May 12, 2019
One class that is not offered in seminary is how to care for a church cemetery!
As a new pastor, it is important that it is properly maintained. Mowed on a regular basis and ensure that it looks like it is in decent order. Not to mention that proper records are maintained. Also, you better make sure that there are flags on all the graves of the military veterans on Memorial Day. How this became part of the pastor’s job I was never sure. It did not help that the cemetery was located a few miles from the church on a dirt road near the original church.
Every year when we come to this point in the lectionary, I am reminded of my first call and their cemetery. Why? Because it was not just known as Immanuel Lutheran Cemetery, but also the Swedish Lutheran Cemetery and more importantly, the Sheep of the Good Shepherd Cemetery. There is a metal archway over the entrance that reads, “Sheep of the Good Shepherd.” It was a serene spot. A place that I truly enjoyed visiting and being surrounded with the saints of the congregation that had already entered the church triumphant. If I was lucky enough, I may be visited by livestock whose grazing area butted up to the cemetery. I walked along the Anderson’s, Nelson’s, Sandahl’s, Hanson’s (you know all those good Swedish names), and many more while praying. I especially enjoyed going out there on Easter Sunday just as the sun was rising and rejoicing in the Resurrection.
In John’s gospel this morning, we enter the story in the midst of The Good Shepherd chapter. Therefore, the 4th Sunday of Easter has come to be known as Good Shepherd Sunday. Jesus, the good shepherd, knows each and every one of us and calls us by name to follow him and have life eternal.
While Jesus knows us and calls us, that does not mean that we fully understand what is taking place. We too often attempt to make Jesus into the very thing that he is not! Don’t think that we are the only ones. There was confusion in Jesus’ time as well. The Jewish leaders in the temple wanted to know who Jesus was. In our lesson this morning, they cannot stand the waiting. It’s like waiting for the name of the latest royal baby that was born. Ok not really, but those talking to Jesus this morning really wants to know if he is the Messiah or not!
We are told that it is winter and the time of the festival of the Dedication. We know this festival better as Hanukkah. It was a celebration of not only the rededication of the temple at the time of the Maccabean revolt, but also a celebration of liberation. As they gather for this festival, the Jewish people are looking towards the coming of a Messiah, and are waiting for Jesus to respond and tell them the truth. However, he chooses not to answer in the affirmative because he does not fit into the box in which they are trying to place him.
They are looking for a Messiah, who will save them from the Roman empire. A conqueror who will destroy all that is in their way and will bring them to a place of peace. Their concern is around earthly matters and not the promise of salvation that the Messiah can provide eternally. They desire someone that can conquer their oppressors and bring them back to a point of nationalistic pride.
Wow, we do not learn from history, do we?
Time and time again, we gather around political leaders that we think are going to bring great change and we remove our eyes from what truly matters in Jesus Christ. We want them to save us from what we think is wrong. We look for leaders in businesses to save them from failure. The church is even guilty of this! Congregations call pastors in the hope that they will turn everything around. Sunday school classes will be back to levels of the past, the sanctuary will be full, and the offering plate will be over flowing. In all of these cases, we look past what truly matters in Jesus Christ. Not to say these things cannot be done, but they are done in community. We are not called to conquer. We are not called to save anybody from anything. That is the calling of Jesus Christ!
Jesus is the Messiah! He just is not the Messiah that the Jewish leaders are looking for. He does conquer. But he does not conquer the Roman Empire as they are hoping. He conquers what truly matters. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, conquers sin, death, and evil! It is this Messiah that we are called to follow. We follow him and he tends to us as his flock.
More importantly, he reaches out to those that need him the most. He looks to welcome all of humanity. Especially the part of humanity that is abandoned, thrown out, cast out, and tossed out. Those that are on the fringes of society. His concern is not with political parties or the bottom line. Jesus’ concern is for his flock. To care for and love us as children of God.
While we may have no clue how to be a shepherd in the literal sense, we can learn from Jesus and reach out to the same people that he ushers into the kingdom of God. And you know what, Jesus does not exclude anyone. In his call to follow him, we too can learn to share the love and grace that is bestowed upon us by God.
This past week, as the church of Christ, we lost another great saint. Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche Community for people with developmental disabilities and those who assist them. He is an example of what it means to truly follow Jesus Christ. He wrote the following in one of his many books,
To become a good shepherd is to come out of the shell of selfishness in order to be attentive to those for whom we are responsible so as to reveal to them their fundamental beauty and value and help them grow and become fully alive.
As we choose to follow Jesus, are we truly following him, or are we just giving him lip service? Are we being his hands and feet in the world or are we just talking the talk? The grace is that Jesus welcomes us in whatever we choose to do, however are we truly living in our faith? What are we choosing to shepherd?
Let us pray. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, you call us to follow you and you know us. You know our hearts and what is on our minds. May we continue to listen to that calling and be open to your movement in our lives and the life of our community. Amen.