Each year, the fourth Sunday of Easter is known as Good Shepherd Sunday, to remind us that even in resurrection life, Jesus still acts as our shepherd.
Just this week, a friend was telling me about a book she was reading that was written by an African priest. The purpose of the book was to explore Psalm 23. This particular priest had previously been a shepherd, and so his life experience influenced his understanding of Psalm 23.
According to this shepherd/priest, sheep, like chickens, participate in a “pecking order”…except it’s called a “butting order”. The purpose of this is to determine the hierarchy of the group. He also related that sheep are skittish and easily startled, so it’s important for the shepherd to try to keep the flock together and calm.
What I found most interesting though, was that sheep won’t lie down easily. Not because they’re big and clumsy, but because the shepherd has to be skilled in such a way as to meet these four “requirements”:
--the sheep need to be free of fear; they need to be comfortable and calm
--the sheep need to be free of conflict within the group…butting can’t have happened recently
--the sheep need to be free of pests such as flies and mosquitoes; it they are annoyed, they will start conflicts and become fearful
--the sheep need to be free of hunger…so they need to have been recently fed.
Why I found this so interesting is because it makes me think of us…the church.
We don’t want to be living in a state of anxiety, worry and fear. If we do, we can’t open our hearts to God and each other. We can’t make good decisions for the future of the church. We can’t be calm. Instead of working about bringing the kingdom of God, we become restless with bringing about the kingdom of US…what’s best for US, what WE like best, and so on…
While conflict is part of human nature, how we deal with conflict is important. As Episcopalians, one of our values is that we rely on scripture, reason and tradition equally…not one more than the other in helping to discern how God is calling us. As Episcopalians, one of our values is that we don’t all have to see things the same way. However, when conflict does arise, do we engage in a “butting order” or do we talk about our concerns? How do we listen to each other?
And then I started thinking about being free of pests…well, I can’t help but think that might be a bit self-explanatory. If we are annoyed, then we can’t be calm. If we can’t be calm, then we can’t focus on our work…which is ministry to each other and the world.
And if we aren’t fed, then we can’t do our work. For us, the idea of being fed means participating in community and in the Eucharist. As our concluding prayers say, “thank you for feeding us with the spiritual food of Christ’s body and blood…now send us out to do the work which you have given us to do with gladness and singleness of heart”.
So yes, the Lord is our shepherd.
But Jesus expands the idea of the Good Shepherd’s work. For Jesus, being a good shepherd is about being in relationship. As he tells his disciples in the gospel of John…”I know my own and my own know me”. Jesus knows us. He knows what we need—our hopes and desires, as well as our fears. As a Good Shepherd, it is his guidance which eases our fears with grace and mercy. And we know our shepherd because of his love. A shepherd’s love for his flock requires a willingness to provide for, to guide, to love, to heal, and to defend. It is an awesome responsibility to be a shepherd.
Jesus also told his disciples that he had other sheep and that he needed to bring them along. For early hearers of the gospel, this probably meant the Gentiles. The way I read it, it means everyone is invited. And if that’s true, if everyone is invited, then chances are there will be times of fear, conflict, hunger and pests. But like I said, it’s what we do with those experiences. We can give up and remain skittish little sheep, or we can experience the love of the shepherd who guides us to still waters. We can choose to leave the flock, or we can be fed by grace.
So I invite you to consider your life as a sheep.
When I first started thinking about Sunday’s sermons, my initial thought was “oh good…another ‘Jesus appears to his disciples after the resurrection’ story…I’ll just reiterate what I said last week”. But, as always, God has a better plan in mind. And so as I was reading the 1st letter of John, I was moved in a different direction.
When I took Biblical Greek courses, we did all of our translations out of 1 John. Because you’re so focused on vocabulary and grammar, and making sure you get all the words in the right order, sometimes you miss out on what the content of the texts is. I remember doing the translation for Sunday many years ago (3:1-7), but the words had new meaning to me today.
My favorite line from this particular text is “see what love the Father has given us that we should be called children of God”. I am so moved by this idea that love is given and we are called. To me, this is the essence of what being a people of the resurrection, a people of Easter, is all about. This letter was originally written to a group of “new” Christians…everyday folks struggling with their Christian identity. And in this letter they are reminded that they have a life in community which calls them to seek solidarity, forgiveness and peace with one another. Yes, they had independence and autonomy, but they lived as a village might. What affected one affected all in some way. We don’t really live like this anymore. What we grow in our gardens doesn’t necessarily keep the family and neighbors from going hungry. The books we read or the songs we listen to aren’t necessarily the same as everyone else. And that’s okay. But when it really matters…when someone has taken ill or died…we come together in solidarity and peace. When a new baby is born in our community…we come together in love and joy. When someone is struggling and feels the world closing in…we come together in prayer. We do these things because of the love we have been given and because we are called.
But that’s how we relate to one another. What happens when it’s a “stranger” or someone from “outside”? Are we able to extend that same solidarity, peace, love and joy? How do we pray for and with a “stranger”?
Last Sunday night, we had the World Awareness Dinner. We divided ourselves up into 1st, 2nd and 3rd worlds and ate food representative of those cultures. I would venture to say that people in the 3rd world group were less than excited about having Mark cater a meal of rice, while others had salmon. After the dinner, we came together to process the experience, learn about the lives and struggles of people different from ourselves, and then talked about ERD as a means by which to be in solidarity with those who struggle with various oppressions. The lesson was not just about raising awareness, but also to remember that all of us are loved and are called children of God.
In his book Search for Common Ground, Howard Thurman wrote that God is the giver of forgiveness and mercy, and God offers each of us shalom—that deep peace, well-being, hope, compassion and love—that we are then to extend to one another.
It is that shalom that the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus remind us of. When Jesus is among us and offers us peace, extends a hand in compassion, or shares a meal with us, it is in shalom. Shalom—the love that is given and calls us. Shalom—the presence of the risen Christ. Shalom—the opening up and awareness of each other as children of God. Shalom.
The seven Sundays between Easter and Pentecost are not referred to as the Sundays after Easter, but rather they are called the Sundays of Easter. It is a time when we continue to reflect on resurrection life. It is a time of joy and wonder. But for the early apostles, it was a time of fear, confusion and sadness. And sometimes for us, it’s hard to live into resurrection life when our fears have created doors for us to hide behind.
But having fear or doubt doesn’t make us bad Christians. It’s actually part of our daily living. While the resurrection turned the world upside down, we live in a right-side-up reality. So how do we find resurrection life around us?
According to John’s Gospel, Jesus doesn’t walk in and begin to argue with Thomas, instead he seeks Thomas out. Somehow, he knew the doubt that Thomas had, and he meets him in that place of doubt…behind closed doors. And this is part of the Good News that we are to take away from the Gospel story…Jesus meets us in our doubt. While all our questions may not be answered in ways that we expect or desire, Jesus meets us in the midst of those questions, behind the closed doors that we have created, with love.
One of the things I’ve often wondered about is if Thomas recognized Jesus. Mary Magdalene didn’t seem to, until her name was called. So I assume Thomas didn’t either until he was invited to touch him. What that tells me is that sometimes “seeing” isn’t necessarily believing…sometimes in order to recognize Jesus in our midst, we have to touch and listen.
And here’s the second part of the Good News from the Gospel story. Sometimes we can’t recognize Jesus, or resurrection life, until we listen to people’s stories. Sometimes we can’t recognize Jesus, or resurrection life, until we’ve touched a broken body. That somehow when we touch and listen, we are able to see. Henri Nouwen has written about Jesus as the wounded healer. That Jesus is among those who are broken, alone, afraid, marginalized, doubting, because he too was broken, alone, afraid, marginalized and doubting. Jesus is the wounded healer who comes to us in love.
So how do we recognize Jesus when he comes to us in our doubt? Well, according to the gospel, Jesus comes in peace. Jesus doesn’t come arguing with us or blaming us for our guilt, but comes to offer peace to our worried hearts.
Jesus comes to us in the words of comfort from a friend or neighbor. Jesus comes to us with empty hands and a story to tell. Jesus comes as a warm embrace.
One of my favorite songs is “Grandma’s Hands” by Bill Withers. Some of the lyrics read:
Clapped in church on Sunday morning
Played a tambourine so well
Soothed a local unwed mother
Used to ache sometimes and swell
Used to hand me piece of candy
Picked me up each time I fell
Boy, they really came in handy
She'd say, "Matty don' you whip that boy
What you want to spank him for?
He didn't drop no apple core"
But I don't have Grandma anymore
If I get to Heaven I'll look for
Maybe for Bill Withers, Grandma’s hands were the hands of Jesus…bringing peace, love, relief and joy to a small corner of the world which had found itself locked behind closed doors.
Jesus appears again and again to us…
So I invite you to consider what’s keeping you locked behind closed doors, and when you might have encountered the resurrected Jesus.
But Mary stood weeping. Have you ever thought of all the ways that you end up crying? Sometimes, it’s because you laugh so hard that tears just come. Or maybe you watch a movie with a happy ending that makes you cry, because you’re just so overcome with joy. Or you hear a song on the radio that reminds you of old friends. Or maybe you cry because you’re alone, worried, scared and sad. We cry for many reasons. Throughout Scripture, people weep. There is weeping in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, the Psalms, and many others. Jesus wept for his friend Lazarus. The daughters of Jerusalem wept. And Mary Magdalene weeps.
The angels ask Mary, “why are you weeping”. She is alone and deeply grieved. She had stood at the foot of the cross and watched as her friend and teacher was crucified. She is scared. Maybe some of those who persecuted Jesus have stolen his body from the tomb. If so, what challenges might the disciples have to face soon? This moment of standing in front of the empty tomb, alone and afraid, must have been very overwhelming.
But then, a voice calls out to her…a voice that she at first doesn’t recognize. A voice that calls out her name—“Mary”. Why she doesn’t recognize Jesus at first has always been a mystery. Is he somehow transformed in bodily appearance due to the resurrection? Is it just the shear shock of seeing someone who was believed dead to be alive? Had she wept until her eyes were swollen shut? Scholars and theologians don’t know.
Let’s think about Baptism for a moment. Baptism in its most literal form is an initiation into Christian living. It is a remembrance that we die to our old life and are raised new in the life of Christ. But let’s look at the parts of the Baptism rite. We are washed clean. We are given a candle to remind us of the light of Christ. We are given a name and called a child of God.
Maybe this moment in the garden by the tomb was Mary’s baptism. Her tears wash her clean. Her old life as a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth is dead. Her new life as a disciple of the Risen Christ is just beginning…this is the light of Christ within. She is called by name—Mary—and recognizes who it is that calls her…God incarnate, Jesus Christ.
Holy Week is an emotional one. We have prayed, confessed, fasted, grieved, and wept. But now, we weep no more. Alleluia! Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed!
Palm Sunday is always a bit puzzling and overwhelming for me. Every year, the questions are the same, just perhaps slightly nuanced in different ways: How is it that we begin the morning in joy and leave in silence? What does it mean—in the pits of our stomachs—when we all stand up and say “crucify him”? What lessons are we learning when some of our youngest church members take on the role of Jesus? Do we hear the story differently? Is this story meant to paralyze us or energize us?
I don’t have answers for any of these questions.
Yet, every year, we gather, sing, process, wave palm, read the Gospel, and leave in silence. In the process of celebrating Palm Sunday, we enter into kairos time—God’s time, holy, sacred liturgical time—and that’s where we’ll stay until Easter. We have passed the baptismal font only to stand in the shadow of the cross.
Holy Week is about spending time in that space between the font and the cross. It is fluid time; time to reflect on our own journey with Jesus. If we believe that Christ is all around us, if we believe that we can see the face of Jesus in the other, how do we treat Jesus? Would we anoint the feet of Jesus like the unnamed woman or would we stand in the shadows like Peter? Would we criticize, rebuke and taunt Jesus? Would we have the courage to stand at the foot of the cross and wait for his broken body to be let down?
Holy Week scares me sometimes. If I hold myself accountable to these questions, it makes me realize that more often than not, it’s easier to be Peter. And when I get scared, I get anxious, and for me, that means “hurry up…let’s get to Easter!” But we are invited into this kairos time not to live in guilt and remorse, but to experience transformation. It is an invitation to reflect, confess, be healed, and celebrate. This is the Christian life.
Last week I shared a bit of a poem, and this week I will again. It is from one of my favorite seminary professors and theologians, a man of many kind words, The Rev. Dr. Bill Countryman. In his poem, “The Learning of Love” he writes:
You know that “yes” does not come easily to the lips of frightened beings standing on the edge of the infinite. And you have become the most patient of lovers and most faithful, drawing us out of our dead ends to your door, inviting us in to break our fast on fragrant bread and your intoxicating cup.
Bill is talking about our relationship with Jesus, and the way I read it, it is the perfect reflection on Palm Sunday and all of Holy Week. It is hard to say “yes” to following Jesus to the cross…to stand on the edge. But Jesus is patient and kind. He has drawn us out, to reflect and confess; to not give in to the anxiety and worry of the world. He has invited us to break bread together, to share in a holy feast, to be healed and to celebrate.
Blessings to you all as you journey to the foot of the cross this week.
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.