Saturday, May 14, 2011

Fourth Easter, 2011

Special Schedule for the Pittsburgh Marathon
Saturday, May 14, 2011, 5 p.m.;
Sunday, May 15, 2011, 9 a.m. & 11 a.m.

May 15, 2011 Fourth Easter (A) John 10: 1-10

Today, this fourth Sunday of Easter, and to reinforce the theme, as we hear as we pray the collect together and the psalm and lessons: Good Shepherd Sunday.

For the first four centuries or so in the Anglican Prayer Book tradition “Good Shepherd” Sunday came a week earlier, the Second Sunday after Easter, what we would now number as the Third of Easter, receiving that name because of the appointed gospel reading from the tenth chapter of St. John.

The older Prayer Book tradition had just a one-year lectionary cycle, and the Good Shepherd reading then was chapter 10, verses 11-16, which is essentially the reading we now have appointed for Fourth Easter in Year B of the three year lectionary—and chapter 10, verse 11 begins exactly with Jesus saying these words, “I am the Good Shepherd.” And then on in Year C we have the third extended passage from the last section of chapter 10, verses 22-30, in which Jesus says “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.”

Out in the narthex here at St. Andrew’s we have a lovely stained glass window of the Good Shepherd. A traditional image and a touching story really. Jesus with a lamb in his arms. The young rector of St. Andrew’s, Harry Briggs Heald, who died in 1924, suddenly and unexpectedly in his mid 40’s, in the third year of his service as rector, and this window in his memory given by the Children of the Church School, having raised the money themselves. The good, tender, loving pastor.

And as we may remember a few years ago in 2002 we undertook the repair and conservation of that window to honor the Rt. Rev. David Leighton, 13th Rector of St. Andrew’s Church and the only of our now 15 rectors ever to be elevated to the episcopacy, as the 11th Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland. One of the Chief Pastors of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, and of course always a great friend of this wonderful parish.

So here this morning as we are, again, Fourth Easter in Year A, and we have the first part of the “Good Shepherd” chapter of John , verses 1-10, and what I want to note first is something that will be obvious to you as soon as I say it: which is that in this section of Chapter 10 Jesus doesn’t talk about himself as the Good Shepherd. He will do so very soon, but before we get there, we have this first and somewhat more obscure image to address. Chapter 10 verse 7, “Truly, truly I say to you, I am the door of the sheep.” And then again, verse 9, “I am the door; if anyone enters by me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture.

So, "Door Sunday," or "Gate Sunday." I’m not sure about how to visualize Jesus as the image of the gate, the door to the sheepfold. Perhaps there may be a stained glass window or two with that picture, Jesus as a door, though I don’t recall right off hand that I’ve ever seen one. I’ve seen him standing next to a door, as in the 19th century Holman Hunt painting based on the text from the third chapter of the Revelation to John, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.” But never Jesus as door. Would have to be Salvador Dali or something . . . .

Nonetheless it is how this chapter begins. And though we may not imagine it all that clearly in terms of visual or artistic representation, we can see that it means something fairly specific in context here if we’re simply reminded of what has come immediately before this chapter 10, in chapter 9, which is the story of Jesus healing the Man Born Blind.

That chapter begins with the dramatic healing, where Jesus makes a little mud by spitting on the ground, you’ll remember, and then has the blind man go to the pool to wash, which he does, and suddenly is able to see. But actually then the bulk of the chapter focuses on the controversy that follows, as the issue of whether Jesus could lawfully heal on the Sabbath becomes more important than the healing itself, as the Pharisees seek to interrogate the man and his family and other witnesses. Then the man meets Jesus again, and when he discovers who Jesus is, he says, “Yes, Lord, I believe,” and he worships him. So not just sight, but insight, true seeing, seeing and knowing who Jesus is.

And Jesus finally then says something like, “This is what my ministry is about, bringing sight to those who are blind, and demonstrating that those who think they see everything that they are truly blind.” The Pharisees object, “are you saying that we’re blind?” And Jesus says to them, again to paraphrase, “if you’re telling me that you can see what is happening here right before your eyes, and that you refuse to believe that it’s true, then you are convicting yourselves of willful rebellion against God.”

So this becomes a question we might say of authority. Who are you going to trust? A question of discernment. The Pharisees in this great rabbinic tradition claim to be spiritual guides and authorities for the people. But can they be trusted, if they can’t discern God’s hand even in a work as wonderful as this as it happens in their very presence?

And then we follow along into Chapter 10, this morning’s gospel. Jesus says, there are two kinds of people who want to get into the sheepfold. The kind who belong there and the kind who don’t. The kind who are about their business in a wholesome and constructive way, and the kind who are only about theft and destruction. There are shepherds--and there are rustlers. Those who have the well-being of the flock in mind, and those who are out for their own profit and self-interest, lawlessly and destructively. The ones who climb in through the back window, and the ones who enter by way of the front door. And then Jesus, again: “I am that front door.”

If you want to know about who someone is in terms of discernment and spiritual authority, and whether they are to be trusted, the question to ask is, “where do they stand in relationship to Jesus?” Do they come in by way of Jesus? That’s the key, the mark, the central question, as we relate to our teachers, and in the life of community as we relate all of us to one another, since we all in a reciprocal way may be this for one another. So not just about a few, but about many, and about all of us. Coming into relationship to one another through Jesus. Guiding, inspiring, teaching, living with one another. Entering by the door. Not for ulterior purposes, to serve ourselves and our own interests, not defensively, but in relationship first to him. This is how to be with one another, how to give ourselves to one another and how to receive from one another. Through Jesus. The door.

I think a couple of chapters ahead, in John 12, after the great miracle of the Raising of Lazarus, when in increasing conflict with the authorities Jesus returns to Bethany and to the home of Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha, and that wonderful scene when Mary opens the bottle of costly oil to anoint Jesus’ feet. An act of pure, loving worship, adoration, like that of the worship of the Blind Man at the end of chapter 9. It’s not about her. It’s all about him. All about Jesus.

At that moment Judas—the one who will soon betray his Master—interrupts the scene by questioning its propriety. Raising other values, and certainly an important one. “Shouldn’t we sell this valuable ointment and give the money to the poor.?” I think John is suggesting that the Evil One is already operating in Judas here, as he tries to change the subject. Not because of an interest in the poor—which John doesn’t believe Judas truly has in any case—but because of this reactive desire to move away from Jesus. To shift the spotlight. It’s almost as though Jesus makes him uncomfortable. As he of course does make a great many people very uncomfortable. Including sometimes, sadly, even in the Church. But the invitation today, the invitation of St. John’s gospel, with the image of the healed blind man before us, of Mary on her knees to pay him homage, is not to move away from Jesus, but to come nearer. To see, to know, to worship the one who is truly a "Good Shepherd."

And we would come near him, as it might be so today. Not to run away and not to change the subject when he comes near us. As the scriptures are opened. “My sheep hear my voice.” The bread broken and the wine poured out: his Body lifted up, given for us. To heal, and to bless. “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

Bruce Robison

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