Fourth Sunday Of Easter

S. Easter 4.24 John 10:11-18

Good Shepherd Sunday is traditionally a happy Sunday in the church year, much like the beloved Minor Key Appreciation Sunday has been since the days of J.S. Bach who apparently first introduced it. It might have been a little passive aggressive on Bach’s part, having all the hymns in a minor key that is, following as it did on the heels of the continuation of Bach’s salary freeze by the Thomas Kirche personnel committee. But everyone came to appreciate it, I think. Doesn’t the Mass in B minor come from that period—which everyone now hails as a major work? 😉

Well, anyway; as I was saying, Good Shepherd Sunday has usually been a much anticipated happy Sunday in the Easter season. We recall how Jesus is the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep, so much does he love us. Most pastors take a glass-half-full approach to preaching on this text. Like, it’s sad Jesus dies, but happy that he’s willing to lay down his life for lost and straying sheep like us, for whom it all works out in a most lovely way, like Minor Key Appreciation Sunday which is coming to OSLC, but not right away, so, a little treat to look forward to…

But thinking about this text all week, I’m inclined to a more glass-half-empty approach, as I’m told some regard Minor Key Appreciation Sunday, as just a tiny little bit of a… downer that doesn’t send everyone home whistling a merry tune.

Here are some elements of today’s Gospel that struck me as having a little bit of a down note, a little bit minor key, if you will…

First, the point that the Good Shepherd has to DIE! to save the sheep suggests that the wolves, the foes, are fierce and the battle long and difficult. Since Jesus is God, couldn’t he just slay all the wolves with a word from his mouth? Are they so strong, that the shepherd’s death is a regrettable necessity in the battle?

Many prefer to think of life as a lovely walk through the tulip fields, with happy, happy thoughts, “sweetness and light, nothing but beautiful days for Christian children.” Picturing earthly life, on the contrary, as a brutal war fought in a WWI landscape of barbed wire, scorched earth, a no-man’s land of shelling and poison gas where the troops are dropping like flies and even our great General goes down into death and the grave, is not the happiest or sweetest of thoughts, now is it? A little minor key?

And what is up with the hirelings? Can’t Jesus just defeat our foes singlehandedly, and lead us from victory unto victory in a mostly happy bunny circus kind of way? How do hirelings enter the picture? How did they crash the gates, when they’re not real shepherds, do not have a deep attachment to the sheep and who—when the wolves come for us (as apparently they will!) simply flee and leave us for the wolves to catch and scatter?

A note on the word “scatter”, here. It doesn’t only mean the sheep will scatter in different directions, running for their lives. It also means the bits and body parts of slaughtered sheep will be scattered on the killing fields of battle. Ooof-dah! That doesn’t exactly send us home whistling “The King of Love My Shepherd Is”, does it?

How is it that Jesus leaves us with useless hirelings, to be killed and slaughtered by wolves, anyway? Paul in Romans 8 does have that kind of jarring little note about whether tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, or sword might separate us from the love of Christ? answering that it is written: “For your sake we are killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter” (!!!). Paul seems much happier about that rather gruesome outcome than I naturally am. Saying it all works out fine, in the end, resolves on my ear like a minor key hymn, a bit jarringly.

How long are we going to be left in the hands of hirelings? Going to pastors’ conferences for over 35 years has revealed a ton of hirelings at play in the pastoral fields of the LORD! So it could be a while. It’s why I took the gig. I hate hirelings, and find long odds exciting, fight-wise.

Still, that Jesus must lay down his life for the sheep and take it up again tells me that the strife is fierce, the warfare long, and that the wolves, our mortal foes, are very strong, very ferocious, very violent, and will not rest from their murderous ways until either we’re all dead or they are. ‘Lotta killin’ in that one’, as Lutheran theologian Rick Dalton said in ‘Once Upon A Time In Hollywood’…

You’re seeing Good Shepherd Sunday in a whole different light, now, aren’t you? You’re welcome. Happy to spice-up the text for you! It’s my little spiritual gift. Christianity isn’t about being nice to everyone, certainly not to hireling-wolves. It’s a fight to the finish with some nasty characters that we should regard as mortal foes, not as friends we haven’t met yet…

Maybe a little story on how I came to appreciate dissonant minor (or no) key music will help finish this in style. My friend Allen Bean, master musician, worked with me in the Div Library one summer. A grad student, Arthur Shippe, used to harass us, making us scour the card catalog for books to recall, and after we’d filled out the tedious paperwork, goes: “Ah, forget it. I don’t really need it”.

After the third episode of that in one day, AB said we should perpetrate a phone prank on Arthur. We’d call him at 6 pm every night for a week and play 30 seconds—an increasingly disturbing 30 seconds!—of Schoenberg’s 12 tone opera “Pierot Lunaire” about a young man’s descent into madness (with German speak-singing!).

I was skeptical any fun could be had in this, but sure enough: after a few days of difficult German ‘music’, Arthur was pretty disturbed, haggard, running around the Div Library reading room, asking who was phoning in the weird music. Eventually, he didn’t answer the phone at all, putting Glen Miller’s “Pennsylvania 6-5000” on his answering machine to ward off the evil spirits of 12 tone “music”. He didn’t bug us for books anymore. He had other things to worry about.

3 takeaways I offer 1) Don’t judge a book by it’s cover. AB is the most mild-mannered, sweetest Christians spirit; but you don’t want him for an enemy. 2) Music slays savage beasts. It’s a divine gift and a powerful weapons and

3) if you can only be happy when things are going well, then you will face many worries and dark days. But if the slog through a WWI style no-man’s land simply lands you in the undiscovered country of heaven, crushing Satan underfoot, well then; the world is your playground. The only thing about the Zombie Apocalypse, when it comes, that will be difficult for you is: pretending you’re not excited.

“Oh; zombies!”

So onward, Christian soldiers. Let us follow, happily, Christ, our LORD anywhere, like Fleetwood Mac: ‘I wanna be with you everywhere!’, until Peace surpassing all understanding guards our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, the Good Shepherd. Amen.

About Pastor Martin

Pastor Kevin Martin has served six Lutheran congregations, beginning in 1986 as a field-worker in Trumbull, Connecticut, and vicarages in Arlington, Massachusetts and Belleville, Illinois. He has been pastor of congregations in Pembroke, Ontario and Akron, Ohio. Since 2000, he has served as pastor of Our Savior Lutheran Church, Raleigh. Pastor Martin is a lifelong (confessional!) Lutheran (even though) he holds degrees from Valparaiso, Yale, and Concordia Seminary St. Louis. He and his wife Bonnie have been (happily) married since 1988, and have two (awesome!) adult children, Bethany and Christopher. Bonnie is an elementary school teacher. The Martin family enjoy music festivals, travel, golf, and swimming. They are also avid readers and movie-goers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *