What the Sheep Know - Reflections 5-8-19

Texts for Sunday,
May 12, 2019
4th Sunday of Easter

Good Shepherd Sunday

Acts 9:36-43 
Psalm 23 
Revelation 7:9-17 
John 10:22-30

Since medieval time, the church has celebrated a Good Shepherd Sunday in the weeks following Easter. These days, all three years of the lectionary celebrate Christ as a shepherd on this 4th Sunday after Easter. The original audience would have been familiar with shepherds and shepherding; they would understand why sheep needed (and probably still need) someone watching carefully over them. It was a rough and sometimes dangerous job tending and protecting the flock. Even without knowing many details of shepherding enterprise, it feels like a comforting image.

So, the first thing that popped into my mind when I read these texts for this post was funeral. I suppose that might sound weird…

In the reading from the book of Acts, a beloved benefactor died, and left the people in her community feeling like, well,  sheep without a shepherd. Dorcas, who lived in the Greek-speaking city of Joppa, had performed acts of charity for the poorest and most vulnerable people in her city, especially, it seems, widows who often had nothing. She tended those sheep of her flock with compassion and individual care. Although she had not met Jesus, she was a faithful disciple who understood that following Jesus meant (as Peter learned last week) tending and feeding Jesus’ “sheep”, which were precisely those she had served. And now, it seems, her flock needed to plan her funeral. 

But God, through Peter, had a different idea and called Dorcas (known as Tabitha in Aramaic) back to life. That meant not only new life for Dorcas personally, but it also brought new life back to her community.

Psalm 23 is often read at funerals. Sometimes I hesitate reading it to folks who are ill because they worry that I know something about their condition that they don’t. But it is a beloved text. It is one of the first I memorized and from the King James version. So, if I start reciting it from memory, more than likely, the verbs become maketh, leadeth, and restoreth, etc. My cup runneth over. The psalm describes a place of solace in the face of darkness. Whether you know sheep or not, thy rod and thy staff, are strangely comforting.

In the Revelation text, the people/sheep worship and follow the Lamb who was slain because “the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd”. Hmmm. Interesting.

These verses of worship stop the action that has been happening in the chapters before when trumpets have blasted and seals have been broken. As I said in my reflections about this Revelation text three years ago, the reader of this book has waded through a lot of defeat, death, and destruction to arrive at this point. But, in this pause, we are reassured at this point that this Lamb will lead us to victory, life, renewal and will wipe every tear from our eyes. That is a God who is "with us" and “gets us”.

And finally, we hear Jesus in the Gospel text who says My sheep hear my voice and they follow me. One of the great promises spoken at funerals follows that line in this reading: I will give them eternal life and they will never perish.

With my focus on funerals, I feel that I must add here that our faith is about bringing the new life of the resurrection to this moment in time. It is not focused only on the hereafter. Ah, but that same word of promise and new life that comes in the here and now also applies in the face of death.

This is the final prayer of the funeral service. The ministers place their hands on the casket or urn to pray this. It is truly one of the most holy moments in all of the work of the Church. Listen for the echoes of all four texts in this one prayer.

Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive her/him into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen.
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Written by Pam Larabee-Zierath


Gathered by Grace, Scattered for Service
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