May 11, 2014
“Good Shepherd Sunday”
My favorite verse from this Gospel reading is when Jesus says, “I have come that they might have life, and have it abundantly.” That sounds good, doesn’t it? Abundant life! But what does abundant mean? It means more than enough. Extra. Surplus. An overflowing amount. Wouldn’t it be great to have a life so full, so rich, so deep that it spilled over the edges? A life in which your career was satisfying, your relationships energizing, your home joyful, your health above average, and your society gracious? What would you give for just a day in a life like that? What would you pay for that kind of abundant life?
We crave a sense of being fully satisfied—which may have something to do with our nation’s obesity problem. We keep on stuffing more and more in. Of course, people with marketing careers depend on that void inside of us remaining unfulfilled. Now that we are longer gullible enough to think that one paper towel is better than another, advertisers don’t even try to sell us a better product. Instead they try to sell us a sense of identity through their products.
They want us to believe that if we wore Nikes, we wouldn’t just play better basketball or tennis, but also we’d be stronger, more courageous people. And they want us to see that such people are a small but special breed. We’d belong among the few, the proud, the triumphant. Never mind if it’s impossible to prove. The idea is what sells Nikes. We buy things not because they work better, necessarily, but because we want to identify with the story the brand is selling. It’s not about the product. It’s about the dream of belonging.
Of course, it doesn’t work. And companies know it doesn’t work. They count on it not working. As soon as we figure out that this is not the lipstick that redefines our sense of beauty, and that TV set doesn’t make our family time more enriching, and that car doesn’t part traffic for us like the Red Sea in the shadow of Moses’ staff, we have to go shop some more. Deep inside, we all know that it won’t work. Intellectually we get that STUFF cannot fill the void inside of us, even if it crowds us out of our houses.
But we want abundant life! And today in John’s Gospel we hear that God wants us to have abundant life! So how do we get it? Is there a discipline the church can teach us or a prayer we can say? Remember the Prayer of Jabez craze from a few years ago, when some churches were insisting that if people would just pray this prayer, they would accumulate more material goods, achieve monetary wealth?
The thing is, we can’t manufacture it or buy abundant life. And there is no spiritual discipline that we can offer or magic words we can teach. The only way to get abundant life is to receive it as a gift from God. And it’s not a gift with purchase, like that lotion that comes as a “gift” from Estee Lauder if you spend over $45. It’s a gift that God gives freely. Eagerly.
In Psalm 23, God promises to be with us, to guide us as a shepherd guides a flock to pasture. Now, I don’t know much about sheep or shepherds, and I’m not sure a day lying beside still waters is necessarily my idea of an abundant life. But I do understand the idea of someone having my back. And I like that it is someone with my best interests at heart, someone who would do whatever it takes to make sure that my life is one of substance and significance—and abundance.
And that’s what Jesus, the Good Shepherd, provides for the sheep. I know that the picture many of us conjure up when we hear the title “Good Shepherd” for Jesus is one that hung on many Sunday school walls—that anemic Jesus in a very clean white robe, passively standing in a green meadow, surrounded by very clean white sheep. If that is all our Good Shepherd amounts to, it’s no wonder people look elsewhere for strength and security.
But the truth is that having Jesus as our Good Shepherd is a much more powerful concept than we’ve come to believe. For one thing, though we say it—”thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me”—we tend to forget about the rod and the staff. The staff is that curved stick a shepherd carries, not as an ornamental hiking stick, but to pull sheep out of thorn bushes where their wooly bodies might get stuck. Or back from precarious ledges when they’ve gone too far off the path. A shepherd’s staff is a comfort because it is to pull us out of messes we create for ourselves when we wander too far afield.
And what about that rod? What’s that about? The rod is, essentially, a club. It’s not used to beat disobedient sheep. It’s used to whack at wolves and other predators who come anywhere near the shepherd’s precious lambs. It is used to poke and prod and protect the sheep from the beasts that intend to carry it off for dinner.
That pretty picture of the anemic Jesus the from our childhood days does not show any wolves lurking in the shadows. But the very reason that the sheep are able to lie down by the quiet waters or sit down and eat at the banquet table in peace, is because the shepherd is there, looking around and behind and in front of us, rod poised to strike at any wolf who comes our way.
So maybe abundant life is more about belonging to the shepherd, and to the shepherd’s much-beloved flock than it is about our having the right stuff, or doing the right stuff, or even wanting the right stuff. Maybe the feast that we get to eat in the presence of our enemies is the feast of knowing that no matter what else happens to us, our belonging is secure. It is not dependent on our choices, but on the fact that—at our baptisms—God has already chosen us, named and claimed us as God’s own. Our Good Shepherd will defend us to the death—and beyond.
The more we are able to rest in that truth for ourselves, and the more we are able to share it with one another, and with those who aren’t yet here, the more we are able to keep the wolves at bay—the false securities of more stuff, and the sense within us that says, “you don’t have enough; you don’t do enough; you are not enough.” They’re out there and inside us too, you know they are, longing to get their teeth and claws into our souls and the souls of those we love. They bank on our needing to have the next great thing that promises fulfillment to us. But Jesus points us toward finding abundance in other ways.
Perhaps we can find abundant life in some of the same places that the early church did in our reading from Acts. Maybe we’ll locate “glad and generous hearts” in breaking bread together, in sharing our stories and songs, in serving the poor and ensuring that no one is in need. Perhaps we’ll find that our Good Shepherd meets our needs and our dreams NOT when we are pursuing abundance for ourselves, but when we are trusting in God’s desire to provide it for us, for the rest of the flock, for the whole world.
Perhaps even now, this table, the one God prepares for us to share, is a small reminder that no matter what wolves threaten us, we are God’s own people, now and forever. Amen.
~Pastor Susan Schneider