The Fourth Sunday of Easter
What would your picture of God look like? I’ll bet most of us have photos of our loved ones on our desk or in our wallet or maybe as or as our screen saver. But, if you were to have a picture of God, what would God look like? Unfortunately, many of us got our first image of God as the old man sitting on a cloud with a long white beard. Actually, that’s how God is portrayed in the great mural in the Sistine Chapel in Rome.
Getting our own snapshot of God. That’s a tough one, isn’t it? It’s kind of like the child who cries out in the night and whose mom rushes to her side to comfort her. “Don’t be afraid, dear, God is here with us.” “I know that, mommy,” the child responds, “but I want somebody with some skin on.” So God has given us someone with some skin on: God’s Son Jesus who lived as one of us, died for us, and rose again to show us that even death can’t contain God. And in the Gospels, we are given many images to help us sketch our picture of God. Perhaps this morning’s is one of the most familiar, most comforting, and the easiest to capture photographically.
The image of shepherd is probably the best-loved in faith traditions. That image of a loving shepherd was etched in my mind in Sister Mary Geraldine’s first grade classroom. She introduced me to that picture of Jesus walking in a beautiful pasture with a staff in one hand and a baby lamb in the other. Clustered all around him were the sheep, looking very content and serene and safe and following their shepherd. That image comes right out of the scriptures this morning. What a picture of Jesus. What a picture of God.
Maybe you can recall another shepherd picture: the scene is on a sheer mountain side. This one was painted in dark hues, giving it a frightening, sober cast. There is a little lamb quivering on a slab of granite with no way out and out of nowhere comes that loving shepherd again. He reaches out toward the terrified lamb, assuring us that the little fluffy creature will be rescued. What a picture of Jesus. What a picture of God.
Over time, this powerful image of Jesus as the Shepherd became the ideal image for pastors, for priests and bishops. The shepherd-minister was the one individual expected to have "leadership" qualities. The clergy were shepherds, and the congregation became the flock, and the job of the clergy was to shepherd or lead people into deeper faith, spirituality, and mission.
The clergy shepherds were easily distinguished from the flock as the experts at biblical interpretation and preaching, the only ones who could rescue the drowning, care for the dying, chair the meetings, lead Bible studies, and above all, offer a prayer at every church potluck and wedding reception.
What has often been missed in some denominations and congregations is that clergy are human beings first and, like everyone in the pews, get out of bed in the morning and put one foot in front of the other as they struggle to do their best in a difficult world.
Sometimes I wonder what gives me the privilege of standing up here and preaching God’s word to you. I feel even greater weight when I look out at the congregation and know that you have given me the honor of proclaiming God’s Good News and that you may even believe I have something worthwhile to say!
But I think we clergy have to stop playing the shepherd. I think we need to recognize that we are sheep just like the rest of the flock and that we need to look to the one Good Shepherd for nourishment and healing just like everyone else. Maybe the best thing we clergy can do is to be like sheep dogs who keep the flock moving toward the shepherd and into the safety of the shepherd’s fold. The one think I’m pretty sure Jesus the Good Shepherd expects of us all is to keep the church a safe place, a welcoming place, a joyful place for all God’s sheep—whether they are a part of the flock or not.
And all of us need to claim our rightful place as members of the flock, realizing the potential we have for creating a picture of God for one another and for being the kind of church where all who come will find our Good Shepherd, because we experience God’s love in someone with skin on who stands right next to us on any given Sunday or perhaps across from us in another part of the church.
“Why do you come to this church?” the priest asked a group of people discussing evangelism. Some said they enjoyed the music and worship. Others were there for the fellowship. To the rector’s relief, someone mentioned the good preaching.
Then a voice spoke up and said, “I keep coming back because, of all the places in my life, it is this place that I experience most vividly the presence of Christ. I have hardly ever come here without feeling, at some point in the service, or in conversations before or after, that Jesus is here. That’s why I come to this church,” she said.
When all is said and done, isn’t that what we’re all hoping to find? Every one of us sheep?