Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The Fourth Sunday of Easter has come with new meaning this year. Oh, I know you are waiting to hear it. Good Shepherd Sunday is the one Sunday around the world when pastors and priests will preach really baaaaaad sermons. There. It is out of the way now. Yes, today most preachers will paint pastoral images of white, fluffy sheep walking attentively beside their shepherd. Or perhaps it will be the image of a strong shepherd carrying a lost lamb across his shoulders. These are important and comforting images. But for me, in this springtime of the corona virus, in this anxious time of sheltering in place, I have found renewed meaning in the image of the flock abiding securely in the loving shadow of the shepherd.
No doubt, we are all struggling with some degree of fear or anxiety these days. And fear has a way of coloring our life and holding us back. Even pastors wrestle with fear- and for many that fear is preaching the Sunday morning sermon with nobody in front of them. We know that a sermon should have a good beginning and a good ending, and that the beginning and ending should be as close together as possible. We just don’t know whether we have enough in between. One clergy friend posted on Facebook that he was afraid of becoming a televangelist. Based on my observations, he didn’t have anything to worry about. 30 years ago, I was taught in a seminary preaching class to stand up boldly, outline three points strongly, and sit down quickly. Another seminarian, however, was not convinced by this counsel, and asked me, “So, how many points does a good sermon really need?” After critiquing his sermon, I sighed, “Well, at least one.”
Faith in Jesus as the Good Shepherd and taking our place in his flock is worth proclaiming. More importantly, it teaches us that fear doesn’t have to be the final, defining word in our lives. The early Christian Church understood its identity as a baptized community of faith, as a flock. This morning’s lesson from the Book of Acts outlines their commitment to one another as they dwelt in the shadow of the Good Shepherd. Although fear had once kept them together in the Upper Room, now it was the need for encouragement in life, that brought them and kept them together. My friends, that is what you will discover as well.
Christians don’t often talk about their need for the church- except perhaps now, when the doors are shut. As a missionary family sent to establish new churches in Eastern Europe, however, we were used to having no church or even a place to gather. In the fall of the year, there was no Rally Sunday to kick off Sunday School year after a long summer with a rousing. Nor was the sanctuary full of exuberant parishioners. These were congregations that were so small that when your spouse was ill, attendance dropped by 20 percent. During those years, my favorite Bible verse was simply, “Where two or three are gathered together, I am present in the midst of them.” We were proud, when the Church attendance matched the temperature outdoors… in January. But there was always an excitement. You see, in spite of our meager numbers, we believed in the potential that God had entrusted to our tiny flock, and we trusted Jesus’ promise that he was with us. We found the strength and hope to drive out fear in the shadow of the shepherd.
Of course, we are all trying to find our way in this awkward, unprecedented time. Some pastors and congregations are wondering whether they are doing enough, or whether they should by trying more technology. No one is perfect. Not even your pastor- not even as perfect, virtual pastor. I know that even now some of you may be checking out another YouTube recording- for a second opinion. I do know that I have made all of the worshipers in the congregations that I have served happy. Yes, they were all happy. Half were happy when I came to their church, and the other half were happy when I left. Even the most sainted, church members, have a way of surprising you and keeping you in place. I was visiting Esther Mork, an elderly church member and celebrating Holy Communion with her when she confessed, “O Pastor Haug, I haven’t heard anyone say a bad word about you- lately.” No, I am not a perfect- and I must confess that I have never seen or experienced a perfect church either. But somehow God, has brought us together to share in each other’s joy and sorrows, to cast our fear and to find in the witness of the saints, the comforting protection of the Good Shepherd.
Now, we may assume that the Church in Jerusalem was a perfect community “having the good will of all the people.” They had the perfect witness of the apostles and the personal memory of Jesus having lived and walked among them. But that perfectness was short lived. I can only imagine the challenge for the 120 charter members of that church, when 3000 newly baptized Christians joined the congregation in one day. Just think about the struggles when the women began to sort out the recipes for the first church cookbook. “Can you believe she uses margarine instead of real butter?” Or, “How can anyone take a recipe for lefse seriously that’s made from potato flakes?”
The Good Shepherd was challenging the flock in new and marvelous ways, but more importantly he was also allowing them to discover their own unique, personal stories and experiences that would strengthen them in their daily faith journey. No church is so developed and strong that it cannot benefit from the newer and younger voices in its midst. Without these voices and concerns, you see, we can become so focused on ourselves that we lose sight of the shepherd and we allow fears to creep in. Several years ago, I was invited by home Church in Austin to translate the early records of our Norwegian speaking congregation. It was heartening to read of the early struggles with pastors and parishioners. But I was struck in one report with the loss of vision and mission. The Church record included this paragraph. St. Olaf Church, 125 souls and three Swedes. It wasn’t that the early Norwegian pioneers considered their Swedish neighbors, as less than divine or human. They merely felt that the Swedes weren’t their responsibility.
My friends, when you see yourself as part of the flock, you allow yourself to be filled and changed by the Good Shepherd, you will discover the sense of challenge and commitment that the early Church experienced. There was no barrier, no border, no social institution, no hardship that would prevent them from opening their mouths and proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ. There was no distinction between Jew, nor Greek, male nor female, youth nor elder, in the wondrous body of Christ. They all had a story to tell of the Good Shepherd had watched over them and led them out of fear.
Second, when the disciples were gathered together in prayer they discovered that the Good Shepherd was present to comfort them. For many Christians, this has been a difficult time. Yes, the social and economic crisis of the global pandemic, as well as the toll of human life is great. I can cause a spiritual struggle. There may have been times before when you experienced such fears and loss in an equally personal way. Surgery, illness, divorce, depression, death, unemployment, drought, winds and in moments utter despair. It is a humbling task to offer your prayers to God.
As the apostles in Jerusalem gathered with their followers, they were no doubt struck by the daily trials of their faithful as well. Life would be so much easier, if choosing faith eliminated all of life’s struggles. It doesn’t. But in those dark nights of the soul, the disciples discovered that when they allowed the Good Shepherd to speak to them through others, they were filled anew with courage, hope and strength. And in the anxious hours, they were changed. They grew in a deeper understanding and awareness that that the Shepherd helped them in their weakness. In those moments when they could not find the words to pray as they ought, the prayers of others would intercede for them with sighs too deep for words. Have you discovered that my friend? When you are struggling, emotionally and spiritually, have you trusted in the amazing strength, grace and healing power the Body of Christ working on your behalf?
And finally, when the disciples counted themselves as a part of the flock, they discovered that they were nurtured and strengthened not only by the Good Shepherd, but by the community of believers. The story of the early church records that the disciples devoted themselves to the teaching, fellowship and breaking of bread. They knew that there was no such thing as a Robinson Crusoe Christian. They needed the company of other believers. For it is in the life of the flock that the Good Shepherd moves in numerous ways.
So in these awkward time, why do you need of the Good Shepherd and his Church? Perhaps you need to hear the sweet sound of the gospel of Jesus Christ, his word of forgiveness and the promise of new life. Perhaps, you need a quiet place where you can speak intimately with God. Perhaps, you need to be surrounded by a company of fellow believers. Perhaps, you are hungering and thirsting for the gifts God offers at his holy table. Or perhaps, your need is less defined. You are still searching, but you know that what you are ultimately searching for is here to be found. Yes, there are a host of reasons that you and I need the church.
But with that said, let me assure you, there is no perfect church or perfect pastor. Christ alone is the perfect one who offers abundant life. We simply try to do his work as his flock in this place. As the poem says,
I think that I shall never see A church that’s all it ought to be;
A church whose members never stray Beyond the straight and narrow way;
A church that has no empty pews, Whose pastor never has the blues,
Where gossips never peddle lies, Or make complaints or criticize;
Such perfect churches there may be, But none of them are known to me.
But still, we’ll work, and pray and plan, To make our own the best we can.
That is the work of the Good Shepherd and his little flock which began in Jerusalem 2000 years ago. Jesus is still nurturing and guiding his flock, so that we can be a source of hope and life for others. As for driving out the fear of pastors? Well, I am still in anxious of preaching next Sunday’s sermon to an empty church, and I am trying to make the beginning and ending as close as possible. After all, you don’t want a baaaad sermon. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.