4th Sunday of Easter; John 10.11-15
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. -NRSV
The Good Shepherd is a familiar and comforting image for God and for Jesus. Oddly so, because how many of us have contact with sheep and shepherds on a regular basis? When I looked up sheep farming in America, I found a website, sheep101.info, with this information:
According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, there are 101,387 sheep farms in the United States. Large sheep operations, which own 80 percent of the sheep, are located primarily in the Western United States. Texas, California, and Colorado have the most sheep.[i]
Little did I know…I am too much of a city dweller. Perhaps, some of you come from sheep farming families here in this state and you are more familiar with real sheep and real shepherds. I had never been up close and personal with them until I traveled to Ireland and Scotland in 2009. I found sheep everywhere as I traveled the country roads or hiked the moors and hills.
The image of God as shepherd is ancient in our Judeo-Christian religious tradition. Psalm 23, possibly composed around 1000 BCE, is so familiar with that many of us can recite it from memory. The prophet, Ezekiel, was prophesying in the late 6th century BCE. In Ezekiel, chapter 34, the prophet speaks for God, shaming and condemning the false/bad shepherds who have led the people astray. Then God says:
As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. … I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, …[ii]
You can hear the echoes with the psalm and with John’s passage. (Back to Me)The Hebrew patriarchs, Abraham, Moses and David, the young king, were all shepherds. It is in this tradition that Jesus says in the gospel of John, “I am the good shepherd.” New Testament scholars tell us that the Greek word “good,” kalos, actually has a larger connotation that just “good” as in “does a good job.” It means “model.” “I am the “model shepherd.”
As God is shepherd, so is Jesus who models the very essence of being caretaker of the people. As caretaker, as shepherd, Jesus is gathering God’s people together under the overflowing love and protection of God. Jesus, as shepherd, is willing to lay down his life for God’s people. Since our text is from chapter 10 of the gospel, you can hear the writer’s foreshadowing of Jesus death which comes in chapter 19.
The literary and theological metaphor of God and Jesus in God’s image as shepherd, of God’s people as sheep, of the threats and dangers to God’s people, can be spun out in many ways. A pastor could preach a series of sermons on this metaphor. The very word, “pastor,” comes from a 14th century French word meaning shepherd and is related to the word pasture, where the sheep are fed. So what do we make of God as the heavenly shepherd and Jesus, God’s word made flesh, the shepherd who laid down his life for the God’s people? Who are the flock, the sheep? All people? The church? If a pastor is the shepherd, are the parishioners the sheep?
Some folks would object to being called sheep because sheep have a reputation for being not so smart! I read in one commentary that this reputation comes from cattle ranchers. Cattle are herded by being prodded literally and vocally from behind. If you stand behind a sheep and yell, it will simply go around and get behind you. Sheep want to be led from in front. They want to follow the voice of the shepherd they know and trust or the shepherd’s whistle to the sheep dogs. It is only when they are ill that they follow a stranger’s voice. Or refuse to follow and wander off into ravines or fall from a height. I happen to know as a pastor that some people like to be led with encouragement from in front, and some people from encouragement behind, and some from alongside. So, the sheep metaphor is definitely not literal when it comes to people!
Here is what I’d like us to consider today …. if the Lord is our shepherd…if as Jesus says in John, he is the model shepherd who will willingly and with no coercion lay down his life for the flock…if we as the church are God’s flock – and I mean “we”, pastors included and not set aside in an elevated position – then, are we listening to the shepherd’s call? And if so, how? Because the shepherd’s call leads us home, even thru dark valleys to a place of care and rest, flowing streams of love and green pastures of food for our souls. It leads us away from dangerous pitfalls and into the safety of transparent and loving community. In these tense and fractious times, we need to listen carefully to God’ call to community as we worship, as we meet on Zoom, as we pray for one another, as we listen to the guidance of our strategic planning team. We need to do our individual work of listening so that God can be gathering and leading us all in community. We need to be assuming the best of one another in this exhausting time of pandemic when we all have frayed nerves and are glimpsing the light at the end of the tunnel but can’t quite reach it yet. Otherwise, we will be like scattered sheep, wandering off on our own. God, the protector and gatherer of God’s people is calling us together through the voice of Jesus and through God’s Holy Spirit to new and renewed community as we begin to come out of isolation into safe gatherings and as we continue to grow our work together building God’s realm here and now in northern Colorado.
When I was in Scotland in 2009, I stayed for almost three weeks on a tidal island, the Isle of Erraid, in the Inner Hebrides with a spiritual community connected to the Findhorn community of northern Scotland. This community lived in stone lighthouse keeper houses, working and praying together and offering hospitality to people coming from the mainland for retreat. It was early October. And while I was there the time came for the annual sheep round up. As I hiked the island, I had seen many, many sheep. In my inexperience, I didn’t realize or take note that they were all part of the same flock. They belonged to a shepherd named John who lived nearby on the Isle of Mull. It was time to gather the sheep for yearly inoculations and for the lambs to be sold at market. The people of the Erraid community gathered one morning to help the shepherd round up the sheep by walking the 462 acres of the island, hills and bog land and beaches, in groups that herded any stray sheep to the center valley where the sheep dogs and the shepherd could gather them safely into the flock.
Before we left, we held what they called an “attunement.” For me, it was prayer. We stood in silence in the lovely chill of the morning air with the sun just beginning to warm things a bit. Gradually people began to offer up affirmations, “prayers”. “May we all go in safety. May the sheep be safely gathered in. May the mothers be comforted as they are separated from their lambs for the first time.” I was in awe…a little stunned that we were praying for sheep and then ashamed that I was stunned. Why wouldn’t we pray for sheep as creatures of God and the source of the shepherd’s livelihood?
Then off we went. I ended up with a group on a high bluff where I could see and hear the shepherd signaling the sheep dogs. It was amazing the way the dogs worked at his whistling commands, amazing how hard they worked to gather the sheep into a safe group. Suddenly all the biblical shepherd imagery I had ever heard became clear. At that moment I saw the shepherd as the Lord of Psalm 23… I first thought of the sheep dogs as the pastors trying to gather the flocks. On further reflection, I think the sheep dogs are more likely the Holy Spirit trying to gather us all into God’s fold.
Suddenly there was a huge gasp from the group I was with. An older ram, had gotten itself out on the ledge of a bluff across the way from us. The dogs were working frantically to help the sheep turn around and go back the safety. A couple of people were on the ground below waving their arms at the sheep to get its attention. One was trying to find a way to safely climb down to the ram. But even with all this effort of care, the ram backed itself into a corner and then fell to its death. And there was an even bigger gasp as we watched it fall. And tears in the eyes of the community.
Eventually we gathered in all the sheep and walked them home by a path to the barns where the inoculations began and the sorting of the lambs from the mothers. The mood was joyous that the sheep were all home. And it was tinged with sorrow for the old ram that was lost despite all the care and the work of the shepherd and his dogs and the people of the community. It was a living metaphor for me of the real-life workings of God and God’s people in community.
My friends, I challenge you today: take another look at the Lord as our shepherd, at Jesus as the model shepherd giving all he has to gather the flock, at the Holy Spirit eager to round us all up. Our nerves are frayed from a year of pandemic and the turmoil of politics and racism. We are feeling our frustrations keenly. Yet we are being called home to our souls, called to rest in prayer after a long time of struggle and loss, called by God’s love to gather in love with one another. I invite you this week to re-read Psalm 23, perhaps daily. Read it slowly, resting in each image. Read John 10.11-15 slowly, prayerfully, letting the image of the Jesus, the model shepherd, willing to call you back home by laying down his life for you in the dark valleys, sink deep within your heart. Remember that the Holy Spirit is animatedly gathering us together as God’s people even as we are still socially distanced. (Back to Me) Remember, pray, allow yourselves to be led home in peace! Amen.
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2021 and beyond. May be reprinted with permission only
[ii] Ezekiel 34. 12,15-16a
Associate Minister Jane Anne Ferguson is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. Learn more about Jane Anne here.
2nd Sunday of Easter
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
While they were saying these things, Jesus himself stood among them and said, "Peace be with you!" They were terrified and afraid. They thought they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, "Why are you [surprised and frightened]? Why are doubts arising in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet. It's really me! Touch me and see, for a ghost doesn't have flesh and bones like you see I have." As he said this, he showed them his hands and feet. [While in their joy, they were still wondering and disbelieving,] he said to them, "Do you have anything to eat?" They gave him a piece of baked fish. Taking it, he ate it in front of them.
Jesus said to them, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you--that everything written about me in the Law from Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled." Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures. He said to them, "This is what is written: the Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, [and that repentance,] a change of heart and life for the forgiveness of sins must be preached, [be proclaimed,] in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. Look, I'm sending to you what my Father promised, but you are to stay in the city until you have been furnished with heavenly power, [power from on high.]" (A compilation of the text from the New Revised Standard Version and the Common English Version.)
Several years ago, a friend loaned me a short novel titled, Dinner With a Perfect Stranger; An Invitation Worth Considering by David Gregory. I don’t remember if I agreed with it all theologically, but the concept intrigued me! You can see where this is going, can’t you?
The book is about a businessman in his late thirties named Nick Cominsky. Nick, an overworked strategic planner for an environmental testing firm, receives a mysterious invitation among the rest of his business mail. “You are invited to a dinner with Jesus of Nazareth. Milano’s Restaurant. Tuesday, March 24. Eight o’clock.” The opening paragraph of the book reads: “I should have known better than to respond. My personal planner was full enough without accepting anonymous invitations to dine with religious leaders. Especially dead ones.”[i]
After determining, the invitation is not another outreach effort by the church down the street and still wondering if it is a prank by two of his work colleagues, Nick’s curiosity takes over. Against his better judgment, he takes another precious evening away from his wife and new baby girl and goes to dinner. At the restaurant he meets a nice-looking, dark-haired man with unusually piercing eyes, dressed in a sharp suit, a man who looks like he just got off work at Merrill Lynch, a man who seems to know all the wait staff at the restaurant intimately. A man who comfortably discusses everything from world religions to the existence of heaven and hell and who seems to know a disturbing amount about Nick’s personal life, including the scandal that is brewing in his company. A man who introduces himself as Jesus. The evening progresses through drinks to appetizers to salad and main course to dessert and coffee to paying the bill. Jesus picks up the check. Their conversation touches on the meaning of life, God, pain, faith, doubt. By the end of the evening, Nick, like the disciples surprised in that upper room, feels a deep joy he can’t understand, can’t quite believe or trust yet. He has spent the whole dinner skeptical, cynical, wondering, angry, captivated, confused. And now this odd joy. As he says goodbye to Jesus at his car, Jesus gives him a personal message and another invitation for continued conversation. The question hanging in the air for Nick is, will this dinner change his life? And how?
Imagine, being surprised with a personal dinner invitation from Jesus…would you go? What would you want to talk about? In the gospel story from Luke, the disciples gathered on that late Easter evening receive just such an impromptu surprise without the printed invitation. Suddenly Jesus is just in their midst! The very person they had come to grieve. They have gathered for a wake and the deceased walks in the door! They are surprised in their grief by joy – which is deeper and more mysterious than passing happiness. Isn’t it remarkable that when we are surprised by the mystery of joy, we can hardly trust it? We trust sadness, anger, frustration and doubt a whole lot more, than joy.
The gospel writer takes pains to let us know that this is not just a warm fuzzy moment in which they feel the presence of their old buddy, Jesus, as they toast his memory. Jesus shows up saying, “See my hands! See my feet! Still aren’t sure? Then let’s eat!” And after dinner, Jesus gives the disciples an invitation. Jesus says, “Everything I spoke to you has come to pass for the Messiah has to fulfill all that has been spoken about him in the scriptures.” Now remember what the test of truth is in the first century. Does the new truth reconcile with the old truths? Does it further reveal the old truths? Jesus’ message to the disciples is that all that has happened is consistent with God’s faithfulness throughout the scriptures and in history. Then he opens their minds to understand all that was written about him so they can trust in the faithfulness of God.
Here in the resurrected Jesus, the reality of Good Friday is joined to the reality of Easter. And not in a shallow, pie in the sky sort of way. This is not about correct doctrine or beyond a doubt, scientific, historical fact. It is deeper than that. This is about living into the redeeming and reconciling story of the everlasting God, made known in Jesus, a story that challenges the stories of the finite world. Scholar and minister, Barbara Essex writing in the Feasting on the Word commentary says: “In his book, Search for Common Ground, Howard Thurman reminds us that ‘the contradictions of life are not final or ultimate’ and that God is the giver of forgiveness and mercy, ever ready to offer shalom: peace, the possibility and promise that order, well-being, hope, compassion, and love might yet prevail.”[ii]
The Resurrected Christ joins Good Friday to Easter Sunday, pain and suffering, all the “no’s” of this life, stand in that upper room with the joy, the ultimate “yes” and shalom, of God. There in recognizable, yet unbelievable, human form, Jesus the Christ says “Peace be with you. All that has happened is consistent with God’s faithfulness. Now go and proclaim these things to the world, starting right where you are…”
Do you get a little squeamish with this proclaiming, witnessing thing? I can hear you protesting in your minds. “But isn’t proclaiming just for you preacher types? I mean, really. I don’t have any words for that sort of thing.” Do you associate witnessing and proclaiming with accosting people on street corners, handing out tracts with the four spiritual laws? Surprise! As followers of Jesus, we are all witnesses!
Traditionally it is more comfortable in the UCC to put our witnessing into actions for social justice, but not have to talk about our faith, what we trust. Listen carefully. Actions for social justice are most definitely the fruit of our experience with the Risen Christ. But Jesus doesn’t say to the disciples, “Go and proclaim social action!” Jesus says, “Because the anointed One has suffered and died and risen from the dead, go and proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins.” Because of the unbelievable joy and peace you have experienced, go and proclaim repentance, metanoia, turning back to God because the ancient scriptures tell us that God longs for us even more than we long for God! As joyfully unbelievable as that may seem! Listen to and live into God’s story, not the world’s story of dog-eat-dog competition, greed and revenge, because God is about mercy and forgiveness.
My friends, I believe we are made in God’s image and born into original blessing rather than into original sin. However, this human journey distracts us. We get fearful, blinded, and we turn away from God. Sin, hamartia, simply means turning away from God, turning away from living into God’s story. We do this is so many ways every day, knowingly and unknowingly. Often the church has encouraged us to make a long list of sins, the ways we turn away. But that leads to judging one another by our own personal lists rather than paying attention to turning back to God! Here is the joyful news! Our lists are unimportant. What is important is that God wants us, longs for us to turn back time and again to live in God’s story as it is fulfilled in Jesus, the Christ. And this is what we can proclaim!
Like those disciples in the upper room, we have witnessed God’s mercy and forgiveness and shalom through the scriptures and through community, the church of the Risen Christ. We can claim Jesus’ promise that we will be given the “power from on high” to proclaim the joy of turning back to the God of love and forgiveness. How? Through the Holy Spirit. A little biblical shorthand: Holy Spirit = Power. Empowering power, not controlling power, power that is life-giving not life-taking, power that disturbs the corrupt systems of this world, the systems we humans put in place we when are not living into God’s story. This is the power from on high that moves the church to social actions and proclamations in risky places that are in need of God’s love and justice. If we want the power to act, we must accept the power to proclaim. They are one and the same. Act for God’s love and justice and proclaim God’s forgiveness and mercy, compassion and shalom.
Living into God’s story brings the power of the Holy Spirit and brings shalom, the peace that Jesus proclaimed as he greeted the disciples in the upper room. Perhaps, God’s peace and God’s power are two sides of the same coin. Perhaps, one always comes with the other. I can trust that, disbelieving and wondering, in great joy. How about you? May the peace and joy and power of God known to us in Risen Christ be with you all. Amen.
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2021 and beyond. May be reprinted with permission only.
[i] David Gregory, Dinner with a Perfect Stranger; An Invitation Worth Considering, (Waterbrook Press, Colorado Spring, CO, 2005, 1).
[ii] Barbara J. Essex, “Homiletical Perspective, Luke 24.36b-48, Third Sunday in Easter”, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, Lent Through Eastertide, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2008, 429).
Associate Minister Jane Anne Ferguson is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. Learn more about Jane Anne here.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
If you’re at all like me one of the questions you probably ask yourself each Easter is, “Well, did the resurrection really happen the way the Bible said it did?” Ask yourself, then, “What does the Bible say about the resurrection?” You just heard Jane Anne tell the beautiful story from John’s gospel about Mary Magdalene seeing Jesus outside the tomb and not recognizing him at first. In fact, John gives us two detailed chapters of stories about the resurrected Jesus. There are more than a few resurrection stories in the New Testament, and John’s is the very last to be written.
Mark, the earliest gospel writer, says that there are three women followers of Jesus who show up at the tomb expecting to find Jesus’ body so that they could anoint it with aromatic spices. But they find a tomb that is empty except for a young man in a white robe who says, “He has been raised; he is not here.” That’s the end of Mark’s story. Nobody sees the risen Christ…just his empty tomb. Poof! Done! Short and sweet.
Matthew adds another layer…when the two Marys show up on Sunday morning there is an earthquake, and an angel appears to roll away the stone from the tomb. Then, as they run to tell the disciples, the risen Christ meets them, tells them not to be afraid, and to let his brothers know that he’ll meet them up in Galilee, and then he meets the disciples there.
Luke adds some elements to Mark’s empty tomb story, but the women encounter two men in dazzling clothes, who ask them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” and tell them, “He is not here, but is risen.” Then, Luke tells us the wonderful story of the two disciples who walk along the road to Emmaus with a mysterious stranger and how he (the risen Christ) is made known to them in the breaking of bread.
The earliest biblical accounts of resurrection are actually not in the gospel accounts that we read every Easter, but rather from Paul, who wrote even earlier than Mark. Paul has a different story of what resurrection is all about because not only did he miss the Sunday of Jesus’ resurrection, he never even met the man who was a walking, talking, teaching, breathing, preaching, table-turning prophet. The only encounter he had was with the risen Christ, years after the crucifixion. He wrote to the church in Rome about 25 years after Jesus’ crucifixion and says, “Just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in the newness of life.” And to the church in Corinth he writes, “So it is with resurrection…it is sown in a physical body, it is raised in a spiritual body.” That’s an interesting and an early twist, isn’t it? What is a spiritual body? Is that part of the reason that in John’s gospel, Mary Magdalene doesn’t recognize Jesus at first and that Jesus tells her not to touch him?
I want to propose an idea to you about the nature of resurrection. If there is a lifeless corpse before us, and it comes back to life, isn’t that really freaky and gross? Basically, we’re talking about a zombie. What I don’t hear in any of the gospel stories is the zombification of Jesus. What I hear in John’s gospel is that when he is raised, he is raised with a spiritual body…whatever that means. John’s Jesus walks through walls and closed doors…clearly without the same physical body. And yet after coming through closed doors with Thomas, he allows the disciple to probe the holes in his hands. Still…not a zombie.
What if resurrection is less about revivifying or resuscitating a corpse and more about what Paul says: “Just as Christ was raised from the dead … so we too might walk in the newness of life.” What if resurrection and resuscitation are two entirely different things, and if resurrection looks nothing like a scene from Shaun of the Dead? For me, resurrection is a mystery with a capital M, and I suspect none of us will ever figure it out, at least in this life.
What if resurrection is about new life, new beginnings, do-overs, fresh starts, the life-giving spring following the dormancy of winter? What is it in your life that could use a fresh start or a new beginning? God invites you into that! God lures us from our stuck places into “the newness of life.” It takes courage to step out into something new, and that is what Jesus offers us through his example…that even crucifixion and the bonds of death don’t hold him.
I’ve also been thinking about what resurrection might mean for us at Plymouth in a post-pandemic frame…as we return to in-person worship and having the ability to interact with one another and be the church in the same physical space.
It’s been a long time since we were together. A lot has changed. You’ve changed. I’ve changed. The world has changed. Are you expecting to walk back into Plymouth some Sunday and have worship be exactly like it was? Is your expectation that it will be basically a resuscitation of the church just as it was on March 10, 2020? I hope not! There are going to be some limitations as we start because the pandemic is still in play, and there are likely to be things you miss (like singing and hugging and coffee hour and handshakes). More affirmatively, I hope that you and I have learned some things about ourselves, our community, and our faith in the process of living through a pandemic in the past year…lessons that we won’t simply chuck out the window.
What have you learned about what is really important during the pandemic, both personally and for the whole church community? I’ve learned not to take hugs, face-to-face conversations, shared meals, singing hymns together, and communion for granted. I’ve learned that church buildings are important, but they aren’t everything. I’ve learned that the church is about relationship: with God, with each other, with our neighbors…and we can do that without face-to-face presence if we try hard. I’ve learned that people love and feel deeply connected to God and to their church, and that people show up and make a difference, even when it’s inconvenient, and that gives me a sense of warmth and hope. I’ve learned that you can do a strategic plan during a pandemic, and that an amazing team of people are willing to overcome obstacles to help learn about where God is calling you and all of us together. And I’ve learned that you don’t need to live in Fort Collins or neighboring communities to be part of Plymouth.
My hope is that we, as a church, will not experience mere resuscitation…but resurrection. That together we won’t look like a revived corpse when we return, but rather a spiritual body infused with the newness of life. Think about it…if the church is the body of Christ in the world today, do we want to be a worldwide zombified corpse or a renewed spiritual body?
Friends, we have lived together through more than a year of pandemic, and at times it has felt like endless months of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday with no Easter Sunday in sight. It has been a year of death and disease and fear…a year of political animosity and violence…a year of reawakening to the realities of racism in our nation…a year of the worst forest fire in Colorado history just over those hills…a year when the building was shut down. But we have made it through the hardest part. With more of us getting vaccinated every day, the end of this phase is in sight. The glimmers of Easter sunrise are here, bringing new beginnings and new life with them. Let’s grasp this moment with courage and be ready for resurrection.
Christ is risen! We arise! Hallelujah! Amen.
© 2021 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact hal at plymouthucc.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
 Romans 6.4
 First Corinthians 15.42-44
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.