Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Proper of the Day: The Fourth Sunday of Easter

Although Sundays are work days for me, I am finding I really do look forward to when our community gathers for worship in Sundays. Today was such a day. The second Sunday of the month is even longer, because our Executive Committee meets after the 10 AM service. And it seems that recently I've not done a good job of getting my sermons done in good time. I had a draft done last night, but as has been usual I needed to get up a little earlier to review and revise it before our first service. But that's kind of OK too. I'm finding it's a tremndous joy to able to preside at the Eucharist with the people I'm called to serve with. As It told someone today, I really really like giving Communion to children. It's such a joy. I know they only have the vaguest knowledge about what it is they're doing, but that's OK. We;re sowing seeds that may take decades to come to fruition.

Here's my sermon for today. As always , even if I don't remember to say it, I welcome your comments and feedback. I can't do better with out it.

St. Thomas’s Episcopal Church, Vernon
The Fourth Sunday of Easter 2008 (BCP)
Act 6:1-9,7:2a,51-60; Ps 23; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10
The Rev. R. F. Solon, Jr., Vicar

May these words be in the name of the one who is the Gate to eternal life. Amen.

Today is Good Shepherd Sunday. On this 4th Sunday in the Great Fifty Days of Easter, we always reflect on the image from John’s Gospel of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, the one who leads the sheep to safety and who knows the names of each of us. There have been probably thousands of paintings and other art of Jesus the Good Shepherd. Some that are very good, and some that are, if you’ll pardon the expression, pretty smarmy. Those are the ones that kind of get on my nerves, because it’s clear from the Gospels that Jesus was anything but smarmy. Look at the images included in today’s Gospel. Thieves. Bandits. Strangers. Sounds to me like being a good shepherd was pretty dangerous work. It’s not just all sweetness and light. It’s hazardous sometimes.

I admit to taking a bit of a risk here with you today. I know many of you grew up in this area, and probably know something about sheep and shepherds and all. I admit that, as a city boy, I don’t know very much about it all. I think the closest I’ve ever gotten to a sheep is at the state fair. So I don’t want to go and make too many comparisons to sheep, because I imagine you can set me straight about what sheep are really like. And it’s kind of interesting that this particular image has been so prevalent in American Christianity. In this diocese alone there are no less than four parishes named Good Shepherd, including our own closest Episcopal neighbor over in Wantage. It’s always struck me a bit strange, because Christianity itself arose in the cities, not the countryside. The ancient patriarchs of the early Christian churches are named not after countries or regions of the Roman Empire, but after the principal cities the churches found themselves in. Jerusalem. Antioch. Alexandria. Constantinople. Rome. And it’s also clear, for example, that the ministry of that great evangelist the apostle Paul, whom we got a very brief introduction to this morning, did his work in cities. But this deeply agrarian image, this figure of speech making Jesus to be a good shepherd, as if there are bad ones too, has been part of Anglican Christianity since the Reformation.

But there’s another image that is placed right alongside the idea of the Good Shepherd and seems equal to it. And that’s the image of the gate itself into the sheepfold. Jesus says, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”

Now gates are openings in fences or other barriers that can be open or closed. They allow one to easily enter or exit the enclosure or the wall or whatever is being blocked off. Gates are something I get. Cities have gates! When I was growing up in Toledo, many of the customers on my paper route had fences and gates that I had to go through to deliver the paper. My own back yard had a big gate that I had to make sure stayed closed whenever our dog was outside. And like many of you, when I was younger, I read in Scripture about the gates of the city of Jerusalem and other ancient cities that had wall around them. When I was older, I encountered gates of a different sort – the departure and arrival gates at airports. And of course this past week those kind of gates have been on our minds a lot, with all the confusion and chaos resulting from the inspections that American Airlines and so many others are having to go through.
And there is another set of gates that we are asked to consider as well. As some of you might know, our Bishop has identified four Gates of Hope that he asks us to reflect on as we stand with the Risen Christ. He characterizes gates as essentially thresholds – spaces and times that are both before and after, in and out, new and old. Gates are places of choice, of opportunity. Mark identifies these Gates of Hope as the core values within our diocesean life together, and here they are:

1. Worship: "Enter your gates with thanksgiving; go into God's courts with praise." (Psalm 100.3)

Worship gathers and grounds us as individuals and as a community. Worship has the capacity to quicken the souls who come through the "gate of holiness" - and transform us into disciples of hope as we re-enter the world.

2. Spiritual Formation: "Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the Gospel." (Ephesians 5.19)
Spiritual formation is a commitment to live more intentionally as a person of faith -incorporating disciplines that brings into alignment one's interior and exterior life.

3. Justice/Nonviolence: "And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love Kindness, and to walk humbly with your God." (Micah 6:8)
Justice is the insistence that the gates of hope are open - and not hidden; and that the gates are open in equal measure for all. Foundational to the witness of justice is a commitment to non-violence - which is the resistance to a system, practice or ideology that creates victims

4. Radical Hospitality: "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it." (Hebrews 13.2)

Radical hospitality means that all are welcome all the time. Radical hospitality means that we will not only welcome the stranger; we will seek out the stranger -- and work to develop a process that transforms us all into neighbors.

Bishop Beckwith has put together some questions for reflection that he has asked each congregation to examine. I’m going to ask our webmaster to link to them on our web site, and our next newsletter will print them as well. The idea is that each of us can take hold of something from each of these gates as a common reflection that we’re part of something bigger than ourselves.

I will be working with the Executive Committee to reflect on how the diocesan Gates of Hope might match with our own four parish goals. I see a lot of overlap at first glance. It’s my hope that we can find ways to incorporate the diocesan core values of worship, spiritual formation, justice and nonviolence, and radical hospitality, into our own dreams of energizing for growth, developing inreach and outreach, enhancing Christian education, and becoming a parish. I welcome your own views as well, either to me or to any member of the Executive Committee.

Today Jesus invites us to travel through him to the new living that he offers to everyone. He invites us to think of him as a gate. When we stand in a gate, we can go in or not. We can open the gate and enter, or close the gate and walk away. It can be really hard to decide to go through a gate. Sometimes we know what’s on the other side. We’ve been there before, or a friend or relative is right there to guide us. Other times, it’s not so easy. Growth is good, but there are growing pains too. Any time we move toward something new, even when we know it’s completely right for us, it can be frightening. There’s real risk in entering in to something potentially new, possibly different.

My friends, it’s my deep hope and prayer that each of you will see yourselves and this parish as going in and up and through, rather than out and back and behind. I’m convinced that Jesus indeed is our gate. He promises that we will find safe pasture. With his love and with his strength, we can, as a parish, claim the new living that we’ve worked so hard to articulate. We’ve done a lot of work at seeing what St. Thomas’s is called to be and what to do to get there. And no question about it, to achieve our vision and goals will take time, and effort, and money. And we know how much that risk will be, too. We’ve taken a risk of $45,000 in our budget this year. It’s $45,000 of expenses that we aren’t at all sure we know will come from. That’s the risk we undertake as we stand at the gate of our future. Can you see through that gate, the gate of Jesus, what we will look like, at the vision that Jesus has in store for us? Today is the first step in make our vision a reality. Today Jesus invites us to simply step through the gate.


O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.