Year B, Easter 4
April 22, 2018
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” Or as Jesus puts it, “I am the good shepherd.”
Happy Easter everyone! The sunshine! You can feel the power of life surging right now. I heard the grass growing outside of our window last night. The creation is reflecting back to us meaning in this Easter-tide.
On the fourth Sunday of Easter we always read this passage from St. John’s Gospel, “I am the good shepherd.” We’ll get to the metaphor of the Good Shepherd in a moment. One thing to keep in mind, this is important, is that in the Easter-tide, our emphasis is not on the sacrifice, not on the self-giving of Jesus in the crucifixion: that’s Lent. The emphasis of Easter is on power, the act of power that follows the crucifixion, through it and from it. That act of power is the Resurrection. And that power was so great, that not only was Jesus raised, but it was so strong that it splashed out into the world, and those willing to take up the mantel in Jesus’ name received it. The Resurrection, an act of power, happens in the power of love. Life, light, healing, saving, raising… that is the power of love happening. It was definitive in that first Easter, and despite the trials and tribulations of our ancestors, that we experience, nevertheless, that love persists. The power, the life, light, love of Jesus Christ is still here, still healing and saving, still growing the grass, still inviting us into closer relationship with God each other, and still changing the perishing world, confounding the principalities and powers as it did the rulers and scribes and elders 2000 years ago. Could that be what it means to “dwell in the house of the Lord for ever?” Maybe.
The power of Jesus is love. It is a power that is strong enough to save you, me, the whole world. That power, though, doesn’t manifest in sentiment. It doesn’t change the world through changing how we feel or feel about anything. No, the love we are offered by and in and through Jesus Christ is the love St. John writes about in his epistle, love expressed “…not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”
“… in truth and action.” That’s a fitting scriptural lead in to our ministry fair. After church I hope you can join us as we learn about and celebrate all of the amazing things we do here at Resurrection. Love in action! Come learn about Home Starter Kits, Hospitality Village, Egan and Shelter week and all the ways we serve our neighbors and enact God’s justice in the world. Learn about how we form our children, loving them, helping them love each other and God and helping them love the world so much that they just have to be good, moral people in it. Learn about all the things we do to keep this place running, governing the community, raising and managing money, keeping up this building and grounds. And learn about our life of common prayer, setting the table with altar guild, serving at the table with the Eucharistic Ministers, singing with the choir and reading with the lectors. 33, 38 ministries? We do do a lot here, and our community is better for it. There’s a churchy saying: “Would anyone notice if we ceased to be, if Resurrection closed its doors?” Yes, in a word. Eugene would. It’s not that we’re all that, but we, you do a lot here. The love of God in Christ with the Holy Spirit flows in and from this place in the actions we do, in service and prayer. The actions we do is God’s love shining into a sin sick world. So please join us downstairs. See what your church neighbors are up to. (And that’s where the cookies will be). Get more involved if you can, and if you can’t, don’t feel bad, just shine your love on those who can. All I ask is that you be honest with yourself about what you can and cannot do, not just what you don’t feel like doing. It is in fact OK for the church to ask things of us. That doesn’t mean you have to say “yes.”
“Faith without works is dead.” No doubt about that. We are called to love “in truth and action.” But action is just part of it. We ain’t getting to heaven on our work record. We don’t gain God’s favor by what we do, or what we believe, or what we think or any other action. Well, God’s favor isn’t gained, it is freely given always and everywhere to everyone and anyone willing to accept it. That is grace. But the love that we give is not just what we do, it is also who we are, the truth of who we are fully realized. Our inner and outer lives need to be in alignment. Have you run into anyone who gives and gives and gives, who signs up for every volunteer opportunity and seems to hate it? They can be miserable, mean, territorial, contemptuous of those being served. I have not seen that here, thankfully, but I have seen it other places, and some of the stories I’ve heard! Goodness. Soup served with a sneer just isn’t as good for you as soup served in, with and by someone filled with love. Heart-water makes everything taste better and it’s better for you.
This can be a real struggle for some of us, aligning what we do with the truth of who we are and what we know. This brings us back to the good shepherd.
How does the power of love that Jesus Christ gives us in the Resurrection manifest in both the truth of who you are and the actions you take in the world? It manifests in the whole you. The whole you, your true self not only manifests in truth and action coming together, but the very presence of that love can reveal who you truly are and how you are to be and what you are to do in the world. We so desperately need that kind of clarity right now. Violence continues erupting world-wide, Syria, Yemen, another 700 were wounded in Gaza this week, that makes 4000 this month with 39 deaths, again, not in the papers much. Children walked out of school (again) because they are scared of being shot. Wealth disparity and poverty are on the increase, and the accountability of government and corporations is on the decline. The great power of love we have been given in our baptism and through our faith in Jesus Christ manifests best when truth and action align. That is the lesson of the Good Shepherd.
I don’t have any good shepherd stories that apply here. I don’t know sheep, we’ve never kept sheep. Goats, yes; sheep, no. And they are very different. Sheep don’t follow; goats, do. You want the goats to go somewhere, “Come on goats!” and you start walking. They’ll follow, eventfully (usually in inverse proportion to how fast you want them to move or how far you want them to go, but they’ll get there). Sheep need to be gathered and pushed, moved along, shepherded. Sheepdogs are helpful to keep everyone together and headed in the right direction. There is no such thing as a goat dog. They’d get their head knocked off by a cranky doe or a buck who is all bucked up in the rut. Sheep are not unintelligent, but they have a group mind that is just different than goats. I think we all have our sheep-y aspects and our goat-y ones.
But let’s leave the barnyard and see in the Good Shepherd how love can manifest in the truth of our being and the action of our doing. There are three lessons here.
The first lesson of the good shepherd is found in the contrast between the shepherd and the hired hand. The shepherd lays down their life for the sheep, while the hired hand, “who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away…”
This is a lesson of vocation. Vocation means spending your life doing what you are supposed to be doing, not because you are told to, but because that is what you are meant to do, it is your special purpose. Another way of thinking of it is your activity being an end, not a means to an end. The hired hand watches the sheep because they are paid to. It’s a living. A means to live not a life itself. The good shepherd has vocation. Their being is tied up in their doing. Their life’s energy, their purpose, the meaning of their life is aligned with the things that they do, the way that they live.
Life is hard when you are misaligned; when who you are and what you do don’t match. It is hard to radiate love in that condition and there is no place to learn that like the Marine Corps rifle range. A key principal in marksmanship is alignment. So you lay down in the prone position and sight the target. If the natural lay of your body isn’t perfectly aligned with the target, don’t lean left, or twist. It’s not stable. You are relying on muscle tension not the stability of bone. So you don’t move the rifle, you get up, and lie down again so your whole body is perfectly aligned, naturally. I taught farm interns the same lesson with a hoe. Don’t bend, realign the orientation of your whole body and hoe like the wind.
Aligned like that, being and doing as one, you are a channel, a superconductor for the love of God. There is so much less resistance, maneuvering yourself to fit this situation or that, accommodating yourself to things you can’t do well, or at least well enough. Be who you are, who God intended you to be. Where does your natural lay point you? What does the perfect day look like in your dreams? For the good shepherd, the dream is the flock thriving, the fields where they live together, the sun on his faces, the wind in her hair, the fire at night, hearing the sheep settling down to sleep. Occasionally there is an umbrella drink, or a date with a cute shepherd or shepherdess (it is a dream), but the power of love is most available when we are doing what we dream we are supposed to be doing; when we do what we are supposed to be doing as the person we are supposed to be. Vocation clears a path for love.
A second lesson of the good shepherd is found in verses 14 and 15 of today’s gospel. “I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” The light-giving, life-making power of love is rooted in intimacy, in intimate knowledge of those we share life with. Jesus’ relationship with God was so perfect that He could say “the Father and I are one.” They were; they are. Somehow, through the great mystery of faith, that love between the Father and the Son spills out over everything, and it is most clear (and strong) in our hearts when we approximate that kind of love, the intimacy between God, Abba and Jesus, the Son. We are called to such intimate knowledge of those we share our lives with. That’s a challenge.
One of my favorite novels is The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene. Not for the faint hearted, but powerful. It is about an alcoholic priest, the unnamed whiskey priest. Set in a Latin American country, the church has been outlawed, her priests hunted down and killed. The whiskey priest still lingers, trying to stay alive and offering the sacraments as he can. He also has a daughter. (I didn’t say he was a good priest). With a daughter to his name, he struggles, knowing that his role as a priest is to love everyone as much as one loves a child, and having a child, he sees how high, nearly impossibly high a bar this is. In the end, he lives up to his vocation of priestly, even Godly love, but as in all such ends, the cost is bitter.
Can you imagine loving everyone as much as you love you own children? Can you imagine being that intimately connected, that intimately concerned with everyone? The weight of that sounds impossible, is anyone’s heart that big? As big as Jesus’? But also, can you imagine the power in that? The strength it would take to love that much, how fearsome you would be if you could bear that much care and concern. Being that connected to everyone else, that’s an impregnable, imperishable web of relationship. The force behind that! Can you imagine? That is the power of love, the world-changing, life-saving power of love. In loving so fully, with such big love, we become love itself. Truth and action aligned. The second lesson of the good shepherd.
A third lesson of the good shepherd is the paradox of freedom in obedience. As St. John tells it, Jesus lays down His own life “…of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.” OK. Freedom. Agency. And then He continues, “I have received this command from my Father.” Hmmm… Which is it? Of His own accord or by the command of the Father?
The truth is, that we have free will. We have the ability to choose, to choose how we act in the world, how we treat others, whether we do what we know to be right or what we know to be wrong. It is really not clear if other creatures have a choice, or if they are more subject to instinct and whim or chance. Did Pickles the farm cat choose to torture one pocket gopher to death and while just quickly eating another one? Is that choice? He didn’t like that one’s look? Or is it just really bad luck for a pocket gopher because cats don’t choose, they just do?
We can choose. We must. (I don’t recommend choosing the pocket gopher; too bony). We have the freedom to choose. But the fact that we have a choice in the first place is all wrapped up in God. As one commentator puts it, “Freedom does not entail an arbitrary self-choosing, but is rooted in the divine will.”
Jesus freely walked to Golgotha and laid His life down for all of us. He didn’t want to go, but he did. God laid out the path for Him directly to the Cross, but Jesus made the choice to take it, to drink from that cup. What if that had been against His will? What if Jesus didn’t say “But your will, not mine be done.”? That would have changed everything. There is so much power in the act of self-sacrifice, self-emptying, voluntary poverty. Being sacrificed, emptied and/or impoverished are very different things. But choosing that path, volunteering, even if it is a path laid out for you by others, as God did for Jesus, there is strength beyond strength in that act. You are becoming what you are, a child of God.
These are lessons of the good shepherd. Who we are and what we do, truth and action must be aligned. Through our vocations, relationships, our understanding of our faith in God in God’s self, all through the life and witness of Jesus Christ, a path, your path, may be revealed. The good shepherd.
Easter season continues. The power of love that resurrected Jesus Christ persists in the world in you, in the church, in this church, and in the light that we shine into the darkness which will not over come us or it. Alleluia! Christ is Rise! The Lord is Risen indeed! Alleluia! AMEN