Good Shepherd Sunday will determine much of our preaching this week. You will likely settle on an aspect of Jesus as shepherd that is just right for what your congregation needs to hear. And that is exactly what you need to do. At the same time, I also wonder how Good Shepherd Sunday as a Sunday in the season of Easter affects our perspective on and interpretation of Jesus’ resurrection.
My own lens for the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd has been shaped by a convergence of events this past week. Of course, that’s exactly what preaching is — the message of the sermon is determined by the preaching life. The life we live during the week, in all of its intersections of circumstances, contexts, and communities, determines our view of the text. Something comes to the surface that we could have never seen before the crossroads of the current week.
At the risk of being too personal, but we have come to know each other better over the last almost two years, I’d like to share with you the junctions of my preaching life this past week that have led me to come to realize the sermon I need to hear on Good Shepherd Sunday — resurrection is protection. Resurrection is safety.
Last Sunday, I preached at the “Walter Wangerin, Jr. Celebration of Excellence in Preaching” series in the Chapel of the Resurrection on the campus of Valparaiso University. After the service was a conversation with about 30 Valpo students about the sermon, seminary life, and even Greek. Follow up conversations had students thanking me for a sermon, that among other things, seemed aware of the truth of sexual violence on college campuses and the need to speak up and speak out and speak for the victims. In fact, and I am not making this up, that morning I had Lady Gaga’s “Til It Happens To You” in my head. The next night, I preached at the opening Eucharist of the Institute of Liturgical Studies at Valpo. As you most certainly know, preaching is the most vulnerable act of ministry. Two days in row and it just about killed me. Admittedly, I am out of shape, this preaching professor. Exposed and exhausted, I then led two workshops the next day. I arrived home late Wednesday evening after a full day of plenaries, meeting new people, a banquet where my professor with whom I had my worship class in seminary and who played the organ at my wedding received an award. Lots of memories of seminary days past. Thursday morning, I taught my Preaching John class, where students await internship decisions and are negotiating first call interviews. Friday, I had a meeting at which some very hard truths were said.
Adding to the fullness of this week? Receiving copies of my new book on women in ministry in the mail (exciting, but vulnerable), it was Sexual Violence Awareness Week at Luther Seminary, I have been in contact with a number of clergy women about sexual harassment and violation in their current situations, and I myself have experienced this week, several times, nothing new of course, the resistance to my voice and the attempt to silence it. And, finally, one of the long-time members of our congregation died, Mr. Ray. My boys loved Mr. Ray. And telling them about his death exposed for them once again where and how our lives are precarious, that you never know when what you assume to be will no longer be. My younger, fourteen, worried, “did I say ‘hi’ to Mr. Ray last Sunday? I hope I did.” And broke down in tears.
Where does all of this leave me? Resurrection is safety. Or, I need it to be. And this is the true gospel of Good Shepherd Sunday that I need to know. Jesus as Good Shepherd promises protection, that the valleys of death and depression and despair are not traveled alone. That the shepherd really does protect his sheep. No one will snatch you away. No one. No thing.
Safety is essential — on so many levels. Professional, personal, spiritual. With whom do you feel truly safe? Literally safe. And safe with your truth, who you are, who you want to be. Safe with your concerns and your grief and your sorrow. Safe with your celebrations and joys and dreams. Safe with you aspirations and hopes and accomplishments. Safe with your fears and your body and your mind. Safe with your thoughts and your concerns and your needs.
Resurrection is safety. Of course, from death’s grip. But it is also safety from grief that could overwhelm hope; anguish that could crush the spirit; loneliness that might isolate the soul.
Resurrection is safety because the shepherd sees to it that our needs are fulfilled. There is no safety when your basic sense of what you expect from life — including being safe — is not met.
Resurrection is safety because the shepherd is totally committed to the well-being of the sheep. Who is committed to the well-being of you? Just you? Anyone else?
Resurrection is safety because the shepherd knows his sheep intimately. Who knows you, truly knows you? Or do most think they do, so much so that you can’t be you?
The empty tomb is a promise of protection. Not from the truth of life, but for the sake of the truth of your life.
What is that truth? That you are who you are. That God loves who you are and needs you to be who you are — in every moment of confidence and in every moment of self-doubt. That you are indeed, a sheep in Jesus’ fold and that nothing, no one, no thing, no church, no institution, can change that. Ever.