Between noon and three

…spare us in the youngest day when all are shaken awake, facts are facts, (and I shall know exactly what happened today between noon and three); that we too may come to the picnic with nothing to hide, join the dance as it moves in perichoresis, turns about the abiding tree. — W.H. Auden, "Compline"

The Good Shepherd

This sermon was preached at 8am, 11:15am, and 5:30pm, on the Fourth Sunday of Eater, at St. Michael & St. George, 17 April, 2016. At 9:15am, Bp. Smith made his annual visitation to the parish, and confirmed a class of youth and adult confirmands. A few were also received into the Episcopal Church.

Collect: O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of thy people; Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calleth us each by name, and follow where he doth lead; who, with the and the Holy Spirit, liveth and reigneth, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Acts 9:36-43, Psalm 23, Revelation 7:9-17, John 10:22-30

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

Election season seems to be drawing on towards fever pitch, and everywhere you turn there’s someone claiming that he or she will be the best candidate to lead this nation. In schools too, exam season is drawing near, and deadlines for college decisions loom. We try to prepare our young people to be leaders, leaders we ourselves might be willing to follow.

Likewise today is the fourth Sunday of Easter, and we reflect on just what kind of leader we have in Jesus Christ. Last week we heard him challenging us to follow him on the hard road which his resurrection opens. Today we hear him claiming the mantle of the Good Shepherd.

The Good Shepherd. What does that mean? If we were raised on children’s stories from the English countryside, it might evoke for us visions of Little Bo Peep, rolling green hills, and gurgling streams: a pastoral landscape, vibrant and peaceful, where shepherding is easy and flocks can graze to their heart’s content. The shepherds Jesus would have known, however, didn’t have it so easy. Good pasture is hard to come by in the Middle East, and requires constant wandering, constant exposure to the elements, constant danger of coming into conflict over watering holes and routes of passage.

The shepherds Jesus knew did not have an easy lot. He is the good shepherd. But that does not mean an easy life for the sheep, rather it does mean that they can trust their Shepherd to lead them through thick and thin, to be near them in all their wanderings, and to defend them with his life if need be.

But Jesus the Good shepherd was not simply a shepherd to his disciples only. He is your shepherd too, and my shepherd. And, like sheep in Middle Eastern flocks, perhaps the chief thing that means for us is that we can allow our trust to rest in him. We can give him our trust, and let it grow under his leadership. He will honor it, and lead us in the way he has for us: not to harm us or to destroy, but to lead us into life, to lead us into joy.

Plenty of people claim to speak for Jesus the Good Shepherd, and there are plenty who claim his mantle. But do they lead his flock to life, or to death? Jesus always leads his flock further into life, snatches them even from the jaws of death, lays down his own life so that you and I might no longer fear even the power of death. He seeks us out even in the dark places where we find ourselves, He seeks us out even in crevices where we try to hide. Once we place our trust in the Good Shepherd, he himself will honor that trust, and lead us into life.

Where is he leading you? Where is he leading me? We may as well ask, where do we most need the power of his resurrection in our life? That is where he is leading you. Let him lead you there. Turn over to him your fears, your failures, your doubts. He is faithful, forgiving, and leads you into life.

But why should we trust him in the first place? We might object, “It’s all very well and good for some priest to say, ‘Trust the Good Shepherd and it will all turn out all right, but why should I bother? It’s just a bunch of religious talk.” Friends, this is where our Good Shepherd shines most brightly of all. Our Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, who leads us into life, and offers his own resurrection power to us in all those areas where we are most deathly, most afraid, most rotten; this Good Shepherd is a good shepherd chiefly because he became for us a good sheep. He became for us the very lamb of God: a lamb to seek out all the lost sheep, and offer himself to death even for your sins and for mine. He is a good shepherd because he is a good sheep, because he is himself the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world.

His innocence and his goodness may seem strange to us who are so well acquainted with our own struggles, our own temptations, our own sins. Even if we can accept that he is the lamb of God who died in our stead, it can be hard to accept that such an innocent Lamb can regard sinners with anything less than contempt. And yet his innocence is exactly what gives him the strength and the power to regard us kindly, with compassion, to draw us ever onward towards “green pastures” and “quiet waters.” His innocence is exactly what gives him that strength and power.

Yes, Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd, who is even my shepherd, my own, and yours too. He is a good shepherd because he is also the Lamb of God, full of tender compassion for all who have gone astray. This Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, is who sits upon the throne of heaven, appearing gloriously as the victorious lamb, who was slain and rose again, and reigns for ever. He forgives our sin, he leads us over all the rough places and dark valleys of our lives, leading ever kindly on, further into his own eternal life.

Won’t you trust him? Trust his voice — His voice, the voice of the one who died for you and rose again, whose designs are for your life and your joy, always to share in his own. Trust him, and see what he can do with your heart. It will not always be easy, but it will always lead further into his heart; His heart — which is your home and mine.

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.

The liturgy, the crucible of love

Lumen de lumine, 2009. Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP.

 

“Liturgical manuals are full of very specific instructions, and vergers with their maces can cast stern looks. Yet the task for us fallible humans is not simply to “get it right” but to move in such a way that puts us at the disposal of the Holy Spirit: to be aware of our own need for grace, to be aware of the location and intentions of our neighbors, and to surrender our egos, so that all might be offered to the glory of God.”

A recent post of mine for The Living Church’s blog, on praying during the liturgy.

Easter Evening, 2016

The following sermon was preached at 5:30pm on Easter Sunday, at the Church of St. Michael & St. George.

Collect: Almighty God, who through your only-begotten Son Jesus Christ, overcame death and opened to us the gate of everlasting life: Grant that we, who celebrate with joy the day of the Lord’s resurrection, may be raised from the death of sin by your life-giving Spirit; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Readings: Isaiah 25:6-9, 1 Corinthians 5:6-8, Luke 24:13-49

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

The road to Emmaus. This has always been one of my favorite Easter episodes. It’s evening of Easter Sunday.  These two disciples have already heard the good news, reports going through their company that Jesus has risen from the dead.  There is uncertainty in the air.  Can it be true?  As they say on the road, they had hoped that Jesus was the one who would redeem Israel, and yet he was crucified in a public spectacle only three days ago.  They need some air, they need to get away, and so they decide to leave Jerusalem and walk to a familiar town, Emmaus, a day’s journey away.  Perhaps some distance will help them understand, perhaps a change of scenery will clear their heads.

On the way, Jesus meets them as they go.  As with Mary Magdalene earlier this morning, Jesus surprises his disciples by catching them unawares, absorbed as they are in the emotional demands of the moment.  Equally amazingly, these disciples don’t recognize him any faster than Mary did.  They find it unbelievable that he hasn’t heard about Jesus of Nazareth and his crucifixion, so they tell him.  He finds it unbelievable that they still don’t understand, so he explains the scriptures to them again, as he must have done a thousand times while he was with them: the Messiah was meant to suffer and die, and be raised up again.  They reach their destination, and they beg their new friend to stay with them, rather than going on as he seemed intent on doing.  So he does, and they eat together.  Finally, as he breaks the bread over supper, they recognize him as Jesus, and he suddenly departs.

It’s a story full of deeply human characters and emotion, entirely believable from a psychological perspective.  Grief, coping, encounter, journey, friendship, hospitality, there’s a lot here to relate to.  The specific observation I want to make tonight is that among the many familiar human aspects of the story, there is also a lot of explaining going on.  The disciples explain to Jesus the last few days in Jerusalem.  The risen Jesus explains to them the Scriptures.  The disciples explain to Jesus their plans to stay the night at Emmaus, and, in the course of agreeing to stay with them, and blessing and breaking the bread, Jesus explains his own priorities: namely, to be with them where they are, and to reveal himself as the bread of life, broken for the salvation of the world.  As if all these explanations aren’t enough, he disappears as soon as they recognize him, and they a left with more questions than answers.  So they rush all the way back to Jerusalem, no doubt arriving in the middle of the night – the same hour as the Resurrection by the way, early that morning 24 hours before – and tell their story to Peter and the other disciples.

More questions than answers.  Explanations leading onto further investigation, further investigation leading onto further experience, leading onto further life and love and beyond.  The point here is that, when it comes to the Gospel of the Resurrection of the Son of God, the final meaning is always a step beyond the last explanation we’ve heard.  When it comes to the Gospel of the Resurrection of the Son of God, the final meaning is always a step beyond the last explanation we’ve heard.

Why?  Why is it that we can never quite seem fully to nail it down?  For the same reason the nails of the soldiers could not keep Jesus on the cross, or the stone keep him in the tomb.  This God of ours, who comes to earth from heaven, dies at our hand, and rises from the tomb, this God is always his own explanation, and his own final meaning.  There is no mastery of his Gospel apart from the knowledge of himself, the personal knowledge of who he is — which is to say, the personal experience of his grace and love.  There is no mastery of his Gospel apart from the knowledge and love of himself.  And as a Person, there is always more to him than we might see at any given moment, just as there is always more to the other people in our lives.

Thanks to Easter Sunday, the Christian life is a fundamentally adventurous one.  No explanation is finally sufficient of itself, for God himself is his own meaning and his own explanation.  No portrait can be complete for Jesus, who bursts through the tomb, through every limit and every convention.  There is no explaining the extent of his mercy or the wide breadth of his creativity.  There is no grasping the depth of the wellspring of his grace, or his capacity to forgive.  There is no telling where he might take us or what might be next.  This God is our God, and he is always one step ahead of us, calling us to follow him further up and further in, through the tomb, through the Garden, to Emmaus, his own Ascension, Pentecost, and beyond.  What’s next?  Where will he take us?  How will we recognize him in an hour, tomorrow, next year?  There is no telling.  His final meaning is always a step beyond the last explanation we’ve heard.

And yet no matter where we are on our own roads to Emmaus, no matter what sense we’ve been able to make of the last few days, of our own lives, or the talk of his Gospel, Jesus Christ meets us on the road, listens to us explain to him whatever sense we’re able to make of him, and stays with us when we ask.  He stays with us, eats with us, shares himself with us – and then goes on ahead of us to draw us further on to where he is.  He has led the way through life and death, hell and heaven, and he calls us further we know not where.  And yet we know that where he is, there he longs for us to be also.

Will you ask Jesus to stay with you this Easter Sunday?  He comes to us on whatever road we walk, and offers himself at this Altar to be the true nourishment of our souls.  Will you ask him to stay with you?  Will you prepare a place for him in your heart?  Will you follow where he leads?  Will you trust he goes on ahead of you to prepare a place for you?  There is always more to him than we can grasp now, and yet his whole purpose is for us to know him forever, to dwell in his love till the ages of ages.  He stays with us; he goes beyond us.  Won’t you follow him on this unknown adventure?  Know that wherever he leads, his love will be our end, our support, our map; his resurrection our guarantee, our gate; and his glory our inheritance and our home.

The Lord is risen indeed! Come, let us worship. Come, let us live — in the surprising, beautiful, ever-widening world of his eternal life.

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.