Preached by Rev. James McKay on May 7, 2017.
Looking at the Good Shepherd
Jim remembers going into an art museum last year and seeing the ACTUAL painting of “Starry, Starry Night” by Vincent Van Gogh. What a feeling, to be actually present to this painting and for this painting to be present to me!!
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
In the Saturday edition of the National Post in the Star Phoenix, on the eve of Easter Sunday, a huge image of a portrait by the Italian 16th century painter, Caravaggio, appeared, and what a presentation it is. The incredulity of St. Thomas depicts Thomas putting a finger into the spear wound of Jesus’ chest to prove the resurrection. The article went on to talk about the role of doubt in faith today. Inside this section were the results of a poll describing the state of current religious belief and practice in Canada. It showed that approximately 20% of us are committed believers, and another 20% are pure non-believers, and the great swath of those in between showed a great range of uncertainty and privacy in many people.
It prompted me to look more closely at an art book our daughter, Emily, gave me years ago entitled Painting the Word: Pictures and Their Meanings by John Drury, then Dean of Christ Church, Oxford. He includes many more Caravaggio paintings. The appearance of Jesus to the two sorrowful disciples from the Road to Emmaus is outstanding! But what Dean Drury’s book demonstrates so well is “the art of looking”. The art of looking at paintings for their meaning.
With these thoughts fresh, when I turned to the texts for this fourth Sunday of Easter and read so much shepherd imagery – well, things started to come together.
This morning I invite you to join me engaging in the art of looking at what, for us in this sanctuary, is the visual focal point of our worship, the Good Shepherd window. It’s unusual in a sanctuary like ours not to have a large and very prominent cross as the focal point. Here though, a very different focus.
Come closer to have a closer look… Let’s take a few moments to reposition yourselves for a clearer, closer look. Those in the balcony, come on down if you like, or… pop out your opera glasses and focus on the window.
“So what’s new” you may be asking. “We’ve seen this window so many times over the years. It’s Jesus, the Good Shepherd. Very familiar.”
I can tell you that this window was placed here ca. 1953, when this church was officially opened and dedicated. The window was dedicated to the memory of the first minister to serve the congregation immediately after Church union in Canada in 1925. The Rev. W. G. Brown provided leadership here through 1940. We Presbyterians stayed out of the union that created the United Church of Canada in 1925. Half our membership went into Union. It was a very difficult new era. A time of transition, to be sure.
The present time is also very much a time of transition for this congregation and for our denomination in the Presbyterian Church in Canada, and indeed for the Church in North America. This pulpit is now vacant, and you will be seeking a new minister of word and sacraments. The PCC is in numerical decline (approximately 2,000 members per year) and the culture of church membership, attendance, belief and practice has dramatically changed in our lifetime.
So it’s timely, is it not, to re-engage in the art of looking at the Good Shepherd?
Looking at the window…
Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is dressed elegantly. Over a white tunic, he is robed in scarlet. A scarlet robe trimmed with gold filigree. He grasps the shepherd’s staff firmly in his right hand while cradling a tiny lamb in his left forearm and hand. Around his head, the halo (or nimbus) with three rose coloured accents, perhaps signifying the Holy Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) is translucent with the purity of divinity. Jesus’ gaze seems solely directed on the newborn lamb, obviously vulnerable, helpless and adorable, gently supported in the protective care of the shepherd.
Around Jesus’ feet and clustered near him are the sheep, the flock. Aren’t they interesting? How many of us, during a lapse of attention – not to say a boring moment in a long sermon – have tried to count them from far away in the distant pews? How many are there?
There is more to notice than their number. Some are grazing close to the shepherd. In the green pastures of life, they are getting down to some serious munching! Some are gazing at the shepherd before coming to the table themselves, and noting the care that the little one is receiving.
A couple of sheep are gazing out at us – the “other flocks” who will yet be gathered by the Good Shepherd, to join them in their gazing and grazing. The sheep closest to the shepherd’s staff is particularly attentive to the shepherd and reminds me of John, the so-called “beloved disciple” of Jesus, who is always pictured closest to him. The youngest lamb in Jesus’ arm is perfectly content.
There are some sheep a little further back in the scene. Perhaps they represent the tendency of some sheep to keep a little distance from the preacher/teacher…
The title underneath the scene reminds us of the Gospel of John’s portrait: “The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
In the top corners of the scene are trees with abundant foliage – leafy and fruitful bouquets of lush greenery! This is a garden scene like that described in the book of Revelation of the Holy City, Jerusalem… “On either side of the river flowing from the throne of God is the tree of life… and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations…” (Rev. 22:2). And again we recall Jesus’ words, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”
Behind the trees, the subdued skylight could be indicative of eventide or the first light of dawn.
Rabindranath Tagore has said,
“Death is not extinguishing the light
but merely putting out the lamp
because the dawn has come.” (Vanier p. 192)
One of the earliest representations of the risen Christ found in the Roman catacombs is of the youthful shepherd carrying the sheep around his shoulders.
There can be no doubt here in this window that the one portrayed is not the suffering, dying Jesus, nor the itinerant preacher of Galilee, but in truth here is the risen Christ, our risen Lord and Saviour, our eternal Shepherd!
Are we drawn to the portrait? Are we drawn into the portrait? Are we drawn through the portrait into God’s presence? Does it change or develop our spiritual perception of the love of God who, in mercy and with deep compassion, holds out to us the gift of vibrant, victorious life through a window that lets in the light and life of the Good Shepherd?
Where would you and I place ourselves in this picture? As one keeping the faith in worship and witness? As one who has some faith, but not enough to carry you through the stress and challenge of life? Or as one who is still uncertain and prefers to keep a little distance from commitment? Or again as one for whom relationship of faith in Christ is still private and personal? Maybe you’ve been on the sidelines of God’s pasture, and the life-giving grace offered – still thinking, wondering within yourself.
Will you let Jesus be the Good Shepherd of your life? This would be a good question to ask campers and all who com to Camp Christopher this summer.
A colleague of mine has used the twenty-third Psalm as a foundation for daily prayer.
For years, or for mere months, we’ve worshipped in this sanctuary while gathered before this portrait. Time and again, we’ve heard the words of the Shepherd who knows us well, knows us by name, and remarkably, in a word, a phrase, verse of hymn, portion of prayer, anthem or solo or sermon – beyond the voice of a worship leader – is the unmistakable voice, the authentic voice that is suddenly so refreshingly familiar – we know that voice. We trust that voice. We know that voice. We trust that truth.
Like the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, who thought the Kingdom of God had died on the cross, but were accompanied by one whose voice so penetrated their grief that they were aware that a flame had just been ignited in their hearts.
At this very place in this sanctuary we have celebrated the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s supper. In the name of the Good Shepherd, we have poured out the spiritually birthing waters of baptism and have received in the bread and the cup an awakening to the living presence of our Lord!
“O taste and see that the Lord is good!” (Psalm 34:8)
No way! Really?!? Am I really present to the Lord?!
As Dean Drury observes about the art of looking, “It’s like what happens when a painting or picture delights us with a recognition that dissolves worries and arouses faith.” (Drury p. 133)
The one who has laid down his life for the sheep has taken it up again and that is Good News for the whole created order!
As Jean Vanier notes, “Jesus wants to give life to us all:
“I am the good shepherd.
I know my own and my own know me
as the Father knows me and I know my Father,
and I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:14).
“Jesus came to give life and to give his life,
the life of love and light that he was living with the Father.
He came to give his life on the cross,
to take away all the blocks that prevent us from being
in communion with God
and with our fellow human beings.
Jesus is the gift of God
and calls us to let go of certain things in order to give ourselves.” (Vanier p. 191)
“Jesus loves us abundantly and want to give us
all we need to grown in wisdom
and greater human and spiritual maturity.” (Vanier p 188)
“Jesus, the Word made flesh,
knows how much we all need good, loving and wise shepherds
so that we may grow to a fuller human and spiritual maturity.
Not only does Jesus reveal himself as the good and wonderful Shepherd,
but each one of us, as we grow to maturity,
is called to be a good shepherd, a servant-leader for others.” (Vanier p. 186)
In this time of transition then, as we prepare to engage in a new chapter of ministry, we need only look upon our good, wonderful, noble and model Shepherd, Jesus our Lord, risen with power, and present among us, breathing his life-giving Spirit into his Church, and into the world God so loves.
Let us be eager in Jesus’ name to engage in life-restoring ministries in our neighbourhoods and in our world, while we order our congregational life around relationships that take their cue from the Good Shepherd – relationships of mutual trust, caring for one another, practicing hospitality, growing in maturity, and welcoming any and all who will, to look upon the Good Shepherd and see God.
- The New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV 1991)
- Preaching Through the Christian Year, Year A, Fourth Sunday of Easter, p. 264
- Painting the Word: Christian Paintings and Their Meanings, John Drury, 2000
- The Gospel of John, Anchor Bible Series, Raymond Brown, Ch I-XII, 1966
- Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus Through the Gospel of John, Jean Vanier, Ch. 14, The Good Shepherd