Easter 4C Sermon (2022)

4th Sunday in Easter
Texts: Revelation 7:9-17;
John 10:22-30; Acts 9:36-43

YouTube version: https://youtu.be/b0n_cm0pQMY

GOOD SHEPHERDING MEANS GOOD NEWS FOR THE POOR

Happy Mother’s Day! And I begin with something I don’t remember ever doing before: give you a Mother’s Day recommendation . . . for a television show, or all things. It’s titled Call the Midwife and can be streamed on Netflix or with a PBS subscription. (It is a PBS show from the BBC.) As you might guess from the title, it is literally about becoming a mother. Every episode generally features at least one birth. Overall, it is a show decidedly about bringing people to life, and nurturing life in the best of ways. It is about the best qualities of motherhood. It’s a show about genuine kindness and selfless love. I don’t remember ever watching a show whose central characters were so genuinely kind and caring. In other words, it’s very refreshing among our usual choices for watching television.

And I think this show represents even more than that. It represents the power of love as a force for good, as a power which enhances life in the face of the powers that lead to death. For the setting of the show is also unusual and remarkable. The majority of television shows like to show us the places of wealth and the kind of power that goes with it, the power to control other people’s lives. Call the Midwife is a show set in the east-end of London, the poorest neighborhoods of London, showing us people of courage and faith and love who nurture life in the face of the power of Poverty to bring death.

The midwives on this show operate out of a convent of Sisters who are trained nurses, and they are joined by other ‘secular’ women who are trained nurses. Together they are an army of nurses who are on constant call to go into the homes of their neighbors, using bicycles, in order to help birth babies and do whatever it takes to bring care and further life. In that respect, they are truly like Good Shepherds tending to the sheep in the face of all the bad shepherds and those who threaten life. It is a show of ‘biblical proportions’ in showing us the power of love working to further the flourishing of life, in the face of powers like poverty that lead to death.

When I say ‘biblical proportions,’ part of what I mean is that the prophetic tradition within the Bible reveals poverty as much more of a function of societal choices than individual choices. Do individuals make choices which can contribute to their poverty? Yes, of course. But in the prophetic tradition, of which Jesus is the climax, much more important are the choices a society makes, through its leaders, to help care, or not care, for all people, and to help guide them into more productive choices they can make as individuals which lead to more productive and prosperous lives.

Today’s readings are an example. The Good Shepherd discourse is about Jesus confronting the political leaders of his day. We don’t quite get a good picture in the small slice we read today, that Jesus is having it out with the Pharisees and leaders of his day in Jerusalem. He represents what it means to be a Good Shepherd of the people under his care, truly working to give them life, and to give it abundantly. Unfortunately, our usual societal arrangements install shepherds who are mostly in it for themselves, and don’t really understand what it takes to guide people into lives of flourishing. Instead, they behave in ways that diminish the lives of the people they lead, impoverishing them instead of sharing in the abundance, in ways that ultimately threaten those lives. The Hebrew prophets were about speaking up and challenging their human leadership to be more like God in caring for the creation, and in caring for God’s children. The prophets lifted up the image of God as the Good Shepherd to challenge all the bad shepherding taking place.

So here’s the key thing to understand: This tradition of prophecy assumes that poverty is more a function of bad leadership in a society as it is bad choices of the individuals living in poverty. Widows and orphans languishing in poverty don’t choose to be poor. Their existence in poverty is much more the choice of those at the top of a society who choose to hoard their wealth and abundance rather than finding effective ways to share it — to give people a fighting chance not to be poor.

Jesus is decidedly in this tradition of Hebrew prophecy when he confronts the leaders in Jerusalem over their impoverished shepherding. He speaks to them about being a Good Shepherd who tends to the sheep. This portion of John’s Gospel actually begins with Jesus in Jerusalem and the Judean leadership beginning to challenge him. It comes to head in the chapter before this one, in John 9, when Jesus heals a man born blind. What’s significant in this long chapter, after Jesus heals the man in only the first seven verse, is that rest of the chapter is wrangling with the Judean leaders — who instead of celebrating such a miracle, choose to criticize Jesus for healing on the Sabbath. Their position is basically, ‘Jesus healing on the Sabbath breaks our laws, so he can’t be doing good.’ So by the end of John 9, the Pharisees throw out the man born blind, who stands by Jesus, saying, ‘I don’t know about you, but I’ve never heard of anyone being born blind and being cured of it. We should be celebrating this.’ But the Pharisees throw him out.

John 9 ends with Jesus saying to the Pharisees, ‘Because you think you see clearly and know what you’re doing, you truly remain blind.’ And there’s no break from this end on John 9, criticizing the Pharisees’ leadership, to launching into the Good Shepherd monologue. In short, Jesus goes on to challenge them for their bad shepherding. Their leadership fails to be about life . . . enhancing life . . . helping all life to flourish.

This part of John’s Gospel (beginning in John 7) actually begins in the Fall at one of their festivals in Jerusalem — the Festival of Booths, it’s called. Our portion of the Good Shepherd passage this morning, you may have noticed, actually jumps ahead several months. It’s still in Jerusalem — though now it’s winter at the Festival of Dedication, known as Hanukkah — and Jesus is still having the same debate with the same Judean leaders. Jesus is not only measuring their leadership by good shepherding, but also now by good parenting — which also celebrate today. ‘The works I do,’ says Jesus, ‘are from my Father. The Father and I are one.’

We’re also reading from the Book of Revelation during this Easter Season, and we can get more into this in the weeks ahead. But let’s notice some of the same issues about shepherding in Revelation. The Book of Revelation takes some of these same kinds of political arguments — for that’s what it is, after all, a political argument about how to help everyone flourish in a society, about how to have good shepherding. It takes that political argument and puts it on a global stage. Today’s reading is about all those who have gone through the ordeal — who have endured oppression under bad shepherds — and puts it on the stage of all times and places. These white-robed martyrs represent people from every time and every language and every place and every nation. It frames reality as a collision between God’s way of doing things — which is about enhancing life, nurturing life — with our bad shepherding way of doing things — which is typically about greed and selfishness and maintaining one’s own power. Which leads to death. The Book of Revelation paints this picture of the human reality on a large canvas.

Let’s end today by noticing how on Mother’s Day we tend to have a bit higher attendance. Moms say, ‘Come to church for me today.’ Yet the younger generation is still mostly missing. I deeply believe that the part which is missing for them are those things most relevant to their everyday lives. Things like core political issues around good and bad leadership. The message of Jesus being the Good Shepherd involves that Gospel as Good News for the poor, because God’s leadership in Jesus means taking care of everyone.

Good shepherding. Good parenting. To be a good mother. The tradition of Hebrew prophecy uses all of those images. Isaiah and Jeremiah use images of good shepherding, but they also compare God to good mothering — to a woman giving birth (Isa 21:3; 42:14; 45:10; 46:3), even nursing a child at the breast (Isa 49:15; 66:11-13). And dare I say Isaiah also compares God to a midwife (Isa 66:9), helping a mother to bring new life into the world. That’s what we celebrate today with our own mother’s, in our deep gratitude for the ways in which they have nurtured us. It’s also what we celebrate on a large scale with a God who loves us like the best of mothers, the best of fathers. A God who is a Good Shepherd. A God who is a midwife, constantly bringing new life to birth. Amen.

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethlehem Lutheran Church,
Muskego, WI, May 8, 2022

YouTube Version: https://youtu.be/b0n_cm0pQMY

 

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