THE MODEL SHEPHERD Vincent P. Maraventano Text: John 10:11-18 May 11, 2003 Pilgrim Congregational Church, UCC Lexington, Massachusetts ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Today we celebrate the confirmation of 4 wonderful young people, Sarah, Stephanie, Tracy and Andrew. During the past months I have come to know each of them and each of them has a delightful combination of warmth, energy, passion and talents. Our celebration of their confirmation comes at an exciting time in their lives. In coming years they will face many choices. Choices about how much school and which school to attend, what job and career to prepare for, and, at some point, whom they will choose to enter into lifetime relationships with. As they make these choices they will ask themselves the question of what is really important in life. My young friends, each of you will answer that question in your own ways, and times. Each of you brings a unique composition of hopes and dreams as well as challenges and hurdles to our church. God delights in each of you. The process of deciding what is really important in life and making choices is part of making meaning out of our lives. You are blessed to be living in a time and a place where you are free to choose from a variety of paths. While a blessing, this freedom can at times be a burden. Sometimes it seems that we have too many things to choose from, at other times it is hard to decide what is really best for us. Each of us will continue to encounter such questions throughout our lives. And at times the question of what gives meaning to our lives can leave us feeling confused. In the movie City Slickers, Billy Crystal finds himself in such a place. He works selling TV air time, has what appear to be a loving wife and two delightful children and a relatively comfortable life style in New York City. Nevertheless his work has become meaningless and he is bored, not only by his life, but also by the lives of his family and friends. So he follows some of his other bored middle-aged friends on a vacation in which they will go on an old-fashioned western cattle drive. On the cattle drive Billy Crystal is riding next to the hard as nails, tough as leather, man of few words, Curly, the cowboy boss of the drive played by Jack Palance. Curly turns to Billy Crystal disgustedly and says, "You, city slickers, you come out here with your big jobs and your fancy cars trying to find yourselves…. You make me sick. Do you know what you need?" And waving one finger of his hand, he says, "One thing, just one thing!" Billy Crystal, engrossed by Curly's surprising outburst asks, "Well, what is the one thing?" To which Curly replies, "That's for you to figure out". Now I suppose you will have to figure out what your "One Thing" is and today we give you a contemporary interpretation of the Bible and the support and companionship of this community of faith to help you. But let me try to help a little more. Here is my testimony of what my "One Thing" is. City Slickers reminds me of how funny we humans can be. But it also reminds us that this search to understand what the "One Thing" is, this quest for meaning is something that people of all ages and all times face. Some would say it goes to the center of defining who we are as human beings. Like the Billy Crystal character I have a wonderful wife, a strong marriage, a delightful son, and good friends, and a reasonably comfortable lifestyle. Unlike him I have a career that after more than thirty trials and hearings has always been interesting, and I'm not bored by any of it, or by my family and friends. As important as all these people and things are for me, the most important thing in my life is God. And if I had to choose one picture of God to hang on my wall to remind me of what was most important I would be very happy with the picture of the Good Shepherd given to us in the Gospel of John. For me that picture is a picture of a young bearded man in robe and sandals walking toward me, carrying a lamb over his shoulders, with two of the lamb's legs over one of my shoulders and the other two over my other shoulder. Now I don't know where that picture comes from but probably from some picture I saw at a time long before I ever opened a Bible. Is this how the Bible portrays the Good Shepherd? Focus with me on these words from today's passage: I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me…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." Although there isn't anything in John about Jesus carrying his sheep, Jesus saw himself as one in a line of prophets and two of the most famous prophets were Ezekial and Isaiah. Isaiah speaks these words given to him by God: God"…. will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms and carry them in his bosom…" If we combine these accounts, they give us a picture of a Jesus who deeply loves us, and will carry us in his arms when we need to be carried. I love the image of Jesus as a good shepherd, not only because it works for me, but also because it is the role that Jesus chooses for himself. Although we are always fascinated by what Jesus looked like, the gospel of John describes Jesus as the word made flesh. So for me the more fascinating question is what did Jesus' voice sound like. We can only imagine that, based upon what we know about what he said and did. In John, Jesus tells us that he knows his sheep by name, and that they know him "because they know his voice". The combined accounts of the good shepherd portray a Jesus who knows us, knows us in fact by name; and who carries us when we are unable to walk, carries us in fact close to his heart. He is a Jesus who is willing to lay down his life for us. And Jesus describes us, his sheep as knowing him by his voice. And finally he speaks of us as listening to him and following him. This is the picture of an intimate relationship between Jesus and his sheep, between Jesus and us. It is a picture in which we know each other well, one in which he loves us enough to feed us, to carry us, even to lay down his life for us, and we trust him enough to listen to him and to follow him. Judging from these words, we can imagine his voice as gentle and loving, as well as confident and committed. It doesn't take long to learn someone's voice but it takes longer to know the person well enough to trust them. By getting to know Jesus better we can learn to trust his voice, even at times when we are confused. There was a time when I was feeling confused. The details aren't important but let me just tell you that I was 24, and had left school in Boston to accept a job in New York. I returned there feeling pretty sad, and because I was pretty sad, I think my parents were too. One day I was alone at home with an adult who had known me my entire life. Who it is isn't important but it wasn't one of my parents. I hadn't spoken to him about why I had chosen to return to New York at that time, and the truth is there were so many things going on in my life right then, I don't think I understood why too well myself. In two sentences he captured the essence of my struggles. He spoke of how my future might unfold with a confidence that I could not hold at that time. He spoke from wisdom born of love and informed by knowing me for my entire life. There would be other times after he died that I would face hard decisions. And at some of those times I would ask myself what he would have said. What would he have advised me? And I could imagine his words because I knew him and had learned that his voice was honest, clear, and grounded in a lifetime of experience and a deep love for me and for God. So here my young friends, I am asking you to believe that there are voices of people no longer alive that can speak to us today, with great wisdom and love. Of course in my example I am talking about someone whose voice I trusted because I knew the person in life for many years. When I ask you to trust Jesus Christ I am asking you to trust a person you haven't known in life. But I ask you to do this, or perhaps to continue to do this, because of what you know about his words and life, and by looking at how he has affected the lives of others. And while for me that "One Thing" is God, and in particular Jesus Christ, there are many ways to know God. Here are three: pray, learn the Bible and get involved with the church. Do the one that brings you the most joy, but the more ways you seek Christ, the more you will learn. And remember that we learn the Bible not just by reading it but also by reading about it, by discussing it with others and by asking for help when we need it. It helps also to understand what Christ's life was all about and where Christ our Good Shepherd wants to lead us. Here is what Jesus said as told to us in the Gospel of John. Jesus says: "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly." Jesus vision of an abundant life included the visions of the great Jewish prophets whom he studied. The prophet Ezekial saw the good shepherd as the one who would rescue the sheep, feed them with good pasture, bind up the injured, strengthen the weak and feed them with justice. (Ezek 34:11-16). In his final prayer before his betrayal, Jesus prays: "…. Now I am coming to you and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my JOY made complete in themselves….I ask not only on behalf of these but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one." (John 17:13; 20-21) And the book of John, while boldly proclaiming Christ's cosmic significance, focuses us not on his birth, not on his, death, not even on his resurrection, but on his life. And his joy was a vision that his scattered people might be gathered together as one. And he worked toward that vision in his ministry by healing, by teaching and by challenging the corrupt and oppressive authorities of his time. The self-image that Christ leaves us with at the end of his ministry is that of the good shepherd. The one who knows us intimately who carries us close to his heart. Who carries us back from places of danger and isolation towards an abundant life of joy. He calls to us with tenderness, but also with joy and with conviction. He searches for us constantly, and sacrifices willingly. He asks us to get to know him as intimately as he knows us. To listen to his voice, to trust him and to follow him. For me, then the "One Thing" is Jesus Christ. Christ's vision for us is a vision of a full and joyful life. And Christ's joy is that we "may all be one".