gave to his disciples…Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not to temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever and ever. Amen.
I leave you with these words from the book of Ephesians, chapter 2:
“May God grant you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in deep knowledge. May the eyes of your mind be enlightened so you may know what is the hope of God’s calling.”