4th Sunday in Easter – 2021b
Old Testament – Ezekiel 34:11-16
New Testament – John 10:11-18
INTRODUCTION: Back in February of 1977 Oscar Romero was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador in the tiny Central American country of El Salvador.
While Romero wasn’t known for taking controversial stands, as El Salvador descended into a Civil War in the years following his appointment, the Archbishop slowly started speaking out against the government's inhumane treatment of dissenters, who were frequently hauled away from loved ones and friends by soldiers never to be seen again.
But the death at the hands of the government of Rutilio Grande, who was Romero’s good friend and a fellow priest, well, that was the final straw. Feeling he had no other choice, Romero began to publicly chastise the government for its cruel treatment of the Salvadoran people - many of whom were already poor and destitute.
Why, Romero even went so far as to call on those Salvadoran soldiers who were Christians to obey Christ’s higher commands by openly refusing to carry out the government’s repressive and brutal tactics.
Well, as you might imagine, such talk eventually led to Romero’s own persecution. On March 24, 1980, in the midst of celebrating the Eucharist at a small chapel, Romero was gunned down by a lone shooter, who many believe was sent by the government.
No wonder Romero was known to frequently predict his own death in interviews. Or as he said at one point before his assassination, “I am bound, as a pastor, by divine command to give my life for those whom I love, and that is all Salvadoreans, even those who are going to kill me.”
ONE: Well, we hear such remarks from Oscar Romero before his murder, and it’s pretty easy for those words of Jesus in the John’s Gospel to come floating back into view.
“I am the good shepherd,” says Jesus. “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…I know my own and my own know me...And I lay down my life for the sheep.”
Well, it’s classic imagery, isn’t it? After all, the notion of Jesus as the good shepherd is about as basic and fundamental as it gets for us as people of faith.
Underneath the city of Rome and in the outlying areas, there are at least forty different catacombs that were built and used by some of the earliest Christians for burying the dead.
Turns out, the rock under the city is made largely of hardened volcanic ash, which is highly porous making it ideal for tunneling.
So the ground under Rome and the surrounding countryside is littered with catacombs, some of which stretch out for kilometers while others, much more compact, contain up to four different stories or levels.
Well, perhaps not surprisingly, the catacombs underneath Rome also contain some of the earliest depictions and drawings of Jesus.
And in one such catacomb, the Catacomb of San Callisto, there is a rough and faded fresco of Jesus that many believe is one of the oldest depictions ever made of him.
And guess what it is? Well, it’s an image of Jesus in a white tunic with a lamb slung over his shoulders while carrying a pitcher of water and being followed by other lambs.
TWO: Is it any wonder, then, that shepherding is also considered such important imagery for those who would follow Jesus Christ?
Yep, in the same way Jesus was a shepherd, in the same way Jesus gave himself away for others, we’re to seek to do the same. “Love one another,” Jesus says later in John’s Gospel, “as I have loved you.”
And Jesus’ love, of course, was more than just sentimental gooeyness, right? Nope. His love was so big and large and expansive it cost him everything. Why, it even cost him his very life. For when everything was said and done, Jesus ended up draped on that cross. In redeeming love, he hung there for all the world.
A fellow minister tells of officiating a wedding for a young couple who wanted to write their own vows. Neither of the two knew what the other was going to say until the time came to exchange their vows.
When it was the groom’s turn, he talked about his love for the bride and how he couldn’t wait for them to start their lives together. He also talked about how the bride had already made him a better person and then ended his vows with four short words: “I am all-in,” said the groom. “I am all-in.” (Story by Rodger Nishioka)
Well, a nice motto for disciples to live by. For as those called to be shepherds, just like our Lord and Savior, we too should be all-in. All-in for each other.
THREE: Of course, these days such talk about being all-in for each other can sound discordant and oddly out of place.
After all, there is a callousness in the way we speak and act toward each other that seems to directly contradict the call for us to be shepherds of each other. Instead of reaching out to each other in concern and love, we seem to spend most of our time shouting and barking at one another.
Rather than foster a sense of our common humanity, we focus on our divisions and malign people who are different than ourselves. And so we speak ill of each other on social media platforms employing juvenile language and taunts, reducing life to a contest between warring groups and factions.
I have some friends on Facebook that I can’t help but follow. Not because I find their posts to be particularly uplifting or “socially redeeming” as my Dad would say, but actually for the very opposite reason.
Their posts, instead, are laced with insults, barbs, and taunts at both individuals and groups. It’s like a car wreck I can’t help but slow down and stare at as I pass by. Why, sometimes the discourse can get so vitriolic and caustic, it’s hard not to feel as if some people, who are supposedly “friends” on Facebook, don’t actually hate each other.
When discussing the beatitudes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the New Testament scholar AJ Levine says the poor in spirit are more than just those who lack pride, or who aren’t conceited.
The poor in spirit, writes Levine, “are those who recognise they are both the beneficiaries of the help of others and part of a system in which they are to pay it forward and help those whom they can.”
The poor in spirit, in other words, are blessed because they are, well, shepherds - shepherds, in the end, for all people.
FOUR: Fred Craddock tells a great story about returning to a church in East Tennessee he had once served many years ago.
Going to a restaurant in Gatlinburg for dinner, Craddock and his wife soon found their meal being interrupted by a man who, annoyingly, just started asking all kinds of nosey questions.
“Where are you from?” “Oklahoma, you say.” “So you on vacation?” “Well, what do you do for a living in Oklahoma?”
And after Craddock told the man he was a minister in the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, well, he just pulled up a chair uninvited and started sharing his life story. Turns out, the man grew up around Gatlinburg. But because his mother had him out of wedlock and he didn’t know who his daddy was, well, he was an outcast for much of his early life.
Or as the man told Craddock, “When I went into town...I could see people staring at me, making guesses as to who was my father. At school the children said ugly things to me, and I stayed to myself during recess, and I ate lunch alone.”
As a teenager, the man began to attend the Laurel Springs Disciples of Christ Church. But still feeling like he wouldn’t be welcomed by folks, at the close of every service the young man would dash out of the church fearful he would be made to feel ashamed for who he was.
One Sunday, though, he got caught behind some people and he found himself suddenly stuck in the sanctuary. And then even worse, he felt the heavy hand of the minister suddenly land on his shoulder.
Then the man had this to say to Craddock, “[The minister] turned his face...so he could see mine and seemed to be staring for a little while. I knew what he was doing. He was going to make a guess as to who my father was. A moment later he said, ‘Well, boy, you’re a child of…’ and he paused there. And I knew it was coming. I knew I would have my feelings hurt. I knew I would not go back again.
He said, ‘Boy, you’re a child of God. I see a striking resemblance, boy.’ Then he swatted me on the bottom and said, ‘Now go claim your inheritance.’ I left the [church] a different person. In fact, that was really the beginning of my life.”
The unnamed man so intent on ruining Fred Craddock’s dinner with his life story, he would later learn, turned out to be Ben Hooper. Who even though he didn’t know who his biological daddy was, would eventually go on to be elected governor of Tennessee for two terms.
CONCLUSION: Well, that’s about right, isn’t it? Turns out, no matter who we are, no matter where we’ve come from, how we might look, or whatever our background might be, we’re all still children of God.
And if we’re all children of God, if we all share that common bond, it only makes sense we should then also be concerned for all people, right?
For what kind of a shepherd only cares for some of the sheep? Well, not a very good one, it seems to me. Not a very good one at all.
And now blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.