Sunday, April 21, 2013

Fourth Easter, Good Shepherd

Our Seminarian, Wally LaLonde, will be preaching this morning at St. Andrew's.  I thought I would re-post a sermon I preached on this Sunday in 2009.  Since that "Good Shepherd Sunday" was here in Pittsburgh also "St. Marathon Sunday," it's possible that a few St. Andreans may have missed it first time around . . . .

Saturday, May 2, 2009, 5 p.m. Pittsburgh "Marathon Eve" Service
Sunday, May 3, 2009
IV Easter (RCL/B) John 10: 11-18

In the Great 40 Days between Easter and Ascension this Fourth Sunday of Easter takes the traditional title, and perhaps having heard the lessons this is no surprise to you--“Good Shepherd Sunday.”

This morning the 23rd Psalm, so familiar it almost seems to be imprinted in the deepest level of our subconscious, and then this reading from John 10.

As a historical note, in the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549 Good Shepherd Sunday followed the old Roman Catholic calendar and was the Sunday after Easter—the day we in our modern lectionaries now have the Upper Room and Doubting Thomas stories. In 1552 the day was "bumped forward" a week, to the Second Sunday after Easter, where it remained until it was moved forward again with the introduction of the three-year Eucharistic Lectionary in the Proposed Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church in 1976, which became our current 1979 Prayer Book, and which continues in the pattern of our new Revised Common Lectionary.

But whatever the Sunday, the imagery is intrinsic to Easter. As we say in our Creeds, “And the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures: and ascended into heaven, And sitteth on the right hand of the Father.” All one package.

The imagery explores who it is, who now rules heaven and earth; who it is, who will judge both the quick and the dead; who it is, whose kingdom shall have no end. How are we to understand our relationship to him now, and his to us? What language, what imagery, conceptual framework, what metaphor will allow us to grasp this deepest mystery of Easter. That he died, but now is risen from the dead, now with us, above us, around us, within us.

And now, whether on the second Sunday or third or fourth, the Easter brass still lingering behind us in the distant air, we hear not of a vengeful tyrant out to even the score, to give back some of what he got, nor of a far distant and remote clockmaker, who did what he needed to do and now has moved on to other things, not to be bothered anymore with us.

But instead, well: “Savior like a shepherd lead us, much we need thy tender care. In thy pleasant pastures feed us; for our use thy folds prepare. Blessed Jesus! Blessed Jesus! Thou hast bought us, thine we are.” What a gift, what a blessing of Easter. His love, his care, his tears for our sorrows, his word to heal us, his arms to embrace, to protect and keep us safe. Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death . . . .

Good Shepherd Sunday: a tenderness at the living heart of Easter. In what is so often a hard and harsh world, the blessing of his gentleness. May you and may all of us experience that, live fully with that. To say, “my cup runneth over” with the abundance of blessing and comfort, in him. O Sons and Daughters, let us sing, the King of heaven, the glorious King, from death and hell rose triumphing. Alleluia.

In the midst of this, I want to pause for just a moment of interest over a word from this second part of John, Chapter 10, one point in particular in this rich passage, when Jesus says, in the 16th verse, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also.”

This a very frequently discussed saying. Sometimes presented in the context of ecumenical conversations.

The New Testament scholar Raymond Brown thought that this was heard in the early community around St. John as a reference to what we might call the Petrine community—or perhaps of the churches founded by St. Paul.

In very modern times some have wondered whether the saying might not even be a clue of how to think about the pluralism of religious faiths, how the risen Jesus might be present even in places where his name is not known, working silently and secretly to share the reconciliation that comes from the Cross with the whole world.

I suppose we will never know for sure just exactly what Jesus had in mind. But what I think it does in any event, this word about “other sheep,” is that however we think it might be interpreted, it is at least, at most, reminder that while we are his, he is not ours.

To say that again: while we are his, he is not ours. Not in the sense that we own him, that we control and define the extent of his embrace. We are his, but he is not ours.

Remembering in this context the song by the Texas musical comedy group the Austin Lounge Lizards (first introduced to me by Barbara Lewis a number of years ago), in their famous song, “Jesus loves me, but he can’t stand you.”

If we know the grace and peace and healing and new life of his resurrection, what we cannot do ever is to assume that this is ours because we have earned it, because we deserve it—which is what inevitably follows from the thought that this blessing is for me, but somehow not for you.

There is eventually a kind of spiritual arrogance that can emerge from that, a sense of superiority, entitlement--a sense of pride, which is of course so powerfully unlike the one who came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for the many. Not the few, but the many.

To give his life, that the holy generosity that flows from the cross would lift us up and fill our lives. That as we are blessed, we might know that blessing not as something to cling to, but as something that falls as rain and snow fall from the heavens, his free gift.

Bruce Robison

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