A shepherd’s guide to abundant life ~ Easter 4A 2017 – Good Shepherd Sunday
Lord God, we are the people of your pasture, the sheep of your hand.
We long for the life, the abundant life, you promise. Amen.
Today’s Gospel contains one of the best promises of the whole Bible. Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly!” Jesus, the Good Shepherd, came so that his sheep would have life. Jesus came so that we would have life. Not just mere existence, … but abundant life. Jesus came so that we could experience Life in its fullest.
Sometimes we worry so much about just trying to “get a life” or “make a living” that “abundant life” can seem out of our reach. Through today’s Gospel, however, we can see how abundant life is possible.
I’m going to use the acronym “LIFE”: L – I – F – E, to step us through what this passage can show us about the Good Shepherd, Jesus, and how to experience the abundant life he has in store for us.
“L” stands for “listen.”
Jesus says that the sheep listen to his voice. Jesus says his own sheep know his voice. Think about the other voices that could vie for a sheep’s attention.
The voice of a predator, the growl of a lion perhaps, could send a sheep into panic. Unless the sheep also heard and heeded the reassuring voice of a protective shepherd, she could let the fear of the predators paralyze her. She might also run blindly away from one fearful thing and end up getting herself into even more danger.
The voices of bandits or thieves could distract the sheep or lure them away. Thieves and bandits don’t have the sheep’s best interest at heart. They want to steal the sheep, or their freedoms, and use them to their own advantage.
Of course, most sheep are probably listening most intently to the voice of their inner desire – the growlings of their own stomachs. It is natural that sheep would want good pastures. Self-interest would dictate finding food above almost all else. But sometimes, that self-interest takes the sheep out of the fold and away from the flock, and all of a sudden they are isolated. In the reach for greener grass, they find themselves out on a ledge, unable to make it back safely by themselves.
Like sheep, we also have other voices that vie for our attention – our fears, our adversaries, and our own self-interest or greed. But Followers of Jesus listen to Jesus’ voice.
So how do we begin to recognize Jesus’ voice?
Do any of you remember the time before Caller ID? In those days, when the phone rang, sometimes the other person would just start off “Hi, It’s me!” Whether or not you recognize the voice on the other end of the line usually depends on how well you know the caller and how often you have talked. I would know my mother was calling by the first or second word out of her mouth. A casual acquaintance, I might have to ask, “Now who is this?”
It’s kind of like that with God.
We recognize Jesus’ voice by being in communication with him regularly through prayer, through the study of scripture, and from sharing with our fellow brothers and sisters how Jesus has been speaking to them.
Recognizing Jesus’ voice among the many voices is a process called spiritual discernment. Which of my thoughts and desires come from God, or from my own self-interest, or from the enemy? Listening takes practice.
It makes it easier to listen, when we feel that the one we are listening to has our best interest at heart.
Here is where we come to our second letter, “I”.
I stand for Identity. The shepherd knows the identity of each sheep. He calls his own sheep by name. Jesus knows each of us by name and we are all precious to him.
Some of you know that I now have my first name, Jeunée, as the license plate on my car. That’s to compensate for all the years as a child that I was unable to get the little license plates for my bicycle with my name on it…I couldn’t get anything with my name pre-printed on it. I have one of those names that is rarely recognizable or pronounceable. I’ve been called everything from “Jeanie, to June, to Jenny, to Juan-ay.” And although I love my name, I don’t feel that I’m known by someone until they can get my name right.
God loves us with a love that is on a first-name basis. Our opening prayer says, “Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads.” Jesus said, “He calls his own sheep by name.”
God showed this to me personally in a very clear way about several years ago when I was a volunteer youth leader for my home church. I accompanied our youth group to an Episcopal youth leadership conference in Ridgecrest, NC. There were many workshops not only in youth leadership and personal spiritual growth.
One of the workshops I attended was called “Holy Spirit 101” where we learned more about the work of the Holy Spirit. We had an opportunity to pray for God to release the power of the Holy Spirit that is given to each of us in our baptism, so that we might be better equipped for the ministries God would give us.
Well, I was in the workshop with one of our teenagers, and we both decided we wanted to be experience the Holy Spirit and equipped by God in a fuller way. We both stood in line with others who were praying. We were each praying quietly while the priest went down the line, laying hands on each person and saying, “Mary, receive the Holy Spirit. John, receive the Holy Spirit, Brad, receive the Holy Spirit.” He was able to call each person by name because we had name tags on.
Now, I began to get highly distracted. What was this priest, a guy I had never met before, going to say when he saw my name tag? There have only been a few times in my life when someone could look at my name and pronounce it correctly the first time.
Part of me was trying to stop being distracted and concentrate on praying.
The other part of me was wondering what he might say. Would he just skip my name? Would he butcher my name like so many others had? Would he resort to calling me “sister? Or use my last name?” I didn’t know.
Part of my brain kept telling me it didn’t matter. “Just keep praying.” But I had a hard time concentrating.
He drew closer. “Tom, receive the Holy Spirit. Susan, receive the Holy Spirit. Jeunée receive the Holy Spirit. Tiffany, receive the Holy Spirit.”
He said my name perfectly, without even a pause. And in the split second after I had heard my name from the priest, I heard God’s voice speak to my Spirit. “I know your name. I know who you are.”
It was a knowing that meant profound love. It was a knowing that went beyond equipping me for any ministry God would set before me. It was a knowing that made me want to know and love God back all that much more.
What God allowed me to hear in my heart that day is what God is telling each one of us everyday. “I know your name. I know who you are.” So whether you’ve heard the voice of the shepherd for a long time, and have followed it, or whether you are just beginning to want to know the Good Shepherd, you can be assured, that Jesus already knows you full well, and loves you intimately. We are all precious and beloved. He calls each of us, you and me, by name. We have a unique identity to God.
But Listening to Jesus’ voice and having our identity known by Jesus does not necessarily lead to the abundant life Jesus promised.
So we come to the third letter, F. Follow.
Knowing about, and actually doing, are two separate things. Once we hear the voice of Jesus in scripture, in prayer, and through the church, and once we realize that we are loved and cherished as unique children of God, we must decide if we are going to follow Jesus or not.
When we feel that God truly loves us, and has our best interest at heart, we almost can’t help but want to follow him. We do that by living out what we believe.
Our reading from the Book of Acts shows how living out what we believe is best done in community. It is easiest to follow when we are part of the flock. In fact, part of the description of the early church from our Acts reading has become one of the central promises of our Baptismal Covenent… “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?” We respond, “I will, with God’s help.” Worship, study, community, communion, prayer, self-sacrifice and service are all parts of what it means to follow.
And while living out our faith takes practice and discipline, following Jesus is so much easier when we have his voice in our ears and his love in our hearts. We discover that following Jesus is less about doing all the right things, or holding all the right beliefs as much as it is knowing whose footsteps we commit to stepping in.
Finally, we come to the last letter- E. E stands for “Experience”
When Jesus speaks of the sheep he says, “They will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly. ”
Allow yourself to Experience the abundance God wants to give you. So many of us “listen” to God’s word and the shepherd’s voice; we “recognize our identity as one of the baptized, as one of the flock”; and we “follow” his commands, but we don’t allow ourselves to experience the fullness and goodness God has in store for us. There can be many reasons for that, but I think that the biggest block to experiencing abundance is our own limited view of what abundance means.
If we think that abundance means merely material security, then we are in fact, poor.
If we believe abundance means things turn out the way I want them to, then I have been listening to my own voice above the shepherd’s guidance.
If we think that abundant life is a life without difficulties, a life with only green pastures and still waters, then we can feel abandoned in the valley of the shadow of death, or in the presence of our enemies… but the Good Shepherd’s promise of abundant life is that not only will we have times of green pastures, but we will have him walking with us in the valley, and protecting us so that we need not fear evil.
Abundance comes in many ways.
It comes in ….
Peace of knowing we are following God in our lives when we are not being distracted by the other “voices” in our lives.
Abundance comes in Freedom from fear. The freedom to Go in and out to find pasture , knowing Jesus will protect us.
Abundance comes in the Companionship of the fold, so that we are not out on our own. And although in such proximately to other sheep things are bound to get stinky from time to time, it is also definitely warm and fuzzy!
It comes in Trusting that God will provide, much more than we can ask for or imagine.
Abundance comes in allowing yourself to be led to pastures you cannot yet imagine that are Full of delights and adventures you cannot yet see.
So let’s all get a LIFE: Listen to Jesus Voice, Recognize your identity as one known and loved by name, Follow him in your words and deeds, and Experience all that he has in store for you.
Jesus came that you might have life, and have it abundantly. AMEN.