I Am the Good Shepherd
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
April 25, 2021
Exodus 34:20-31; John 10:11-21
I want to begin this morning by reading from one of America’s greatest living theologians, Garrison Keillor. It is from his short piece called Earl Grey. “Earl Grey was a middle child, the third in a family of five, so he was accustomed to suffering. When he was small, his family often forgot to call him to the table for meals. He was a tall boy with size 12 shoes, a hard one to overlook, but they did, all the time. Sometimes, they called him 'Vern' by mistake, and when he corrected them, they said, 'Oh well. Whatever.' Pardon a digression here, but as a middle child himself, the author is moved to elaborate. In other cultures, middleness is not a losing position, perhaps because those cultures are less linear, more circular than ours. For example, in Sumatra a middle child is cherished as the bright jewel of the family and is referred to as 'our central child' … The middle child is the normal, friendly one. So the middle child is ignored: because he or she is so nice and requires no special attention. The middle child is a stranger to his parents. Earl Grey liked to bring a fresh pot of tea to his mom and dad as they sat in the Walnut Room of their spacious mansion in Chevy Chase and rested from the day's labours. 'Oh, thanks, Vern,' they said. 'Here's a quarter.'”(from The Book of Guys by Garrison Keillor, Penguin Group, 1994)
Have any of you ever felt like a middle child? Have any of you ever walked into a room filled with people having a great time, talking, and chatting only to feel as if you are invisible? If you haven’t I have. Since I am not a party in a box, there have been many times in my life when I have been someplace new, where everyone seemed to know everyone else, and I felt as if, even at 6’3” and 200lbs, I was invisible. It is a disconcerting experience. And I believe it is a disconcerting experience because deep inside every human being is the fear of being invisible. It is the fear that we don’t really matter; that our existence in the universe is not noticed and so perhaps we never existed at all. I realize that this sort of reflection might seem a bit odd for looking at Jesus as the Good Shepherd. Yet, I believe in many ways they lie at the heart of this part of his identity. I say that because his audience didn’t just consist of some of the religious elite but of ordinary folks; men, women and children who wondered everyday if their heavenly parent had forgotten them. As if they were somehow no longer special but were middle children without a name. It is to that issue of being invisible that we turn. And to do so, this sermon will be like a series of building blocks that seeks to help us deal as well with our Middle Child Syndrome.
The first block begins with understanding just what a good shepherd is. First the term good shepherd refers not to a good shepherd versus a better or best shepherd. It’s not like choosing your medical coverage, gold, silver or pot metal. The word good here refers to a shepherd who is filled with compassion and care for the sheep, he or she watches over. It means a shepherd who is filled with love. This is at the heart of Jesus' words comparing a good shepherd with a hired hand. The hired hand is only in shepherding for a paycheck. When trouble comes, a hired hand says, “I am not being paid to deal with this trouble,” and takes off. A good shepherd is in shepherding for the love of the sheep. So, when Jesus refers to himself as the good shepherd, he is laying the foundation for the blocks that follow. He is laying a foundation of the good shepherd being the one who loves the sheep.
The second block is that a good shepherd knows their sheep. A good shepherd knows each sheep by name, personality, disposition, and place in the sheep hierarchy. The good shepherd knows which sheep can be easily frightened, which sheep will run away, which sheep will bully other sheep and which sheep will be sheepish. I must admit I find this rather amazing because when I look at a flock of sheep all I see is, well, sheep. They all look alike to me. But to a good shepherd the sheep are not just a means of production or income, they are instead an extended family, to be known, loved, and cared for. With that in mind, listen again to Jesus. “I am the good shepherd. I know my own.” What he is telling the crowd is that he knows those whom God has given to him. He knows us. He knows all of us. This means that Jesus knows us in more than a name-tag sort of way. Not only does he know us by name; he knows our fears and our failings. He knows our hopes and our dreams. He knows who we are at our very core…and he loves us, faults and all. The Good Shepherd knows us.
The next block is that the good shepherd knows what sheep need. If we can recall the 23rd Psalm, we will remember that the shepherd is the one who makes the sheep lie down in green pastures and leads them beside the still waters. The good shepherd understands that sheep, left to their own devices, will graze the land bare and starve to death. Or the sheep will fall into running water and drown. Ezekiel, writing about the good shepherd hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus, puts it this way. “I will make them and the region around my hill a blessing; and I will send down the showers in their season; they shall be showers of blessing. The trees of the field shall yield their fruit, and the earth shall yield its increase. They shall be secure on their soil; and they shall know that I am the Lord… will provide for them a splendid vegetation so that they shall no more be consumed with hunger in the land…” Jesus as the good shepherd knows what we need. He knows that we need freedom from want, fear or failure. And so, Jesus leads us and teaches us. Jesus supports us and provides for us a community of support. Jesus forgives us and renews us. Jesus loved us enough to become one of us, so that we might follow him into the way of life. The Good Shepherd knows what we need.
The fourth block is that the good shepherd knows the cost of protecting the sheep. Sheep are fungible, meaning they can be stolen and sold. Sheep are also tasty. Both of these factors make sheep a target for rustlers and varmints. They are a target for rustlers because those thieves know that there is a market for sheep; a market in which buyers don’t ask for title to the sheep. Wolves, lions, and bears are all mentioned in scripture as seeking out sheep for a good meal. And in shepherding communities there are far too many stories of shepherds having to fight off both thieves and predators. The 23rd Psalm speaks of the shepherd’s rod and staff protecting. Ezekiel speaks of the good shepherd as the one who will not allow God’s people to be plunder for other nations, nor allow the animals of the land to devour them. Jesus implies the same thing not only by comparing himself to the hired hand who runs away at the first sign of danger but by stating that he will give his life to protect his flock. This good shepherd is willing to risk everything, including his own death for the flock.
The final block is that a good shepherd knows their flock. The good shepherd knows, even when flocks are thrown together at a well, which sheep belong to them and which belong to someone else. Jesus’s listeners would have assumed that his flock was limited to certain good people, or to Galileans, or perhaps just to the Jewish people because Jesus was a Jewish rabbi. Ye,t Jesus makes it clear that his flock is larger than that. That in fact there was an entirely different flock for which he was responsible. The traditional way of interpreting these words is that God loves Gentiles just as much as Jews and that Jesus will be their good shepherd as well. What I would like us to hear in these words is something more expansive than this, that Jesus’ flock includes people of every age, race, language, income, educational level, gender and sexual orientation. This is the radically expansive nature of Jesus’ flock.
The bottom line for Christ’s kingdom is that there are no middle children. There is no person unseen, unknown, or unloved. Christ’s flock extends around the world and includes each and everyone of us. This week then, my challenge to you is this, that when you look into a mirror you stop and say…God sees me, God knows me, and God loves me.
I Am the Light of the World
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
April 18, 2021
Isaiah 49:1-6; John 8:1-20
It was preposterous! It was outrageous! It was ridiculous! Here was this man sitting in front of them claiming to be the messiah. And who was he? He was a nobody. He was an untrained, uncredentialed carpenter from Galilee. Sure, maybe he performed some miracles. Sure, he had a large group of followers. But to be the Light of the World? No way. I would assume that for many of us, that when we hear Jesus speaking of himself as being the Light of the World, we assume that he is merely waxing metaphorically. He is speaking of himself as someone who illumines God’s way in the world. But his claim that he is the Light of the World is far more than that. It is Jesus staking his claim that he is indeed the long-awaited messiah sent by God to save the world. I say this because he is echoing the words of the prophet Isaiah who has God say to the messiah, “I will give you as a light to the nations that my salvation might reach to the ends of the earth.” Jesus’ claim was that he was that light…that messiah
What we need to understand about this claim from the perspective of those listening to Jesus was that it was not only suspect because of Jesus’ lack of credentials but that it was dangerous. It was dangerous because there had been and would be other would-be messiahs who had come and gone and would come and go during this period. And the result of all their claims and movements was always the same: bloodshed, disaster and death. Their claims and actions led to violence, oppression, and suffering. The last one of these messiahs who would live about a hundred years after Jesus, a man named Simon bar-Kokhba, would lead a revolt resulting in more than a million Jewish deaths and virtually drive the Jews from the Holy Land. In light of these pretenders, if Jesus was to claim the title of Light of the World and the position of messiah, he better be able to prove it. He better have some formidable evidence if he wanted to convince his listeners that he was the real deal. So, they put him on trial, just as they had the woman caught in adultery and asked him for witnesses to testify to his messianic credentials.
Jesus did not back down, yet the evidence he offered them was not convincing…to them. Essentially what he said was that he had two witnesses, the minimum needed in Jewish courts to prove one’s point. The first witness was himself. He could witness to his identity because he knew where he had come from and where he was going. The second witness was his father who would tell them exactly who Jesus was. Now for all of us here this morning who are familiar with the Gospel of John, we know to whom Jesus is referring. He is referring to the fact that Jesus is the Word of God made flesh and who came from heaven will return there. We also know that he is the only begotten son who was given to the world to save the world. Needless to say, this was all lost on those listening to Jesus in the Temple. They did not understand why having come from Galilee and then returning there attested to his messianic claims. And since they didn’t know his father, that claim was unclear as well. They were therefore not convinced and could not comprehend that he was indeed the messiah. So, had I been there and been Jesus’ attorney, I would have called several more witnesses. I would have called all of those involved in the “woman caught in adultery” episode.
Most of us are probably familiar with the story of the woman. But in case not, let’s recap. Jesus has opponents who want to discredit him. To do so, his opponents catch a woman in the act of adultery and bring her to Jesus. It seems as if they are hoping he will either condemn her to death, which is the punishment required by the Torah, and thereby lose his followers who see him as compassionate; or he will let her off, thereby showing that he does not believe in Torah and is thus not a good Jew. What Jesus does however, and this is where he demonstrates that he is the messianic Light of the World come to offer God’s salvation to the ends of the earth, is that he not only saves and redeems this woman, but he saves and redeems those who were using her. Let me explain. Jesus assumes that the woman is guilty as charged. He does not dispute her crime. What he does though is, first, ask those who brought her to not only examine their consciences but their own guilt under the law. I say this because the Law says that if you see someone doing something wrong, you are to warn them long before condemning them. These people had not warned this woman and so would stand condemned for being as guilty as she if they stoned her. This is what the Light of the World does. The Light of the World saves people by holding them accountable and not condemning them but offering them a chance at redemption. This is also what Jesus does with the woman caught in adultery. He holds her accountable but does not condemn her. He saves her by offering her a second chance to live in God’s love and Law. This is what the Light of the World had been called to do, to offer God’s salvation to the ends of the earth.
I say this because the Light of the World is to reflect God’s light into the world and what God’s light does is hold people accountable, yet saves rather than condemns them. God’s light held Adam and Eve accountable when they followed the advice of the serpent and ate the fruit. Yet God saved and did not condemn them. God’s light held Cain accountable when he killed his brother Abel. Yet God did not condemn him but saved him by protecting and ultimately blessing Cain. God held King David accountable for the great Bathsheba adultery incident. Yet God did not condemn David by removing David as King but instead saved him by allowing David’s offspring to lead the nation. God held the nation of Judah accountable for its sins by sending them into exile. Yet God did not condemn them but saved them by bringing them home again. God has held the world accountable for its sins. Yet God did not condemn the world but saved it by sending his only son, Jesus, into the world to become one of us; that in believing we too might be saved and find our way to the fullness of life now and forever. This is what God’s light is all about: holding accountable, but then saving and not condemning, as the Gospel of John makes clear again, and again, and again.
I would like you to do something for me right now. I would like you to cup your hands as if you are trying to hold something in them. Now I would like you to look into your cupped hands and imagine a small light beginning to glow in them. And then imagine that light growing slowly brighter and brighter, and becoming warmer and warmer, becoming a ball of light. Allow yourself to bask in the light’s brightness and warmth. Then carefully take the light in one hand and place it in a pocket, or on your table, or any place where it is readily accessible. As you do that listen again to Jesus’ words. “I am the light of the world, whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” You, my friends have been given the light of life. You have been given the love and grace of the light of the world that will never condemn you but will always save you. Regardless of what you have done, or said, or thought, you have the light. So the next time you feel the guilt, shame and pain because of something you have thought, said or done, pull out the light and remember: you are not condemned but saved and have a chance to begin again.
I Am the Bread of Life
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
April 11, 2021
Isaiah 55:1-5; John 6:25-40
What I have in my hands this morning is a nesting doll. Nesting dolls are a traditional Russian craft. They are called nesting dolls because inside each doll is another doll, nesting and waiting to be taken out. The dolls are hand painted and can be of anything or anyone. When Cindy and I were in Russia the last time, we even found a nesting doll with San Antonio Spurs players painted on them and, of course, had to buy it for our son who is a life-long Spurs fan. Usually though the dolls all look alike and are displayed, side by side, out of the nest. This doll was a gift from one of Cindy’s teachers, probably given to Cindy thirty years ago. The question that you may be asking then is, why am I holding this nesting doll here this morning? The answer is that it seemed to me to be the easiest way to help us understand what is in this morning’s passage from the Gospel of John. I say this because the passage is filled with Biblical allusions and metaphors. And the only way for us to get at the heart of what Jesus meant when he called himself the Bread of Life, is to unpack the story one layer, or one doll at a time. So, let’s begin.
The largest doll, or the container if you will, for our story this morning is the Exodus. I say this because all the Biblical allusions in this conversation between Jesus and the crowd point to the Exodus story from the Jewish scriptures. For those of you not completely familiar with the Exodus, it is the story of God freeing the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt. It includes such stories as Moses and the burning bush; the plagues; the parting of the Red Sea; and importantly for this morning, the feeding of the Israelites in the wilderness with bread or manna. Recall that Jesus has just fed the five-thousand and now the people say to Jesus, “Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” What Jesus does then is tell a new exodus story; a new exodus story that frees people not from political captivity, but instead frees them from captivity to sin and death and leads them into life now and life eternal. Jesus wants those around him to think in Exodus imagery, but in a new and different way. So, we begin with a spiritual Exodus.
The second doll represents those who will be invited to go on this new Exodus. Again, going back to the original Exodus, God invited just the Hebrew people to be set free from their slavery, even though, as the end of the book of Genesis teaches us, all Egyptians were slaves to Pharaoh. God’s invitation to freedom was only for the Hebrew people, not because they were somehow better than everyone else, but because God had a task for them to accomplish. That task was to be a light to the world and to one day offer liberation to all creation. With that in mind, the question for this new liberation is, who will be invited this time? The answer in the Gospel of John is everyone. Jesus tells the people that he will not lose any of those whom God has given him, and God has given him the whole world. We know this because in John 3:16 we are told that, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that all who believe in him might not perish but have eternal life.” God’s love is not for one nation, one race, one gender, one sexual orientation, but for the whole world. So, we have an invitation for all to come along on this new exodus adventure.
The third doll represents what people must do to join in this new Exodus march. Once again, let’s return to the Exodus story. When God prepared to liberate the people, the people had to agree to go. I realize that sounds like a “Captain Obvious” kind of statement, but the reality of human beings is that we often choose to remain where we are even when things are not well, even when things are dangerous and painful. Human beings often choose to stay put. And in fact, once the Israelites were in the wilderness, they said on more than one occasion, “We should have stayed home. At least there we had food to eat.” In other words, the people not only had to choose to go with Moses, but they actually had to get up and move. The same is true for those who have been invited to go on this new Exodus journey. If people want to be set free, they must follow Jesus. This is what Jesus means when he says, “This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life and I will raise them up on the last day.” And here, believe does not simply mean intellectual assent. Believe means to walk in the way of Jesus. Believe means to follow Jesus into a life of sacrificial love and compassion for neighbor. I say this because in the letters of John, the writer says, “Whoever says I abide in Jesus, ought to walk as he walked.” So, we learn that this Exodus calls on us to walk in the way of Jesus.
The final doll is about the bread of life. A significant part of the Exodus story is the “murmuring” or complaining of God’s people once their journey began. They complained when Pharaoh trapped them against the Red Sea. They complained when they were thirsty. They complained when they were hungry. We might think that God would have grown tired of all the complaining, just as we parents sometimes do when it seems all our children do is complain. Yet God never becomes angry with them. Instead, God supplies them with water and food. The food comes in the form of manna, a bread life substance that appears each morning in the wilderness. In other words, God sustains them on their journey. The question for the people who have joined Jesus on this new exodus adventure is, who will sustain us in this new Exodus? The answer is, Jesus will sustain us, because he is the bread of life. Jesus says, “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” In other words, not only will Jesus lead people in this new Exodus from sin and death, into freedom and life, but he will sustain them along the way. This is what the bread of life is all about, being sustained by Jesus even in the most difficult of times.
The reality of life is that we are all on a journey. It doesn’t matter how old or young we are. It doesn’t matter what stage of life we occupy, we are all on a journey. We make choices every day about how we will live and what kind of person we will be. We make choices about how we will treat others and how we will bless, or not bless, the world around us. The gift we are given in the risen, reigning Christ is that we are offered the support we need to follow in the way of Jesus. We are offered the bread of life that will sustain us day in and day out, even in the most difficult and demanding of times. Jesus will sustain us in sorrow and joy. Jesus will sustain us in life and in death. My challenge for each of us this coming week then is to begin each morning with these words, “Jesus, feed me on this day, as I strive to follow in your way.”
On Solid Ground
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
April 4, 2021
Exodus 14:21-27; Matthew 28:1-10
It was just after 5pm when the earth began to shake. The earthquake lasted for only twenty seconds, but the damage exceeded $10 billion. The epicenter was near Loma Prieta, 50 miles south of San Francisco. Eighteen-thousand homes and twenty-five-hundred businesses were damaged. Roads were torn apart and a portion of the Bay Bridge in Oakland collapsed. While some of the damage could have been expected, the extent of the damage was exceptional. What made it as bad as it was, was a process called liquification. Liquification is what happens when loosely packed soils are shaken so violently that water that is normally trapped in the soil, is suddenly released and pushed upwards causing the ground to lose its cohesion…and the earth becomes like mud, or perhaps like the beach when your feet sink into the sand. In some ways this is more frightening than the shaking itself because it is a reminder that the one thing we believe to be solid in our lives, the earth beneath our feet, can in fact give way and we can sink down into it. This geologic phenomenon kept coming back to me again and again this week as I read this resurrection story. The giving way and the liquification of the ground seemed to be the perfect metaphor for what the followers of Jesus had experienced on the day of his death. Let me explain.
The disciples had followed Jesus for three years. During that time, they knew he was the one dependable person in their lives. He was their leader, their teacher, their healer, their exorcist, their everything. He was fulfilling ancient prophecies. He was gathering larger and larger crowds. He was creating a new community in which all persons were accepted, loved, and cherished. And in their unpredictable world, a world in which one never knew what Rome or the leaders in Jerusalem might do, they knew that they could depend on Jesus. He was their rock and their fortress. But then the earth shook. Jesus was arrested, tried, crucified, and buried. It was as if the very ground beneath their feet had liquefied. All their hopes and dreams were as shattered as those homes in the Bay area. There was nothing solid in their lives. And even when they came to the tomb and were told by an angel that Jesus was alive, they were still shaking. I say this because they were filled with “fear and great joy.” Think for a moment when you have been filled with this mix of emotions…you shake…you tremble. And so, they ran. They ran through soil still not yet solid.
It was in their running that Jesus met them. Note carefully, they were not looking for Jesus. They were not expecting to see Jesus. All they were trying to do was to get back to their friends with some unbelievable news, that perhaps Jesus might meet them later in Galilee as he had promised. But then suddenly, out of nowhere it would seem, Jesus meets them. It was Jesus who knew they were shaking. It was Jesus who knew that they needed something solid on which to cling. It was Jesus who loved them too much to allow them to fear. And so, he meets them. Their reaction is instantaneous. They fall down and take hold of his feet. They take hold of the one thing that once had been, and was once again, the only solid thing in their lives. They took hold of Jesus and offered him their words of praise and amazement. They took hold of the physically present feet of their risen friend. They grabbed hold, stopped shaking and gave thanks.
I don’t know about you, but this past year has seemed like one in which the world shook and life liquified under me. The ground shook with a pandemic that took hundreds of thousands of lives. It shook with calls for racial justice following the deaths of George Floyd, Brianna Taylor and others. It shook with an election and election aftermath that starkly divided our nation. It shook with an attack on our capitol. It shook with lockdowns and lost jobs. It shook with mass shootings and the deaths of Peace officers. And in the process of all that shaking, the ground beneath us liquified. All that we thought of as normal vanished. We were isolated. We fought over toilet paper and cleaning supplies. We could no longer visit family, friends or our favorite places to eat. We had to wear masks everywhere as the invisible virus lingered in the air. The earth beneath our feet had liquefied. Yet there was one in whom I knew I could trust. There was one thing I could remember every day, that my redeemer lives; that Jesus Christ comes to meet me every morning saying that life and love win; hate and death lose.
Jesus was and is the one solid thing on which we can all cling to because in him we know that love and life win. Love and life win because God refused to allow hate and death to be victorious. Love and life win because Jesus is raised. And so we too can cling to him because he is not dead but alive. We can cling to him because he is not simply an ancient teacher but a living Lord. We can cling to him because he is not simply a spirit but a resurrected human being. We can cling to him because he lives…and in his living we know that we can and will live as well. So this Easter Sunday, allow Jesus to stop our shaking and remind us, that in him, we are on solid ground.