The past 4 months have been some of the busiest (with work, always with work) I can remember, and the fact that the last post in this blog was September 30, 2013 mirrors that fact. The four months have been, well, boring. If anything has brought me joy it has been spending precious time with my family, and also friends. And getting the chance to work on the below, a homily (do you know what a homily is? In the words of a good friend, “it is another word for a sermon that suggests brevity”) delivered to a group I meet monthly with to learn theological and practical elements of Anglican life. There are few things that feel like a more life-giving privilege than proclaiming the Word of God. May those who do always find happiness in this opportunity.
Let us pray: “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.” Amen.
This AMP program has already been such a blessing to me. I am so eager to learn the theological and practical elements, and I am emboldened by the friendships we are developing. Something almost stopped me from participating though, the requirement that I would be called upon to deliver a homily even though I have never before delivered one in my 40 years. Compounding my fear was the realization that I would be offering this homily not to my peers, my parish congregation, but to a room full of bishops, priests, deacons, canons, archdeacons, M.Div grads, PhD’s and professors!
I put away that fear, telling myself the Gospel lesson assigned to my homily date would be an unfamiliar passage. I could offer something new to you learned men and women! Last October Donnie emailed us the preaching schedule and I immediately checked the Gospel assigned for today’s daily office. The “Good Shepherd” passage from John, Chapter 10!? One of the stories everyone, even non-Christians know? That day I was seized with pangs of abject horror, and disquiet!
Disquiet would be a great way to describe the mood of the day in which today’s Gospel passage opens. Jesus has just healed a blind man, a man that has been cast aside as a beggar not so much because of his physical disability, but of the belief in those days that his blindness since birth was caused by his sin, or the sin of his parents. Jesus restores this man’s sight by mixing his own spit with dirt to make an ointment he rubs into the man’s eyes. Furthering the authorities’ unease, he proclaims to the crowd the man was not blind because of his family’s sin as the authorities maintain, but so the “works of God might be displayed in him.”
Those in authority, feeling threatened, question Jesus so that all can hear, and he answers them. Not satisfied by his answers, seeking to discredit him, to maintain their authority, they continue to question. Jesus answers again, but this time he directs his answer to the crowds, the witnesses that day. And in his timeless speech, directed now to us, sitting here this morning.
He answers in the form of a metaphor, comparing himself to a shepherd, an occupation familiar to all who were within earshot in that time and place. Within this metaphor he indicates three times what his greatest gift to each of them, and to us, would be, his coming death, a propitiation of our sins.
He first references those in authority, those denying he is the Son of Man. He calls them thieves, only interested in stealing and killing and destroying the sheep. But he, Jesus, is the door to the gate, and reminds us if we, the sheep, will just enter by him we “will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture.”
He then compares himself to a hired hand, a man who is paid by another to manage his sheep flock. At first sight of a wolf approaching the hired hand measures the paltry wages he receives to protect the sheep against losing his life to the wolf, and he flees. But the Christ, Jesus, he sees the sheep that he knows as his own. And he comes running to lay down his life for the sheep.
The third time he states he will lay down his life down for the sheep, he reveals to the assembled people a coming event they do not yet understand, and that they will at first only marvel at. He states emphatically, and I am paraphrasing here, “So that there will be one flock, one shepherd, I will soon lay down my life, for all sheep, that I may take it up again.” Jesus is telling them very plainly his gift to each of us, probably the main reason we, only very recently strangers, are assembled in this room as brothers and sisters. We are still marveling at the fact that Jesus Christ did lay his life down for us, his sheep. And through his death, resurrection and ascension he conquered death for each one of us in this room, allowing us to be reconciled with the Father, and have eternal life. And all that is asked of us is to enter through Christ’s shepherd door. If only we believe, these gifts are bestowed.
I wonder if Paul had this idea of Christ as the Good Shepherd on his mind when he implored in his letter to the Colossians these words,
“And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.”
How is Jesus shepherding us? In Paul’s words Christ is making us alive with him in God, forgiving our trespasses, canceling our debts, and triumphing over evil!
Those feelings of anxiety I told you about before, on having to deliver this homily, they stayed with me for days last October. The next Sunday I was scheduled to volunteer in our children’s ministry, called the “Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.” This program is hard to explain succinctly, but the idea is that a separate space, the Atrium, is built for children, handmade materials are brought in as teaching aids, and the teacher objectively presents the Word of God, and a small lesson, then allows the children time to explore this on their own, and grow in their understanding of God in their own way.
This particular Sunday I was assigned to the younger class, and I was trying to keep up with two new boys, 3 years old, just old enough to participate, who were new to this Atrium experience. They felt freed of any constraints, and were all over the place!
In the very center of the room is a small table with a green tablecloth. Atop the table is a handmade wooden model toy of a fence with a working door, and wood figures of many sheep, and a wooden figure of Christ Jesus, in shepherd’s clothes, a small lamb over his shoulder. Beside this is a small book, containing the words of today’s Gospel passage, broken up into small bits on each page, to make it easier for a child to read.
One of the boys sat at the table, and started to play with the figures. He asked me to come over to read to him, jabbing his finger at the book. I got on my knees, and did just that, reading this Gospel passage over, and over, slowly, while he started to bring the sheep figures in and out of the gate while Jesus looked on. This boy, who a minute ago was a bit rambunctious, was now quiet, almost serene, a smile on his face as we experienced the words of Jesus as the Good Shepherd together. Comforting words.
He eventually stood up and moved to another area, but before I could get up off of my knees the second boy came over. He grinned at me and pointed at the book, and I took this to mean he wanted me to read it to him too. He also started to play with the wooden figures, but not before I began reading. His quiet smile was deafening!
In this interaction my dear brothers Jonah and Drew taught me exactly what to offer you in this homily. Jesus, through metaphor, offered us these comfortable words, in the guise of a shepherd that we still today understand to be one that is a guide, a leader, a minister. Reminding us that if only we believe in him, he will always be there for us, our protector. He spoke it to those in his presence that day, he spoke to me and my young friends in the Atrium, and he is speaking it to you today! Jesus is that shepherd in Psalm 23 that leads us beside still waters, and green pastures, and paths of righteousness, no matter what is going on in our lives. And that goodness & mercy he offers, it is forever!
Why do we need to hear that? Because, we are only human! Each of us is broken by sin, however small or large. We then go to church to confess our sins, and repent, and they are absolved in the work of Christ. But, we might very well sin again this week, or the next. And we feel the effects of sin. Sins that have sought to steal, or kill, or destroy small parts of our sheep.
We all need to hear this message, over and over, even those of us in this room! We are all here because we feel led to lead, whether in ordained or lay ministry, in an Anglican church, to mimic this metaphor, shepherds leading sheep. But in the reality of Christ the Good Shepherd, it does not matter how much we think we know, or have achieved, or who we lead. His presence reminds us we are but sheep, dependent on his care. Left to our own, we would follow paths of trouble. But Jesus, in his love for us, will guide us. A simple, child-like faith, clinging to the Good Shepherd, is where we all are before God.
A personal story on how essential this is. My priest, Fr. David, knows my history, and thoughts I have shared with him, that I have trouble trusting other people, and thus in the Eucharist each week when he offers me the Bread and announces “this is the Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven,” he always adds for me, “Know that Christ loves you and will never forsake you.” I am 37 years older than the toddlers in my church, yet I need to hear every week that Jesus is my protector, and that he will never leave me.
In this metaphor Christ Jesus gives us that picture in our mind that we need to remember, and hold onto. He as our protector, that loves us with such a ferocity, without hesitation laid down his life to protect us from the wolves that bay and claw at the doors of our lives daily.
I pray that you will remember that, feel Christ’s comfort and protection, and I ask for it in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.