5/8/22 Sermon: Following Footprints

Sunday, May 8, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Fourth Sunday of Easter
Preacher: Pastor Day Hefner
watch this service online (readings start around 14:32; sermon starts around 20:40)
image source

If you’ve ever found yourself feeling deeply confused or bewildered or even just plain lost, then there’s a very good chance that you have spent some time inside the Miami-Dade airport (lol).  During the years when I was living in the Dominican Republic, I used to spend a lotof time inside the Miami airport.  It was always the inevitable first stop I had to make anytime that I came home.  

Like most airports, the Miami airport is pretty sprawled out.  And especially since I came in on an international flight, it usually took a long time to get where I needed to go.  First I had to get through customs and immigration, and then I’d have to walk what felt like 500 miles from the far-flung terminal for international flights to get to the gate for my connecting flight.  It was pretty easy to get disoriented and lost along the way.

But I remember that the airport had these decals on the floor that were supposed to help you figure out where you needed to go.  They were shaped like footprints, and there were different colored trails of these footprints that promised to lead you to all sorts of places: one might lead you to baggage claim, another might lead you to the food court, still another might lead you to customer service or to a place where you could get a taxi, or to wherever else you might need to go inside an airport. 

One of my first times coming home, I still didn’t know my way around the airport very well at all.  Once I got through the customs screening, I found a trail of bright yellow footprints that promised to lead me to the concourse where I could find the gate for my next flight.  The airport was extremely crowded at the time – I usually came home for Christmas, and the airport was absolutely packed with holiday travelers.  But I kept my eyes on those yellow footprints as I made my way through the crowds.  The footprints led me around a few corners and down a few hallways; other groups of people would come and go as other colors of footprints walked alongside the yellow footprints for a while and then peeled off.  

Finally, the yellow footprints led me down this long, looooong corridor into a big, bright, open space that was absolutely crammed with people.  And there the footprints abruptly stopped.  I was so confused!  As I looked around, I saw at least a half dozen different directions I could go – I saw doors that seemed to lead outside that briefly made me panic, thinking that I’d somehow gone the wrong way and that I’d have to go back through security again.  I couldn’t find another yellow footprint anywhere.  It felt like just at the moment when I needed those footprints the most, they were just gone, leaving me lost and unsure of where to go.

It’s been a long time since I thought about the Miami airport, or about those footprints.  But I remembered that experience of feeling like I’d been led astray when I was reading through our texts for this morning.  Our readings are full of these themes of leading and guiding and following – themes of a shepherd leading his sheep.  If you didn’t already know, you have probably figured out by now from our readings that today is the Sunday of Easter that we often call “Good Shepherd Sunday.”  Today we celebrate that God in Christ is our Good Shepherd – a much more faithful guide than some stickers on an airport floor.  And what we see in all our readings is that our shepherd is very good indeed.

In the familiar words of Psalm 23, our shepherd leads us beside still waters and green pastures and on right paths.  He generously and lovingly provides for us.  He’s not the kind of guide that abandons us just when we need him most!  Instead, he goes with us right into the valley of the shadow of death – and keeps on going. 

We see this in our first reading from Acts as well.  After Jesus’ ascension, he charges Peter and the other disciples to carry on his mission and his ministry, to be his hands and feet in the world – and that’s exactly what they do.  Here, we see Peter responding to an urgent request from this group of disciples in Joppa.  He sits with them in their grief as Jesus would have done, listening to their stories and looking at all these things they show him that Dorcas had made.  And then, by the power of Christ, he brings Dorcas back to life again!

As with Lazarus before her, the raising of Dorcas isn’t final – but it is a foretaste of the feast to come.  And we get a glimpse of that feast in our second reading, from Revelation.  Here we see multitudes of people from the whole earth standing before the throne of God.  They have followed the Good Shepherd – the Lamb at the center of the throne – through the “great ordeal” and into the very temple of God.  Here the Good Shepherd wipes away the tears from their eyes and leads them to drink from springs of the water of life.  

And Jesus echoes these images in our gospel reading.  Jesus cares for his sheep; they know his voice and they follow him.  He protects them and no one can snatch them away from him.  Jesus is the Good Shepherd who leads his sheep into eternal life. 

In addition to all these shepherding images, there’s something else you may have noticed about our texts for today.  They’re all pretty familiar readings – and they’re all readings that many of us have heard before in one particular context.  Any guesses what I’m talking about?

Funerals.  All of these texts – but especially Psalm 23 and this reading from Revelation – are all texts that are often read at funerals.  And it totally makes sense – of course we want to hear these reassuring messages about resurrection and eternal life and everlasting peace in God’s presence at a funeral.  These verses give us comfort when we have to say hard goodbyes to the people we love; they remind us that our loved ones rest in God’s care, and that no one can snatch them out of God’s hand.  But I think there’s even more to it than that.  

Funerals confront us with the truth of our own mortality, our own limitedness.  In our lives, we walk all different kinds of paths, following all different kinds of footprints – and many of these paths are wonderful, God-given things: paths of friendship and family, paths of vocation, paths of service, paths of delighting in various ways in God’s creation.  But as we get closer to the end, those paths begin to wane.  The guiding footprints that lead us through life begin to falter and peter out.  And when they all eventually stop, we’re left standing lost and unsure at the edge of the unknown.  

But what these texts remind us is that there is one set of footprints – and only one – that keeps going: the footprints of our Good Shepherd.  His are the only footprints that don’t just stop and leave us lost, not knowing where to go or what comes next.  Our Good Shepherd’s footprints keep going, leading us through the depths of the valley of death and into the light of life.

And today, what I especially hear in Jesus’ words in our gospel reading is an invitation to listen.  Jesus says that his sheep are the ones who hear and know his voice.  Jesus invites us to listen for his voice, to know the sound of his voice with our hearts.  And he invites us to follow – to look for his footprints among the many different paths that cross through our lives, and to follow where he leads.  Because following our Good Shepherd isn’t only about what happens when we die.  Even as we live this finite life, he leads us to good places; he leads us into living well, so that even now we may get a taste of eternal life.

Whenever you find yourself feeling confused or bewildered or just plain lost, stop and listen for the voice of your Good Shepherd, and trust that he will help you find and follow his footprints.  He will lead you to good and healing places – to green pastures and still waters, to Cinnabon and Starbucks and maybe even a clean bathroom.  He will guide you on the path that leads us into life.

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