Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Easter 5/3

          Here in the UP, having been founded in 1870, we at Bethany represent one of the older churches; I think among Lutherans only Gloria Dei in Hancock is older so there is a long history to be proud of here.  In New England though, 1870 would make us pretty old among Lutherans, but it wouldn’t come close to making us one of the older churches because of course European settlers got to New England much earlier than they got here and often one of the first things they did was to build a church.  So in many New England communities there are congregations that got their start in the 1600’s, there’s one in my home town of Natick that was organized in 1651, the same year the town was settled. 

          If you look into the records of some of these old New England churches though, they don’t speak of being founded or organized…they speak of being gathered, gathered in 1620 or 1651 or whatever, and apparently this term is unique to these New England churches of this time period; it not used anywhere else in this country or in Europe.  Being gathered does have a different sense than being founded or organized and one would assume that using the term gathered relative to these old churches is intended to evoke the image of sheep being gathered into a sheepfold, imagery which is abundant in today’s lessons.

          Being gathered is different though and part of the difference of gathering is that gathering isn’t something you do to yourself, it’s is done by someone else.  As far as a church goes, using gathered rather than founded or organized more obviously points to and places the focus on the one who does the gathering which of course is where the focus should be, because…following the imagery of today’s gospel, the gathering is done by the Good Shepherd, one of the I am’s of John’s gospel as Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd.”

          The I am statements in John are significant; I am the Good Shepherd, I am the bread of life, I am the vine, I am the light of the world and there’s a few more; when Jesus comes to the disciples walking on the water, English translations have him say, “It is I, do not be afraid,” but what it actually says is “I am; do not be afraid,” at which point the disciples were probably even more afraid because I am is the Old Testament name for God.  When Moses asked God for his name the response was, Yahweh, which is I am.  Anyway, John’s inclusion of all these I am statements is clearly intentional and deeply theological leaving little doubt about his understanding of the divine nature of Jesus.

          But back to the Good Shepherd; the disciples were no doubt frightened when Jesus walked on the water and greeted them with “I am,” but we’re not frightened by I am the Good Shepherd.  In fact it may be the most comforting image of Jesus that we have.  I don’t think there was too much controversy when the decision was made a couple of years ago to do the Jesus as the shepherd mural in the fellowship hall.  When it comes to planning for funerals, if families have any suggestions for scripture readings most likely it’s the 23rd Psalm that they suggest, the Lord is my shepherd. 

The Good Shepherd is a very meaningful image for a lot of people and I am always leery about overanalyzing such images because their power lies in not having to be analyzed or explained…they just are.  That’s good news for you because that means this is going to be a pretty short sermon!  With the shepherd, despite the fact that most of us know little or nothing about sheep and shepherding, maybe because of that fact, the image that is created is one of being safe, one of being taken care of.  I don’t think there is one of us, no matter how tough and independent and self-sufficient we think we are, I don’t think there is one of us that at some level doesn’t need and want a feeling of being safe, of being taken care of. 

That’s where this image takes us.  The one who gathers us takes care of us like a shepherd takes care of his sheep; that’s comforting and maybe it’s also a gentle and effective way of reminding us of our dependence on God.  This sheep, shepherd imagery comes up every year and if you’ve been around for awhile you’ve heard sermons that talk about how dumb sheep are, but apparently, being needy, they are smart enough to let themselves be gathered and smart enough to know that they are dependent on the one who does the gathering.

This gospel text in combination with the 23rd Psalm very much focuses on the nature of the Good Shepherd.  It’s about God; it’s not about us.  Often we’re inclined to look at a passage of scripture and ask what it is calling us to do and that’s appropriate; a lot of texts do call us to action or place expectations on us.  The gospel lessons for the first three Sundays of Easter were all like that, either directly or indirectly calling us to be witnesses of the Risen Christ; action was stated or implied.  That’s not really the case today though.  Today it is more about the nature of the God we are called to witness to.  Today it is more about just allowing ourselves, like those sheep we think are dumb, to be gathered and to be loved and to be cared for by the shepherd we find revealed in these texts.

That’s important.  If we’re always worried about what we’re supposed to be doing it makes it hard to be aware of what is being done for us and if we’re not aware of what’s being done for us it’s hard to do what we’re supposed to be doing.  It all kind of fits together and so lessons like these today really just call us to be, not to do, because the focus is directed at the nature and the action of the Good Shepherd.  We are just called to be…and to be more aware of God’s love and care for us.

One final thing; the next to last line of the 23rd Psalm says, “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life.”  Goodness and mercy; guess what Hebrew word gets translated as mercy here.  It’s that hesed again that I talked about throughout Lent, God’s inclination to be God to us, to keep his promises, to gather us, to take care of us, no matter what.  It’s God’s inclination to even give his life for us.  It sounds like the Good Shepherd to me.

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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