A sermon for Good Shepherd Sunday

You really have to admire the passion and commitment of the early church, as we hear about it in this morning’s reading from the book of Acts.

Those first Christians were devoted to prayer and fellowship.

They were faithful to the teachings of the apostles, and to the breaking of the bread.

They spent time together in the Temple, and sold their possessions in order to distribute the proceeds to the poor.

They were dedicated to the life of the spirit, and to the life of their community.

I admire their commitment, as I admire the commitment of the members of this parish to life in Christ, and life in community.

I want to acknowledge and lift up that spirit today as we celebrate Good Shepherd Sunday, our special feast.

This is a blessed community of people who are committed to faith and fellowship, and especially to prayer.

We understand giving and doing for others.

We know that one result of our prayer for those in any kind of difficulty or pain creates in us hearts that are more caring and compassionate, and attendance at our Wednesday morning service of Eucharist and healing prayer is growing.

Ideal, not reality

And if we’re not quite as perfect as that community described in the book of Acts – well, the truth is, neither were they.

Most commentators think this passage reflects their ideals more than their reality.

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a good model for what a Christian community should look like.

To be a community that prays, breaks bread together, praises God, and takes care of those in need is still our ideal today.

We’ll take some time today to look back over the past year and think about how we’ve been living up to those ideals,

because at Good Shepherd Church, Good Shepherd Sunday is also Annual Meeting Sunday.

We call the Fourth Sunday of the Easter season Good Shepherd Sunday because the Gospel is always taken from the 10th chapter of John, where Jesus talks about himself as the Good Shepherd.

We hear a different part of that chapter each year in a three-year cycle.

This year we’re back to the beginning, where Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd who tends the sheep and keeps them safe … and also describes himself as the gate by which they have access to the sheepfold.

Jesus is the one we follow, and the way we go.

This Gospel and the reading from Acts complement each other, because they’re both about discipleship – about how we follow Jesus.

I’m not entirely sure how I feel about thinking of myself as a sheep, but t does feel good to hear that our Good Shepherd knows each of his sheep by name, and when he calls, we know his voice and follow.

This passage concludes with a promise of the good life, life abundant: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly,” Jesus says.[1]

And our beloved Psalm 23 gives us a vision of what that kind of abundance might look like – or at least what it might have looked like to the people of another time and place.

But I’m not sure the idea of enjoying a feast while your enemies watch on – or having your head anointed with oil – carries the same kind of meaning for us moderns.

What’s your vision of abundance?

I wonder if most of us don’t imagine that it means having way more than enough of everything you might enjoy.

But it really means just having enough.

Enough to generously meet your needs, but not necessarily having more than you need.

And I would say that is true of us here at Good Shepherd.

We are abundantly blessed. We have what we need.

I think our Annual Report bears that out.

On the business side, we have a balanced budget, and an endowment to help meet future needs not covered in an annual budget.

We are paying careful attention to maintaining our property as legacy that has come down to us from past generations and will be passed along to those who will follow us here.

Spiritually, we worship together here on Sundays and again on Wednesdays, when are prayers are not just for ourselves but for many other people and places where healing is needed.

I put the service of offering Vacation Bible School as an enrichment for children – and a bit of relief for their parents – in the category of spiritual abundance because it’s a place where we can extend our community and share some of the spirit of this place with others

I would put our Prayer Shawl ministry and even our book sale in the category of spiritual abundance as well. The book sale raises money for us, but we are able to pass a number of books in special categories along to others who can use them.

I could go on listing examples, but I’m going to stop there, and encourage you to read the Annual Report for yourself, if you haven’t already.

I think it describes a community that truly is enjoying life abundant.

So we have life abundant here in this community. We have what we need, and that is enough.

That promise of abundance is reassuring, and it’s reassuring to remember the loving care of our namesake, the Good Shepherd himself.

But even when the message of this Gospel is comforting – there’s always also some challenge involved.

Our Shepherd knows us by name, and we know his voice – and we follow him.

We follow him out of the sheepfold.

Out to pasture, to essential nourishment – but away from the safety of having four solid walls around us.

“The gatekeeper opens the gate for him,” Jesus says, “and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.”

Where is that voice calling us to follow him next?

Even if the idea of selling everything we have and giving the proceeds to the poor is an extreme ideal, could be doing more to meet the needs of the community we live in?

And are there ways that we also are called not just to be taken care of by the Good Shepherd, but to follow his example and be shepherds ourselves?

Where are the lost sheep that we need to be caring for?

I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of L’Arche – it’s an international federation of communities where people with developmental disabilities live with companions who assist them.

This is what Jean Vanier, L’Arche’s founder, had to say about that. He said:

“To become a good shepherd is to come out of the shell of selfishness in order to be attentive to those for whom we are responsible so as to reveal to them their fundamental beauty and value and help them to grow and become fully alive.”

So the message of the Good Shepherd is both reassuring, and challenging.

I think the passage from the book of Acts that I quoted at the beginning is also a message of reassurance and challenge.

The reassurance comes in seeing that this Christian community prospered by passionately living their faith.

“Day by day,” we’re told, “the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”

Day by day … new members … new life.

And this comes right after the Pentecost preaching of Peter, which brought 3,000 new believers to baptism!

The message here is that we prosper by passionately living as the community we are called to be.

Going forward from this Annual Meeting, your Vestry and I will be giving serious thought to who we are called to be, and where our Shepherd might be leading us.

Because truly we are blessed, but at the same time we face some serious challenges, and it would be a mistake to simply ignore them.

Our population is growing older.

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to find volunteers who can continue the kinds of activities we talk about in the Annual Report.

There is a level of burnout among those who have worked so long and hard on behalf of this community.

We might have to change, if we’re going to continue to be who we are.

That might sound contradictory, but I don’t think it is.

To be a healthy community, we have to continue to grow in our faith, and growth almost always involves some change.

We must have faith, and we also have to be realistic.

We have to believe that if we life the life of faithful community as described in Acts, we will be blessed as they were.

We have to trust the promise of life abundant if we faithfully follow the Good Shepherd.

And we have to be realistic in our planning.

Where are we going next? We must listen to the voice of the Shepherd, and then be ready to follow.

Amen.

[1] John 10:10 NRSV