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May 3, 2020

The Good Shepherd

The Good Shepherd
Northminster Presbyterian Church, Indianapolis
May 3, 2020
The Rev. Carol McDonald
Psalm 23 and John 10: 1-11

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These are odd days between Easter and Pentecost. Something really big has happened and we sense something equally huge on the horizon. Imagine how Jesus’ first followers felt. They knew he was no longer dead… but where was he? They knew they were to wait in Jerusalem … but for what? They believed something was yet to occur … but when? These are odd days between the Resurrection and the birth of the Church.

Particularly in 2020, I am grateful for the constants of this time of the church year. Two weeks ago, we experienced our annual encounter with Thomas – the disciple who doubted. And today is “Good Shepherd Sunday” – always the 4th Sunday of Easter. We read the 23rd Psalm and we hear “I am the good shepherd” from John’s gospel.

Perhaps this particular constant is our annual challenge to stop and remember who Jesus really was – and who Jesus really is – even today. And, oh my, don’t we need this reminder in the midst of this year’s fear and isolation and social distancing? And don’t we, as a family of faith, need this reminder as we move more deeply into our time of transition as a congregation?

A quick read of Psalm 23 calls forth images of safety and comfort and tranquility. It’s one of the first scriptures we learn as children and we cling to it throughout our lives, almost always sharing it at services of witness to the resurrection. Most Sunday School pictures of the 23rd Psalm Jesus show Jesus caring tenderly for the lambs in the midst of green pastures and lovely rolling hills.

However, such quick reads, and such bucolic pictures, point us to only one aspect of a shepherd’s complex work. The Rev. Austin Crenshaw Shelley is one of the pastors at The Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill in the city of Philadelphia. She says this about the shepherd of Psalm 23:
“The senior minister of the church I serve occasionally reminds congregants that the shepherd’s staff has two useful ends: a crook for drawing the sheep away from danger, and a blunt end for prodding them toward places they would rather not go. A good shepherd both protects and agitates as needed, both gathers in for shelter and leads out to graze in new pastures. And so it is with God, the Good Shepherd, who draws us in to hold us – but also relentlessly pursues us and, in order that God’s purposes might be fulfilled, challenges us to go where we would rather not go. Yes, God comforts and protects us. But God also knows something of our potential and urges us toward that vision.”

Shelley indicates that the verb “to follow” in Psalm 23 can also be translated as “to pursue.” Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me … surely goodness and mercy shall pursue me … all the days of my life. Yes, God holds us and cares for us … but God will never stop prodding us to be all that we are called to be.

Our gospel lesson this morning from Chapter 10 of John’s gospel depicts Jesus as the care-taker of the sheep, the shepherd who knows his flock and whose flock knows and trusts him, the shepherd who will protect the flock from thieves and bandits – who will be the gate to send them out for nourishment each day and the gate to return them to safety each night.

The Good Shepherd … one who cares for, who comforts, who protects, one who draws us in to hold us. The Good Shepherd … one who prods, who pursues, one who, in order that God’s purposes might be fulfilled, challenges us to go where we’d rather not go.

The Good Shepherd – an image (thank you doubting Thomas) that we will see if we believe – an image that sustains us in this time of fear, and isolation, and social distancing. The Good Shepherd – a reminder that God’s got this – that God nourishes us every day in so many ways and that God will return us safely to community when the time is right. Believe and you will see.

The Good Shepherd – an image for a congregation seeking a leader for a time of transition. We are blessed because we are not without shepherding during this time of distancing and transition – thank you to Ruth and John and all who are caring for us in this season. Yet it was good to hear last Sunday from our Personnel Committee; they are making progress in their search for an Interim Pastor – their search, if you will, for a Lead Shepherd.

For 20 years I taught pastors and other church leaders about transitional leadership and have worked with many congregations during such seasons. I trust our Personnel Committee to find, and to be found by, exactly the right Shepherd for this next season in our life as a congregation. Believe it – and you will see.

I trust them to find, and be found by, a Shepherd who will comfort … and care for… and nourish us as Christians, as Presbyterians, as citizens of this city and this world.

I trust them, also, to find, and be found by, a Shepherd who will prod us … challenge us… even pursue us … a Shepherd who will see our potential and urge us toward that vision so that God’s purposes for us might be fulfilled.

I trust our Personnel Committee to find, and be found by, a Shepherd who knows equally how to use both ends of the shepherd’s staff – the crook to gather us in and the blunt end to move us out into the world.
My friends, we are half-way through the journey between Resurrection and the birth of the church. The Good Shepherd watches over us. Believe it and you will see! A Lead Shepherd awaits us. Believe it and you will see. For Pentecost is coming. And the church of Jesus Christ will continue to be born and re-born – even, and especially, right here on Kessler Boulevard! Thanks be to God.

Resource: “Living the Word: Reflections on the Lectionary” by Austin Crenshaw Shelley. The Christian Century, March 30, 2016.