Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Fourth Sunday of Easter [Year C] - April 17, 2016 (Psalm 23 and John 10:22-30)

Chaperoning youth trips. There was a lot of discussion about chaperoning youth trips in the office this week because final plans are being made for the youth group’s service mission trip to Atlanta this summer, and youth trips always involve chaperones. I need to be careful because I’m told “chaperone” is actually a passé term nowadays. The word “adult leader” is more in vogue because it supposedly sounds more active and engaged than “chaperone.” While I agree with the philosophy there, I’m not really sure it matters because every trip I’ve been on as an adult has required me to be very active, very engaged, no matter what they’ve called me…and I’ve been called several things.

There was also a lot of discussion about chaperoning trips this week because two of our staff members returned late last Sunday night after accompanying a high school band trip to Nashville and they had stories to tell. Apparently one evening a student ended up needing serious medical attention and had to be rushed to the hospital in the middle of the night. The chaperones became first responders, in that case, tending to the student’s needs promptly and tenderly while the ambulance arrived. It was a pretty dramatic scene, and eventually the trip had to return to Mechanicsville without that student because they were unable to be discharged in time.

A leader?
As serious as medical emergencies are, the worst logical fear of a chaperone is that a student would get lost or left behind at a stop. Thankfully, Beth and Kevin said that no student got lost or separated from the group, but another chaperone did go missing for a while. Texts and cellphone calls went unanswered. People got worried he might be in danger. Eventually they had to call in security officers to scour the Country Music Hall of Fame for a certain assistant principal who had, as it turns out, lost himself in nostalgia looking at exhibits of old country music stars. They ended up giving that adult chaperone his own bright green t-shirt to wear with his name on it and the number of the bus he was assigned to in case he ever got lost again. It could happen to any of us.

When it comes to whether he is the Messiah and what he thinks he should be called, Jesus is careful about the terminology. He says he’s a shepherd. Of course, if Jesus is the Messiah, which is what the Jewish authorities are dying to know, they can expect him to seize the reins of power in Jerusalem and take charge. Even when they manage to track him down on the temple portico and press him on his identity, Jesus prefers to use language and metaphors that suggest a gentle, nurturing style of leadership.

This doesn’t sound like the Messiah they have pictured in their brain. In fact, his response to these leaders who want to know if he is the Messiah has unmistakable echoes of one of the psalms of King David, himself a shepherd, and the last great anointed One. Many of you know this psalm, don’t you? They would have recognized it, too. This is some kind of chaperone! He will lead them beside still waters and green pastures. He will guide them through the valley of the shadow of death so that he may give them eternal life and not one of them will perish.

In the ancient Middle East, shepherds led their sheep only by a prod of the staff every now and then. Most of the time they just used their voice. The sheep had spent so much time with their shepherd, and he with them, that they could pick his voice out of a crowd. It was a relationship not based on force or power but one built over time through listening and paying attention. This turns out to be a key understanding of how Jesus will serve as the Messiah. The Festival of the Dedication is an interesting time to be having this conversation, as it turns out. The Festival of the Dedication was the festival we know as Hannukah. It was an eight-day celebration that commemorated the time that the Jewish people, under the leadership of a mighty warrior named Judas Maccabeus, hunkered down in the Temple and eventually overthrew the Syrian oppressors.

This, you see, provides a nice contrast to the type of leader Jesus wants to be. Here he is, actually in the temple, in the seat of Jewish power, but he prefers to be a shepherd who guides and uses his voice, a leader who has already performed works that should make it clear that he is God’s chosen. In fact, they are works which reveal he and God are one.

"Jesus Walks in the Portico of Solomon" (1886-1896)
And that is the real scandal, the most significant term Jesus uses to describe his leadership. The most surprising thing is not that Jesus sees himself as a shepherd. It’s that Jesus places himself on the same level as God. By this he means that God is visible in the things that Jesus does, that God is united in a particularly focused way in whatever Jesus is up to. Jesus doesn’t get this explicit about his relationship to God very often, but here he does. And those works? Well, all of his life, it turns out, is one big shepherding move on God’s behalf: he’s here to call out and make sure that God’s flock gets led safely through life and called home. He is here to feed the hungry with the bread of life. He is here to give sight to the blind, to raise the dead…here to see to it that, despite whatever may happen to us, we dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

When we wonder what kind of things God does, what God’s character is like and what God’s priorities are, Jesus is saying that we need look no further than the things he is doing. And when we wonder what the Messiahs’ reign will look like, and how the powers of evil will be overthrown, we need look no further than Jesus of Nazareth to get that picture. Jesus tells the Jewish authorities that they don’t get this because they don’t hear his voice—because, at least at that point in time, are not responding as one of his flock.

Christ the Good Shepherd, image in the Catacomb of Calixtus
See, the question is not whether you, like the Jewish authorities, come to understand how Jesus leads, how he sees himself as a shepherding Messiah, but whether you realize that he is your shepherd and Messiah. The question is not simply whether or not you can make sense of Jesus’ special relationship to his Father, that you can grasp that Jesus and God have something to do with each other, but whether you realize he is calling your name and that he loves you to the end. Because Jesus does. He is the Shepherd who is willing to lay down his life for the sheep, the Messiah who is willing to hand over all that he has in order to save us sinners.

What’s unique and interesting about Jesus’ identification with a shepherd here is that in other places in the New Testament it’s the lost sheep that the shepherd seems concerned about. It’s the seeking and finding that everyone focuses on, how the shepherd leaves ninety-nine behind to find one that’s wandered away. That is certainly a great image full of grace—it is wonderful to know Jesus sees himself as this shepherd who’s concerned about searching the lost ones, the shepherd who puts on the security guard outfit and calmly gives us a t-shirt to wear and escorts us back to the bus we belong on. However, in this instance at the Portico of Solomon, when the Jewish leaders would have been gathering to celebrate a military victory and restoring the Temple to the right worship of God, it’s not the lost sheep or the lost chaperone that Jesus mentions or that the Good Shepherd is concerned about. It’s the ones that might get snatched away. Wandering away is one thing. Being snatched out of the Father’s hands is another, and I think you’d agree that there are a lot of times in life where we feel things are snatching us from the Father’s hands.

And Jesus is determined never to let that happen. No one is going to let any sheep get snatched away because those sheep where given to him by the Father and they matter a great deal, each and every one of them. In fact, Jesus will enter death itself so that none of those sheep will ever be ultimately snatched from his Father’s hand. When we look at the cross of Jesus, we can see a God who is going to do everything to make sure that they will always be in his presence, even after they die.

Christ the Shepherd
This particular mention of God’s hands and Jesus’ determination to keep us all there always makes me think of that old spiritual I learned as a kid in Sunday School, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” It’s such a simple song, and good for audience participation. When we used this at camp or in Bible School we would always go around and have the kids add on verses. They’d name things like, “He’s got the sun and the moon in his hands,” or “He’s got the trees and the flowers in his hands.” A big favorite was “The little bitty baby.” All those verses seemed pretty tame and cheery. But, if Jesus is going to die on the cross and enter the valley of the shadow of death for us I think we can be a little bolder with our verses. Because nothing will snatch the sheep out of God’s hands. We could go around the congregation and shout out our own additions:

“He’s got the single mom on night shift in his hands…”
“He’s got the brother who needs rehab in his hands…”
“He’s got the grandpa in hospice in his hands…”

Yes, there are a lot of verses we could add. A whole long list of them, each one just as scary and “snatching” as the one before it. But the all end the same way: He’s got the whole world in his hands.

With Jesus as the chaperone-Shepherd, God’s always got the whole world in his hands.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.