Monday, May 8, 2017

Sermon: The Risky Shepherd

The Risky Shepherd
Psalm 23; John 10: 1-18
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
Fourth Sunday of Easter
May 7, 2017

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.
- Psalm 23

‘Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.

2The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.

5They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.’ 6Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.

7 So again Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

11 ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

12The 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. 13The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.

14I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.’
- John 10: 1-18

Jesus was shaking things up. He had healed the man born blind so that others may see God’s glory (John 9). The Pharisees, however, saw a threat to their leadership. They were at odds with Jesus’ power to heal, forgive, and teach disciples.

So they drew the circle a little tighter around the synagogue. There was no room for the healed man; the newest disciple. There was no room for Jesus; the rabbi who didn’t follow the religious rules. The Pharisees were not bad guys. They were trying to faithfully preserve the Law of Moses. But in doing so they had become rigid gatekeepers.

Jesus spoke to the Pharisees in the only parable of John’s Gospel. He not only claimed his authority but he gave a picture of his ministry. He said: “The gatekeeper opens the gate for [the shepherd]…I am the gate for the sheep.” (John 10:3, 7).

You see the Pharisees misunderstood their role in the life of faith. They found themselves opening the gate for God the Good Shepherd (Old Testament image) to be revealed to God’s sheep. But Jesus drew the boundaries and the roles differently.

God alone is the gatekeeper. Jesus is the gate. It is by Jesus Christ alone that God opens the way for abundant life. God does not need any of us to serve as a mediator of grace. God does not need any of us to decide who is in or outside of the gates of grace. That job is already taken by God alone.

And yet Jesus gives a picture of comfort and challenge for the working of his ministry. He continued with that language of shepherd and sheep: “The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for [the shepherd] and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out; he goes ahead of them and the sheep follow him because they know his voice” (John 10: 2-4).

We know this Good Shepherd. The Lord is our shepherd and he leads us to trust in God’s provision. He makes us lie down in green pastures to play in the wonders of Creation. He leads us beside still waters to drink from babbling brooks of peace. He restores our souls like no shopping trip, quick fix, or human relationship can. It fills our hearts with joy to know the blessed assurance of God’s intimate relationship and never ending care.

But the voice of the Good Shepherd also leads us to risk stepping outside of the boundaries of comfort. The Shepherd calls us to follow him with a sense of urgency and purpose. The Shepherd leads us out to walk in right paths for his name’s sake. We must leave the sheepfold, go past the rich green pastures and go into fields of hurt, suffering, and injustice.

The Shepherd goes ahead of us in order to bring in other sheep and add to the fold. The ministry of Jesus Christ is at work to bring together one flock to dwell in God’s abundant life through the one shepherd. (John 10:16). It is always worth the risk for Jesus because that is what sacrificial love looks like.

Two weeks ago a recreation youth basketball game was being played at ‘Hope on the Hill’ Community Center[1]. ‘Hope on the Hill’ is just miles down the road in downtown Lancaster. They have been ministering to youth through community outreach for thirteen years. It has been a safe and nurturing space for many youth and young adults. It is an outreach to keep kids off the streets.

But the sheepfold of the community center was threatened with fear and violence at a basketball game that Wednesday night.

Allen Jerome Cooper, Jr., a star basketball player for Lancaster High School, was playing on the rec team. After the game Allen was the target of gang violence. Allen was well loved by his family, his team mates at Hope, and at high school. He was known as a hard worker and a good friend [2]. And his death has shaken our greater community.

It would be easy for our neighborhoods to become gatekeepers and stay behind locked doors. But members of the Lancaster community are reacting differently. They truly feel they are being led out to respond to violence with loving action.

A grass roots effort is coming together to organize “Save the Streetz.” This effort is uniting various experiences, connections, skills, and intervention resources to impact violence, gang activity, and drug use. The group feels called to risk being out in the community to come alongside those in need of positive change.

‘Save the Streetz’ is building on Jesus’ shepherding model of mentoring. Their vision is to reach out to students from middle through high school to open doors to abundant life. The program opened yesterday (Saturday May 6) with an event at the same location where Allen Cooper died. What an intentional way to demonstrate resurrection hope.

The event introduced the youth to explore career and job opportunities. Mentors opened the teens’ eyes to wonder about their God-given gifts and the importance to give back to the community. Wider groups of families and participants were also engaging with community building games and activities to feel the strength of unity.

‘Save the Streetz’ will even go as far as helping gang members who want to leave circles of violence to find a productive and hope-filled life. This outreach is seeking out volunteers who have connections in every neighborhood to speak directly to gang members.

The response from the Lancaster community has been well received so far. Youth and families want to make a difference here at home to bring empowerment, resiliency, and peace. They want to bring a love that reveals the unity of community.

The church is a safe and nurturing space for our community too; a sheepfold where Christ’s sheep find rest and provision to strengthen our weary souls. It pleases the Good Shepherd to care for the body of Christ in this way.

But the ministry of Jesus Christ presents us with opportunities to go out of the sheepfold with him. We follow his voice and trust his guidance. The Lord is our mentor to shape our whole way of living and being in the world. The Lord is teaching us there is a risk involved to follow him in order to walk in right paths for his name’s sake.

Right paths means to follow in the Shepherd’s steps of restoring right relationships as “Save the Steetz” is doing. The Good Shepherd needs the help of the sheep – you and me - to do this. The journey will at times take us beyond the comfortable green pastures to see the Valley of the Shadow of Death.

The journey of faith does not keep us from the fields of hurt, suffering, and injustice. In fact it draws us to these places just as Jesus was led to the suffering and injustice of the cross. These are the places where God seeks to bring new life. These are the places where God seeks to bring resurrection hope!

We go with our Risky Shepherd to these fields and valleys to find those who are not here yet. Together sheep and Shepherd search out those who belong to other flocks; those who have wandered from the community; those who are losing hope; those who need a way home.

The other flocks, the wanderers, the hopeless, and those needing a place to belong – they all begin to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd as he draws near. No matter where the sheep are, they hear the Shepherd’s voice. Sheep may not always respond to the Shepherd but they do hear his voice.

But the sheep also hear something else that I do not want you to miss. It matters immensely. The sheep being sought out need to see other sheep; they are social creatures. They also need to hear your voice and mine.

As you and I follow the Good Shepherd our voices bleat that once we, too, have all been like lost sheep who have gone astray. The Good Shepherd needs you and me to help share the good news of this abundant life through actions of faith and love.

Each time another sheep is invited to follow the Good Shepherd a door is opened to find home where there is goodness and mercy; cups overflow in God’s abundance; and we are anointed as a beloved child of God.

May the voice of our Risky Shepherd give us courage to come in and go out of the church’s sheepfold to find the pastures of God’s amazing grace. To come in and go out of the sheepfold is to be our way of life because it is the Good Shepherd’s way of life. The Shepherd’s way led him all the way to the cross and empty tomb to give each of us God’s promise of new life. Our Shepherd is seeking to unite us all in God’s resurrection hope.

Jesus calls us to do one thing – follow him. May it be so for you and for me.

In the name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sources Referenced:

[1]Reece Murphy, “New Group Taking Action to ‘Save the Streetz,’” The Lancaster News, April 30, 2017.

[2]Andrew Dys and John Marks, “Neighbors Lament Kids Killing After Lancaster High Teen, 17, Dies in Shooting,” The Herald (Lancaster, SC), April 27, 2017.

Hannah Strong, "Gang Related gun Fight Killed Teen," The Lancaster News, April 30, 2017.

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