Today I delivered my first homily. Good Shepherd Sunday, Easter 4a, 5/07/17. I hope that in some small measure it touches you.
Today is often called “Good Shepherd” Sunday, referring to the wonderful pastoral images of how God comes among us to lead incarnate, in spirit, and in majesty. Yes our triune God is indeed a Good Shepherd.
However, if we look only at that aspect of today’s lessons we may have missed an essential part of the mystery being revealed, community.
Have you ever wondered why in Matthew 18 we are told: “(Mt. 18:20): “Where there are two or three gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them.” Why two or three? Why not just one? I have. I am really a bit of an introvert, not in the sense of being shy, but in the sense of being recharged by quiet and solitude. Perhaps that is true for some of you as well.
Maybe it’s not so much that you want to be on your own, maybe for you it’s just that the covers are really comfy, and getting out of bed, dressed and venturing out of the house is all such a hassle. Perhaps you own that coffee mug that says don’t talk to me until … and it has the markings indicating when you have been safely caffeinated and are ready for social interaction.
If any of this sounds familiar, you are not alone. Solitude can be quite a temptation. Why do I need all these other people? Don’t I just need me and my personal relationship with Jesus?
Back in the mid 13th century, even St. Thomas Aquinas wondered whether solitude (living like a hermit) might not be just as good as community for religious folk, even sometimes better while he was writing Summa Theologica. However, when he turned to the scriptures, the highest authority of Christians, he quickly realized that complete solitude is not God’s plan for the religious. In fact Aquinas concluded that there are only two really good reasons to be fully alone: beast-like uncouthness of mind, or being a God, wholly divine and superhuman. Well I’ve met us and I’m fairly certain that none of us are beasts or Gods.
In today’s lessons we see a glimpse of how our loving father expects us to live – in community, with all that that entails. In our first lesson from the second chapter in Acts, we learn a bit about the honeymoon phase of early Christianity. The Holy Spirit has just come, the people have started sharing the story of our risen savior, Living together they worship and develop a strong community which is growing by hundreds and then thousands. They eat together, pray together, and work together. In Acts we see a wonderful spirit-filled communal life, with “glad and gentle of hearts” having “goodwill of all people.”
This is all made possible because of Jesus. You see our God has provided the Holy Spirit to mankind and one of his main jobs is to give us glad and gentle hearts, not to placate us, but because we recognize our role as parts of the living body of Christ, and we recognize that same image of God in the others in our lives. Our first lesson is about a community which has fully embraced this style of living. Sounds like a nice place.
When we humans don’t lean on the guidance of the Holy Spirit, that’s when the troubles of community living begin.
Most of us have lived in a few of communities even if we have never left Decatur, small ones like families, medium sized ones like Decatur or Central Illinois, big ones like the entire country, even global ones, If you open up the paper or your favorite device this morning and look at the news, it doesn’t take long to see that we humans don’t always rely on the Holy Spirit completely to guide our relationships with one another. Imagine what our communities could look like if we did.
Turning to our second lesson this morning. Flash forward just few years and decades from Acts 2, the honeymoon period is over and the people have made community more challenging,
there have been some complaints
as we see in 1 Peter. The people of Asia Minor are experiencing some challenges because they are once again thinking of their individual needs, trying to rely on themselves, and not the Holy Spirit. No one really knows what the people of Asia Minor had told Peter that prompted this response, but I imagine Peter reading it, and, were he transplanted to today, muttering something like “first world problems.” First world problems, for those who may not know the expression, refers to the complaints of people who have no just reason to complain. In fact the circumstances of their complaint are really very good
Here are a few examples you might have heard,
“ I need a vacation from my vacation.”
“One pillow is too low, and two pillows is too high.”
“I’m so cold, somebody set the AC on 72.”
“I got a splinter from my hardwood floor.”
The trouble with first world problems is that you can only have them if you are already in such a great situation that if we see ourselves in relationship and community with all of humanity it should seem as if there are no problems in our privileged world. After all, many people work for such low wages that they can never take a vacation, many people have no pillow, and even no bed. Many people live in harsh climates like deserts and tropical forests and have never had air conditioning, and still others live in areas where 72 is warmer than a mid-summer day. Not to mention that if you can afford AC, you can probably afford a sweater. And seriously, seriously a splinter? Your God came to earth and dies a horrible death on a cross to redeem you. I think you can handle a splinter.
Many a parent has tried to teach this humility to our children. How many of us recall complaining about being made to “eat our vegetables” only to be told about “starving children in” Africa or Appalachia or some location. As adults we sometimes need to be reminded of the larger community as well. So, Peter reminds us that the vast majority of the strife and difficulty we encounter in our communities are a product of not fully abandoning ourselves to community, not listening to the Holy Spirit in our lives. Or as Aquinas put it being uncouth. And if we have to endure the consequences of those choices, we don’t have the right to complain.
He also reminds us that there is real suffering in our broken creation. Real problems like starvation, cancer, hearing loss, mental illness, autism, blindness, seizure disorders, loss, loneliness, war, famine, poverty. Problems which you didn’t create and suffering which you do not deserve. To those of us who suffer from these very real concerns, Peter has a message. God sees you, God knows you. God loves you, and God calls you to be an example for others in our community as Christ provided the ultimate example in his Grace upon unjust persecution and crucifixion.
Several centuries before Peter wrote his letter or Jesus came to redeem us, the psalmist provided us with a similar picture. Not a life of no suffering, but a life when God walks with us through just suffering and through communion. Mixed in with the beauty of the 23rd Psalm there is death, evil, and enemies to be contended with.
But this is something we never have to face alone. For he is with us. Not only that, he is carrying a rod to protect us and a staff to guide us.
So how do we find our way back, back to this communion and community which is our Lord’s vision of how humans should live in this world show to us in the first lesson this morning? And how once we are there do we keep the communion and community going?
As we see in today’s gospel reading from John, Jesus gives us two parables about knowing and trusting Him. Perhaps we can find an answer in there. In the first parable we learn
The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.
10:3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.
10:4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.
From this parable we see how our flock needs to behave. we must know and trust God to do what is his to do. God should be like the good friend who doesn’t have to call first and comes straight in through the kitchen door to join us for a cup of tea, We should know him by his voice, we should trust him for his honest and direct simplicity.
Houses like mine also have another door, that door where you know it’s a stranger because anyone who knows you would never have come to that door. Much less would they come through a window. Just as Jesus tells us in the gospel lesson anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.
Those thieves and bandits, who are they? Could they be people like us?
To stick together, we need to know and trust the others in our community, and be knowable and trustworthy community members ourselves. We cannot steal others trust, or let our friends or ourselves be culled from the flock. There will be times when our community struggles and it’s easy to feel that the grass will be greener somewhere else. But the gospel warns us, those feelings will “only to steal and kill and destroy”
We are stronger together, when we come together, when we are gracious to others for the sake of the whole body of Christ. With the help of the Holy Spirit he sent to us, gracious radical hospitality to everyone is how we prepare for the future when he returns, because when Christ comes to us and for us as ou Good Shepherd, As he describes in today’s Gospel, note that we are not alone. We are members of a flock, a community, prepared to love one another through the spirit and ready to trust and follow Him.
In the name of the father, son and holy spirit Amen.