As anyone who knows me at all will tell you, I'm a planner. I am a Myers-Briggs "J." I like checking things off my list. This year I took two weeks off after Easter Day. So of course I used some of that time to "get ahead" and write my sermon for Good Shepherd Sunday. It was all set and ready to go on Monday morning this week so that I might focus on other things. And then the unthinkable happened in Boston...
So the circumstances of this week have caused me to write a completely new sermon, focused on the reading from the Revelation of St. John. I will preach tonight and tomorrow morning. It just seemed that the news of the day required a different angle. As has often been noted, preaching happens with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other hand. This sermon (prepared in advance of the Boston Marathon bombings) just didn't seem like the "good news" that needed to be proclaimed this weekend. So I'm not going to preach this sermon.
And yet, while that image of the newspaper and Bible in each hand conveys something true about preaching, one might argue that in another sense the Biblical narrative (and in a liturgical church like mine, the unfolding of that narrative in liturgical time) grounds us in a reality that truly is a "firm foundation" that trumps whatever may be happening in the world at any given time. Or to say it another way, Jesus is the Good Shepherd even in (and especially in) weeks like the one we have just lived through. In any event, here is my unpreached sermon. Tomorrow morning, I'll share the one that I am preaching.
Today is the fourth Sunday of the fifty-day Easter Season—so we are a little just about halfway there. This particular Sunday is often called “Good Shepherd Sunday” as today’s opening collect and the twenty-third Psalm make clear. Over the course of three years, the gospel reading comes from the tenth chapter of John’s Gospel which is all about the sheep and shepherd and how they relate to each other. In the middle of it all at John 10:11 Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.”
Given the journey we are on this Easter, as we are preparing to bid each other farewell, I would be remiss if I did not take this opportunity to remind you that I am not the good shepherd. Just in case anybody is confused. Nor are you looking to hire a good shepherd when I leave. (By the way, our Bishop, Doug - even though he carries a shepherd’s staff as a symbol of his office – he isn’t the good shepherd either.)
Like that book, “Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” you could say the same holds true in congregations like this one: everything we really need to know we learned in Sunday School. Transitions drive us back to the basics, the essentials, to what C.S. Lewis once called Mere Christianity. Believe it or not before I came here my role as Associate Rector at Christ and Holy Trinity Church in Westport, Connecticut included leading children’s chapel in the pre-school both of my kids attended and I remember singing with those kids: we are the sheep and he is the shepherd, his banner over me is love. (There were hand motions to go with it for anyone who is interested.)
Hold onto that: because the point is that there is one shepherd - Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. Bishops and clergy are at best faithful sheep dogs. Or to change metaphors you might say that the Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord and bishops and clergy and laypeople are all builders working to build something on that sure foundation.
That’s really all I want to say about that. But I think it is important to say it out loud and as we begin to wind down our time together; it is essential for all of us to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest that. No one should minimize the fact that transitioning from one rector to another is a big deal; it is. Or that there are a variety of emotions we feel when we say goodbye. But it helps to stay clear, at least, on the much bigger deal stuff: namely that we are called to serve Christ together, and through every transition in life - personal and congregational and diocesan – we do have a Good Shepherd who is with us. Thanks be to God for that!
Today, though, let’s turn our attention to this amazing Easter story from Acts. Reading Acts in Easter Season, before we celebrate Pentecost, is always a little bit tricky because we are reading it out of order. We won’t read Acts 2 until the weekend of May 18 and 19 – the fiftieth day of Easter. That is when the Holy Spirit makes a rather splashy arrival in Jerusalem. So everything else that follows, including the ninth chapter that we heard today, is empowered by that same Holy Spirit—even though we are reading it before Pentecost.
All of these texts from Acts remind us of something very important: the Church is called to continue the work that Jesus began. Let me say that again because it really is incredibly important. Jesus came to Palestine as a healer, a teacher, a sign of light in a dark world, hope in the midst of despair and ultimately as the one who showed that life is stronger than death. And then he was hung on a cross and died.
And that could have been the end of the story. But it was not the end, but rather a transition to a new beginning. Because of the empty tomb, the story continues. And now that whole first part of the story is seen in a new light. Even though the disciples sometimes act more like the three stooges than anything else in the gospels, after Easter – after the coming of the Holy Spirit – they are empowered to do infinitely more than they could previously ask or imagine. Peter really does start acting like a rock, instead of a denier. So, too, do the others. They rise to the occasion, empowered by the Holy Spirit, as they learn how to be the Church. They continue to do the work that Jesus called them to do in the first place.
Because that is why the Church exists: to continue the work of Jesus. Not only to preach the good news about Jesus, but to live the good news of Jesus as the Body of Christ in the world: to heal, teach, to be light in the darkness, to be hope in the midst of despair, to keep on rising from the dead to show the world that life really is stronger than death. The Church exists to keep showing the world what is possible and as an outward and visible sign of God’s Reign of justice and peace. The Church exists to be salt and light and yeast. This is a high calling and sometimes we do fall short, but even so it’s what we are called to be about. It’s our mission. It is God’s mission, continuing through us—for us to become instruments of peace as Jesus was.
So that is the context, the lens through which we should be listening to these words from the ninth chapter of Acts. It’s not a history lesson of how First Church, Jerusalem did their work but a map on how to be the Church in every generation: guided by the Holy Spirit, empowered by the risen Christ, we are called to continue to do the work that God has given us to do.
Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, "Please come to us without delay." So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, "Tabitha, get up." Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.
Remember the story of the raising of Lazarus in John’s Gospel? About how Jesus called into the tomb and his friend came forth and they unbound him? That was no doubt pretty incredible. But Jesus was the Son of God after all – very God from very God, begotten not made. Peter is just an ordinary fisherman. The gospels have gone to great lengths to show us that Peter got it wrong as often as he got it right, that what he did have going for him was enthusiasm but beyond that it was not always clear…
Peter was eminently unqualified, as you and I are eminently unqualified. We are beloved children of God, for sure. But we fall short. And yet with God, all things are possible. As God’s Easter people, we are called to great things. And so Tabitha gets up - just as Lazarus came forth – this time not because of the voice of Jesus but because of the prayers of a disciple of Jesus. With Christ working through him, Peter can now do infinitely more than he could previously ask or imagine.
This is true for us, too. Prayer isn’t magic. Sometimes we don’t get the answer we want. Sometimes the answer to our prayer is no and sometimes the answer is, as in those Iona prayers we used in Lent – God says, “I send you.” You are the answer to the prayer you are praying. But prayer does work, and our prayers do matter.
I think back to the story that appears in all four gospels, about the feeding of the five thousand and the line when the disciples are saying that they don’t have enough and Jesus says: “you give them something to eat.” Looking back, it becomes apparent that everything Jesus was about was not just doing signs that proved who he was, but being a rabbi – a teacher – who showed the disciples how they could continue that work after he was gone. He was preparing them to continue what he started.
This, of course, is precisely what discipleship is all about: it’s like being an apprentice. Jesus models for us, teaches us, so that we can continue to be instruments of peace and ambassadors of reconciliation. So that we will become signs of the Kingdom of God, until the Kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven. Jesus was never a “miracle worker” looking for more groupies. He’s not putting on a show and looking for an audience. The crowds kind of see him that way, but out of the crowds he calls followers, disciples—people with a servant’s heart. People who are foolish enough to be fools for Christ, who are willing to take up their own cross and follow him. And in so doing, people who are called to take up the work he began: to heal the sick and give bread to the poor, to challenge the powers-that-be in the way of non-violence, to model for the world the way of God’s shalom and God’s justice.
That is who we are, empowered by the Holy Spirit: a people after God’s own heart, a community called to work together for the sake of God’s Kingdom. I think many of us confuse humility – which is a good thing – with a denial of our own power in Christ. What I mean is that the lesson of Lent, that we are dust, is true. We are mortal. We are not called to be the Savior of the world, that job is taken. But the message of Easter is that if Christ has been raised from the dead then so are we. We are risen with healing in our wings, and called to do the work God has given us to do. We are called to let our light shine before all the world. That is equally true and we don’t serve Christ by hiding that light.
We serve Christ by letting it shine.