Monthly Archives: April 2015

Easter 4B : St. Matthew’s Wilton

I had the pleasure of preaching this morning (26 April 2015) at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Wilton, CT.  The lessons can be found here

Today is affectionately known as Good Shepherd Sunday. This title given to the fourth Sunday after Easter because of the Gospel passage we just heard – the one where Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.” As such, it is easy to focus on soft and sweet images of the good shepherd, to think of cuddly animals roaming along grassy hills all the while following their beloved leader on a quiet, sunny afternoon. Without any effort, I can recall my time in the Irish and Scottish countryside where I saw nothing but sheep for miles. For many, this is the image that Good Shepherd Sunday calls to mind. As long as we follow Jesus, we can enjoy a lovely afternoon, eat our fill, and not worry about any of the cares or occupations of this life.

I’m sorry to say this lovely image is not what today is all about. The lections for today give us a call to action, a reminder of the life we are called to live as Christians, and a warning as to what is ahead.

I do not know much about Wilton, but I did not notice any large pastures of sheep as I was driving down from New Haven this morning. I certainly have not found any sheep filled pastures in New Haven. If you are anything like me, your experience of sheep might look something like petting zoos and experiences abroad like I just described. For many of us if not most or even all of us the concept of being a sheepherder is a foreign one.

The life of a shepherd was anything but picturesque. It was dangerous, risky, menial, marginashepherdl, outcast work. Shepherds were rough around the edges, spending time in the fields rather than in polite society. For Jesus to say, “I am the good shepherd,” would have been an affront to the religious elite and educated. The claim had an edge to it. It would be like Jesus saying today, “I am the good migrant worker.” John’s audience understands this – they know exactly what a shepherd is. They recognize this dangerous, risky, menial, marginal, outcast work.

Stepping back and looking at the larger image of Jesus’ ministry it is easy to see that this is exactly how we should characterize His earthly life. Jesus hung out on the margins, associated with people that could do nothing for him, befriended those ignored by society at large, all the while breaking the rules and customs of his day to do it. His ministry was a dangerous, risky, menial, marginal, outcast kind of ministry.

Now if Jesus had embodied this type of ministry, and we are supposed to emulate Jesus’ life and ministry, then, it follows that we are supposed to embody dangerous, risky, menial, marginal, outcast kinds of ministry. Jesus seeks out the lost, those in need of being rescued, those who are forgotten, those whom are in need of restoration. I wonder in what ways do you seek out the lost, those in need of being rescued, those whom are forgotten and in need of restoration?

Beyond the images of sheep and shepherd, we are offered a glimpse of the larger message of John’s Gospel.

Our Epistle this morning comes from the First Letter of John. It is likely that this letter was written some time after the Gospel of John for a community that knew and loved that Gospel. In many ways the epistle reads like an interpretation and elaboration of the Gospel for believers who want to understand the book’s significance for new times and circumstances. This commentary like approach is clearly seen in the pericope we have today. Hear the words of First John 3:23, “And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commended us.” This is a stunningly succinct summary of the two great themes of the Gospel of John: first, we should believe in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and second we should love one another as he has loved us. The second of these is the focus this morning.

This morning’s Epistle and Gospel make it abundantly clear that the foundation for the commandment to love rests in Jesus’ own decision to love the believers even unto death.

“The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” This is the life we, as Christians, are called to. The dangerous, risky, menial, marginal, outcast ministries we are to embody should be characterized by this radical notion of love: love so strong that he laid down his life for us – and that we lay down our lives for one another.

While being willing to sacrifice one’s life to the point of death is still a present and powerful reality today that is not the call that many of us have. Laying down our lives also means something more common for us here in Connecticut in 2015. It means something that we cannot ignore because we are not called to give our lives to the point of death.

When we risk our own personal images and privileges to stand beside those who are victims of hate, violence, injustice and oppression we lay down our lives. When we put others first, we lay down our lives. When we live for the good of others, we lay down our lives. When we lay down the completely normal human desire to live for ourselves, and when instead we allow the love of God to reorient us toward the needs of others, we are laying down our lives. Each and everyday, by our actions we have the opportunity to lay down our lives for those we are called to serve. All of this we do out of love. This is our call.

So far, this sermon has been rather shepherd-centric. We have been focusing our attention on the Good Shepherd and what it means to model our lives and ministries from His. But what happens if we shift our focus to the sheep?

Sheep do not have the most stellar of reputations. Many think of them as rather dumb animals. It is rarely a compliment to be compared to or referred to as sheep. Sheep are, in reality, not dumb animals. Apparently, it was actually the cattle ranchers who started that rumor, because sheep do not behave like cows. Cows are herded from the rear with shouts and prods from the cowboys. But that does not work with sheep. If you stand behind sheep making noises, they will just run around behind you. They actually prefer to be led. Sheep will not go anywhere that someone else—their trusted shepherd—does not go first.

The question for us becomes, whom are we following? What shepherd have we gotten behind? Are we following the shepherd of power, greed, and consumerism? Or are we following the shepherd of love, compassion, and service. Do we follow the ways of this world, or do we follow the shepherd who models for us a dangerous, risky, menial, marginal, outcast kind of ministry? The sheep know the voice of their shepherd, so whose voice are we following?

For those of us called to be preachers, pastors, priests, or any type of leadership in communities of faith, it is easy to think of ourselves as the shepherd, but might I suggest that it is particularly helpful to think of ourselves as sheep. No matter what our role is in our community of faith, no matter how educated, no matter what fancy clothes we wear, we are all in need of new life and community offered because of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. What would it mean for us— clergy, seminarians, laity—to surrender ourselves to the care of God’s Good Shepherd?

It seems that it does not matter if we put ourselves in the place of the sheep or the shepherd – both images lead us to the same place. We are called by the Good Shepherd to go where he goes, to follow where he leads. We are to listen for his voice calling out to us when we are lost and confused, when we find ourselves getting mixed up in some other flock. We are to strive to be like the Good Shepherd caring for all and embodying a dangerous, risky, menial, marginal, outcast kind of ministry.

Today’s lections shift us from postresurrection appearances to the nature of God’s work in the world. By using the story of the Good Shepherd, the Gospel makes clear to us what this work, this mission of God, is to be. This is a powerful image for us who hunger for connection and community in a society that often looks out for number one. In our moments of loneliness, isolation, alienation, and hopelessness, the Good Shepherd responds to our deepest yearnings for community by offering an alternative to our fears, separation, and insecurities. In the world’s moments of loneliness, isolation, alienation, and hopelessness we can model the life of the Good Shepherd to respond to the deepest yearning for community by offering an alternative to the world’s fears, separation, and insecurities.

We have the opportunity to open our hearts and our communities to the unbelievably powerful love and grace of God. In turn we have the responsibility to offer that love and grace to a broken and hurting world.

As Episcopalians, as Anglicans, as Christians let us join together as sheep and as shepherds. Let us draw all people into to the fold and fellowship of God. Let us follow the one who heals us and makes us whole.

Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.

AMEN.

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Good Friday 2015: The Church of the Redeemer

This year I was honored to be asked to preach at The Church of the Redeemer for the Good Friday liturgy of the day.  The lessons can be found here.  

Earlier this week, I began my preparations for this sermon the way I prepare for every sermon: prayer and turning to one of my favorite commentaries. As I flipped through the pages, I found the entry for Good Friday and began reading. “Good Friday,” it said, “is a day for all Christians to approach with trembling, but none more than those called to preach.” Not the hermeneutical reassurance I was looking for, and for a moment it made me second-guess my acceptance of the invitation to preach tonight. But the more time I spend reflecting and praying on this night, the more I think the commentary is right. Tonight is a night that we all should approach with trembling and uneasiness. Tonight is the night we come before the Crucified Lord, the night we witness the very worst that humanity has to offer. Tonight is the night that darkness wins . . . or so it seems.

We all know the end of the story, we know what happens next, what we celebrate tomorrow night. In fact, the lilies are already in the angel room. Still we cannot gloss over or skip this night. While we know the resurrection is coming, we still experience the darkness of Good Friday: broken promises, lost hopes, unanswered prayers, severed relationship, grief, death. We know all too well the pain associated with this night. So we come and stand before the cross with all that we know and all that we are, and we wonder and wait.

Before going to seminary I worked for a parish that had a pre-school, and part of my ministry was to lead a weekly chapel serve for the students. Very quickly I learned that children have a way of asking seemingly simple, yet remarkable challenging questions. As I finished reading the story of the crucifixion, one child asked, “Why did Jesus have to die?” As I struggled to find the words, to answer a question I wasn’t sure I even had an answer to, I looked at our children’s bible to see if it could help me come up with something that resembled an answer. “You see, they didn’t understand. It wasn’t the nails that kept Jesus there. It was love.” Why did Jesus have to die? Love. Not just any king of love, but a never stopping, never giving up, unbreaking, always and forever kind of love. As elsewhere is John’s Gospel puts it, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Jesus dies on the cross to save us from ourselves, to save us from sin and death, to restore us to wholeness and right relationship with God.

There are a few ways that John’s passion narrative is different than the narratives found in the three synoptic gospels. John highlights the religious-political dynamics surrounding the execution of Jesus. In fact, John makes it clear that Jesus was killed for political reasons. The title “king” is repeatedly associated with Jesus: “Here is your king,” “we have no king but the emperor,” “the king of the Jews.” As king, Jesus is always in control of what happens. At the time of his arrest he goes out to meet and question those who are there to apprehend him. He even directs the authorities as to how they should treat him and the disciples. Jesus makes a declaration to Pilate about the realities of Pilate’s power in relationship to the power of God. Jesus carries the cross by himself, does not fall, does not experience the mocking and shame portrayed in the other passion narratives. He even determines when his mission is “finished” and when it is time for him to lay down his life.

John continues to build the political case for Jesus’ death. The absence of a Jewish trial, in the fullness we hear in other accounts, continues to weaken the view that Jesus was executed for religious offenses. We hear that Caiaphas, the high priest, persuaded the Sanhedrin that Jesus should be put to death. There was a real fear that if Jesus’ followers became too large, if he became too powerful, an uprising might occur and the Roman Empire would come in and punish them all. Caiaphas convinces the Sanhedrin to sacrifice the life of one Jewish man to save the entire Jewish nation.

This gospel passage has a particular danger to it. John’s constant use of “the Jews” has led Christians for centuries to believe that “the Jews” killed Jesus. A fact that simply is not true. But that hasn’t stopped centuries of anti-Semitism, oppression, and outright persecution and violence against our Jewish brothers and sisters. In many ways the Jewish community has been the scapegoat for a reality that many wish to ignore.

This week, a friend of mine published a blog post on this very issue. He writes:

A preacher on Good Friday would do well to talk about how the crucifixion is the fruit of human sinfulness, something we all share in, not something that can be blamed on any person or group. We humans crucified Jesus. When we ignore the homeless on our doorsteps, we fail to care for Jesus Christ himself. When we eat our fill while others starve, we steal nourishment from Jesus Christ himself. When we site up hatred against the vulnerable or fear of those who differ from us, we alienate ourselves from Jesus Christ himself. In other words, Good Friday is the chief exemplar of a pattern of sinful behavior that we continue to this very day.

This is why Jesus dies – for the collective sins of humanity. Jesus dies to offer us the opportunity to be forgiven of our sins, to be forgiven for the ways we participate in systems of power and oppression, to be the assurance of our life and our salvation.

It seems to me that when we get trapped in the “Jesus died for me” conversation, we make the crucifixion all about “me” – we turn it into an individualist salvation as opposed to the salvation of humanity. There are personal implications for the cross, chiefly our salvation, but the central plot line of the New Testament is not about retribution or substitution. There is no mention of Jesus dying for individual sin. Jesus comes to judge the world and its systems of oppression and violence.

When we approach the cross we see, or at least we should see, our own brokenness reflected in Christ’s brokenness and our sinfulness particularly as it connects to the sins of humanity. Some time ago, I came across the following quote from a Nicaraguan peasant, “Lots of people in Holy Week think only about the sufferings of Jesus, and they don’t think about the sufferings of so many Christs, of millions of Christs that exist. And Jesus didn’t want them to be wailing for him but to wail for the others that were going to suffer like him or worse than him.” When we stare at the cross we should see the brokenness of those who suffer like or worse than Christ.

Each and every day people throughout the world face suffering and death – brutal torment and torture. But, Christ’s suffering and death on the cross says something to those in these most horrific situations. It shows that the Lord and Savior, the Redeemer of the world suffered as they suffer. More than that, he chose to suffer out of love for each and every one of us.

No matter what our brokenness is – be it physical brokenness at the hands of others or emotional brokenness by our own self-deprecation – Jesus chooses to suffer with us out of an incomprehensible love for us. He suffers so that we might be released from our brokenness and bondage, be made whole, and restored to right relationship with God. He suffers so that those of us who enjoy power and privilege in this life may strive to breakdown the systems of violence and oppression around us.

In a few moments, we will have the opportunity to come before the cross in veneration. We are invited to stand, kneel, bow down at the foot of the cross – to come before it, touch it, kiss it. Before you come before the cross, you are invited to write down your sense of brokenness, your sins, hurts, shames, and anything else that is separating you from wholeness and right relationship with God. Whatever is written down will be left between you and God. No one will ever read them. Tomorrow night they will kindle the light of Christ that shines to the deepest darkest places of sin, brokenness, and despair in our lives and around the world.

As we lay these burdens before the Cross of Christ and return to our seats, I hope and pray that we will be ever mindful of all those the world forgets – all those who share in our common humanity and salvation, but remain neglected. As we lay our burdens down, we are called to pick up the cross, to pick up this most radical gift, and share its healing love with the world. The one thing this world of ours needs most is the restorative redeeming love of the cross we stand before this night.

This is not the night that darkness wins.

This is the night that love wins.

AMEN.

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