It is such a treat to be at Amherst Presbyterian Church this morning! Having the family all get into one car on Sunday morning is a rare experience for us.
While it can feel like Matt and I have two very different congregations, or flocks, being here with you on Good Shepherd Sunday is a great reminder that really we are all, Presbyterian or Episcopalian, part of Jesus’ one big flock of sheep.
When we think of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, we often think of the story from Luke, in which Jesus compares himself to a shepherd who has a flock of 100 sheep, but when one goes missing, he drops everything to find that sheep. That passage gives us a feeling of deep security—that no matter what happens to us in our lives, we know Jesus will stay with us.
But our passage today is getting to a slightly different aspect of the Good Shepherd. And our story really begins at the beginning of the 9th chapter of John.
The Pharisees are shocked, SHOCKED, I tell you, because Jesus has healed a blind man. As you know, Jesus was all about taking people who had been exiled from their flocks by disease or demon possession or blindness and healing them so they could re-join community.
The Pharisees, rather than delighting in the blind man’s return to his flock—his return to community—are immediately suspicious and begin a line of inquiry into the healing. First they are convinced he’s lying, and after interviewing him twice and confirming with his family that he had been born blind, they are so annoyed by the claims he makes about Jesus, that they exile him once again and force him to leave the city.
Usually when Jesus heals someone, we never hear from that character again. But in this instance, Jesus is so outraged by the Pharisees’ treatment of this man, that he seeks the exiled man out and has this deeply profound conversation with him, in which he reveals that he is the Son of Man. Jesus treats the man, not as someone who should be exiled, but as someone who is special enough to understand Jesus’ divine nature.
And when the Pharisees start huffing and puffing again, Jesus tells this story about the Good Shepherd.
He compares the Pharisees to a hired hand. The Pharisees are supposed to be taking care of God’s people, but somehow along the way they have lost track. They have become more interested in rules than in welcoming all people to God’s flock. If a true threat comes to attack the sheep, the hired hand will run away. The Pharisees, despite their best intentions, do not have God’s people’s best interests at heart.
Jesus goes on to say that in contrast to the unreliable hired hand, he is the good shepherd. He foreshadows his own death when he explains that the good shepherd is willing to lay down his life for the sheep. Jesus is utterly and totally committed to his flock. Whether he is tracking down the formerly blind man, or walking towards his death in Jerusalem, the Jesus of the Gospel of John is completely in control and completely loving.
This love he has for humanity isn’t rooted in how wonderful we are. After all, we are the kind of people to berate a blind man for being healed! Jesus’ love for us is ultimately rooted in the love he has been given from his Father. Jesus is able to love us, because his Father loves him and his Father loves us. Jesus invites us into that loving relationship as we become members of his flock.
In fact, it is in the Gospel of John where Jesus instructs his disciples to “…love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” What makes our Christian communities distinctive—or what should make our Christian communities distinctive—is the love we have for one another.
We follow a shepherd who sought out and welcomed every kind of person. The wealthy, the poor, the old, the young, the healthy and the invalid were all invited to follow Jesus. Jesus broke down the barriers between people and God, but also broke down the barriers between people themselves. The Good Shepherd’s flock now truly contains every type of person you could imagine from communities across the world.
Including people who are different from the mainstream in our flocks can be challenging. We are more comfortable with people who look like us, who have stories to which we can relate. But just as Jesus always looked outward to gather in more and more people into his flock, we too are called to open our minds to who belongs.
In 2003, at Trinity Episcopal church in Torrington, CT, the Rev. Audrey Scanlan and Children’s minister Linda Snyder got a phone call from a parishioner who had a son with autism. Bringing his son to a regular church service was proving extremely challenging. His son did not have the executive function to sit quietly for an hour and changes in light and sound could be deeply upsetting to the child. Audrey and Linda worked with the family to create a church service to which this child and his friends could be fully themselves. One in which they were not required to sit still and in which the liturgy was simple, hands on and consistent. The service was a huge success. Many families in the community who had felt completely isolated from church, finally felt welcomed back into the flock. Audrey and Linda published a curriculum called Rhythms of Grace and many churches across the country now use programs like it to welcome to church members of the community who ordinarily would not feel comfortable or welcome in a church service.
Providing a way for children with autism to worship Jesus in a safe environment is the way Trinity Episcopal Church decided to live like Jesus’ flock. But each church community has its own set of opportunities. If Sweet Briar does close, Amherst will undergo a transformation over the next few years. You don’t know who will buy the property, what kind of people will be moving to town or what their needs might be.
But our Good Shepherd invites us to keep our eyes open and our hearts welcoming. Just as we take care of each other in love, we also reach out in love, ready to incorporate whoever needs us into our life together.
The Good Shepherd will lead us—whether we are here at Amherst Pres or up the road at St. Paul’s Episcopal. All we have to do is follow.