Sermon: Shepherds of Compassion

April 22, 2018
John 10:11-18, 1 John 3:16-24

For some years, the fourth Sunday of the Easter season has been known as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” We read from the same chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus’ pronouncement, “I am the good shepherd.” You’re likely to read, hear, or sing the 23rd Psalm.

The readings are so similar, in fact, that early in my career I preached a sermon for Good Shepherd Sunday and afterwards, wondered why it felt so familiar. I checked my files and discovered I’d preached something nearly identical two years earlier.

I don’t know if anybody else noticed. Nobody mentioned it. Maybe they hadn’t been paying attention…

If you were paying attention as these two passages were being read a moment ago, you probably noticed that the two authors had two different agendas. You may have also noticed that the two authors, confusingly enough, have the same name.

John the Gospel writer, throughout his book, had a single object: to strengthen and affirm the faith of the readers that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the one who blesses and saves. The stories he told of Jesus and the words he reported of Jesus all go to tell the reader, to tell us, who Jesus was during his earthly ministry and who he is as the crucified and risen one. Thus, “I am the Good Shepherd” was first intended to describe Jesus, the Messiah, the Anointed One of God.

John the letter writer – it’s actually more of a sermon than a letter – had something else in mind. John the letter writer gave instructions. There were things he wanted his community – the Christian community – there were things he wanted his readers to do. During our Bible study this week, the groups tended to find First John the letter easier to understand than John the gospel.

And that’s fair. Jesus can be complicated. Most of the things Jesus wants us to do are a lot simpler.

“Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

That’s the writer of First John, not Jesus, but it certainly echoes something Jesus said in John’s gospel: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” To John the letter writer, that means supporting one another with what we do and what we have, and even supporting one another with our lives, if necessary. “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?”

How, indeed?

Karoline Lewis writes, “You see, ‘follow me’ was never only about being sheep. All along, Jesus had in mind asking Peter, asking us, ‘Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go. Peter, follow me’ (John 21:17-19). It’s time for us to be the good shepherd.”

It’s time for us to be shepherds of an active, truthful love. It’s time for us to be shepherds of aloha. It’s time for us to be shepherds of compassion.

That’s the sneaky thing about John’s Gospel, and indeed all the gospels. They talk about who Jesus is, and then we learn that how Jesus is, is also how we’re supposed to be.

Shepherds of compassion.

We’ve seen some stunning examples of compassion, right up to the offering of life, in this past week. Captain Tammie Jo Shults has been widely and rightly praised for her calm bravery and well-honed skills bringing her damaged aircraft to a safe landing after an engine failed catastrophically this week. There’s also a story from inside the cabin: after pieces of the engine blew out a window, and the one passenger who later died was pulled back into the plane, another man apparently placed his back to the broken window to prevent it happening to anyone else. His name hasn’t made it into the accounts I’ve seen.

But he and Captain Shults were both shepherds of compassion.

This week the Starbucks coffee franchise announced that they will close for a day of training in racial justice, after two men were arrested for coming into a Starbucks in Philadelphia and not ordering anything while they waited for the person they were meeting. They were African American. I guess they didn’t look like customers.

I celebrate those who raised the cry of injustice, who demanded accountability and repentance from the business and the police. We’ll need to continue to demand it.

One day of training won’t be enough. Two hundred fifty years of race-based slavery, and another hundred years of legal, institutionalized racial bias, won’t be overcome in a day. It’s better than some, however.

Jesus was careful to say that he, the shepherd, had sheep in many places, sheep of other flocks. The early Church realized that this meant that his message could and should be brought to people who were not descendants of Abraham, who had not been raised on the faith of the Law and the Prophets. This mission to the nations became so much a part of Christianity that we forget how radical it was at its beginning.

Some seem to have forgotten that the compassion of Christ is for those who are not part of this flock as well as those who are.

As we grieve for the deaths of so many in Syria, and rage against chemical weapons use, there’s something else we should remember: In 2016, the United States admitted 15,479 Syrian refugees, people fleeing from their homes because they’d become a battleground. In 2017, the United States admitted 3,024.

So far this year: eleven.

Just eleven.

Jesus wept. And weeps. And rages. “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?”

We are called to be shepherds of compassion.

This is our Bread for the World Sunday. Yesterday we baked (well, I confess I didn’t bake), and today we have been writing letters, so that those in need might have help though our collective efforts as a nation. Let us keep doing so, however unresponsive government might be. Let us continue doing so at the state level and at the county level as well. I learned this week that in the current county budget proposal, programs for the homeless will be cut by 76% over 2016 spending. A 76% reduction from the county when we seek to end family homelessness, when it is proclaimed as a priority by political leaders.

I comprehend the difficulties of a county budget – a church budget is bad enough – but budgets lay out actual priorities. The needy are clearly not a priority right now.

Yet we are called to be shepherds of compassion.

The newly confirmed director of NASA doesn’t believe in climate change. Nor does the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, who has been embroiled in scandals this past week. The scandal is the refusal to acknowledge that the Earth itself is part of God’s flock, part of Jesus’ flock, part of our flock, and we are called to be shepherds of compassion. If they don’t believe these things, I guess we should invite them to visit Lili’uokalani Gardens during a king tide. Or better yet, invite them to stand on one of those bridges as the tide is coming in, and let them wait until they can walk dry-shod again.

It’s Good Shepherd Sunday, and Bread for the World Sunday, and it’s Earth Day, and we have so many flocks to care for, so many in dire need, so much compassion to elicit, and inspire, and shepherd, and share.

Bring your compassion home today. Let it flow out to those with whom you live, and if you live alone, write a letter or make a phone call or do something so that someone knows they’re loved. Bring one of those baked goodies to them, perhaps.

Tomorrow: mail those letters. Call your political representatives. Write a check to HOPE Services or the Peanut Butter Ministry or Church of the Holy Cross. Volunteer. Do your regular work with extra compassion for the clients, the customers, the co-workers. Encourage everyone you see to treat the next person they meet with dignity and grace.

Jesus is the Good Shepherd. We are also shepherds. Shepherds of compassion. Shepherds of aloha. Shepherds of love.


Listen to the Recorded Sermon

It’s exactly like the text this week! Well, all right. It isn’t. Miracles are always a possibility, but we’re not expecting this particular one to happen.

The image is O Bom Pastor (the Good Shepherd) by the Portuguese artist, Frei Carlos, painted around 1520. Unlike so many depictions of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, the figure in this painting shows the wear of searching for a lost sheep. His bare feet make a stark contrast with the tapestry behind him and the parquet floor beneath him.

Categories Sermons | Tags: , , , | Posted on April 22, 2018

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