April 22, 2018 – Good Shepherd Sunday
Psalm 23; John 10:11-18; 1 John 3:16-24
The Rev. Dr. Susan Kraus
“The Lord is my shepherd.” These few words that we know so well are truly a great declaration of faith in God’s covenant with us as well as an expression of our relationship with God. This metaphor of shepherd and sheep occurs in many places in the Hebrew Bible and in the New Testament. Today – Good Shepherd Sunday – we highlight some of the scripture passages that present this metaphor and we honor it in our hymns.
Of today’s scripture readings the 23rd Psalm is the most ancient, written sometime between the 9th and 8th centuries B.C.E. The psalmist describes God as a shepherd who leads the sheep to pasture, to waters that are not turbulent but still – and therefore easy to drink from – and through difficult terrain. In a courageous statement of faith the psalmist declares, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
Have you ever given thought to the images of the shepherd’s rod and staff? There is a wonderful note to this verse in “The Jewish Study Bible”: “The shepherd’s rod and staff, implements that prod and guide the sheep, provide the comfort that comes from divine guidance” (page 1307). Think about your life. Has God ever pushed you – maybe with a good, hard shove of that shepherd’s rod – to get you to go in the right direction? Has God ever used that shepherd’s crook to haul you by the neck out of a pit you’ve fallen into? Maybe God is pushing or pulling you right now. The psalmist helps us see comfort in the assurance that, in goodness and mercy, God will push us and pull us and do whatever is necessary to guide us on the right and safe path.
Nearly a thousand years later the author of the Gospel of John writes: “Jesus said, ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.’” Jesus uses the ancient metaphor from scripture, applies it to himself, and takes it further. The good shepherd does more than guide and comfort his sheep with rod and staff. He is in relationship with his sheep, as Jesus is in relationship with the Father. Jesus said, “I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” And when the sheep are in danger, the good shepherd willingly lays down his life for the sheep. This is the measure of the Lord’s love for us.
Before we heard the gospel we sang “The King of love my shepherd is.” Henry Williams Baker, the 19th century author of this hymn, used imagery from the 23rd Psalm and from the passion of Christ. “In death’s dark vale I fear no ill with thee, dear Lord, beside me; thy rod and staff my comfort still, thy cross before to guide me.” Through Jesus, the Good Shepherd willing to lay down his life for God’s people, our understanding of God’s love for us has grown immeasurably. And in the cross of Jesus we have a pole star for our souls, a guide for living and a sure comfort in death. How will we respond to the cross of Christ?
St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a monk who lived in France in the 12th century and established the Cistercian Order, wrote and taught extensively about the cross. He encouraged people to contemplate Jesus’ act of willingly giving his life to fulfill God’s purpose of our salvation. Bernard knew from experience that, by God’s grace, such contemplation has the power to stir our hearts to thankfulness and love for God as nothing else does.
Bernard emphasizes thankfulness. When we contemplate what Christ gave for us, our hearts are properly full of thanks. But if we fail to reflect on Christ’s action, we are liable to take it for granted. Bernard regarded thankfulness as a state of grace and described ingratitude as “that worst and most hateful of vices.” We must make a continual effort to live in thanksgiving for God’s gifts, especially the gift of Christ’s sacrifice, or we are likely to fall into a spiritually deadly “attitude of ingratitude.” In the 12th century Bernard wrote, “Even today we see many people who insistently ask for what they realize they need, but we know very few who give thanks in proportion to what they have received.”
“Even today” we do the same, don’t we? In our Prayers of the People many of us will speak aloud our petitions for ourselves and others. How often do we voice our thanks for blessings received? In most churches I’ve attended, it is rare that a word is offered in thanksgiving for particular blessings.
Mother Maureen McCabe, now the abbess of a Cistercian Abbey in Massachusetts, describes this tool: to thank God for a favor received as often as you petitioned for it, or, as Bernard put it, to give thanks in proportion as you have received. To thank God for a favor received as often as you petitioned for it. Mother Maureen writes, “Try it. The result is a sense of perspective in which the weightier things in life fall into their rightful place, dead center, and the less weighty order themselves around that center. In choosing to be conscious of the enormous gifts we have received, we can bear our difficulties with a deeper sense that God, who has come through for us again and again, will be with us no matter what” (McCabe, Maureen F., “Stages of Prayer in Saint Bernard: I am the Way”; Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN, 2012, page 47).
Here is a simple practice we can all do that can guide us on the right path to God and open our souls to further grace. When we remember to thank God for our blessings, we find comfort. More than that, our love for God grows. And as our love grows, we naturally seek ways to show our love for God, to give ourselves to God in return for God’s gifts to us of life and salvation.
The author of the First Letter of John puts it well: “We know love by this, that [Jesus] laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” Love for love. “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” When thankfulness has filled our hearts, when our hearts are on fire with love for Christ, then we will love “in truth,” and sharing and compassionate service for others will flow from God through us in a mighty stream.
In the life of following Christ we go forward step by small step, day by day. God gives us a push here or a pull there, and we try to go in God’s direction instead of stubbornly insisting on our own. I hope that St. Bernard can give us a push in the direction of thankfulness. I hope a spirit of thankfulness will grow at St. Giles’. We are blessed to be called to follow Jesus. We are blessed to have the Church and all its rich traditions. We are blessed to have this parish and the freedom to worship and serve here. “Even today,” when mainline churches are declining and when parishes in this diocese are shrinking and able to offer less and less, I dare say that we may be in danger of taking for granted what we have at St. Giles’. I pray that thankfulness for our blessings will push less weighty matters to the side and that what is most important – loving gratitude for our faith, for the church, for St. Giles’, and our response of service in thanksgiving – can take their rightful place, “dead center.”
The Lord is my shepherd. The Lord is your shepherd. Our shepherd is the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for his sheep, for you and for me. He did not leave us to the wolves. Shall we practice thanking our Good Shepherd for all that he has done for us and see where God’s love takes us?