Sermon - 4 Easter
In the Name...
There’s a story told about John Wayne. He was cast in the Biblical epic “The Greatest Story Ever Told” as the centurion at the foot of the Cross, and after a couple of takes the director allegedly told him to say his line with more awe and Wayne obliged with, “Aw, this man was the Son of God.” By the way, Wayne denied he did this, but, hearing the story, said he wished he’d thought of it at the time.
The director John Ford was once asked what his secret was to making a successful Western. He said you had to open the film in a way guaranteed to capture the audience's attention and the best way was to have a stranger ride into town. It sets the stage. The quiet, peaceful life of the town is about to be disturbed by this stranger. The townspeople don't know who he is; they don't know where he's come from; they don't know where he's going and above all they don't know why he stopped here, in their town.
If you've seen a lot of Westerns you know that most characters in the film fall into two broad categories: pioneers and settlers. The pioneers are like the stranger who rides into town. They answer the call of the wide open spaces. Their home is usually a horse or a waggon and they always seem to be on the move.
And then there are the settlers. They're pioneers who've stopped moving and have fixed addresses. They've put down roots, built homes and businesses, and surrounded themselves with familiar faces. They like the settled life and the security that goes with it. They never stay away too long from home. And of course, all the authority figures in the movie, the mayor, banker, sheriff, etc. are settlers.
Well, long before the Israelites settled down as farmers and city-dwellers, they were pioneers. Shepherds, herdsmen, living in tents, moving from place to place, leading their animals from one pasture to another, making townsfolk, like those of Jericho, very nervous. But, by the time of Christ, more than a thousand years after the Exodus, society had changed and the shepherd was not looked upon with much favour by the vast majority of people.
Shepherds were, in fact, regarded as suspicious characters. Often illiterate and mentally challenged, they could not observe the demands of ceremonial law and were regarded as religiously unclean. Because their flocks often wandered onto private property they were considered little better than thieves. They were even banned from giving evidence in court. Oh, the shepherd had a big place in the poetic folklore of the Israelite people, but, like the gunfighter, bounty hunter, and cowboy of the American West, he had no place in the modern society which 1stC Israel had become.
So when Jesus speaks of himself as a shepherd, he is evoking an image from Israel's past and allying himself with the outcasts of Israel's present. Elsewhere, he makes the remark, "Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but, the son of Man has nowhere to lay his head". He is the wandering prophet who has been rejected by his own town of Nazareth. He is always on the move. When he arrives somewhere he invariably causes some sort of upset. He certainly makes the authorities nervous. He is a pioneer.
Throughout his life Jesus sought out the good, the bad, and the ugly, I mean the lost, the least, and the last. He once used the image of a shepherd who leaves his flock to search for one stray. We might find that a comforting image, by the way, but, to Jesus' audience that was utter nonsense. No shepherd in his right mind would do such a stupid thing. It's a hard life out there on the fringes of civilization. A stupid sheep wanders away. Never mind. Write it off.
But, Jesus says "No". God doesn't write off anybody. That's why he's not just any old shepherd he's the Good Shepherd. To him, everybody has value and there's nothing he won't do to prove it. He takes on his opponents face to face. He names the wolves in sheep's clothing. He warns his followers about the rough journey ahead and he goes out in front to claim the land. He endures isolation, insult and threats. And he does, indeed, lay down his life for his sheep.
Yet even in death, when the authorities think they've finally nailed him down - or up, as the case may be - even the borrowed tomb he's put in is but, a temporary resting place. The discarded grave clothes are God's sign of contempt for any kind of lying down; even that brought on by death.
We often speak of the Christian life as a journey and, as with any journey; there are challenges and adventures along the road. Some people, though, decide to avoid the challenges by ending the journey and, as a result, they also end the adventures and, without realizing it, the blessings. A journey demands movement and change. The greatest danger we face as Christians is when we stop moving and become settlers.
In the Westerns, the settlers are usually good people, honest, decent folk, but they've stopped moving and even become paralyzed. Sometimes it's because they're afraid of a town boss, or because they've become self-satisfied and complacent. Sometimes they harbour a dark secret or an out-dated prejudice. Whatever it is, it has ended their journey. It prevents them from growing and developing. And, it is the pioneer character who shakes them out of this.
Thanks to him, they recapture the pioneering spirit they once had which is discontented with soul-destroying routine; the spirit which looks not at life as it is, but, life as it could and should be; the spirit which doesn't tell people to get lost, but, which brings into its fold all those who are lost. And, as a result of recapturing this spirit, the community becomes stronger.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd. He's also the tall dark stranger. And he challenges us to pick up where we left off and start moving again. Christians, you see, are not called to the quiet, predictable, settled life. We're called to the challenging, adventurous, pioneering life because we're surrounded by wandering sheep and the only way they'll come into Christ's fold is if we go out and get them. They'll never find their way in on their own.
Shepherding is a hazardous profession. It's not very respectable. It means taking risks. It even means giving up our past if it's in the way of our future. But, it's the profession that the Son of God chose.
So, let's choose it, too, and all become good shepherds.
In the Name...