May 31st is the Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. 34 years ago on that day, a 13 year old Lutheran kid received a very distinctive calling to be a priest in, of all places, a cemetery. That kid would never be the same…
Wednesday, May 31, 2017
Sunday, May 28, 2017
May 28, 2017
Acts 1.6-14; John 17.1-17
+ It now seems like Easter happened a long time ago. It’s been over a month and a half ago. But as you look around the church today, you see Easter is still here. Everything is still white—the paraments, the flowers. We are still saying our Alleluias like crazy. And, there, next to the altar, the Paschal candle is still burning.
The Paschal candle is a very important presence during Easter. It represents Christ. In fact, it’s also called the Christ Candle. When we see it lit, it reminds us of the Light-filled Christ. And its lit presence among us reminds us of his presence here.
There is an old tradition in the church (which I actually always kind of liked) of extinguishing the Paschal candle after the reading of the Gospel on Ascension day. After all, with the Ascension, Jesus has…ascended. He is no longer here with us physically. And so, the tradition of extinguishing the Paschal Candle seems apt.
But…the current tradition in the Church is to keep it lit through Pentecost, which is coming up next Sunday. Why? Jesus has ascended after all.
Yes, but, as we hear from our Gospel reading last week and this week, his Presence has not left us. He is still present, though just in a different form.
Last week we heard that he will be present in the Advocate, the Spirit of God, and this week we hear that he will be present in us, in his disciples who keep his word and continue to do his ministry and be his presence in this world. And it is for this reason we keep the Paschal candle lit through the Feast of Pentecost.
We celebrated the eve or Vigil of the Feast of the Ascension here at St. Stephen’s on Wednesday night, as we always do. And as I said then, I repeat this morning: I really love the Feast of the Ascension. I love all that it represents. I love that sense of going up. Of rising. Of moving upward. Ascension is, of course, all about rising.
This week, we move slowly away from the Easter season toward Pentecost. You can almost feel the shift. For the last several weeks, we have been basking in the afterglow of the resurrected Jesus.
In our Gospel readings, this resurrected Jesus has walked with us, has talked with us, has eaten with us and has led the way for us. Now, as we hear in our reading from Acts this morning, he has been taken up. We find a transformation of sorts happening in our relationship with Jesus through these scripture readings. Our perception of Jesus has changed. No longer is he the Jesus who speaks to his disciples and does miracles for those people back then, in the Palestine. Now, he is here with us.
At his Ascension, we find that he is, in our midst. Us, right here. Right now. In us. At his ascension, we recognize the fact that God has truly come among us. God is here, right now, with us.
No, God is not speaking to us not from a pillar of cloud or fire, not on some shroud-covered mountain, not in visions. Now God is here, with us, speaking to us as we speak to each other.
At the Ascension, the puzzle pieces really start falling into place. What seemed so confusing and unreal before is starting to come together. God truly has come among us as one of us. And God dwells in us and through us.
And next week, one more puzzle piece falls into place when Jesus, in a sense, returns. Next week, we will celebrate God’s Spirit descending upon and staying with us.
For the moment, though, we are caught in between those two events, trying to make sense of what has happened and trying to prepare ourselves for what is about to happen. We are caught between Jesus’ ascent into heaven and the Spirit’s descent to us. It is a time for us to pause, to ponder who we are and where are in this place—in this time in which everything seems so spiritually topsy-turvy.
I’m not certain there is a way we can make sense of the Ascension, but what we are faced with is the fact that this in this ascended Jesus, God still acts in our lives. God acts us and through us. I can’t repeat that enough. The commission that the ascended Jesus gave to the apostles, is still very much our commission as well.
We must love—fully and completely. Because in loving, we are living. In loving, we are living fully and completely. In loving, we are bringing the ascended Christ to others. And we must go out and live out this commission in the world. When we do, the ascended Christ is very much acting in the world.
For those first followers of Jesus, it seems like they didn’t have much of a chance to ponder their life-altering experiences. As soon as one life-altering experience happened, another one came along. Just when they had experiences Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension, they encountered this outpouring of God’ Spirit in their lives. The waters, it seemed, were kept perpetually stirred. Nothing was allowed to settle.
That is what ministry is often like. One day, very early in my career, much earlier than I was ever ordained, I came to realize that Ministry is perpetually on-going. There is never an ending to it. It doesn’t matter if my life is falling apart around me, or that I am tired or that my family life is in turmoil. It’s always something. One week brings another set of opportunities, set-backs, trip-ups, tediums, frustrations, joys, celebrations.
Ministry truly is a never-ending roller-coaster ride of emotions and feelings. In the course of a week, one can go from last rites and burials to weddings and baptisms—and everything in between. And some of what comes in between are days when nothing much happens. In between, there are the daily rounds of prayer, of the Daily Office, of scripture reading, of Masses, of meetings, of visitations. There are lunches, there are suppers, there are lonely nights or sleepless nights or angry or troubled nights. More often than not, there are nights just like the nights before. There are nights when one follows the same rituals one has followed. And one does what one has done before without thinking, without pondering.
Because there are no other options. Sometimes we get the opportunity to curl up and shut down. I know I don’t. In between those moments of great energy, there are frustrations or boredom. There are moments when it all seems to be useless and pointless. There are moments when one is, quite simply, frightened. There are moments when one feels so overwhelmed by the fact that one is simply not qualified to be doing the work. There are moments when one thinks: I just can’t do this anymore. These are things those first followers of Jesus no doubt struggled with.
Yet we, like them, are sustained. We, like them, are upheld. We, like them, are supported by the God Jesus ascended to, whose work we are doing in this world. In those moments when our works seems useless, when it seems like we have done no good work, the ascended Jesus still triumphs.
Our job, in this time between Jesus’ departure from us and his return to us, is to simply let him do what he needs to do in this interim. We need to let the ascended Jesus work in us and through us. We need to let the God of this ascended Jesus be the end result of our work.
When we wipe our hands as we walk from the grave, lamenting the fact that it seems no one was saved (as the old Beatles song “Eleanor Rigby” goes) we need to realize that, of course, it seems that way as we gaze downward at our hands. But above us, the Ascension is happening. Above us, Jesus has risen. And we are rising with him, even when it seems like we are bogged down in this very earth.
Above us, that place, that God to whom we are ascending is there. All we have to do sometimes is look up. All we have to do is stop gazing at our dirty, callused, over-worked hands—all we have to do is turn from our self-centeredness—and look up. And there we will see the triumph. And as we do, we will realize that more were saved than we initially thought.
Someone was saved. We were saved.
Jesus has ascended. But he isn’t gone. He is with us, now even more so than before his ascension. He is with us in an even more intimate way.
The joy we feel today comes when we let the ascended Jesus do what he needs to do through us. We are, as Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “in the world.” And because we are, we must do the work we are called to do in this world.
So, let us stop gazing after the Jesus who has ascended and let us BE the Jesus who is at work in this world. There is work to do. Right here. Right now. Let’s wipe the sun-blindness from our eyes. Let us turn toward those around us in need. And let us be Jesus to those who need Jesus. And there are people who need us to be Jesus for them.
There are people who need us to be kind and compassionate and full of love. There are people who need our acceptance and hospitality. When we love others, when we are Christ to others, when we bring a God of love and acceptance to others, we allow others to rise as well. We embody and allow the Ascension to continue in this world.
So, let the joy of the ascension live in us and through us and be reflected to others by us. We will be sanctified in the truth of knowing and living out our lives in the light of ascension. We will rise. This morning, we have looked up and we have seen it. We have seen that rising—his rising and our rising—happening above us in beauty and light and joy .
Sunday, May 21, 2017
May 21, 2017
+ 3 years ago this Thursday—on Sunday, May 24, 2014—we did something special at our Rogation Blessing. On that Sunday three years ago we dedicated our Memorial Garden. Now, I remember when I first introduced this idea at St. Stephen’s about a memorial garden about a year before that. There was a bit of frowning. There was a sense of, “Lord, what is he thinking of doing now?” There was a groan of “Really? A cemetery? Seriously?”
But, look what a blessing that memorial garden has had in our life here at St. Stephen’s. Thanks to Sandy Holbrook and the gardening committee and all the people who have worked for that garden and all that beautiful landscaping that was done there, it has become a place of beauty. And in these three years, our memorial garden has become a place of rest for six people—a new stone was just placed there this past week—and a place of consolation for countless others.
Now I don’t think I’m overestimating it when I say it has also become a place of mercy. We of course have laid people to rest there who had no other place to rest, who were rejected or forgotten. Why? Why do we do that? Because that is what we do as Christians.
In our Christian tradition, mercy plays heavily into what we do. And as a result, there have been, since the early Church, a series of what have been called corporal acts of mercy. I’ve talked about this many times before. These corporal acts of mercy are:
- To feed the hungry;
- To give drink to the thirsty;
- To clothe the naked;
- To harbor the harborless;
- To visit the sick;
- To ransom the captive;
- To bury the dead.
We at St. Stephen’s, in the ministry we do as followers of Jesus, have done most of those well. Including that last one. Burying the dead is a corporate act of mercy. And it is something we have do with our services of burial and in our memorial garden. And, it’s appropriate we are doing on this Sunday, Rogation Sunday, the Sunday before the Ascension of Jesus.
In our Gospel reading for today we find Jesus explaining that although he is about to depart from his followers—this coming Thursday we celebrate the feast of Jesus’ Ascension to heaven—he will not leave them alone. They will be left with the Advocate—the Spirit of Truth. The Holy Spirit. He prefaces all of this with those words that quickly get swallowed up by the comments on the Spirit,
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”
And just to remind everyone, that command is, of course, “to love.” To love God. And to love our neighbors as ourselves. This is what it means to be the Church.
To be merciful.
To be Christ to those who need Christ. To be a Christ of love and compassion and acceptance.
Because that is who Christ is to us. When we forget to be Christ to others, when we fail to do this, we fail to do mercy.
Today is, as I’ve said, Rogation Sunday. Rogation comes from the Latin word “Rogare” which means “to ask.” Traditionally, on this Sunday, we heard the Gospel in which Jesus said,
"Whatever you ask the Father in my name, [God] will give to you".
Today, with our current lectionary of scripture readings, we actually find him saying, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate…” From a very simple perspective, the thing we are asking today, on this Rogation Sunday, is to be faithful followers of Jesus, thorough our works and acts of mercy.
Now for some of us, this whole idea of Rogation Sunday and the procession that we will soon be making outside at the conclusion of our Eucharist this morning might seem a bit too much. The fact is, it is something, very much like burying the dead on the church grounds. It is very much a part of our Anglican Tradition.
In the 1630s one of heroes (you hear me quote him and reference him often), Anglican priest and poet, George Herbert, commended these rogation processions. He said that processions should be encouraged for four reasons:
1. A Blessing of God for the fruits of the field.
2. Justice in the preservation of boundaries of those fields and properties.
3. Charity in loving, walking and neighborly accompanying one another with reconciling of differences at the time if there be any.
And 4 (hold on to your seats). Mercie (yes, mercy) , in relieving the poor by a liberal distribution of the resources, which at the time is or ought to be used.
In so many ways, that is what we do here and what we continue to do here. Our memorial garden—this visible sign of the final corporal act of mercy—is a part of this Rogation celebration. This is where we do our blessing. We process there and bless the earth and the land there. We ask God’s blessings on the growth not only of crops and fields. And we do something also very important there: We thank God today for the growth of our congregation.
We are thanking God for the acts of mercy done to each of us. And we are asking God to continue to make us Christ to those who need Christ.
As you can see, the rallying themes of this Rogation time are hope and justice and mercy. As George Herbert reminds us there is always room for charity.
As we process out at the end of the Eucharist today, I ask you to look around the memorial garden. I ask you to look at the names there. We know some of them. Others of them we will never know on this side of veil. I ask you as you walk about to thank God for them. I ask you today to thank God for the growth God has granted us at St. Stephen’s And I ask that you remember Jesus’ call to us, to love him and to keep his commandment of love and mercy.
It is more than just sweet, religious talk. It is a challenge and a true calling to live out this love in radical ways. It is a challenge to be merciful.
As we process, as we walk together, let us pay attention to this world around us. Let us ponder the causes and the effects of what it means to be inter-related—to be dependent upon on each to some extent, as we are on this earth. We do need each other. And we do need each other’s love. And mercy.
We do need that radical love that Jesus commands us to have. With that love, we will truly love our neighbors as ourselves. We will show mercy to them. Our neighbors, of course, are more than just those people who live next door to us. Our neighbors are all of us, those we do in fact love and those we have difficulty loving. And our neighbors also include this earth and all the inhabitants of it. That command of Jesus is to love—to respect—those with whom we live and share this place.
Let this procession today truly be a "living walking" as George Herbert put it. But let our whole lives as Christians be also a “living walk,” a mindful walk, a walk in which we see the world around with eyes of love and respect and justice and care. And, most importantly, with eyes of mercy. Amen.
Saturday, May 20, 2017
May 20, 2017
It is an honor for me to officiate at this service today. Both Jessica and John are two people I consider close and very dear friends. I am very grateful for their friendship in my life. And nothing gives me more delight than to see close and dear friends celebrate the love they have for each other.
Today is a glorious day. It really is. But, as most of us know, this day—this wonderful, beautiful day—has not come easily for John and Jessica. It has been a sometimes long, hard and painful road for both of them. There has been much pain in their past. There has been much heartache. There is been loss. There have been dark clouds and even darker nights. It has been, at times, a very hard journey in their past for both of them.
They come here today with scars and wounds, as we all do. They will be quick to tell you, no doubt, that we do not make it through this life without wounds and scars. Which only makes this day even more wonderful, even more glorious.
What we celebrate today is love, yes. The love between Jessica and John and the love we have for them.
But we celebrate so much more today as well. We celebrate the fact that this marriage is a shining example of resurrection, of the dawn that comes after the darkest night.
This marriage is one of the best examples of grace. Now, my definition of grace is this: it is a gift from God we receive that we did not ask for. It is a gift we cannot give ourselves. We cannot control grace. We cannot manipulate it or make it do what we want it to do.
Grace happens. God grants grace in its own time. In its own place. And we must simply be open to it, and be thankful for it, and just… let it happen in our lives. And be very, very thankful to God when it does.
Jessica. John. What we celebrate today is truly a grace. I am so thankful for this grace you have been given by God. I mean, look at this: You have known each other for thirty years? Thirty years! And here you are! Today! On this glorious day! It’s amazing! And if we are not amazed by this amazing coming-together of Jessica and John after all this time, we are just not paying attention.
Yes, you’ve been through a lot in your lives. But, look! Here you are today! And it’s all good. And it’s all beautiful.
You both deserve today. You both deserve this love, this surrounding by people who love you, this grace in your life. You deserve the very best in your lives.
That is what we celebrate today. That is what we give thanks for today.
Now, mind you, I’m not promising that the future is going to be hunky dory and sweet all the time. You both know that it isn’t always going to be like that. I’m not promising that all the dark clouds have passed away for good.
But right now, right here, none of that matters. There are no dark clouds here. There are only blue skies and a future filled with hope and potential joy.
I am so happy, John and Jessica, for this day. I am so thankful to God that you have found each other again. I am so happy for you and for all that you have and will have. It really is wonderful!
Sunday, May 14, 2017
May 14, 2017
Acts 7.55-60; John 14.1-14
+ As you know, I do a lot of funerals. A lot! In the almost nine years I’ve been at St. Stephen’s, I’ve done 70 funerals for St. Stephen’s. Now to be clear, most of those people have not been parishioners. I do a lot of funerals for people I do not know, for my own family members, for anyone who needs a funeral. And those 70 funerals are just for those whom we’ve buried form St. Stephen’s. That does not include all the funerals I did before I got here, the funerals I’ve done for other churches.
So, I do a lot of funerals. That’s not a complaint. It’s always—always—an honor for me to do funerals. And, as I say at funerals, whether they are for people I know or do not know, I end forming a kind of spiritual bond with those people whom we commemorate.
The Gospel we hear this morning is one we heard very often at funerals. After all, it is one of the Gospel readings recommended by the Book of Common Prayer for funerals. In fact, it is, by far, one of the most popular Gospel readings chosen for funerals.
If I had a dollar for every time I preached a funeral sermon on this scripture…well, I’d have at least $70.
There’s little doubt why it is. It is wonderfully appropriate. The reason it is so popular is because it truly does give us a wonderful glimpse into what awaits us following our death. This really is the BIG issue in our lives.
We might not give it a lot of conscious thought, but no doubt most of us have pondered at some time in our lives, what awaits us following our death. The part we no doubt concentrate on in today’s Gospel are Jesus’ words “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.”
Traditionally, we have heard the word “mansions” used here, and I have never been shy in saying that I have always enjoyed the word “mansions.” I believe that these dwelling places awaiting us are truly the equivalent of mansions for us. I don’t believe that they’re actual mansion, mind you. I think Jesus is being very poetic in his description. But I think what he conveys is that God will provide something beautiful and wonderful for us.
And in our reading from Acts this morning, we get to catch an even clearer view of that beautiful and wonderful something that awaits us. In it, we find our own patron saint, St. Stephen, being dragged out by an angry mob and stoned to death. It’s certainly not pretty. But in the midst of that violence and anger, we find St. Stephen having a glorious vision. He looks up into heaven and is allowed a vision, in which he sees Jesus in the glory of God. And with his last words, he prays to Jesus,
“Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”
This, if you notice, is the first post-Ascension prayer to Jesus in the scriptures. And it was controversial.
(How appropriate that our patron saint should do something that would be considered controversial).
Praying to Jesus—in addition to Yahweh—would have been just one more reason for overly zealous religious people of that day, and at that time, to reign down rocks upon Stephen. But despite that, it is the most beautiful and most honest prayer St. Stephen could’ve prayed.
So this, morning, in both our Gospel reading and our reading from Acts, we are confronted with glorious visions. Now neither of them is as stupendous as the Rapture. But there is something wonderful in being able to look ahead and see what awaits us. It is wonderful to be able to see the joys and beauty of our place with God in heaven. Still, knowing full well what awaits us, having been given glimpses into that glorious place that lies just beyond our vision, we still find ourselves digging in our heels when we have to face the fact of our own dying.
When I was a teenager, I read a book by the Roman Catholic saint, Alphonsus de Liguori, about how to die what he called a “happy death.” A happy death was not a death free of pain or suffering necessarily. A happy death was dying in the Presence of God. A happy death is a holy death.
This kind of thinking might seem a bit strange to us non Roman Catholics. We just aren’t used to thinking about such a thing as a “happy death” or a “good death.” The whole idea seems like some kind of oxymoron. “Happy” and “death” just don’t go together in way of our thinking. But it is a good thing to think about occasionally. Certainly there are few books to teach us non-Roman Catholics about how to die a happy and holy death.
As a priest, I can say that I have known many people who, when faced with their deaths, simply don’t know how to die and don’t know how to look at their dying as a way of moving into God’s presence. And even fewer know how to prepare themselves spiritually for dying.
In our Book of Common Prayer, we have a beautiful prayer that is prayed for someone near death. It can be found on page 462. There we find this prayer,
“Almighty God, look on your servant, lying in great weakness, and comfort ‘this person’, with the promise of life everlasting, given in the resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.”
“Comfort ‘this person’ with the promise of life everlasting”
This promise of eternal life, as we have seen in the Resurrection, should truly be a comfort to us, especially in those moments when we fear death. Fearing death at times is all right. It’s natural. It’s the ultimate mystery for us (outside of God, that is).
Thinking about our own deaths isn’t necessarily morbid or unpleasant. It simply reminds us that we are mortal. We will all die one day. But rather than despairing over that fact, we should use it as an opportunity to draw closer to God. We should use it as an opportunity to live a more holy life. And hopefully, living a more holy life, we can pray at that last moment—that holy moment—with true conviction, that wonderful prayer of St. Stephen, the first martyr:
“Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”
Now that prayer is not controversial for us. In fact, that is the prayer would should always keep close.
After all, as we hear in our gospel reading for today, Jesus makes the very bold claim that he is the “Way.” This sounds very much an echo to last week’s Gospel reading in which he tells us he is the “gate.” But this time, he doesn’t end there. He goes on to say that he is also “the truth” and “the life.”
How refreshing to hear those words this morning? If any of us have been listening to the news these past couple of weeks—especially in these last few days— to hear anything about “truth”—real “truth”—seems like a cool breeze in the desert. It’s easy to despair over all the lies or rumors of lies that are swirling about.
But, for us, truth is essential. For us as Christians, truth is equivalent with life, is equivalent with moving forward along the way that is Jesus. And for us, lies and deceit and half-truths or “alternate truths” are not options for us. In the light of Jesus being the Truth—capital T—there are no alternate truths.
Yes, we’re all guilty of lies on occasion, or half-truths, or white lies. But living without truth, living in lies, living in a reality we have created for ourselves—that is not an option for us as Christians. And heeding others who lie or deceive or bear false witness is not an option or us either.
It’s simple sometimes. There is truth, and anything that isn’t truth, isn’t true. I’m going to repeat that. There is truth, and anything that isn’t truth, isn’t true.
To gain Life—to gain that life that God wants from us—we must follow the Way, in Truth. That is vitally important for us right now, right here, while we are alive. It also just as important for us as we pass from this life. And I think it’s so very appropriate that this Gospel reading is one of those readings that are so popular at Episcopal funerals.
Hearing Jesus say to us that he is the “Way, the Truth and the Life” and that it is through these that we come to God, is essential. It is essential to this life. And it is essential to leaving this life.
I know. It’s probably not the most pleasant thought to have that we are going to die. But I do think it is important to think about occasionally. The reason we should think about it—and the reason we shouldn’t despair in thinking about it—is because, for a Christian, dying is not a horrible thought.
Dying is not a reason to despair or fear. As we know, it is NEVER an option for us, as followers of Jesus, to fear or despair. So, even death is not something to fear. Because, by dying, we do come to life everlasting—life with end. And although we, at this moment, can’t imagine it as being a “happy” or “holy” moment, the fact is, it will be. It will be the holiest moment of our life and it will be the happiest moment of our life.
For Stephen, who died abused, in pain, bleeding from those sharp stones that fell upon him, it was a happy and holy moment when he looked up and saw Jesus waiting for him. He was happy because he knew he would soon be received by Jesus and it was holy because, at that moment, his faith was fulfilled.
That place toward which we are headed—that place in God’s house—we will find our true home. Heaven—is truly our happy home, the place toward which we are wandering around, searching. And we will not find our rest until we rest there, and we will not be fully and completely happy until we are surrounded by the happiness there.
I wish more of us knew that there was such a thing as a happy or holy death. I wish more people knew how to die. But, we really do know. It is there for those who live in truth and love.
So, let us look forward to that place in which Jesus has prepared a place for us. It awaits us. It there, right at this moment, just beyond our vision. Let us look, with St. Stephen, to it with joy. And let us live in joy until we are there together. Amen.
Sunday, May 7, 2017
May 7, 2017
+ I know this might come as a surprise to most of you, but…when I was a child, I was, to say the least, a very independently minded child. Even when I was very young, I liked to do things my way. I didn’t like to be told what to do. I hated having to eat what anyone told me to eat, to go where I was told to go, and I wasn’t good at taking orders.
I wasn’t spoiled (though my older siblings certainly thought so). I didn’t whine. I didn’t complain. I wasn’t mean or coercive in my independence. I simply…didn’t do it.
When I joined the Cub Scouts—out of curiosity and the appeal of wearing a uniform than anything else—I didn’t last long. The first order I was given, I refused to do. When I was told that I had to dress a certain way in a talent show, I refused and when I was told that I HAD to do it, I responded by informing my parents that I was dropping out of the Cub Scouts (I was maybe 8 at this time).
That independent streak has been a difficult one in my life, now especially in my life as a priest. The reason I say it is difficult is because sometimes, when one is independent, when one is out on the edges, it can be a dangerous place. We human beings are a social animal, after all. We like to “fit in.” We like to be a part of crowd. And too much independence can be scary because it means we have to rely on our own devices all the time.
Which makes all the talk in the scriptures about sheep and flocks difficult for someone like me. Which also brings us to our Gospel reading for today:
In today’s Gospel, we find Jesus saying something that is a bit unusual. In our reading for today, you’ll notice, he does say HE is the Good Shepherd. What does he say he is? He says he is the gate through which the Good Shepherd enters. It’s an unusual image. But…it is beautiful. And with it, we get a glimpse into the Divine view of God’s relationship with us. This image of Jesus as the gate through which the sheep and the Good Shepherd enters is very good.
The reality is that Jesus really is both the gate and the Shepherd. For the sheep, there is really no difference. The gate and the shepherd are synonymous to the sheep.
Which makes the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is a vital one. It is a popular image because it is an image of God we strive for. We want a God who will hold us in arms of love and protect from danger. And I’m happy that is the image most of us have of God.
“I am the Gate for the sheep,” Jesus says. And by saying it, he says, “I am also the Shepherd who enters the gate.”
The story we just heard in the Gospel reading, like most of Jesus’ stories, has of course a deeper meaning. When Jesus talks about the good shepherd who enters by way of the gate and the thieves who enter to steal, the meaning is clear. Livestock in Jesus’ day—much like in our own—were valuable. When the thief and the bandit, the flock needed a wise, caring and strong shepherd to defend them.
The Good Shepherd was the one who, when those nefarious beings began started lurking too close for comfort in the dark, never left even one of the flock to be taken. The Good Shepherd tried to save each and every single one of them. He even looked after that one independent sheep who strayed away from the rest of the herd and lived out on the edges. Even the 8-year-old-Jamie-the-Cub-Scout sheep.
The good shepherd cared for the flock. He loved them. He even went one step further. When the predators came near, the Shepherd put himself between the predator and the sheep, thus endangering himself. He was willing to lay down his life to protect even the smallest of the sheep.
And how do we know this Good Shepherd? How do we know who to trust? The Good Shepherd does not climb over the fence—he does not sneak in. The Good Shepherd enters boldly into our lives, through the gate.
It is a beautiful image. Our God is a God who enters our lives boldly as times. Our God is a God who will not let one of us be lost—no matter how weak or slow we might be. Our God is willing to step between us and those dark forces that come into our lives. Our God even looks out for those of us who are independent and who walk the edges of this life. And even more than that, our God is willing to die for us.
Over the years, I have encountered many people—whether parishioners or students or people spiritually journeying toward God—who have not always had such comforting images of God in their lives. Some people have images of a God who is stern and mean and judgmental. Their vision of God is of a despot who is off in some far-off heaven, watching every little thing we do, waiting for us to trip up or fail in some way so we can be punished.
In many ways, some of us who have experienced God in this way, find ourselves rebelling against that image of God. And we most definitely should!
I am going to tell you in no uncertain terms—rebel!! Rebel against any image of God that presents God as anything less than God really is! Rebel against any image of God that says God is cruel or mean or close-minded or racist or sexists or homophobic. Rebel against any image of God that makes God anything less than fully loving, fully accepting, fully sheepherding.
If God is anything other than loving, accepting or caring, that is not the God we believe in as Christians. That is not the God we want coming to us. That is not the God who even allows us to be independent and even rebellious, while still loving us and protecting us.
So, I am thankful for a Sunday like today—this Good Shepherd Sunday—in which we can celebrate and reestablish the relationship we have with a loving and compassionate God—a God who comes to us as a kind and caring Shepherd of us. I like that this Good Shepherd Sunday falls on the Sunday before Mother’s Day.
I think Good Shepherd Sunday and Mother’s Day work well together. After all, mothering is very much like shepherding and vice versa. It takes a lot of love and specialized care to be a good mother. It takes concentrated care, to be downright honest about it. And a mother’s love is something everyone can relate to—whether or not we received that love from our mothers.
Some people who were not cared for by their mothers more likely than not long for that love. I think people who have grown up with an image of a vindictive God, also long for that deep, abiding and shepherding love.
Although most of us think of it as modern theology, there is actually a long tradition in the Church of looking to God as Mother.
Anselm of Canterbury prayed: "Jesus, as a mother you gather your people to you; you are gentle with us as a mother with her children."
I love that image of Jesus as Mother—as radical as it might seem to our way of thinking.
The great mystic Julian of Norwich writes of Jesus: "Jesus is our true mother, the protector of the love which knows no end...In nature, Jesus is our true mother by our first creation, and in grace by taking our created nature. All the love of offering and sacrifice of beloved motherhood are in Christ our Beloved."
And the reason I think these images of Jesus as Shepherd and Jesus as mother tie so well into each other is the statement Jesus makes that really sticks with me.
“I came so that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
Our God knows us. Each and every one of us. Even those independent ones of us who are out there on the edges of life. And our God wants us to live, and live abundantly. That’s what a good shepherd wants. That’s what a good mother wants.
Our God even knows that we are out there and is watching out for us too. And we know God. In Jesus, we most certainly know God. When we look into the face of our Good Shepherd, we see the Face of Jesus—the Face of someone who loves and cares for us and knows us like a mother.
But I think Jesus is calling all of us to something more than just meets the eye in this morning’s Gospel. Jesus is not simply saying that we are sheep to be shepherded. I think Jesus is also calling us to be good shepherds in our own lives as well. And this is not only a message for those of us who are ordained to be shepherds. We are all called to be shepherds.
Certainly we are shepherds to someone. Whether we are mother, or father or teacher or older sibling, we all have plenty of opportunities to be shepherds of those entrusted to us. Jesus sets quite an example for us. The Good Shepherd not only protects the flock. The Good Shepherd is even willing to lay down his life for the flock.
Few of us are willing to go that far, but when worse comes to worse, we might surprise ourselves. We might actually be willing to protect someone with our very lives.
So, throughout this coming week and next Sunday—on Mother’s Day—let us remember all that God has done for us. Let us remember how God, like a mother, had guided us, protected us and continues to loves us. Let us listen to the voice of God—a voice we know and heed in our lives. Let us remember how God knows us—knows the real us—the one no one else knows. And remember how—in our lives each of us is called to be a good shepherd to those entrusted to us as well.
Let us fear not when the thieves and bandits come sneaking around in our lives or in our world. Let us not be afraid when the darkness closes in on us. All we need to do is look toward the Gate. We are taken care of by the One who knows us and the One we also know.
We, like the lamb in popular art, are cradled in the arms of our Good Shepherd. We are being held at this moment, and, in that safe place, no danger can ever come too close again. And in that safe place, we do have life—a glorious, hope-filled life—and we have it abundantly!