Sermon – April 17, 2015 – The Rev Keith Owen

Fourth Sunday of Easter, Good Shepherd Sunday, Year C


I begin this morning on dangerous territory: politics. This past week, I had a bi-partisan pair of encouraging yet challenging experiences that evoked for me the central theme of this morning’s scripture passages.

Yesterday morning, I listened to a very moving interview on National Public Radio. Scott Simon, the host, was interviewing the author of a recent book. The book was a memoir of a father, Ron Fournier, a powerful member of the national media, who told the story of what it was like to raise a son, Tyler, who has Asperger’s Syndrome. Near the end of the interview, Fournier recounted a vignette from a White House event to which he had taken his son. When the President of the United States and the president’s dog were introduced to Tyler, Tyler began talking in excited tones about every dog that had ever lived in the White House – Asperger’s children frequently have a genius for this kind of information. Fournier was mortified, but the President lingered and listened carefully to Tyler. Somehow, the President knew about this boy, and continued to converse with him for several minutes, and shared that he, too, as a boy had been bullied in school. Then, the President of the United States turned to Fournier, grasped him by both arms, looked into his eyes and commanded: “make sure you love that boy.” Fournier says it was a transformative moment in his life. He entitled his book: “Love That Boy.”

On Wednesday, I saw a video online. The video was also about the President of the United States interacting with children in the White House. In this case, it was a science fair. The President was checking out the remarkably creative projects these kids had brought with them. The kids were clearly awe-struck and even terrified that their projects were being perused by the President of the United States. At one point, the President visited the exhibit of a group of five girls, they were probably about 11 years old. But something went wrong and their project failed to work properly. A couple of the girls were visibly near tears when the President said, “Hey, that’s science. You’ve got a great proto-type there, you’ve just got to work out some bugs.” And then, the President of the United States looked at those girls and said, “Group Hug! and he bent down and group hugged all five – the joy on the girls’ faces was transcendant.

Now, if you saw that video or heard that interview, you are to zip your lips! No letting the cat out of the bag. Those stories were about two different presidents. One was about President Obama, and one was about his predecessor, President George W. Bush. Which story, do you think, was about which president? I’ll give you the answer at the end of today’s sermon. But suffice to say, for me the juxtaposition of these two stories was instructive. One of those stories ratified and affirmed everything that I love and admire about our current president. The other story challenged everything that I loathed and despised about President Bush. And with both stories, as I listened and watched, I found myself moved to tears by the simple humanity that somehow managed to remain at the center of two men who occupied a position that arouses both adoration and hatred among all the rest of us.

In the church’s year, today, the fourth Sunday of the Easter Season, is known as “Good Shepherd” Sunday. Every year, on this particular Sunday, we hear one of the Gospel texts in which Jesus uses the image of a shepherd to speak of himself. We also hear of Jesus’ followers, us, as the sheep, who hear and recognize our shepherd’s voice. We can discern his voice. And we can follow his voice. It is a soothing image, a trusting image, an image that witnesses to the intimacy with Christ that all of us are invited to enjoy.

I don’t know about you, but as much as I love that image in the biblical text, I find that image to be problematic in this world I live in. Every four years, we in this country put ourselves through this process we call a presidential election. In a sense, we are looking for a new national shepherd. We are all looking for, longing for, someone who lead us, teach us, guide us, help us, protect us. And, we all ache for a shepherd, for a leaders who can inspire and console and ennoble and challenge us.

Which would explain why there is such a pervasive malaise and anger afoot in this election season. The feeling that we lack of such leaders among us in politics, business, and religion is no small part the rancor and discord and depression that bedevils us. We WANT to follow a Good Shepherd, we want to hear and follow a voice calling to the best in us. But where is that voice, where is that shepherd?

Now good people can and will argue over the policies that a good national shepherd will propose, and good Christians can and will disagree over how the ethical imperatives of our tradition get worked out in political processes. But no person who has studied the Scriptures of Judaism and Christianity for much more than a minute and a half can question the impulse that lies at the very heart of biblical ethical vision. That ethical impulse is love – biblical love – the willingness and determination to sacrifice one’s own desires and interests for the benefit of others. That is what the Good Shepherd of the Christian faith offers, and that is what he demands of his sheep.

Applying that bottom-line impulse to the rough and tumble of politics and business, where, to say the least, not everyone is holding that impulse aloft, is always a tough call. Recently, I read an article that demoralized me. It was about micro-credit, making tiny loans to desperately poor people, mostly women, to set up small businesses and lift themselves out of poverty. For years, many well-meaning Christian leaders, including this one, have been directing people to ministries in the micro-credit business as a way of investing in social justice. But the article I read week revealed that micro-credit has largely been taken over by commercial banks, and that the interest being charged on some of these loans verges on loan-sharking. Once again, amidst the cacophony of voices in this world demanding our attention, inviting our investments, and exhorting our efforts, just how is it that we discern the true shepherd’s call?

But if you listen, you can nevertheless still hear the voice of the good shepherd. I wake up to it many mornings when my I-Phone alarm plays for me a beautiful piece of music. It is a piece composed by James Whitbourn. And at the heart of the piece rests a small prayer, a simple prayer of a simple man set to sublime music. Listen, and hear the voice of the Good Shepherd.

A Prayer of Desmond Tutu
Goodness is stronger than evil – love is stronger than hate
Light is stronger than darkness – life is stronger than death
Victory is ours through him who loves us (I Cor. 15: 57)

Desmond Tutu tells often the story of how he first heard the voice of the Good Shepherd as a boy and began moving down the path towards his destiny. A white South African Anglican priest named Trevor Huddleston did something little Desmond had never seen, and couldn’t fathom. Walking past Desmond and his mother one day, Fr. Huddleston tipped his hat, bowed, and addressed Desmond’s mother as Mrs. Tutu. This utterly strange behavior by a white man in a clerical collar intrigued Desmond, and led him to become Fr. Huddleston’s protégé, and eventually to ordination. That old priest was a good shepherd for the Good Shepherd.

In the midst of all the voices demanding your attention, claiming to be your good shepherd, hold on to that simple prayer by a simple priest. You will know the voice of the GOOD shepherd when the voice you hear is speaking of love, of life, of light, of goodness. You will know it is NOT the Good Shepherd when the voice speaks of fear, hate, violence, darkness, and fear. You will know it is the Good Shepherd when the voice tells you of the victory already won through him who loves us.

The president who commanded Ron Fournier to “love that boy” was George W. Bush. The president who group-hugged the gaggle of girls was Barak Obama. I like to think that in both those presidents – the one I love to love, and the one I loved to hate – that it was the voice of the Good Shepherd who spoke through both of them.

Let us pray on this Good Shepherd Sunday that we will hear from all who would be our shepherds that our lives are stronger than death, that good is stronger than evil, that light will swallow darkness, that love will triumph over hate, that the victory is won for us through Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd who loves us all.

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