Sunday, April 25, 2021

4 Easter


 Good Shepherd Sunday

April 25, 2021

 

Psalm 23; John 10.1-10

 

+ Today is, of course, Good Shepherd Sunday—the Sunday in which we encounter this wonderful reading about Jesus being the Good Shepherd.

 

Everybody loves this Sunday because…well…everybody loves the Good Shepherd.

 

This is probably one of the most perfect images Jesus could have used for the people listening to him in that day and age.

 

They would have “got” this.

 

They understood the difference between a good shepherd  and  a bad shepherd.

 

The good shepherd was the shepherd who actually cared for his or her flock.

 

They looked out for them, they watched them.

 

The Good Shepherd guided the flock and led the flock.

 

She or he guided and led the flock to a place to eat.

 

This is an important aspect of the role of the Good Shepherd.

 

The Good Shepherd didn’t just feed the flock.

 

Rather the good shepherd led the flock to the choicest green pastures and helped them to feed themselves.

 

In this way, the Good Shepherd is more than just a coddling shepherd.

 

He is not the co-dependent shepherd.

 

Today is not Co-Dependent Shepherd Sunday.

 

The Good Shepherd doesn’t take each sheep individually, pick them up, and hand-feed the sheep.

 

Rather, she or he guides and leads the sheep to green pastures and allows them feed themselves.

 

The Good Shepherd also protects the flock against the many dangers out there.

 

The Good Shepherd protects the flock from the wolves, from getting too near cliffs, or holes, or falling into places of water.

 

Let’s face it, there are many dangers out there.

 

There are many opportunities for us to trip ourselves, to get lost, to get hurt.

 

We all need a Good Shepherd to help us avoid those pitfalls of life.

 

Of course, the journey isn’t an easy one.

 

We can still get hurt along the way.

 

Bad things can still happen to us.

 

There are predators out there, waiting to hurt us.

 

There are storms brewing in our lives, waiting to rain down upon us.

 

But, with our eyes on the Shepherd, we know that the bad things that happen to us will not destroy us, because the Shepherd is there, close by, watching out for us.

 

We know that in those bad times—those times of darkness when predators close in, when storms rage— the Good Shepherd will rescue us.

 

More importantly the Good Shepherd knows their flock.

 

They know each of the sheep.

 

If one is lost, they know it is lost and will not rest until it is brought back into the fold.

 

In our collect for today, there is a wonderful reference to the Good Shepherd.

 

In the prayer, we ask God:

 

“Grant that when we hear his voice, we may know him who calls us each by name…’

 

Jesus sets the standard here for us.

 

Yes, we are called.

 

But, in our calling, we then, in turn, are, of course, to be good shepherds to those around us.

 

We are called to serve, to look out for those people around us who need us.

 

We are called to lead others to those choice places of refreshment.

 

We are called to help and guide others.

 

And, most importantly, we are called to see and know those people we come into contact with in this world.

 

We are not called to simply exist in this world, vaguely acknowledging the people who are around us.

 

We are to be actively engaged in the world and it the lives of others.

 

How often do we walk around not really “seeing” anyone around us?

 

We are called to actually “know” the people we are called to serve.

 

The God Jesus shows us is not some vague, distant God.

 

We don’t have a God who lets us fend for ourselves.

 

We instead have a God who leads us and guides us, a God who knows us each by name, a God who despairs over the loss of even one of the flock.

 

We have a God who, in Psalm 23, that very familiar psalm we have all hear so many times in our lives, is a God who knows us and loves us and cares for us.

 

But God accomplishes this love and knowledge through us.

 

We, by being good shepherds, allow God to be the ultimate Good Shepherd.

 

We were commissioned to be good shepherds by our very baptisms.

 

On that day we were baptized, we were called to be a Good Shepherds to others.

 

Anyone can be a good shepherd.

 

Certainly, priests and pastors have long clung to this image and applied it to their vocation.

 

And, they should.

 

We’ve known the good shepherds in our clergy and lay ministers.

 

I hope I have been a good shepherd to the people I have been called to serve.

 

And we’ve all known the bad shepherds.

 

Bad Shepherds (or hired hands, as we heard in our Gospel reading for today) who have been clergy, or  lay leaders, or political leaders or business leaders.

 

Just the other day, a former member of St. Stephen’s who moved elsewhere reminded me of a situation that I had to endure very publicly with a bad shepherd.

 

10 years ago I was asked to preach at an Easter Vigil Mass at another church.

 

There was another clergy person there.

 

And I preached at that mass about a recent book that had been published by Rob Bell—a very controversial book, but one that was very meaningful to me.

 

My sermon, however, was not controversial by any sense of the word.

 

I didn’t preach any heresy.  

 

However, after I finished and sat down, this particular clergy person got up, and before leading us in the Creed, proceeded to “correct” my sermon.

 

And he wasn’t nice about it.

 

He was condescending.

 

And he was downright mean about it.

 

And he blatantly reprimanded me, right there, in front of everyone, without actually addressing me, by the way, though I was sitting right there.

 

Now, I had never seen anything like that in all my years in the Church.

 

In fact, to this day, I have never seen anything like that.

 

I’ve never seen anyone actually do such a thing.

 

And there have been times when I have had preachers here with whom I have disagreed, with whom I have been not happy.

 

But I would never have even considered “correcting” them here in front of everyone afterward.

 

And I remember sitting there, essentially being bullied and reprimanded and, frankly, humiliated, in front of an entire congregation—at the Easter Vigil, nonetheless!—feeling as though I had left my body.

 

(That often happens when really difficult things happen to me in my life)

 

I can tell you that if I hadn’t been in such shock about it, I would’ve stood up and walked out of that church.

 

And in fact this former parishioner, and I think one other St. Stephen’s member who was there, actually did get up and walk out in anger and frustration.

 

This, to me, was an example of really  bad shepherding.

 

Even if my sermon was so bad, so theological incorrect (which it wasn’t—you can still read it on my blog), there were other ways to handle it.

 

But, it wasn’t, after all, about the sermon.

 

It was about me, and about what he felt about me.

 

And I can tell you what he intended to do worked. It hurt. Deeply.

 

This was a concentrated effort to correct and humiliate a person in front of everyone.

 

In a church.

 

At the Easter Vigil!

 

Bad shepherds/hired hands undermine and, chip by chip, destroy the work of Christ in this world.

 

But, today, we don’t have to worry about those bad shepherds.

 

We know that bad shepherds, and those who allow them to be bad shepherds, in the end, get their due.

 

The chickens always come home to roost.

 

Today, we celebrate the Good Shepherd—the Good Shepherd that is showing us the way forward to being good shepherds in our own lives.

 

Because in celebrating the Good Shepherd, we celebrate goodness.

 

We celebrate being good and doing good and embodying goodness in our lives.

 

So, on this day in which we celebrate the Good Shepherd, let us be what he is.

 

Let us live out our vocation to be good shepherds to those around us.

 

Let us truly “see” and know those people who share this life with us.

 

And let us know that being a good shepherd does make a difference in this world.

 

Let us make a difference.

 

Emboldened by our baptism, strengthened by a God who knows us and love us, let us in turn know and love others as we are called to do.

 

Let us pray.

 

Holy God, our Good Shepherd, you know us. You love us. You call us each by name. Guide us and direct us in the ways in which we should go. And, in doing so, strengthen us to go where we must. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

3 Easter

 


April 18, 2021

Luke 24.36b-48

 + For any of you who know me well, you know that I have my fair share of obsessions.

 That’s what you get when you get a poet for your priest.

 After all, poets definitely have obsessions.

 That, in my opinion, is what makes them poets.

 Now, one of my obsessions is a strange one.

 Well, all of my obsessions are probably strange to someone.

 Or to most people.

 But one of my many obsessions is…ghosts.

 I love ghost stories.

And most of you know about my weird obsession with Casper the Friendly Ghost


(Remember how I once wanted to get a tattoo of him on my arm?)

 And weirdly enough, it is one of things I am sometimes called to deal with as a priest.

 I know. I know.

 Haunted houses.

 Ghosts.

 Already I see people rolling their eyes.

 But it’s all part and parcel of the job.

 I actually have several stories that I could share—and a few that I can’t—abut one that I especially hold dear us this one:

 When I was a new priest and was asked for the first time to come in to a family’s house and deal with what seemed to be paranormal activities, I honestly didn’t know what to do.

 I was a fairly fresh priest.

 I thought I knew all the answers.

 I’d already been through the wringer a few times.

 But, I was a bit unprepared for this.

 I was serving at Gethsemane Cathedral here in Fargo at the time and Bishop John Thornton, retired Bishop of Idaho was serving as sabbatical Dean.

 I loved—and still love—Bishop Thornton.

 He’s one of my pastoral heroes.

 I learned so much about being an effective priest from Bishop Thronton in the short time I knew him and served with him.

 Well, on this particular situation, I went in to his office and told him I was asked to deal with this ghost situation.

 I said to him, “Bishop, what should I do? I don’t know if I really believe in ghosts.”

 The Bishop leaned back in his chair and with a  twinkle in his eyes, said, very nicely, “Jamie, who cares what you believe?”

 I was shocked by this.

 That wasn’t the answer I wanted to hear.

 But he very quickly added. “It doesn’t matter what you believe, Jamie. If these people think they have a ghost, go in and bless their house. If they need you to be an exorcist, be an exorcist. If they need you to be a ghostbuster, be a ghostbuster. Whatever they need you to be, be that for them. For that period of time you’re with them, believe whatever they believe. Bless their house. Drive out whatever they think they have. And then once you get back in your car and drive home, if you still don’t believe, then don’t.  The key is this: be what they need you to be.”

 It was the best answer I could’ve ever received.

 So, I went.

 I blessed their house.

 And sure enough, whatever the issue was, it never made itself known again.

 


Call me Father Ghostbuster!

 Bishop Thornton’s advice was by far the best advice I ever heard.

 It simply blew me away.

 It has also been advice that I have been able to apply to many other situations in my pastoral career. 

 And I can tell you, I have been asked, again and again to go in and deal with such issues.

 I still don’t know what I believe for certain about ghosts.

 But, as Bishop Thornton made clear, it really doesn’t matter what I believe on this issue.

 But there’s no getting around the issue of ghosts.

 In today’s Gospel, we find Jesus’ followers experiencing something they believe to be a ghost.

 But the experience they have is also much more incredible than any experience with a ghost.

 It much more life-altering.

 The Jesus who stands before them—the Jesus they know had been tortured and murdered, the Jesus who breathed his last and actually died—now stands before them.

 However, this Jesus is no ghost.

 He is flesh and blood.

 They can touch him.

 They can feel the wounds of his death.

 They can hold him.

 And he can eat actual food with them.

 The Jesus who appears to them, who actually lives with them, is someone they no doubt cannot even begin to understand.

 If they thought what he said and did before the crucifixion was amazing and mind-boggling, now it is even more incredible.

 This Jesus we encounter in today’s Gospel is just as incredible to us.

 And perhaps maybe even more so.

 For the people of Jesus’ day, they could actually accept the fact that things happened beyond their understanding.

 For us, we tend to rationalize away anything we don’t understand.

 And the idea of someone who has died suddenly appearing before us—in the flesh, with wounds—and eat with us—is more than incredible.

 It seems impossible.

 And as we hear it, we do find ourselves beginning to rationalize it away.

 But rationalize as we might, the fact remains: Christ is still present to us in the flesh.

 Certainly, we find Christ present in the physical elements of bread and wine of the Eucharist

 But we, the Church, those who have collectively come together to follow Jesus, to live the Christian life, to live out what Jesus taught us—we are also the physical body of Jesus in this world still.

 We, with our wounds, with the signs of our past pains, with all that we bring with us, are the embodiment of Jesus in this world.

 We are the ones who, like Jesus, bring a living and loving God to people who need a living and loving God.

 We are called to embody God’s love, to embody God’s compassion, to embody—to make part of our very bodies—a God who truly accepts and loves all people.

 That is what it means to be Jesus in this world.

 We are not called to be ghosts.

 We are not called to be vague Christians, who sort of float around and make echoing ghostly statements about our faith to people hoping they will somehow “accept Jesus.”

 We are called to be living, loving human beings embodying a living, loving God, serving living humans beings who, like us, are broken and in pain.

 Just as Jesus shared what was given to him, so are we to share what is given to us.

 We who have known the love and acceptance of our God are called to, in turn, share this love and acceptance to others.

 And when we do, we are the body of him who we follow.

 We can’t do the ministry we do if we are just ghosts.

 We are not going to help anyone is we are wraiths and specters of God in this world.

 The God we embody and carry with us is not some ephemeral thing.

 The God we serve is real.

 And when we go out and serve others as Jesus, we make God physical.

 We make God real.

 We make God’s love real.

 And that makes all the difference.

 That changes things.

 So, let us carry out this mission together.

 Let us be the body of  Jesus in the world.

 And as the Body of Jesus, let us be the conduits through which we bring God to those who need God.

 Let us sit down and eat with those with whom we serve and those we serve.

 Let us never be ghosts.

 “…a ghost,” Jesus says to us, “does not have flesh and bones…”

 But we do.

 And we are called to use our flesh and bones to serve others.

 Let us never be vague Christians who float about transparently.

 But let us be physical Christians, showing our wounds to those who are wounded.

 And as the body of Jesus in this world, we can do what Bishop Thornton reminded me

Bishop John Thornton

to do when I was a new priest:

 we can be whatever we are called to be in a particular situation.

 We, as the physical Body of Jesus, can adapt and mold ourselves to those situations in which we can make God present in those areas in which God needs to be present.

 If we do so, we are doing what Jesus calls us to do.

 If we do so we will find that we are not frightened, and that whatever doubts will arise in our hearts really, in the long run, won’t matter.

 Rather, by our presence, by love, by our acceptance, we will do what Jesus did.

 We will drive away, once and for all,  every one of those ghosts of fright and doubt.

Let us pray.

 Holy and loving God, help us to embody Christ in this world. Help us to be the hands, the feet, the face of Christ to those who need your love, your acceptance, your full inclusion in this world and in your Kingdome. In Jesus’ Name we pray. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sunday, April 11, 2021

2 Easter

 


April 11, 2021

John 20.19-31

+ If you know me for any period of time, one of the many weird things you will hear me talk about is my affection toward atheists.

 

And I’m not talking about it in some negative way.  

 I genuinely like atheists, and I definitely empathize with those who do not believe.

 I do not see that atheists and Christianity are necessarily diametrically opposed to each other.

 And I know that’s an extremely unpopular opinion from both Christians and atheists.

But I stand firmly on this topic.

I’ll be honest.

What disturbs me about atheist theology isn’t its (often rightful) anger toward Christianity and organized religion, its rebellion, its single-mindedness about how wrong religion is.

What disturbs me about atheism is how simple it is—how beautifully uncomplicated it is.

Tomorrow will be the 60th anniversary of amazing event.

On April 12, 1961, Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space.

Soviet propaganda at the time proclaimed that the first words from Gagarin from space were, “I see no God up here.”

There’s even a famous poster showing Gagarin floating above the spires of the


churches of Russia, and the words “No God” in Russian as a caption

The fact is, this was proved to be wrong.

Gagarin never said it.

In fact, there are stories abounding that Gagarin was actually a secret Orthodox Christians (If you want to google it, you find yourself going down some interesting rabbit holes).

But, let’s face it—it’s just so easy to not see God anywhere.

It’s easy to look up into the sky and say, I see no God.

It’s easy to believe that science has the only answers and that everything is provable and rational.

(And just to be clear, I am fully 100%  pro-science, by the way)

I almost—ALMOST—envy atheists.

And when I hear any of my many atheist friends state their disbelief in the white-bearded male god who sits on a throne in heaven, I realize: if that is what they don’t believe in, then…I guess I’m also an atheist.

In fact, any God that I can observe by looking at in the sky, or into the cosmos is definitely a God in which I don’t believe.

I don’t want a God so easily provable, so easily observed and examined and quantified and…materially real.  

I don’t believe in a God that is so made in our image.

I don’t believe in a God that is simply a projection of our own image and self.

Who would want that God?

We might as well go back and start worshipping the pantheon of pagan gods our ancestors worshipped.

We might as well start worshipping trees and rocks again.

It’s actually so easy to say there’s no God.

It is easy to say that we live in some random existence—without purpose or meaning.

And let me tell you, I also have major issues with the prevalent form of Christianity we see in this county and in the world right now.

I think many of here—or who are watching this morning—feel the same way.

Many of us have been hurt and abused by the bastardized version of Christianity that is now being promoted as the ONLY form of Christianity that is “valid.”

Trust me.

I get!

And I guess that’s why I’m kind of envious of atheists.

That’s why I jokingly say: “there but for the grace of the God in which they don’t believe go I.”

For us, however, as Christians, it isn’t as easy.

Being a Christian is actually quite hard.

I hate to break that news to you.

Believing is actually hard.

Yes, we do believe in the existence of God.

And we believe in a very physical representation of God in the person of Jesus.

We are now in the season of Easter—a season in which we celebrate and live into the reality of the Resurrection of Jesus,

But that event is based on some incredible evidence.

We are believing what a group of pre-Enlightenment, Pre-rational, Jewish people from what was considered at the time to be a backwater country are telling us they saw.

But we believe because we know, in our hearts, that this is somehow true.

We know these things really did happen and that because they did, life is different—life is better, despite everything that happens 

We believe these things in true faith.

We didn’t see Jesus while he was alive and walking about.

We didn’t see him after he rose from the tomb.

We don’t get the opportunities that Thomas had in this morning’s Gospel.

Doubting Thomas, as we’ve come to know him, refused to believe that Jesus was resurrected until he had put his fingers in the wounds of Jesus.

It wasn’t enough that Jesus actually appeared to him in the flesh—how many of us would only jump at that chance?

For Thomas, Jesus stood there before him, in the flesh—wounds and all.

And only when he had placed his finger in the wounds, would he believe.

It’s interesting to see and it’s interesting to hear this story of Doubting Thomas.

But, the fact is, for the rest of us, we don’t get it so easy.

Jesus is probably not going to appear before us—in the flesh.

At least, not on this side of the Veil—not while we are still alive.

 And if he does, you need to have a little talk with your priest.

 We are not going to have the opportunity to touch the wounds of Jesus, as Thomas did.

 Let’s face it, to believe without seeing, is not easy.

 It takes work and discipline.

 A strong relationship with God—this invisible being we might sense, we might feel emotionally or spiritually, but we can’t pin-point—takes work—just as any other relationship in our life takes work.

 It takes discipline.

 It takes concentrated effort.

 Being a Christian does not just involve being good and ethical all the time.

 Many, many atheists do that too.

 Most atheists I know are ethical, upright, good people too.

 Most atheists I know are committed the same ideals most of us are committed to here this morning.

 And they are sometimes even better at it all than I am sometimes, I’ll admit

 But, being a Christian doesn’t mean just being ethical and “good.”

 (Though we should all still be ethical and “good”)

 Being a Christian means living one’s faith life fully and completely as a Christian.

 It means being a reflection of God’s love, God’s Presence, God’s joy and goodness in the world.

 It means that we might not touch the wounds of Jesus as Thomas did, but we do touch the wounds of Jesus when we reach out in love to help those who need our love.

 We should be a walking, talking, living presence of God.

 God should be in our very core, our very marrow.

 Even if the God we are embodying is a mystery of us.

 Even if the God we embody is not seen.

  “Blessed are those who believe but don’t see,” Jesus says this morning.

 We are those blessed ones.

 We are the ones Jesus is speaking of in this morning’s Gospel.

 Blessed are you all.

 You  believe, but don’t see.

 We are the ones who, despite what our rational mind might tell us at times, we still have faith.

 We, in the face of doubt and fear, can still say, with all conviction, “Alleluia!”

 “Praise God!”

 We can’t objectively make sense of it.

 Sometimes all we can do is live and experience the joy of this resurrection and somehow, like sunlight shining in us and sinking deep into us, we simply bask in its glory. 

 Seen or unseen, we know God is there.

 Yuri Gagarin this morning knows that to be true.

 Our faith is not based on seeing God here in front of us in the flesh or proving the existence of God, or finding scientific proof for the Resurrection.

 Because we actually have known God, right here, right now.

 God has been embodied in us.

 We know God, and feel God, and taste God in the bread of the Eucharist.

 We know God through love—love of God and love of one another.

 Blessed are we who believe but don’t see now.

 The Kingdom of Heaven is truly ours.

 Alleluia!