Preached at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, Newton IA 4/22/18
Texts: Psalm 23, John 10:11-18
On Maundy Thursday we stripped the altar. All the color was drained from this place. It lay empty,
barren. As I stared at the starkness, I thought about how brave that act was. I imagined what that
would be like if this place was permanently stripped, the building sold, the congregation dispersed.
It’s one of the fears that looms in many parishes. What if we don’t make it? What if, even after all the trials and struggles, all the learning and growing together with God, all the history, the doors are shut and the people who are left searching. I don’t think our parish is even close to the situation of closing the doors, but I recognized the fears in that moment. We have similar fears in our relationships, in our workplaces, in our national life together. A couple fears separation as they grow apart. There are rumors that the company is about to pack up and move on. Our nation hints at war. How brave it is to strip the altar, both in our building and in our hearts, to face those fears head on.
It can be like facing the valley of the shadow of death, like watching the wolves circling in the
distance, ready to pounce. It’s frightening. In those moments, I know I feel out of control. I’m just
bumping into others trying to find an escape route. It doesn’t matter what happens to those around
me because in those moments, I’m searching for survival. That’s what matters most. Survival. It is
my greatest want, my greatest desire, and I’d do anything to make that happen. To keep the
congregation together, to save the relationship, to keep the job, to bring our nation to where I want it
to be. I’d do anything. In those moments, I at least, really feel like a sheep. I’m confused, I’m lost, I
want direction. Any direction. I need someone who can stand above the herd and guide it, because I
can’t guide myself.
I wonder how many times I have been led astray by someone like the hired hand. They look good,
they talk a good talk, but in the end, I can see their backside as they run off, leaving me alone to
face my fears. My survival is not their concern. They are concentrating on their own. They are, in the
end, a sheep elevated to a higher status. They can peek above the herd a little, but their survival is
most important to them. They will leave everyone else if they can ensure they will live. They are like
us. They are at least like me. They are not shepherds, they are sheep in the shepherd’s clothing.
In the moments of weakness, of fear, when the predictions become reality, it can feel like there is no
guide, no leader, no authority. There’s just a flock running afraid, scattering, trying to survive as all
feels like it’s falling apart. It is a crucifixion moment. We watch all our hopes, our desires, our
dreams, hang on a cross. It’s heart wrenching. We stand like Mary, watching her son slip away. It
may feel like we will never laugh again, never feel moments of peace. Everything is completely
So what does it mean in these situations to have a good shepherd? If we can still feel all the pain, if
things still go incredibly wrong, then what is the point of having this leader?
Our good shepherd does not always save us from the incredible pains of life, but our shepherd is
willing to feel them with us. He would freely lay down his life for us. He weeps when we weep. He
feels the power and disorientation of our crucifixion moments because he’s been there. He descends
into hell with us, feeling the pain as things seem to only get worse and worse. He stays right
alongside us as we spend time in our own tombs. He never abandons us, never runs after his own
survival. Rather, he takes our stripped altars, our bare vulnerability, our woundedness, and holds it
tenderly. He seeks us out when we are lost. Even though we may walk through the valley of the
shadow of death, we don’t have to fear the evil, because Christ is with us. His rod and his staff
After the wolves have disbursed, as things quiet down, he tenderly gathers us back together,
cradling us in his arms as a mother cradles her hurt toddler. He tends to our wounds, wishing he
could take away all the lingering pain. Then the good shepherd, the one who lays down his life freely
for us, also takes it back up again. He slowly breathes resurrection life into us. It is not a quick
process, but it is an effective one.
Slowly we begin to dream new dreams. We’re able to see more than just a few feet ahead of us. We
may even laugh a true laugh, a sound that may not have escaped our lips for years. While we still
have our nail holes and the wounds in our sides, we are able to share life in community again. We’re
able to care again. The pain isn’t overwhelming. The pain instead becomes transformative. It’s
something we can use to strengthen others on their journeys, helping them to know that they are not
alone. We are resurrected with Christ.
These life crucifixions can be large or small. A parish could shut its doors, but it could also die to
former ways and find new resurrected life. I certainly don’t think this congregation is on the path of
closure any time soon. But we are on a crucifixion path that requires that requires the death of
defeatist ways, ways that see the wolves of the world coming and run in fear. We know that no
matter what, our good shepherd will be beside us. Christ will guide and lead us through it all. Under
Christ’s direction, we can find resurrection, dying to our own uncertainties and being born anew into
people certain of Christ’s leadership over us.
That is the gift of the good shepherd. No matter what happens, whether it is the worst possible
scenario, a minor set back, or a call towards a new way of being, Christ is along the path with us,
gathering us and leading us. We are never alone. Even when the wolves attack, Christ will not run
away in survival mode. Christ is taking this entire journey by our side. We need not be afraid
because he holds the key to resurrected and transformed life.