Life to the Fullest

Easter 4B-24

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

My great grandpa, Tom Flynn, was from a family of schoolteachers.  His sister became the first woman to be principal of the school in her small Minnesota town. Tom, by contrast, fell on hard times in the middle of the roaring twenties.  My great grandma, Cecilia Rose, said the two Flynn boys caught her eye because they could really dance, but she had picked the wrong Flynn.  ‘He was good man,” she said, “except for the drink.”

Alcoholism devastated their family. In 1928, Tom left Cecelia and their 11 children in search of work.  My grandmother, Lois, was four at the time. Then the Great Depression hit, and things got much, much worse. Grandpa Tom returned home long enough to give Cecilia two more children. She had 13 children in all. They wore clothing stitched together from used gunny sacks. They lived in a building built to store corn, not people. The children worked on nearby farms and households.  Grandma Lois wouldn’t remember ever seeing her father until years later when she was an adult.

Great Grandpa Tom drifted. He finally caught on as a shepherd in Montana.  He died alone.  He died believing he was a failure –and probably most people, including my grandmother Lois, would have agreed. Even in Jesus’ time, being a shepherd was not a high calling.  In ancient Israel, a shepherd’s daily work made them ritually unclean before God. Shepherds had an unsavory reputation.  It was a job reserved for women, children, the enslaved, or the elderly — all people who were socially marginalized.

Yet, each year on the fourth week after Easter, we celebrate ‘Good Shepherd Sunday.’  The risen Lord gathers us with the lame and the lost into the undying life of God as a shepherd gathers sheep. Recalling the voice from the burning bush which revealed God’s name to Moses, Yahweh, I Am Who I Am (Exodus 3:14), Jesus told the disciples, “I Am the Good Shepherd (John 10:11a).

Christians have always been fond of this image. We have it here in the stained glass of the baptistry in the side chapel. Early Christians adapted and adopted this famous image from ones which had depicted the Greed god, Hermes, famously carrying a ram draped around his shoulders which he intended to sacrifice. In contrast, Jesus, the Good Shepherd, carries the lamb upon his shoulders, not to sacrifice it, but to save it.   Alleluia, Christ is risen! (He is risen indeed, alleluia.)

Like the parable of the ‘Good Samaritan’, the ‘Good Shepherd’ is a story of reversal with radical implications. It would have sounded a bit like an oxymoron to those first disciples, as if Jesus were to identify himself with any number of unpopular jobs today: I am the good migrant farm laborer; I am the good dishwasher; I am the good sanitation worker; I am the good day-laborer. Respectable people listening to Jesus must have winced.

My Great Grandpa Tom was a shepherd.  He may have been a good shepherd for all I know.  But in the things that mattered most, like the care of his wife and children, he was more like the bad shepherds that Jesus talks about in John’s gospel who lose sight of their job to protect the sheep.  Yet our gospel tells us Jesus sought him out. Jesus would gather him in with all the other lost sheep of his sheepfold.

The new community Jesus fosters in, with, above, under, and through us, isn’t based on money and status, but on compassion, care, mutuality, and service.  “This is the comfort and safety of God’s commonwealth — God loves, the Good Shepherd loves, and the community is constituted by and bound by love. Jesus imagines an entirely different kind of flock, not one owned by some greedy and distant overlord, but an inclusive human family tended by the motherly care of God and led by little children.” (Diana Butler Bass, “A Shepherd, Really?”, Sunday Musings, April 21, 2024)

Now, God themself promises to be our shepherd. (vs.15). Christ Jesus lovingly stoops to tend our wounds, even those we are guilty of causing ourselves. Christ, the Good Shepherd calls each one of us by name.  Christ beckons me to lie down in green pastures. They lead me beside still waters.  They restore my soul.

We call church leaders “pastors,” from the Latin word, poimen, for ‘shepherd’.  All of us, not just professional leaders, are joined in a community of lost lambs, that is being transformed and sent out to serve as shepherds, following the way of our Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ. Tomorrow, Earth Day is a good occasion to remember that we who have been gathered are also sent.  Together, we are called to repent of the violence and harsh heartedness of the faith community that has lost and scattered Christ’s lambs and left them vulnerable to predators.  We are called to rebuild trust and to bring them home—not just the lost human lambs, but also the real lambs, together with all things living threatened or made vulnerable by our own indifference and greed.

We are called to reach out and not forget those like my Great Grandpa Tom, whose lives are crushed by the weight of our ever-changing economy, and whose hope is being snuffed out by the evil power of addiction. We must pray to be guided by God’s care for us, so that we may rightly offer our lives in love to God and to our neighbors in need…really.   Jesus waits to lead you deeper into the mysteries of God’s grace.  On this Good Shepherd Sunday, we encounter God’s invitation to be incorporated again, in the undying life of Jesus, who, like a Good Shepherd, is constantly in search of ways to make all life flourish throughout God’s creation.

The bible calls us to manage the care of the earth, to shepherd God’s people, and to faithfully steward the resources, gifts, and responsibilities entrusted to us by God as members of God’s household or family. We are to strive, with all the creativity and energy we can muster, not so that we may enter the kingdom of heaven someday, but to be part of God’s kingdom alive and at work in the world today.  We become better disciples of Jesus by becoming more tender-hearted, more honest with ourselves, more accepting of our limitations, and more caring for each other. Put more simply, we become better Christians by becoming more human.  Striving to be a living sanctuary of hope and grace, let it be said those people at Immanuel really know how to live life to its fullest. Together with my great-grandpa Tom, and all the saints in light, let the people say, Amen!