Fourth Sunday of Easter – John 10:11-17
Greenfield Lutheran Church. Sermon by Rev Dr Rolf Svanoe
I’m grateful to the congregation for the opportunity to be gone this past week, enjoying some time with my family back in Norway. Last fall I asked the church council if instead of a salary raise if I could get an extra week of vacation this year. They agreed and I started to make plans to visit the island in Norway I get my family name from. My cousins, Ole and Eva Svanøe, agreed to host me, and we spent a lot of time doing family genealogy, something no one wants to do in the summer when the weather is nice. It’s much cheaper to travel this time of year than in the busy summer tourist season.
We visited other cousins on the Island. One of the farms we visited is called “Erikstad.” There my cousin Solveig and her husband Åge raise sheep. We were there just at the start of lambing season. Solveig took us to the barn to see her first lambs. There’s something about a lamb that is so cute and endearing. Hearing their cry and watching them skip across the field can bring a smile to your heart. Solveig posted on Facebook just yesterday that she is up to 62 new lambs. Watching her care for her sheep and lambs, I know that she is a good shepherd.
Something about the image of a good shepherd brings a sense of comfort and peace to us. When this church was being built in 1912, the congregation decided it need a new altar painting and commissioned Herbjørn Gausta who agreed to paint one for $100. But what image would they ask him to paint? The old altar painting had been of the resurrected Christ and the Roman soldiers guarding his tomb cowering in fear. You can see it hanging on the wall next to the door coming into the sanctuary. But it is an image that is not terribly comforting, and so the council at the time asked Gausta to make an altar painting of Christ, the Good Shepherd. I love how it hangs here now above the baptism font bringing comfort and peace. I want you to focus on Gausta’s painting of the Good Shepherd. What do you see there? What part of the image jumps out at you? What feelings do you have as you look at it? I want to do something a little different today and I’m going to ask you to turn to your neighbor and talk a little bit about what you see in the painting and the feelings you have when you see it.
Let’s name some of those feelings out loud. These are some of the things we mean when we talk about Jesus as the Good Shepherd.
One quality that caught my attention is that the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. In the face of danger a good shepherd won’t run away to save his own skin. He puts his life on the line to protect his sheep from predators that would kill them. Isn’t that what Jesus did for us on the cross, died to save us from the power of sin and death?
A pastor was taking a group of parishioners on a tour of the Holy Land. As they rode the bus across the countryside he read them the 23rd Psalm, The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” The Pastor explained to them that they would see shepherds on the hillsides just as in Jesus’ day. He described how, in the Holy Land, shepherds always lead their sheep, always walking in front to face dangers, always protecting the sheep by going ahead of them. He barely got the last word out when, sure enough, they rounded a corner and saw a man and his sheep on the hillside. There was only one problem: the man wasn’t leading the sheep. No, he was behind the sheep and seemed to be chasing them. The pastor was embarrassed. He stopped the bus and ran over to the fence and said to the man, “I always thought shepherds in this region led their sheep — out in front. And I told my people that a good shepherd never chases his sheep.” The man replied, “That’s absolutely true… you’re absolutely right… but I’m not the shepherd, I’m the butcher!”
Popular author, Barbara Brown Taylor, tells of a conversation she had with a friend who grew up on a sheep farm in the Midwest. According to him, sheep are not dumb at all. “It is the cattle ranchers who are responsible for spreading that ugly rumor, and all because sheep do not behave like cows. Cows are herded from the rear by hooting cowboys with cracking whips, but that will not work with sheep at all. Stand behind them making loud noises and all they will do is run around behind you, because they prefer to be led. You push cows, but you lead sheep, and they will not go anywhere that someone else does not go first. Their shepherd goes ahead of them to show them that everything is all right.”
The shepherd Psalm 23 says that “The Lord is my shepherd…He leads me beside the still waters!” A good shepherd leads his flock. A good shepherd leads by example making sure the way ahead is safe, shielding his sheep from potential dangers. That is what Jesus has done for us.
Often, we talk about pastors as shepherds who care for their flock. I want to tell you the story of four chaplains who gave their lives for their flock. The USAT Dorchester was a troop transport ship used during WWII. It left New York on January 23, 1943 with approximately 900 soldiers and four army chaplains; George Fox, Alexander Goode, Clark Poling, and John Washington. During the early morning hours of February 3, 1943, at 12:55 a.m., the Dorchester was torpedoed by a German U-boat. The ship was damaged beyond repair and began to sink in the icy waters off Greenland. Panic set in among the men on board. The four chaplains sought to calm the men and organize an orderly evacuation of the ship guiding them and loading them on the life boats. As life jackets were passed out to the men, the supply ran out before each man had one. The four chaplains removed their own life jackets and gave them to others. They continued helping as many men as they could into lifeboats; there was no room left for the four chaplains. Then they linked arms and, saying prayers and singing hymns, went down with the ship. One of the survivors gave this report. “As I swam away from the ship, I looked back. The flares had lighted everything. The ship came up high and she slid under. The last thing I saw, the Four Chaplains were up there praying for the safety of the men. They had done everything they could. I did not see them again. They themselves did not have a chance without their life jackets.” These four chaplains were from different denominations, different faiths. They gave their lives, not just for people they knew and loved, but for men they had just met. They were good shepherds, pastors, willing to give their lives for others.
“I am the good shepherd,” Jesus said. In this Easter season we are reminded that Jesus is the one who laid down his life for us. Jesus is here today and says to each one of you, ‘I am your shepherd. You belong to me. I know you, I love you, I give my life for you. Let me lead you. Don’t listen to others voices; Listen to my voice. Follow me. I will be with you. Don’t be afraid. No one can snatch you out of my hand.
Fourth Sunday of Easter – John 10:11-17