[Editor’s note: We are thankful to The Rev. Gordon E. Simmons, interim pastor at St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church in Dover, for today’s message as we worship remotely during this Coronavirus pandemic. In addition to his pastoral duties, Pastor Simmons serves as director of the Lutheran Office for Public Policy in Delaware. Thanks, too, to John Lasher, our director of music and worship arts, for putting this service together. Among the participants this week: Interim Pastor David E. Mueller and Nancy Myers, worship assistant. Our musicians include soloist Paige Stebner and the virtual choir, which includes Dave Herrmann, John Lasher, David McClure, John Nichols, Cheryl Powell and Teresa Stebner. You will also hear Jan and Fred Meckley on “The Lord’s Prayer.”]
Join our pre-recorded worship here and follow the text of Pastor Simmons’ message below.
“The Good and Dirty Shepherd”
The Rev. Gordon E. Simmons
INTRO Those of you who have been hearing me preach for a while know that sometimes I like to preach a little differently. It’s not always the same.
THE PREACHER AS JOHN THE BAPTIST One week I preached like John the Baptist.
THE PREACHER AS BICYCLIST One week I tried to illustrate the importance of daily prayer as a spiritual discipline by comparing it to getting dressed up in warm clothes to ride a bike in the winter. Daily prayer is for our protection. Just like warm clothes in the winter, daily prayer is something we really need.
THE PREACHER ON A LADDER One week I preached my sermon from up on top of a ladder. It was the week when we had the story of Jesus going up on a mountain with a few of his disciples. I said that things look different when you are up on a mountain. We have our own mountaintop experiences when we come to worship.
Now today, we have our text from the 10th chapter of John, where Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd.” I was trying to think about what modern image we might have for a shepherd. There aren’t many shepherds around much anymore. Most of us aren’t really familiar with them. I’ve never seen a flock of sheep being herded down the street in front of my house. So I wondered: What’s a shepherd image in 2020?
THE PREACHER AS TRASH COLLECTOR I thought about a trash collector. Someone who has to get down and dirty to do his job. I know, I know everyone has these sweet Biblical pictures of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, holding a cute little lamb. Jesus is always wearing a clean, pressed robe, and, of course, you would expect Jesus himself to be all cleaned up to have his picture taken.
But here’s the truth. Being a shepherd was a dirty job. How do you think you’d smell if you were sleeping with the sheep all the time? And if you’re following the sheep around every day, well, you’d better watch where you step. And your clothes? Hey, you’re living outside, in a desert. You think your clothes are going to stay clean when the wind is blowing the dirt and sand all over the place? When storms come up and you get soaked to the skin? I’m telling you, being a shepherd was a dirty job. Just like when you’re out picking up trash on the highway.
There are dangers for trash collectors. There are holes you can step in and rain-soaked grass you can slip on, and — I’ll tell you this from experience — most of the cars zipping along the road don’t pay much attention to you. You’re pretty vulnerable when you’re out picking up trash on the road.
Shepherds were vulnerable, too. There were wild animals out there who loved to get their teeth into one of your sheep. And if you’re a shepherd and you try to stand in the way, well, I guess the mountain lion or the wolf wouldn’t mind making a meal of you, too. You really think a shepherd’s staff is going to offer much protection against a wild animal who hasn’t eaten for a week?
So you can forget all these sweet little pictures of Jesus all dressed up as a cleaned-up, neat-looking shepherd. It was a dirty job. Somebody had to do it. I suppose that’s why John held up this story of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. Jesus was good because he saw the dirty work and he was willing to do it.
In the passage we have for today, from the 10th chapter of John, Jesus says that a shepherd has to be willing to lay down his life for his sheep. If you aren’t, the Gospel lesson says, then the wolf will come and snatch the sheep away.
Sometimes when I’m out picking up trash, a dog will come running out of his house, barking like crazy, chasing me away from his yard. And that’s just a dog. If somebody told me there were wolves out there, I think I’d stay home.
Jesus said, “The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.” I’m telling you, this shepherding thing in the first century was dirty work. Somebody, though, somebody had to do it.
Of course Jesus wasn’t really a shepherd, but he was someone who laid down his life, someone who laid down his life for the whole world.
You know, it’s only the fourth Sunday of Easter, and here we are, again, already back to the crucifixion. I thought this was supposed to be the happy time. What’s with this “lay down his life” theme coming back again?
One of the great things about the Christian faith is that the joy that we rightly announce, on Easter, and, all the time really, is not a cheap joy. Christians don’t say, “Oh, let’s just be happy and try to forget about all the terrible things going on in the world.” Christians don’t believe that when you become a Christian all your problems will go away, or that everything will always be pleasant. Christians aren’t always wearing smiley faces. Christians understand that there is still a lot of dirty work to be done and that somebody has to do it. But we’re not overwhelmed by this dirty work. We know the victory has been won. Easter songs are always in season. Jesus laid down his life for us so that we can give of ourselves for others.
Our first reading for today, from the book of Acts, gives us a little peek into what life was like for the very first Christians. It says they held all things in common. It says that they sold their possessions so they would have some liquid capital which they could then distribute to those in need. It says that they had glad and generous hearts.
When you read these verses, it makes being a Christian sound awfully sweet and pleasant. Wouldn’t it have been wonderful to be a part of such a loving, generous group? Ah, come on! Get real! Read between the lines! You think everybody was really happy about having to give up all their savings and all their property so that others would have enough? You think everybody who had a little extra was excited about giving it away? You think this was easy? No! It wasn’t easy. It was dirty work, but somebody had to do it. So the first Christians did. And many Christians have been doing it ever since.
It’s because we’re following the Good Shepherd, the one who was willing to, and who did, lay down his life for his sheep. We’re following the one who gave his life for us. And who won a victory while doing it.
So, as followers of Jesus, we’ve got some dirty work to do. And we’re out and about doing it. But it doesn’t overburden us, not really, not when we stop to think about it. This is still Easter! We have a lot to celebrate! So let the celebration begin.
THE PREACHER AS PARTY GOER It’s time to party! This is still Easter! Come on now! It’s party time! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!