The widespread arms of the Shepherd

The widespread arms of the Shepherd

This is the sermon the Rev. Kevin Johnson preached at the online worship service of the diocese for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, May 3, 2020.


Easter 4A

So, last weekend I broke the bonds of Corona house arrest and escaped to south Texas to visit the farm. On this farm live two donkeys named Rosy and Suzy. Rosy and Suzy’s job is to help take care of the baby calves by protecting them from coyotes and snakes and such.

If you’ve ever spent much time around domesticated farm animals you know that they have, just like humans, distinct personalities. Rosy and Suzy are no different.

Rosy is gregarious. She’ll let you stroke her muzzle and loves a good scratch behind her ears. She’ll put her face right up against your chest and snuggle.

Suzy, on the other hand – well, you know that joke about mean ‘ol Mr. Crabapple, “Hey you kids! Get off my lawn!” That is Suzy donkey. She loves nothing better than to sneak up behind you and give you a little nip.  Not enough to draw blood, but enough to let you know that she does not want you in her personal space.

Here’s the deal. Rosy and Suzy? Well they look remarkably alike to me. They’re both donkeys. They are both whitish gray. They both stand about 5’ tall. They’re donkeys. And, even though I’ve known Rosy and Suzy for over a decade now – I still can not tell the difference between lovable Rosy and curmudgeonly Suzy.

Mary, who owns the farm, however…. Mary can tell the difference. She knows them. Just like she knows the names and personalities of all the cattle. And they know her. They know her because on Christmas Day when the newborn calf Max was abandoned by his mother, Mary brought him up to the barn and kept him warm and bottle fed him for weeks until he was able to be on his own. They know her because when Puddin’ the horse had to have a tracheotomy, Mary was out there in the dark of the night cleaning the wound, helping Puddin’ to breathe. Believe me, cleaning a tracheotomy wound on a 2000 lb. skittish animal requires a high level of trustful knowing for both parties.

They know her because even when they are not watching for her; she is watching for them. And when she calls the names of the three little abandoned calves – “Come here Max. Come here Rojo. Come here Sonia,” Max and Rojo and Sonia come running. Now most likely to get something to eat. But, isn’t eating together part of how we know another?

Rosy and Suzy, Puddin’, Max, Rojo, Sonia…. they all experience life and living through Mary – who knows them, even when they are not looking.

Which brings us to today’s gospel story, the one about a shepherd named Jesus – the Christ. First, let me give you a little context ‘cause John’s timeline is different than the other gospels.

By this point in our story Jesus has fed 5000 people, a public act. After which he makes the incredibly provocative statement about eating his flesh and drinking his blood.

Then he sneaks into the Temple for the Festival of the Booths, where his teaching creates great consternation amongst the crowds and arouses the outrage of the Chief Priest and pharisees. Since he’s on a roll, Jesus continues to make enemies by insulting the Children of Abraham. Capping it all off by having the audacity to heal a blind man making the point that those who say “We see” probably do not. Which brings us to this story about sheep, shepherds, sheepfolds, thieves and bandits.

Now if it was up to me, I’d have edited out most of today’s gospel story and simply stuck with the line, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” ‘Cause, frankly, on initial, cursory reading I don’t really cotton to all the interpreted suggestions glommed onto this story which say that in order to be square with Jesus – and consequently square with God – one must have in some fashion confessed Jesus as one’s Lord and Savior.

This argument just doesn’t seem to match up with what we see Jesus do with his life and his actions. This Jesus, a good Jewish rabbi, a son of the Chosen People of God, is the one who crosses into Samaria and embraces a woman whom for good Jews would of been anathema – an affront to God and all that they hold dear. This Jesus is the one who ends up widening the circle of “Chosenness” to include a gentile, pagan woman in Syrophoenicia.

So, yeah. I get a little conflicted when I compare the recorded actions of Jesus with the interpretation of today’s passage that says one must be a card carrying, confessing “Christian” to be included in Jesus’ sheepfold, which a cursory, first glance reading of today’s text might lead one to believe.

But, luckily for us – at least in our tradition – we are called to give the scriptures more than a cursory, first glance reading. In fact, we are called to, as Thomas Cranmer wrote, “read, mark, and inwardly digest,” the words of scripture. This means that we do the homework, we put them into historical context, we mesh them together with the whole of Jesus’ life. We do the hard, sometimes dirty work, of making the sausage of theology in order to taste the delight of God.

Given this, I invite you to consider the words of Fredrick Buechner, a contemporary theologian, pastor and darn fine preacher. Buechner wrote:

“Some think of a Christian as one who necessarily believes certain things. That Jesus was the son of God, say. Or that Mary was a virgin. Or that the Pope is infallible. Or that all other religions are all wrong.

Some think of a Christian as one who necessarily does certain things. Such as going to church. Getting baptized. Giving up liquor and tobacco. Reading the Bible. Doing a good deed a day.

Some think of a Christian as just a Nice Guy.

Jesus said “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” (John 14:6). He didn’t say that any particular ethic, doctrine, or religion was the way, the truth, and the life. He said that he was. He didn’t say that it was by believing or doing anything in particular that you could “come to the Father.” He said that it was only by him —by living, participating in, being caught up by, the way of life that he embodied, that was his way.

Thus it is possible to be on Christ’s way and with his mark upon you without ever having heard of Christ, and for that reason to be on your way to God though maybe you don’t even believe in God.1

Could it be, I wonder, that the Shepherd’s arms, spread wide on the cross, are spread wide enough to embrace all of creation? To embrace every human being? Whether they know it or not.

In fact, isn’t that the Easter Message – that the Light shines in the darkness, and no matter what, whether benign neglect, or ignorance, or even willful avoidance – that no matter what – the Darkness does not, can not, will not overcome the Light. That in the end, God wins. Love wins.

I wonder if you might consider that like Max, Rojo, Sonia, and Rosy and even curmudgeonly Suzy, that who even when they are not watching for Mary; she is watching for them – I wonder if you might consider that like them, even when the children of Creation are not watching for the Shepherd; the Shepherd is always watching out for them. No matter what.

Perhaps on this day, in the midst of the chaos of our times, in the midst of fear, and unknownness, and just the plain ‘ol tiredness of waiting to be sprung from our house arrest, I wonder if you might consider that if you have turned your back on God or even if you’ve never even really thought about God, I wonder if you might consider that God has not, will not, turned God’s back on you. Or anyone. Ever.

That God is watching out for all the Children of Creation, with widespread arms; even if they are not watching for God.

Easter Blessings to you, those you love, and even those you don’t. Amen.

1 Frederick Buechner, Listening to Your Life (Harper Collins) 2009