Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.’
Today is called Good Shepherd Sunday. On this Sunday, two texts are often paired together: John 10:11-18 that Seth read earlier in the service and Psalm 23. You might remember the words of Psalm 23. It might have even been one of the first parts of the Bible you ever heard:
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff -
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.
I think it wise to pair these two readings together. Psalm 23 is among the most well-known portions of scripture among Christians. It is well known enough, that if I start reading it, you may say it along with me from memory. And, our text from John is fairly well known in itself. “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” These metaphors for God and for how Jesus functioned as Christ in the world are enduring. Dr. Gennifer Benjamin Brooks, in her commentary on the John text argues that followers of Jesus have been particularly drawn to the image of the shepherd as a way to assure Christ’s followers of his deep, transformative, sacrificial, unending love for them. When people are in the midst of the shadow of death, it is comforting to be reminded of goodness and mercy and safety.
The shadow of death has been long and frightening these days. Our neighbors in India are in the midst of a Covid outbreak and other countries, including our own, are making it difficult for them to access the medication and medical supplies they need. In two weeks, we have learned of several people across the country, including three children, who have been shot and killed by police. We have lost members of our own church unexpectedly, and haven’t been able to gather as we would like because Covid still makes things unsafe. We, ourselves probably need a reminder of goodness and mercy and safety. It’s probably just about the right time for Good Shepherd Sunday.
Several years ago, I came upon the work of Joel LeMon when working on a sermon about Psalm 23. I so appreciate his reading strategy that it seemed worth repeating today, particularly as we look towards scripture for guidance in the midst of several different complicated issues. LeMon encourages us to remember that Psalm 23 is a passage about a journey, not a passage leading us to one stop. The shepherd who watches over the sheep does so on the move. The comfort we are being offered is comfort for a journey.
As you may know, sheep tend to roam all over the place rather than in one orderly line. If you need to move sheep from one place to another, you need someone, and often some dogs, to guide them. The guide, or shepherd, will help them find good paths. LeMon notes that these paths in Psalm 23 don't seem to be hacked out of the wilderness at the moment of travel. The Hebrew indicates that these paths are well-worn tracks. They are full of ruts from carts that have traveled this path many times before you. To move with God is, in some ways, to find the groove that your forbears have made for you, and make the most of this groove to make your own journey easier. There is something communal about the tracks. Your community clears the path for you and you clear the path for those who will follow you. Paths are never cleared by only one person... or one sheep.
One of the things that is difficult about being a sheep is that a lot of other animals want to eat you. When Jesus talked about being a shepherd in our reading from John, he spoke of sheep being attacked by wolves. The Psalmist also spoke of the danger sheep face, noting that death often feels like a shadow over them. But, the shepherd offers protection and safety, finds clear paths, good food, and sacrificing the shepherd’s own safety to tend to the well-being of the sheep. Notice that in both of the readings, the shepherds protect the sheep. That is the mark of a good shepherd.
The end of the Psalm describes a scene of great comfort. The narrator is given a place at the table, even as the enemies, the ones who would devour her, watch in hunger. The narrator is blessed by God, and given abundant drink. In verse 6, a powerful statement of future hope in God, is often translated as "Goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life." LeMon argues that it may even have more powerful meaning. The word that is translated “follow” is more often translated as "pursue." In the world of this Psalm, you will no longer be chased by ones who will devour you. Instead, you will be pursued by goodness and mercy. You will not be devoured by evil. Instead, you will be enveloped by care.
LeMon also suggests another reading of that last verse of Psalm 23: I will live in God's house forever. He argues that a better translation of the Hebrew doesn't mean stopping in one place, God’s house, and being done with things. LeMon, returning to the Hebrew, argues that the word that gets translated as "dwell" maybe better translated as "return." With this possible translation in mind, he suggests we read the line as, "I will continually return to Yahweh's presence my whole life long." Like sheep who continually move between winter and summer pastures, our life is marked less by movement towards a single destination where we stop, and more by our journey with God in search of sustenance and a safe place to grow. God is present, guiding us in both the protected valleys of winter and up high on the windy, green slopes of summer. God, and the other sheep, help us find the paths that lead us to that which sustains us.
With this active, journeying interpretation of Psalm 23 in mind, I can more clearly understand why Jesus would find the image of the shepherd compelling enough to use it to describe his own ministry. As one with a special concern for the most vulnerable in his community and a willingness to call out the powerful when they became wolves, Jesus knew something about living a life pursued by danger. Jesus also knew that the bond between sheep and shepherd was worth the risks of the journey.
In John 10:11-18, Jesus adds some things to the description of a good shepherd that we would do well to remember. In one of her commentaries on this text, scholar Karoline Lewis compiles this list of things a good shepherd does in the book of John. A good shepherd knows his sheep well enough to know their name and calls them by name. Even before today’s reading, elsewhere in the book of John, Jesus did this when he called out the names of Lazarus, when he healed him, and Mary Magdalene, when he showed her that he had risen. As I said earlier, a good shepherd makes sure the sheep are safe, as Jesus did when he left his disciples safe in the garden and gave himself up to the authorities, rather than ask the disciples to hide him away.
Jesus also says that a good shepherd finds his sheep when they are lost, as Jesus found the blind man whom he healed in the scripture just before our reading today and as he found each one of his disciples as they began their ministry together. A good shepherd is willing to risk his life for the safety of his sheep, as Jesus risked the cross in order to bring about a reign of love and justice for God's people. And, Lewis states that a good shepherd will return to the sheep, to bring new ones in the fold, to connected sheep that don’t know one another, and to show them how to return to God's presence, just as Jesus did through his Resurrection and ministry. A good shepherd does so many things. Jesus as The Good Shepherd showed his followers the possibility of abundant, new life, and invited them on the journey to return the world to God's presence.
In the same commentary, Karoline Lewis asks "What is good about a shepherd?" Both Jesus and the Psalmist give us some rich answers to that question. I think most of these responses boil down to one simple idea: The shepherd never leaves the sheep alone. All through the journey, in dark valleys, with wolves bearing down, the shepherd never leaves. Dr. Brooks, who I mentioned earlier in the sermon, pointed out something else, too. A good shepherd brings sheep from different flocks together. The only requirement to be a part of this flock is to follow Jesus there. Difference among the sheep is not a bad thing. In fact, it is a mark of a good shepherd, who can draw and tend to so many sheep. In this time, when some sheep are being devoured and others neglected unto their death, we would do well to remember the shepherd who keeps the sheep safe, and do our part, as the Body of Christ, to make sure the rest of the flock is being cared for.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Joel LeMon: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2372
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3590
Gennifer Benjamin Brooks: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-easter-2/commentary-on-john-1011-18-5
Luke 24:36b-48 Jesus Appears to His Disciples
While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.
Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.
As I said on Easter, the oldest ending of the book of Mark ends with the women being too afraid to talk about the Resurrection, while, at the same time, we exist as a body of Christ, which shows us that they must have told somebody. The other three Gospels, Matthew, Luke, and John, give us a few more stories after the resurrection. Today’s scripture is one of the stories from Luke, about some disciples who need proof that Jesus had truly risen.
Like Mark, and, well, Matthew and John, it is the women who are the first witnesses to the Resurrection. And, the women disciples tell the men disciples that Jesus had risen, becoming the first preachers of this particular piece of Good News. But the male disciples did not believe them. The verses before today’s reading tell us that the men thought Mary Magdalene, Joanna, James' mother Mary, and the other unnamed women who were present were simply telling "an idle tale"… a lie or gossip or garbage. The women had seen the presence of God through two beings in dazzling white. They had been reminded of Jesus' own message that death need not be the end. But, the men, with the exception of Peter, did not think their report was worth heeding. Either it was too strange or they were too sad to be willing to entertain any hope after the crucifixion. The women had told them that Jesus had risen. They chose not to believe.
Eventually, someone believed the women, else we would not be here. Today's reading describes how some people came to believe. There are three stories. The first is Peter’s, who decided to trust the women who had been so loyal to Jesus and went to tomb to see for himself. He learned that they were telling the truth. The second story is the story of the two men disciples meeting Jesus on the road to Emmaus. I tell this story sometimes when we share communion. It's a story where Jesus' friends recognized him when the Risen Christ breaks bread for them after a long day of walking together and teaching them. Those two disciples, Cleopas and an unnamed disciple, run to tell the others, just as the women had. When they arrived, the two men learned that Simon has seen Jesus as well. As they talked about these incredible sightings, verifying what the women had said, Jesus appears once again and offers them peace. Today’s reading, the story about what happens the third time people came to believe in the Resurrection, happens when Jesus appears to the disciples after the women, Simon Peter, and the two men testify to what they had seen.
One of my favorite things I’ve ever learned about this story is that the things Jesus does to prove that it is really him basically amount to an ancient ghost test. The scholar Mark G. Vitalis Hoffman talks about it in one of his commentaries on the text. He said that, in this era, ghosts were a big enough concern that people developed tests for making sure that a person they were talking to was really a person and not a ghost. Here’s some of the things you do to test if a person is a ghost. 1) You may check the potential apparition's feet to see if they are touching the ground. 2) You might also check their hands, to see if they feel solid. 3) You may examine their teeth and watch them eat. Notice that Jesus’ acts of showing them his hands and feet not only showed them the wounds that they would recognize, but also followed the example of the ghost test. As did his act of eating some of their food. Some might suggest that Jesus saw that they were frightened, so he ran through the motions of a test that would be familiar to them, to help them believe. It’s like he knew they needed proof and the proof was in the boiled fish.
Once he was sure that they knew who he was, he reminded them why he was there. He reminded them that the Messiah wasn't a military leader who would be declaring war on God's behalf. He reminded them that repentance and forgiveness were central to his life and should be central to their on-going ministry. And, he told them that they had a future... one without his physical presence but still guided by the Spirit. In a lovely little line just after today's reading, Jesus said they will be clothed with power from on high. God will give them what they need to do this work, but they will have to wait for it. They are already the witnesses to God's grace in this story. There will come a time very soon where they will share what they've seen.
The book of Acts is the sequel to Luke and tells some of the stories of how they went on to preach, teach, and heal after the Resurrection once they are empowered by God. We’ll talk more about that in a couple weeks. For now, though, it matters that we think about how we can follow the disciples’ examples in our own time. Because we do carry on their legacy. We, too, are guided by the Holy Spirit and witnesses to the Resurrection on our time. We have seen the Lord in the faces of our neighbors and felt Jesus move in our lives. Now, we are invited to go and share what we have seen.
Scholar Lucy Lind Hogan, informed by this story, wrote a shorthand description of today's reading that I think can also help guide us to be witnesses for Christ. The whole process centers around these 5 words:
We won't always initially understand our encounters with Christ. Each encounter we have must be examined. We will practice discernment informed by prayer, the scriptures, and by our interactions in Christian community. With all these sources and some guidance from the Holy Spirit, we can work to more fully explain and understand how we've encountered Christ. While we can never say fully what and who God is, but we come closer every time we are willing to share some of our encounters with others.
The third E, the eating part, is important, too. And, not because of an ancient ghost test. I think the food he ate can be shorthand for relationality. When it safe for us to gather together, we spend a lot of our time eating and hosting each other. We take communion. We share food at church and with people outside of our church. When we eat together, we demonstrate that our connection is real... that we are really invested in each other and committed to making this Body of Christ as real in the world as Jesus’ was in this story. And, we examine our encounters with Christ best in community, not relying on our own understanding alone, but on the guidance of our siblings in Christ. With an encounter examined in community and in conversation with tradition, guided by the Holy Spirit, we may feel a sense of enlightenment. Even in times when it's hard to communicate what we experienced and learned, we are invited to try. It just might take practice. Thank goodness we have so many opportunities to practice.
Shortly after our reading for today, Jesus exits the story for the final time, carried away to be with God, leaving his disciples empowered with teaching and guided by the Holy Spirit. We will exit, too, leaving one encounter for the next, excited to meet Jesus again, in someone new, and continue his work of love and justice in the world. Every exit we make is an invitation into God’s loving future, open for us to work alongside God in the world. Even with our fears and our doubts and imperfections, like the ancient disciples, we are still witnesses. May we find the sustenance we need to keep on this Gospel journey, be it a little bit of food that shows us that Christ is real or the companionship of others who have met Jesus along the way.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Mark 16:1-8 The Resurrection of Jesus
When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’ When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
“So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” That is a quite a way to end a Gospel. Jesus had died and his most loyal followers, the women who stayed and witnessed as he died on the cross when the other disciples ran away, went to the tomb where his body was laid, to tend to him out of love and according to Jewish tradition. When they arrived at the tomb, they found not his body, but a living young man, dressed in dazzling clothes, who told them something incredible and awe-inspiring and terrifying. He said, “Do not be alarmed”... now where have I heard that before? Yes. The Bible. Emissaries of God tell people not to be afraid all of the time. “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here.” This part seems like good news but also very weird news and also kind of unreal news.
The young man goes on: “But, go tell his disciples and Peter that he was going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” Back in chapter 14, Jesus had said that he would meet them in Galilee once he was raised up. Maybe this shouldn’t have been such a surprise. But, it sure seems like it was. The women, loyal to the end, fled from the tomb “for terror and amazement had seized them.” This Gospel tells us that, unlike the other three, the women tell no one because they were afraid. The Resurrection, the New Life, the Good News, we have been waiting on has finally happened. Some trusted people even saw it and would likely be trusted as witnesses if they shared what they saw. But, they had, only days before, watched their friend be murdered. And, Resurrection seemed too good to be true.
Fear is a reasonable response to this event. Overwhelm is a reasonable response to this even. As a human who knows other humans, I can empathize with the fear and understand why they might not tell anybody what they saw. But, I also like to tell stories. It’s part of my job and it’s also a thing I just like to do. And, I’ve learned a few things about telling stories over the years. One of the most important ones is that people don’t usually like them to be as open-ended as this version of the resurrection story is. A lot of people want to have clear and tidy answers to all the questions that came up earlier in the story. Running away in fear is not tidy. Choosing not to tell people about the miraculous thing you witnessed is not neat. Having a Resurrection without anyone talking about the resurrection feels incomplete. The story feels unfinished, like the News isn’t Good yet.
To be fair, there is very little about death and resurrection that is neat and tidy. Perhaps that's part of why the author of Mark stops telling the story right here. As I said, fear and uncertainty are reasonable responses to the dangerous and miraculous events they have witnessed. It makes sense that this story has loose ends. State-sponsored violence often leaves people with loose ends. Ruptures in friend groups and religious communities often leave loose ends. But, it is hard to tell a story about the Good News with loose ends. And, this is a complicated resurrection account where we, the readers, never see Jesus again, and, the women, the first ones to hear that he is risen, are too afraid to tell someone else. As I said before, this is quite a way to end a Gospel.
As it turns out, I am merely one more in a long line of readers and preachers to wonder about the ending of this resurrection account. If you were to open your Bible to Mark 16 right now, you would see two more endings that some unsatisfied readers added after what is most likely the oldest version of the story, that is, the part that Kate read at the beginning of worship today. Scholars are pretty sure that starting sometime around the second century, readers and hearers of this Gospel get increasingly nervous about the ending where the women don’t share what they have witnessed. It looks like two possible more clear and more tidy endings have been added. First, somebody added a part where the women stopped being scared and told Peter like they were supposed to. And, then another scribe, maybe having read the versions of the resurrection story in Matthew, Luke, and John, where a resurrected Jesus appears to the disciples, added some stories where Jesus appears to his followers, preaches a little more, and then ascends into heaven. This author also adds a little bit about how Jesus’ followers went on to preach the Gospel, offering a final vision of the disciples being unafraid and Jesus continuing to work through them. These new endings sound far more like a victorious resurrection in the face of death than three terrified women running out of a tomb.
As someone who tells stories for a living, I can't really blame the scribes who added these new endings to the Gospel story. I understand this impulse to improve on a story by tying up loose ends and providing satisfying ends to the stories of the main characters. I also understand the impulse to try to finish the story on an optimistic note. After such a grueling and tragedy-filled story, in the midst of real-world tragedy in our own lives and the broader world we live in, we could use a happy ending and some new life and a story about renewed hope for people who thought that they had lost everything. I mean, don't many of us hope that something good will happen once these women set out for the tomb? Especially if we have heard Easter stories before. We know that something wonderful can happen. It can be jarring when we read this gospel account carefully and realize that it ends in fear and trembling instead of confidence and joy.
I have told you this before but I think about it whenever I return to Mark’s account of the Resurrection. When I was in seminary, we spent some time comparing the resurrection stories in the Gospels in my New Testament class. When we read the part where the women were so afraid that they said nothing to anyone, my professor said, "Well, they must have told someone. Or else we wouldn't be reading it." Remember, the Gospel of Mark is probably the oldest gospel. Other Gospel writers used Mark as a source for their own story-telling. If the women were the only witnesses to the Resurrection as the author of Mark claims and they didn't tell anybody what they saw, how did the author of Mark know about it in order to write it down? I was reading a commentary by Ira Driggers and he talked about how Paul knew about the Resurrection when he wrote the letter that we know as 1st Corinthians. 1st Corinthians was written before the Gospel of Mark was even compiled. If the women never told anybody about the resurrection, how did Paul know about it to talk about it in his letter to Corinth? If the women were so scared that they never told anybody, how are you and I sitting here, singing "Christ the Lord is Risen Today," working to follow Christ in our time as they did during theirs? The women must have told someone. Or else we wouldn't be hearing about it today.
I have learned in my life that some truth takes a while to tell. Sometimes you have to sit with the fear and the amazement for a while. Sometimes you have to make a plan and figure out how to tell the people you know need to know the truth. Even if the truth is beautiful and powerful and world-changing in the best possible ways, that doesn’t mean you know how to share it. At least not at first… and especially if there is a risk to your safety or you worry about your ability to continue to be a part of a community that might doubt the truth you are telling them. Some truth takes a while to tell. But, you can’t let that fact alone keep you from telling it. They must have told somebody and we are here, right now, because they figure out how to talk about the powerful thing they witnessed.
And, we are called to continue to share the story that we have inherited from them. We, too, will preach the Good News of love and justice. We, too, will love our neighbor and seek reconciliation. We, too, will live like we are God’s beloved and make sure that the rest of the world knows they are beloved, too. Mark’s Gospel is open-ended because the story is not yet finished. Christ is still walking and working in this world. It’s just now up to us to step into the story and speak of a love that conquers death and a hope that lives in justice. And, like the disciples, we may be afraid. Like the women witnesses, we may take a while to figure out how to tell the truth. Thank God for this Gospel that shows us that we can be afraid and misunderstand and still have a place with Jesus. These women must have told someone. Now we can, too.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.