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4th Sunday of Easter

Easter 4B: Acts 4:5-12; Psalm 23

1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18

Rev. Margaret Dyer-Chamberlain

April 21, 2024

Good morning, St. Aidan’s.

Over the last three Sundays, beginning with Easter, we have been hearing a lot about Jesus’ resurrection and about what we might call the ‘post resurrection reality’ that his followers grappled with. On Easter, we journeyed with Mary and the other women at the tomb, who were startled to find that Jesus was not there. On the second Sunday of Easter, we resonated with the doubts of Thomas – doubts that might, indeed, be a mirror of our own. Last Sunday we heard of Jesus appearing to the disciples, saying “peace be with you” and “touch me and see” – Jesus, our resurrected savior.

Today, on the fourth Sunday of Easter, we are provided with a portrait of just who this resurrected Jesus is meant to be for us. Jesus is telling us what kind of a leader he will be for the world, in his metaphor of the good shepherd. This day is often referred to as “Good Shepherd Sunday” – which is both an apt description and an oversimplification, because there is a lot going on in this gospel story.

I’d like to focus on two main aspects that stood out for me.

The first is Jesus’ focus right at the beginning of the story when he says - “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. And then a bit later he notes - The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.”

Jesus distinguishes himself from a hired hand in this passage – because unlike a hired hand, Jesus was not a leader who gained anything from watching over his flock – in fact he served his people with no expectation in return. He was in danger, he was not paid nor did he receive accolades or credit. He was a selfless leader who knew, saw and listened to everyone, leading with love. He did not have power over anyone, instead he sacrificed his own well-being for others. He was humble and he was under the radar. In short, he was not the typical kind of protector that society often values. He was one of us.

The second thing that stood out to me in the story is this part. Jesus said – “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.”

This part is really important – because it is all about community and about how we hold together as a people. There might be some of us who don’t belong, or feel that we don’t belong. There might be some of us who have disagreements with one another and wish that the others would just go away. But Jesus talked about bringing everyone in, and about listening to everyone. He talked about coming together as one flock, with one shepherd.

And so – these parts of the story cause me to think about two rather big questions for us:

First, How do we see ourselves as good shepherds as compared with hired hands? – and

Second, How might we be a part of bringing communities together?

I read a commentary about today’s readings in Sojourners Magazine, which pondered this. The commentary wondered:

“In our own context of extreme political and religious polarization, how do we strengthen love within our Christian communities while disagreeing in significant ways? How do we hold firm to our convictions and still treat each other as neighbors? Perhaps we can learn to shape our story in ways that affirm our histories and commitments without undermining the stories of those different from us.”

Our readings today might help us with this. When I think about the beautiful, creation-inspired psalm 23 which begins – “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want” – I feel like it’s imploring us to be sure that we remember that we have help is all of this – because God is with us. The psalm describes the bad times – when we are in the valley of the shadow of death, and also the good times – when we lie down in the green pastures and still waters of God’s creation. In all of this – in the complicated ups and downs of life – we have God’s goodness and mercy reviving our souls. Comforting us. Taking away our fear. Centering us in love. And our reading from John reminds us that the basis of love is our belief in Jesus. John writes, “We know love by this, that Jesus laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”

Well, easier said than done, isn’t it? Particularly when it comes to the times when we experience deep differences in our relationships, communities, and world.

Since Earth Day is being celebrated today and tomorrow and as I considered these questions, I couldn’t help but think about my experience in an urban garden I’ve mentioned before, a place called the Free Farm, as I consider these two questions. Some of you have heard me talk about this garden before, but for those who haven’t, it was an all-volunteer urban garden that operated for about 3 years on a vacant lot at the corner of Gough and Eddy streets in SF. It became a casualty of development about 10 years ago and now high-end condos stand in the spot where we used to grow fruits and veggies, all of which we gave away to people who couldn’t afford fresh food.

The volunteers who tended the farm were a rag-tag group of people ranging from hipsters in skinny jeans to foodies to master gardeners to students from nearby USF to seniors to a few church types like me. We didn’t always agree – in fact, managing disagreement was a pretty extensive part of our communal life. There were epic arguments about things like composting techniques, parking of cars inside the garden fence, and whether or not a gratitude ritual would be ok on volunteer days. We had to develop group norms around substance use when addicts and folks with severe mental health troubles joined our work days visibly high. It was really challenging.

But we shared something foundational and powerful, even amidst all of this. We were at the farm to care for creation – some of us saw that as a commitment to God and to our faith, some of us saw it as commitment to community and to preserving nature in a city. But we all adored that farm, and I think all of us resonated with John’s words – “Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

And so, over time, even in all of the disagreements and discomfort and angst, we were able to shepherd the farm. We were not hired hands. We cared deeply and we received nothing in return – not even the food that we grew, because we gave it to those who needed it more than we did. And over time, we built trust and we continued to talk about our differences and we became a community – a community that grieved deeply when the farm had to close. Our final act of shepherding and being together was to commit that all of our plants – including trees – would be adopted by others – including church gardens. That was how I first met Barbara Purcell and the St. Aidan’s gardeners – Barbara came to the farm and we dug up plants together for our garden here at the church. Who knew that 10+ years later, we would still be tending those plants?

And the Free Farm community still is in touch all these years later – weathering loss and change and aging and -----still ----- disagreements, believe it or not. Some things about community remain constant, right?

This is just a very small story, I realize that, and the problems and divisions in our world loom large. But I believe we each have a choice – a choice to begin somewhere to shepherd one another and to build community --- whether it is in reaching out a hand to a neighbor in need, or in prayer, or in caring for our Earth, or in sticking with conversations even when it’s hard and discouraging and tiresome. Jesus modeled for us how to make these kinds of choices, and he left us with lots of stories to listen to and to learn from and to share. He left us, most fundamentally, with the powerful image of resurrection. Resurrection from death and from all of the hardest things in life. He reminded us that love always overcomes hate and death and adversity.

And so friends, I’m going to go out on a limb and say – I think we’ve got this. I think that, in ways large and small, we can lay down our lives for one another. I think we can embrace the words of Paul – “Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” I think we can remember that “there is one flock, one shepherd.” I think we can listen for, and hear, the voice of the God who calls us each by name, and that we can follow where God is leading us.

May it be so. Amen.

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