In one of those rare moments when I was watching a Facebook video, I came across one that had this description “The human condition in a nutshell.” The first frame was that of an animal caught in a crevice and a young person trying to pull a leg out. If there was ever a set up for a sermon illustration, this had to be it.
So I hit the play button and it’s the back end of a sheep. This could be good, because the scripture passage deals with sheep! The kiddo gets the sheep out with no small effort and it immediately runs off, along the trough from which it had just been rescued. And as it leaps - so like a springy sheep would do - it misjudges the narrow trench not 10 feet away and falls in again. True story - the human condition in a nutshell - some days.
Just moments before Jesus said what we will hear very soon, he was interrogated by the Pharisees for healing a blind man on the sabbath. Naturally, the discussion goes from interrogation to Jesus preaching to the Pharisees, using the illustration of gatekeepers and sheep, indicating himself as the gatekeeper for the sheep.
Our second passage is from a little letter written to a group of churches between 95 and 110 AD with leadership issues. Of the 22 books in the New Testament, the writer of 1 John uses the word “love” more than any other letter in the New Testament, including the Gospels.
11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. 13 The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.
14 “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. 17 The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”
1 John 3:16-24
16 This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. 17 If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? 18 Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.
19 This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: 20 If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21 Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God 22 and receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him. 23 And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. 24 The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us.
Thank you, Serenity and Jeanne. Despite the shift from an agrarian society, there is still something comforting about this imagery of a shepherd and sheep. To that end, I couldn’t resist doing what I had thought I’d stopped once Holy Humor Sunday was done; giving us visual encouragement, with the bulletin cover, to go beyond the familiar representations to other ways of seeing the Good Shepherd.
After nearly 23 years, I don’t know how many times I’ve preached on this passage, but I know I’ve reminded us that although sheep aren’t always the most brilliant of God’s creatures, they are trusting and uncomplicated. And despite what we know of their odiferous nature, they give us some of the best clothing, food and the lanolin from their fleece is found in adhesive tape, printing inks, motor oils and lubricants. Sheep101.info said that “virtually all cosmetics and beauty aids, such as lipsticks, mascaras, lotions, shampoos, and hair conditioners, contain lanolin.”
I noticed that Fr. Michael Renninger, pastor of St. Mary Catholic Church in Richmond, Virginia posted something this week on this passage, and although I haven’t been aware of him long, I will continue to pay attention to those times he shows up at Ministry Matters.com, because of his heart.
He started his piece “It happened three years ago. Pope Francis went to visit a small church in Rome, adjacent to one of the largest public housing projects in Italy. As part of his visit to this church, five children were selected to ask the Pope a question. The first little boy was five year old Emanuele.
When Emanuele approached the microphone, he looked at the Pope and froze. And then, Emanuele started to cry. Adults and children in the crowd tried to assure him, but he just stood there and cried.
Then, Pope Francis said, “Emanuele, come and whisper your question in my ear.”
So the little boy went up the steps, Pope Francis opened his arms and embraced the boy with absolute love.
(And can’t you just envision the arms wide spread in welcome,
drawing close to the child’s face
in complete, intimate focus?)
Then Emanuele put his face right against the Pope’s face.
For a while, Emanuele just cried,
and the pope just kept embracing him.
Then, the little boy started to whisper in the Pope’s ear, the pope whispered into the boy’s ear, going on for about 2 minutes.
Finally, Emanuele smiled, said goodbye to the pope and returned to his seat. The Pope had asked the boy’s permission if he could tell everyone what the boy’s question was, and Emanuele said yes.
Emanuele had told the pope that, very recently, his father had died. He said that his dad was a good man, but wasn’t a believer, although he had brought all four of his children to be baptized in the church. Now, his dad was dead. That’s part of the reason why he was crying. But he was also crying because he had a hard question. The question was this: “Could his dad, a non-believer, go to heaven?”
Pope Francis answered by saying that it was wonderful to hear a son say that his dad was a ‘good man.’ And the pope agreed that Emanuele’s dad had done a very good thing by having all four of his children baptized, even though dad himself did not believe.
Then the pope looked at all of the children and adults who were sitting in front of him, and he said, “We have to remember that only God decides who goes to heaven. And we have to remember that God has the heart of a daddy, a papa.”
Then the pope asked all of the children, “Do you think that God was happy when Emanuele’s dad had his children baptized? Wasn’t that a good thing?” All the children shouted ‘yes!’ And the pope asked, “Do you think that God is pleased with us when we do good things?” They all shouted “yes.” Then the Pope said, “Do you think that God, who has a papa’s heart, would be able to leave Emanuele’s dad far from himself?”
A few children shouted, “No!” The pope asked, “Say it louder, with conviction. Would God be able to leave Emanuele’s dad far away from himself?” The children shouted, “No!” The pope smiled at Emanuele and said, “You see! There is your answer.” God who loves us with a papa’s heart, a daddy’s heart could not leave your dad far away from himself. And Emanuele smiled.
Fr. Renninger went on to mention that there were critics of the Pope’s answer, using the 4th chapter in Acts to make the argument that “Unless you confess that Jesus is Lord and believe the Christian faith, you can’t be saved,” because Peter said so. Fr. Renninger acknowledged that salvation in this way is one way, believing that Christ died and rose and sent the Holy Spirit, the perfect revelation of who God is and how God saves.
And then Fr. Renninger went on to point out that men, women, boys, girls, slaves, servants, rich, poor, Jewish, non-Jewish were all being saved by God’s love, despite best efforts to keep the Good News to themselves - ourselves.
Back in the first passage for this morning, Jesus said “I am the good shepherd” (meaning that we aren’t the Good Shepherd). Jesus said, “I love my flock, I give everything for my sheep. I lay down my life for them. I know mine and they know me.” And then he says, “I have other sheep, too.”
Just as it was back then, so is it now, that we don’t know all those sheep, but Jesus loves them just the same, and will find a way to shepherd them and include them in his heart.
In 1 John, it says, “If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. If our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God.” If we are burdened of heart or not, we have been created in God’s image, God who is greater than us, the God with the daddy’s heart, a papa’s heart.
Near the end of his homily, Fr. Renninger said this: “So, I am not sure that it’s our task to try to fully explain how Christ’s saving gift is experienced by people who have never heard the Gospel effectively preached, or people whose life circumstances have made it impossible for them to fully come to know Christ. But I do know this – “God is greater than our hearts.” Which means that God’s love is bigger than my - our - limitations.
Although I have recrafted Fr. Renninger’s message, it’s theme of God’s greatness and all God’s people, has lain on my heart for many weeks, before this last one, and I can’t say it better than he did. “And if I ever find myself wanting to concoct new barriers, or judge someone as ‘beyond God’s ability to love them,’ I need to remember what Jesus says in today’s Gospel: I have other sheep, not in the fold that you happen to know, and I will shepherd them.
If I find myself thinking that some part of me is beyond redemption, or some other person – or group of persons – is beyond saving, I will always think of Pope Francis embracing a little boy named Emanuele, and telling him, “Remember, God loves us with a daddy’s heart. A papa’s heart. Could God want us to be far away from him?”
So whatever is worrying you, whatever is making you cry... come, and whisper it in God’s ear.
Abba, Father, Papa God, who has made universes and molecules and us, it is humbling to be so loved by you that your son laid down his life for us. You know how ingrained various thoughts and situations can get into our lives, and how they can fester and destroy from within. So heal each of us from the inside out, hear us as we whisper into your ear this day. Thank you for all the imagery you give us to help us understand all the dimensions of your love. Help all your sheep find their goodness in you, however that comes. Help us to lay judgment in your lap, that we are freer to love. And all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.