Sunday, May 31, 2009


May 31, 2009

Acts 2.1-21

Today, of course, we commemorate the feast of Pentecost—that descent of the Holy Spirit among the disciples. The feast of Pentecost was celebrated long before Christians came on the scene. Originally it was a harvest feast celebrated 50 days after the Passover. The word “Pentecost” refers to the Greek word for 50. It was the feast on which the early Jews offered to God the first fruits of their harvests.

Now that is meaningful to us Christians and what we celebrate on this day. It is meaningful that the Holy Spirit came among us on this feast in which the first fruits were offered to God. After all, those first Christians who gathered in that upper room in our reading this morning from Acts, were truly the first fruits of the Church.

But the real question we might find ourselves asking is: who is the Holy Spirit? After all, we in the Church—especially in the Episcopal Church—simply don’t talk much about the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is one of those seemingly forgotten aspects of God. We don’t think of the Spirit as we should. Whenever we talk of spirits or anything spiritual, we instantly think of heady, other-worldly issues.

Most of us are pretty well-grounded. We can relate better to God as Incarnate God—a God who takes on flesh like our flesh, who suffered like we suffer and died like we will die. But when it comes to God as Spirit, our first reaction, no doubt, is one of distance.

The Spirit seems to some of us like a wispy mirage in our thoughts rather than something solid that we can cling to when we need to. Over the years, I’ve heard some very strange explanations of who the Holy Spirit is and how we should relate to this manifestation of God. When I was in Sunday School as a child, I remember very distinctly, a Sunday School teacher telling us that if we prayed to the Holy Ghost—that’s what we called the Holy Spirit back then—the Spirit would leave us. Now, I have no idea where that woman got that idea, but it, of course, frightened me, because the Holy Ghost was difficult enough to figure out as a kid. I, of course, now know better. We can pray to the Holy Spirit, since the Spirit is God, after all.

It wasn’t all that long ago that I heard—in shocked disbelief—an Episcopal priest I know describe the Holy Spirit as “something like Casper the friendly Ghost.” To be fair, I think she was trying to create an image of something gentle and kind for the people she was speaking to. But it just proved to me that even those of us who are priests in the Church might not fully understand who the Spirit is.

When it comes to the Holy Spirit, we all find ourselves grasping and struggling to define who and what the Spirit is in our lives. The Spirit can be elusive and strange and sometimes we might have a hard time wrapping our minds around the Spirit. But it is clear from the words of Jesus before he ascends back into heaven what the role of the Spirit is: Although Jesus might no longer be with us physically as he was when he walked with the disciples, he does remains with us in his spirit. He will leave—we will not be able to touch him and feel him and listen to his human voice again. But he is leaving something amazing in his place.

In a sense what happens with the Descent of Jesus’ Spirit upon us is the fact that we now have the potential to be prophets. The same Spirit which spoke to Ezekiel, which spoke to Isaiah, which spoke to Jeremiah, which spoke to Moses, also can now speak to us and be revealed to us just as it spoke and was revealed to those prophets form the Hebrew Bible.

That is who the Spirit is in our midst. The Spirit we celebrate today—and hopefully every day—and in our lives is truly the spirit of the God that came to us and continues to come to us—first to those prophets in our Hebrew past, then in the person of Jesus and finally in that rushing wind and in that rain of burning flames. It is through this Spirit that we come to know God in ways we might never have before. God’s Spirit comes to us wherever we may be in our lives—in any situation or frustration. God’s Spirit is with us, as Jesus promised, always. Always.

And it is through this Spirit that God comes to know us as well. For those of us who want to grasp these experiences—who want to have proof of them—the Spirit doesn’t fit well into the plan. We can’t grasp the Spirit. We can’t make the Spirit do what we want it to do. In that way, the Spirit truly is like the Wind that came rushing upon those first disciples.

So, how do we know how the Spirit is working in our lives? Well, as Jesus said, we know the tree by its fruit. In our case, we know the Spirit best through the fruits God’s Spirit gives us. Remember what the feast of Pentecost originally was. It was the feast on which the first fruit were offered to God. In a sense, what happens on our Pentecost, is God returning those fruits to us. On the feast of Pentecost, we celebrate the fruits the Spirit of God gives to us and we can be thankful for them. The Spirit comes to us and manifests itself to us in the fruits given to us by the Spirit. We get a glimpse of these different fruits in our reading this morning from 1 Corinthians.

We often hear about Pentecostals—those Christians who have been born (or baptized) in the Spirit. They are the ones who speak in tongues and prophesy and have words of knowledge or raise their hands in joyful praise—all those things we good Episcopalians find a bit disconcerting. These Pentecostals—as strange as we might find them—really do have a lot to teach the rest of us Christians about the workings of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

I remember the first time I ever attended a Pentecostal church. Rather than being attracted to that way of worship, I was actually turned off. Partly my reason for doing so, is that by that time in my life I had, in fact experienced the Spirit very profoundly in my life. For me, the Spirit of God came to me not in a noisy, raucous way, but rather in a quiet, though just as intense, way. The Sprit of God as I have experienced it has never been a “raining down” so to speak, but rather a “welling up form within.” The fruits of the Spirit for me have been things such as an overwhelming joy in my life. I have known the Spirit to draw close when I feel a true humbleness come to me. When the Spirit is near, I feel clear-headed and, to put it simply, happy. And more than anything, when the Spirit draws close, I am filled with a true sense of hope. When the future seems bleak and ugly, the Spirit can come in and make everything worth living again.

A week from next Thursday—June 11—I will celebrate the fifth anniversary of the my ordination to the priesthood. On that day, I can tell you, when the bishop and my fellow sister and brother priests laid hands on me, and in that moment I became a priest, I truly felt the presence of the Spirit of God in my life.

No doubt everyone here this morning has felt a similar experience of God’s Spirit, although you might not have readily recognized that experience as God’s Spirit. Maybe it was the joy you felt when a child or grandchild was born. Maybe it was a sense of calm coming to you in the midst of a difficult time in your life. Maybe it was a comforting hand on your shoulder when you were sorrowing or a bit of advice you needed for some problem you had been carrying with you for some time.

This is how God’s Spirit comes to us. The Spirit does not tear open the ceiling and force its way into our lives. The Spirit rather comes to us just when we need the Spirit to come to us.

So, this week of Pentecost, look for the gifts of the Spirit in your life and in those around you. Open yourselves to God’s Spirit and let it flow through you like a caressing wind. And remember the true message of the Spirit to all of us—whenever it seems like God is distant or nonexistent, that is when God might possibly be closest of all, dwelling within us, being breathed unto as it was those first disciples. On this feast of Pentecost—this feast of the fruits of God—give thanks to God for all the many fruits of the Spirit in your life.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

7 Easter/Sunday after the Ascension

May 24, 2009

John 17.6-19

This week, we move slowly away from the Easter season toward Pentecost. 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, he has been taken up.

We find a transformation of sorts happening in our relationship with Jesus. Our perception of Jesus has changed. No longer is he the wise sage, the misunderstood rebel, the religious renegade that he seemed to be when he walked around, performing miracles and upsetting the religious and political powers that be. He is now something much more. He is more than just a regular prophet. He is the Prophet extraordinaire. He is the fulfillment of all prophecies. He is more than just a king—a despotic monarch of some sort like Caesar or Herod. He is the ruler of our hearts and souls. He is the King of our deepest desires and longings. He is more just a priest—offering many sacrifices and prayers on behalf of us. He is now the great High Priest—the Priest who has offering himself as sacrifice and as a living prayer for us.

At his ascension, we find that he is, in a sense, anointed, crowned and ordained. At his ascension, we find that what we are gazing at is something we could not comprehend before. In him, we recognize the fact that God has truly come among us. God has taken flesh and, in that flesh, has lived and has died. But that, in dying, he has broken the hold death held on us and has promised us also a life without death like his own. In him, God speaks to us not from a pillar of cloud or fire, not on some shroud-covered mountain, not in visions, but in a Person like us. A Person who has flesh and blood and bones, who feels emotions and is tempted like we’re tempted.

The puzzle pieces are falling into place. What seemed so confusing and unreal is starting to come together. God truly has come among us as one of us. And next week, one more puzzle piece falls into place when Jesus, in a sense, returns. Next week, we will celebrate his Spirit descending upon and staying with us.

For the moment, 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.

Last week, I examined the actual event of the Ascension. This week, smack dab in the middle of the twelve days between the Ascension and Pentecost, we find ourselves examining the impact of this event of Jesus in our lives. And Jesus has made an impact in our lives. We, those of us who are fortunate enough to experience the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, at least liturgically, in our Sunday readings and in our liturgy, find ourselves constantly confronted with the meaning of these events. We are faced with the reality of them and what we should do to make sense of them.

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 ascended Jesus still acts in our lives. 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.

When we think about what those first followers went through in a fairly short period of time—Jesus’ betrayal and murder, his resurrection and his ascension—we realize it was a life altering experience. Their lives—their faith, their whole sense of being—was changed forever. They would never be who they were again. Oftentimes, when those experiences happen to us, we find ourselves reeling from them. We find ourselves simply moving through the life-altering events with bated breath.

Only later, when everything has settled down, do we have the opportunity to examine what had just happened to us. And it is then that we realize the enormity of these changes in our lives. For those first followers of Jesus,. it seems like they didn’t have much of a change 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 Jesus’ 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, I came to that realization myself. Ministry is perpetually on-going. There is never an ending to it. 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 meetings, there are lonely nights or sleepless nights or angry nights. More often than night, 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. 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.

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 ascended Jesus, 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.

We all remember that song by the Beatles, “Eleanor Rigby.” I remember how sad I used to feel when I heard them sing about Father Mackenzie, how he

“…wipes the dirt from his hands as he walks form the grave.
No one was saved.”

It feels like that sometimes. But those moments are moments of self-centeredness. Those moments are moments when we think it all depends on us. On ME.

Our job, in this time between Jesus’ departure from us and his return to us, is 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 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, 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 is triumphant—as Prophet of prophets, of King of Kings, as the High Priest of all priests. Above us, Jesus triumphs—and we with him.

All we have to do 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 save—we were saved.

Jesus has ascended. He prays in today’s Gospel that we “may have [his] joy made complete in [ourselves].” That joy comes when we let the ascended Jesus do what he needs to do through us.

So, let his joy be made complete in you. Let the joy of his ascension live in you and through you and be reflected to others by you. When we do, we will be, as he promises us, “sanctified in truth.” We will be sanctified in the truth of knowing and living out our lives in the light of ascension. We will be sanctified by the fact that we have looked up and seen the truth happened above us in beauty and light and joy .

Sunday, May 17, 2009

6 Easter

May 17, 2009

1 John 5.1-6; John 15.6-17

I remember with a certain fondness and humor, a past parishioner who would come up after the service and say to whomever preached: “Interesting sermon. I just wish there were a few less sermons about looooove.” And she would say that word just that way: “loooove.”

One time I asked her about her apprehension regarding sermons about love. She responded by saying:” I know love is important. Don’t get me wrong. I loved my husband. I love my kids. I will even say that I love God. But, dear Lord, there are more things we can talk about every Sunday than looooove.”

That woman, wherever she might be this morning, no doubt hates the readings for this Sunday. We get a double dose of love in our scriptures today. Jesus, in our Gospel reading, is telling yet again us to love. He tells us: “Abide in my love.” And John, in his epistle, reminds us of that commandment to love God and to love each other.

Certainly, to some extent, I can see where that parishioner was coming from. Love, in our society, has taken on a kind of fluffiness. It seems so saccharine sometimes. Love often seems to be equated with cupids and valentines and dreamy-eyed lovers gazing at each other longingly. But the love Jesus is speaking of is not a sappy, fluffy love.

Love, for Jesus, is a radical thing. To love radically means to love even those people who are difficult to love. To love those people we don’t want to love—to love the people who have hurt us or abused us or wronged us in any way—is the most difficult thing we can do. If we can do it all. And sometimes we can’t.

But we can’t get around the fact that this is the commandment from Jesus. We must love. And it is this commandment that he left us with in those days following his resurrection.

This coming Thursday is the feast of the Ascension. Some of us look at the Ascension as a kind of anticlimactic event. The Resurrection has already occurred on Easter morning. That of course is the big event. The Ascension comes as it does after Jesus has appeared to his disciples and proven to them that he wasn’t simply a ghost, but was actually resurrected in his body. In comparison to Easter, the Ascension is a quiet event. The resurrected Jesus simply leads his followers out to Bethany and, then, quietly, he is taken up into heaven. There are no angelic trumpets. There are no choirs of angels welcoming him into heaven. There is no thunder or lightning. He simply goes.

So, why is the Ascension important to us? It’s important because this is where our work begins. This is where we are forced to go out now and actually do the work Jesus has left for us to do. It is at this point that we need to live out that command to love. But what I like about the feast is more than just going out to do Jesus’ work. I like this feast but it’s so fantastic. I mean, Jesus actually goes up—he goes away from us. He goes off into some other place.

Now for those of us who have some sort of scientific knowledge, those of us who are rational, thinking people, this image is a hard one to wrap our minds around. Jesus is taken up. It is at this point that I find myself really examine that word—Up. I find myself approaching this word from the perspective of a poet.

As you know, I am a poet. And for a poet, words are everything. Every little word is important and must be carefully chosen and carefully examined. So, as a poet, I see this word “up” as important in a whole other way.

Remember what we were taught as kids; heaven is up and hell is down. So, of course, Jesus went up, right? For those early believers, who believed in the three-tiered world—heaven above, the earth in the middle and hell below—Jesus must in fact go up. By the Middle Ages the Church took this literally to heart. It was a custom in some churches at that time actually cut holes in the roof of the church. As the Gospel was read a figure of the resurrected Christ was raised on a pulley through the opening. Now remember, the Gospel would’ve been read in Latin. Most of the people probably wouldn’t have understood it anyway. So, here was a visual representation of Jesus going up.
As time went on, they got even more sophisticated. They also cut a hole in the floor so that as the figure of Christ went up through the roof the figure of the devil went down through the floor. But that was then. In their world up meant up and down meant down. We certainly know better now, don’t we? Up doesn’t mean the same for us as it did for them. We know that the world isn’t flat but round and so up and down are different for us.
I once heard a Unitarian minister speaking about the ascension once. He said that if Jesus actually went up in the air and flew off toward some actual physical heaven, then now, some 2,000 years later, he would still be out there somewhere, in outer space, still flying along. The problem with that thinking is that this liberal minister was being just as literal minded as those people in the middle ages who truly believed that Jesus went up. To some extent, what that Unitarian minister was talking about was that Jesus didn’t so much as go up—άΰέ (ane)--but rather that Jesus went out. The Greek word Luke would’ve used for this, if that’s what he meant, would have been έκ (ek) or “out of”. Jesus then isn’t off in space somewhere flying toward some far-off galaxy called heaven, nor do I think that the Ascension cancels out or defies all the laws of natural science. What both the fundamentalist Christians and the literal-minded minister missed is the ability to look at what Luke was writing about with a poet’s eye.

For those who witnessed it, it must’ve been an amazing and overwhelming experience. Already they saw this person they knew and loved and followed brutally murdered. Then, suddenly, there he was, raised from the dead, and was in fact standing before them, wounds and all. Finally, he was gone. He went up out of their sight. But let’s look at it from Jesus’ perspective.

In her poem, Ascension, Denise Levertov, one of my all time favorite poets, looks at the Ascension from his very perspective. In the poem, she imagines Jesus relinquishing the earth and stretching himself toward heaven (in her words) “through downpress of dust.” She compares it to

“a shoot that pushes its way, delicate and tough,
through soil to sunlight, as if it’s a kind of work,
and not some weightless body floating like a balloon.”

Jesus then, rooted as he is to the earth, to creation, moves upward then not through outer space like some astronaut but rather up through creation—through the fertile soil of created time and space—into the light and life of God. Now it really means something, doesn’t it? Here’s something we can grasp and make sense of and still not sacrifice what we know rationally.

But there’s also one other part of this way of thinking that we sometimes neglect. If we are truly looking at this from the perspective of Jesus, what do you think Jesus was feeling as he moved toward God? Certainly he felt Joy. Certainly he felt Happiness. When we are happy—when we are joyful—we use the word soar often. Our hearts soar with happiness. When we are full of joy and happiness we imagine ourselves floating upward. We talk about being on Cloud Nine. We talk about our feet barely touching the floor. In a sense, when we are happy or in love or any of those other wonderful things, we, in a sense, ascend. Conversely, when we are depressed we plunge. We fall. We go down.

So this word “up” is important. Jesus, in his joy, went up toward God. His followers, in their joy, felt him go up.

St. Augustine said of the Ascension, “let our hearts ascend with [Christ].”

For those followers, their hearts truly did ascend with Christ. So, it is accurate language.

The ascension is important too in dealing with one other reality. Like those first followers, we must face the fact that Jesus is no longer physically with us. The story of the ascension is that, somehow we must carry on without Jesus physically in our midst. He took his leave. He left us physically. Now I don’t mean that he doesn’t come to us physically. Certainly Jesus is present in the physical elements of the bread and wine that we are about to celebrate at this altar. Certainly Jesus is present with us, as well. We—Christ’s followers now—are the physical Body of Christ in the world. What I am talking about is that the Jesus those first disciples knew—the one who walked with them and talked with them and fed them and laughed with them, was not with them any more. He had gone up.

But two weeks from today, an event will happen that will show us that Jesus remains with us in an even more extraordinary way. On that day—Pentecost Sunday—his Spirit will descend upon us and remain with us always.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. For now, we must simply face the fact that it all does fall into place. Jesus will not leave us barren and afraid. Jesus loves us too much for that. God will never leave us alone. Although no longer with us physically—we cannot put our fingers in his actual wounds—Jesus is still present among us in his Spirit, in the bread and wine, in each other.

So, today, and this week, celebrate the ascended Christ. Celebrate him by living out his command to love—to love those we don’t want to love, that are difficult to love. As we remember and rejoice in the Ascension, let your hearts, full of love, ascend with Jesus. Let them soar upward in joy at the fact that Jesus is still with us. And we when we love—when we love each other and God—Jesus’ spirit dwells within us in a way that can never be taken from us.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

5 Easter

May 10, 2009

John 15.1-8

You’ve no doubt heard me say it before, and you will hear me say it again: there is one book that has been very influential for me in helping me understand what it means to be a Christian. This book—A Generous Orthodoxy by Brian McLaren—was a book that blew me away the first time I read it. Now, the title alone might turn some people off.

A Generous Orthodoxy.

Many of us—especially those of us with a more liberal thinking—might find our defenses coming up when we hear a word like “orthodoxy.” Certainly, many people have been using orthodoxy as a catchphrase—a litmus test of sorts to find out if you’re one of “us”—people who think and believe one way—or one of “them”—people who think different than “us.” Certainly a phrase like orthodoxy seems to perpetuate the polarization of the Church. We find terms like “liberal,” “conservative,” “Moderate,” “Windsor-compliant,” or what have you being thrown around without much serious thought about what those terms mean.

But I think many of us—especially Episcopalians and Anglicans—find ourselves square pegs in the round holes of those terms. A lot of us might be so-called “”liberals” on some issues, such a women’s ordinations, or the place of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people in the Church, and yet, we are aren’t so comfortable with some of the theology that other so-called “liberals” profess. Others of us might consider ourselves “conservative” when it comes to issues of Scripture, liturgy, the Church, but when it comes to social issues, we find our selves a bit outside what is normally expected of us as “conservatives.”

That’s what I love about the Episcopal Church and Anglicanism. Here, in its purest sense, one can’t really “peg” anyone clearly. My good friend, Brother Benet Tvetden, a Roman Catholic Benedictine monk, shared this insight with me the other day in an email:

At the end of the month I'm accompanying some dissident Episcopalians on a Benedictine tour of Stearns County Minnesota. They are oblates [lay members] who belong to the now Anglican Church of the Good Shepherd in Sioux Falls. I like them a lot. I wish right wing Catholics could be as nice as they are.

Sometimes we Episcopalians need a perspective like this. Just when we think we’ve pegged someone as “conservative” or “liberal,” we find areas of commonality with them that surprise us. Or sometimes, we find that when we have demonized a group of people, we are disarmed when they are welcoming to us and or just plain nice to us.

In Anglicanism, we find that no one can be easily pegged. McLaren explores Christianity from a perspective similar to this. For him, he says there is no reason why one can’t be “orthodox”—a person who believes in Jesus, who believes in things like the Incarnation, the belief that Jesus is truly God and truly human, in things like the Resurrection or the Real Presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament—and still be someone who accepts gay and lesbian people in the church without judgment. We can, in other words, be orthodox, without being fundamentalist.

McLaren writes: “For me the ‘fundamentals of the faith’ boil down to those given by Jesus: to love God and to love our neighbors.”

He goes on to say: “…the way [of God for Christians] is by embarking on an adventure of faith, hope and love, even if you don’t know where your path will lead…The way to know God is by following Jesus on that venture. One doesn’t learn what God is like in the library or pew and then begin to love God in real life. One begins to love God and others in real life. In the process one learns what God is like—and one might be driven to the library and pew to learn more. Anyone who doesn’t embark on the adventure of love doesn’t know God at all,…for God is love.”

See why I love this book so much! It is filled with insights such as this. Again and again, McLean shows the way forward in our journey of following Jesus in love.

And in today’s Gospel, we find Jesus giving us a glimpse as well of what it means to follow him.

“I am the vine, you are the branches,” Jesus tells us.

The effective branch bears fruit. Our job as Christians is do just that. It is to bear fruit. It is to be effective as Christians. Being a Christian doesn’t mean just feeling warm and fuzzy all the time. Being a Christian isn’t only about following private devotions. Being a Christian isn’t about our own private faith. Being a Christian means living out our faith.

I think so many people have confused exactly what Christianity is. Most people seem to think it is exclusively a set of beliefs that one needs to follow to get into heaven, so to speak. But being a Christian also involves a certain way of living one’s life. It involves living our lives a certain way. It involves seeing our lives and the lives around us a certain way. It means seeing the world a certain way. Being a Christian means following Jesus—not just believing in Jesus. And following Jesus means letting Jesus lead the way. It means allowing the vine to sustain us so we in turn can bear fruit.

Today we, as Christians, get to remind ourselves once again why we are Christian. Today, as we baptize Michael O’Connell, we get to reaffirm our Baptismal Covenant—that covenant that is formed in the waters of baptism, that remind us each time we profess it what it means to be a follower of Jesus, what it means to be a fruitful vine, well nourished and well-fed by those waters of baptism. Today, in our Baptismal Covenant, we say remind ourselves and each other that we will strive to be followers of Jesus and that being followers of Jesus means heeding those commandments of loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves. When we do this—when we live into our baptisms—when we recognize that our baptism was not just some christening service when we were babies, but an actual revolutionary event in our lives that changed us and transformed us and continues to change us and transform us—when we do that, we are producing good fruit. When we take our baptism and live out this amazing and life-changing event in our lives and in the world and not just here in church on Sundays, we are bearing good fruit. When we live out that command of Jesus to love God and love our neighbors as we love our selves, then we are bearing the greatest fruits of all in the world.

Because when we do those things—when we live out our baptismal covenant in our lives, in all that we do—we are making a difference in the world. We are doing positive and effective things in the world. We are transforming the world, bit by bit, increment by increment, baby step by baby step. We are the conduits through which Christ works in our lives and in the lives of those around us.

This is what it means to follow Jesus. This is what means to be a positive Christian example in the world. And when we do this, we realize that we are evangelizing. We are sharing our faith, not only with what we say, but in what we do.

Brian McLaren in A Generous Orthodoxy reminds us that our job as Christian is not be arrogant and conceited. We cannot take our Christian faith and force it on others. We cannot be obnoxious in our faith. Rather, McLaren writes: “We share the good news of Jesus, seeking to make disciples of all people—always inviting, never coercing.”

“Always inviting, never coercing.”

That is what it means to be a Christian—to be a true follower of Jesus in the world. That is what it means to bear good fruit.

As we celebrate this morning this baptism, as we remember our own baptisms, let us do so with joy and gladness. Let us do so knowing that what we celebrate and what we remember is more than just a reminder of what we believe. Let us also be reminded that our baptism was the catalyst in our lives. We were transformed at that moment, in those waters. We were set on our way to live our lives, following Jesus wherever Jesus leads. Our Christian faith, formed at our baptism, is more than just another religion. It is more than just a series of beliefs and traditions and rituals. Our Christianity is a way of living. It is a way of perception—a way of looking at the world around us and seeing it with eyes of love. Our Christianity is about loving—always and everywhere, even in those moments when we think we might not have any more love to give.

So, like Michael, who is about to set out this morning on that wonderful journey of love in following Jesus, let us reaffirm what we have promised in our baptism. Let us also be rejuvenated and strengthened once again to continue our journey of love in following Jesus wherever he leads us. Let us, in the words of our collect for today, always recognize Jesus “to be the way, the truth and the life, that we may steadfastly follow his steps in the way that leads to eternal life…”

Sunday, May 3, 2009

4 Easter

Good Shepherd Sunday
May 3, 2009

John 10.11-18

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 Boy Scouts.

That independent streak has been a difficult one on 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.

In today’s Gospel, we find Jesus saying he is the Good Shepherd. We get a glimpse into the Divine view of God’s relationship with us. This image of Jesus as Good Shepherd is one we all know well. We can probably think of those popular paintings of Jesus lovingly cradling a lamb in his arms. The Good Shepherd is depicted as well in stained glass and statues. 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 Jesus.

“I am the Good Shepherd,” Jesus says and they are the words we long to hear from him. 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 and the hired hand, the meaning is clear. Livestock in Jesus’ day—much like in our own—were valuable. When the wolves and other predators came about, the flock needed a wise, caring and strong shepherd to defend them.

The Good Shepherd was the one who, when those wolves 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. 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.

The hired hand, on the other hand, was weak and lazy. He didn’t care for the flock. In fact he didn’t feel anything for the flock. It was just another job for him. For the hired hand, the flock were just mindless dumb animals. When the wolves started howling, so what if that independent sheep got caught.

See the difference? 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 who are independent and who walk the edges of this life. And even more than that, our God is willing to die for us. Our God is truly Jesus the Good Shepherd.

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 should. That is not the God we believe in as Christians. That is not the God we want to follow. 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 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. Every so often in the Church calendar, this Sunday falls on Mother’s Day. Not so this year, but 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 Jesus as Mother. Anselm of Canterbury wrote: "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 know my flock and my flock know me.”

Jesus 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. Jesus even knows that we are out there and is watching out for us too. And we know God in the Person of Jesus. When we look into the face of our Good Shepherd, we see the Face of our God—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—remember what God in Jesus has done for you. Remember how Jesus, like a mother, had guided you, protected you and continues to loves you. Remember how Jesus has done what the Good Shepherd is expected to do. He laid down his life to protect you from those predators roaming in the dark seeking to do you harm. Remember how Jesus knows you—knows the real you—the one no one else knows. And remember how—in your life you are called to be a good shepherd to those entrusted to you as well.

Fear not when the wolves in your life began howling. Do not be afraid when the darkness closes in on you. You are taken care of by the one who knows you and the one you know. You, like the lamb in popular art, are cradled in the arms of Jesus the Good Shepherd. He is holding you to him and, in that safe place, no danger can ever come too close again.

3 Pentecost

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