I’ve lost count of the representations of sheep and the Good Shepherd we have at Good Shepherd Church. My favorite is this little statue that stands out in the garden, work of an unknown artist. It’s only a couple of inches tall, so you could walk right by and not even notice it, but I like it very much—and for some reason I love it best in the snow.
Taking this picture yesterday brought to mind a sermon from a dozen years ago that changed my life. It was preached by Bishop Tom Breidenthal of the Diocese of Southern Ohio back when he was Dean of the Chapel at Princeton University and I worked in the civic engagement department there, though interestingly enough I wasn’t in the Chapel to hear it preached. I came across the text online and downloaded it; I have it still, and it continues to be meaningful to me. A reminder to us preachers especially that God’s grace may employ our words in ways we could hardly imagine.
Breidenthal talks about that appealing image of the Good Shepherd “who seeks us out as his own, who calls us by name, and who guards us through the power of his own indestructible life.” The Good Shepherd who embraces us tenderly in his strong arms and keeps us safe, as that little statue suggests.
But there’s more to the Good Shepherd discourse, something I honestly had never noticed before. As Breidenthal says, “Jesus says that the true shepherd ‘calls his own sheep by name and leads them out… He goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice’ (John 10:3-4). That is to say, he leads them out of the relative safety of the walled sheepfold into the mingled promise and danger of open country.”
The Good Shepherd leads them out, not in—out of safety into the risky unknown.
He continues: “When Jesus says he is our shepherd, he is not just saying that he cares for us and will protect us, although that certainly is true. He is also saying that we belong to him, and that he expects us to follow his lead, however much that may entail a radical departure from what seems safe and familiar in our lives.”
I love trains, but for me it’s not about the technical trivia that excite some other train buffs, it’s about the feelings they stir. My first memories of train travel go back to the days when we rode back and forth from New York or Atlanta to Baltimore, to home. I always thought of it as home, even though by the time I was 10 we were moving into my fifth home and I’d lived in Baltimore less than half my life. I think that search for true home has always been a thing for me. But maybe that’s true for everyone, because our truest home isn’t a place; it’s a relationship.
I loved the overnight train from Atlanta. I remember falling asleep to the soft clackety-clack of the wheels and being gently rocked through the night. I remember waking once in the middle of the night to the sound of crossing bells, watching out the window as we rolled in the darkness through a little crossroads town, and feeling a kind of weary loneliness which I treasured until I fell asleep again.
The opening paragraph from Thomas Merton’s essay “From Pilgrimage to Crusade”:
Man instinctively regards himself as a wanderer and wayfarer, and it is second nature for him to go on pilgrimage in search of a privileged and holy place, a center and source of indefectible life. This hope is built into his psychology, and whether he acts it out or simply dreams it, his heart seeks to return to a mythical source, a place of “origin,” the “home” where the ancestors came from, the mountain where the ancient fathers were in direct communication with heaven, the place of the creation of the world, paradise itself, with its sacred tree of life.
It’s a story told in two parts, this Gospel account of the first sermon Jesus preached back in his hometown of Nazareth. Last week, we heard the part where he promised liberation from all the things that hold people back from living full and free human lives.
And then in today’s continuation of the story, he suddenly starts to criticize the people in the synagogue, and in response they’re “filled with rage.” They’re so angry they drive him to the edge of town, where they would have pushed him over the edge of a cliff except that he somehow manages to vanish into the crowd and walk away.
I think it’s difficult—at least I hope it’s difficult—for a modern congregation to understand the emotion behind that murderous outburst toward the preacher. But maybe that’s how it always is with rage: It’s irrational, beyond understanding.
So we might be tempted to look at the story and feel a bit superior to the people in the synagogue that day. It’s hard to imagine us treating any guest preacher that way.
Parker Palmer says: “Unlike many folks my age, the young people I work with waste no time grieving the collapse of the ‘old order,’ of the religious, educational, vocational, and political structures that helped form their elders lives. When today’s young adults were born, many of those institutions were well on their way to becoming dysfunctional.*
“Instead of mourning what’s on its way out or already gone, many of the young adults I know are inventing forms of work and life that holds great promise–from political movements, to religious life, to staying connected in communities of meaning. … I find it inspiring to hang out with people who aren’t bemoaning the loss of what no longer serves us well. Instead they’re exploring possibilities that we, young and old together, can midwife into life.”
This, to me, sums up in a nutshell the reason why so many parishes are dying. Imagine the energy that would be released if we directed our attention away from trying to prop up institutions that no longer serve the world’s needs and turned instead to thinking about the true mission of the church. No gimmicks. But what, really, is our mission.
* Parker J. Palmer, On the Bring of Everything, 37
Back in the 1970s, the local priest in a community of farmers and fishermen in the Solentiname Islands of Nicaragua did a Bible study every week instead of a sermon. He was there to keep things on track, but he let the people of Solentiname speak for themselves.
These were simple people—some of them couldn’t read—but they took to heart the teaching of the man from Galilee who did most of his own preaching to very simple people two thousand years ago.
The priest was a man named Ernesto Cardinal, a poet who later served as minister of culture in Nicaragua, and he was so impressed by these discussions that he began to take notes on them, and later to record and transcribe them, and he turned them into a book called The Gospel in Solentiname.
It’s a very moving book. These people heard the Gospel message, and they got it. When they listened to the verses that we ourselves heard today, they knew Jesus was speaking to them when he said,
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
We went down to Ocean City yesterday to look at a house for a big family group next summer and took a short walk on the boardwalk when we finished our business, and I found myself wondering about the nature of time.
We think of time as moving relentlessly forward, and certainly it feels that way to me now, as the days march on toward that date five Sundays from now when I’ll say goodbye to my parish.
We think of time as linear, and yet we also see that it moves in cycles. Yesterday the boardwalk was nearly empty; in six months, it’ll be teeming with people like the seagulls who claimed the space yesterday along the water’s edge. I stood in this spot with my own children 25 and 30 years ago; in August, perhaps, I’ll walk this way holding my granddaughter’s hand.
Church time, of course, is cyclical and more. Jesus isn’t just born into the world again every year, but at every moment, and at every moment he is sitting down in the synagogue and all eyes are upon him as he declares that he’s come to bring good news to the poor. At every moment, we followers are hearing those words as a message of hope and challenge.
And our own memories are with us at every moment, maybe not consciously, but in the way the things that have happened to us continue to shape us, the people who have touched our lives continue to inhabit them. The past year has been a tough one for us as so many people who were important to us have died. Chris’s mother, of course, the last of our parents. So many friends who taught us by example how to live a life. And yet I do believe they’re with us yet, still teaching, as we go on to show others the lessons we’ve learned.
You know you inhabit a very narrow world when you realize you spent several minutes gazing at a sign behind a hospital bed that said “HOB must be elevated” before it occurred to you that HOB in this instance did not mean House of Bishops.
I wonder if in years to come, what happened that day in Cana of Galilee became the stuff of family stories to be told over and over again. I wonder if that unnamed couple entertained their children with imitations of the expression on the steward’s face when he tasted the excellent wine that, for some reason, had been saved until well into the wedding celebration. Or whether the couple spoke to themselves and to others about what an honor it was that Jesus himself had come to their wedding and performed his first miracle there to save the day for them. It would have been a social disaster to run out of wine at the wedding. Very embarrassing to the bridegroom and to his family, and probably even worse for the servants who were responsible for making sure that there was enough wine to go around.
We don’t know. We don’t know how many people knew, at the time, that there had been a miracle. The servants who had poured the water and then ladled out the wine, they did know. The steward didn’t know, but word must have spread, and we hear that after this miracle of abundance—a hundred and twenty or a hundred and eighty gallons of excellent wine—after this, the word spread, and the disciples did believe.
We had a thing that happened at my own wedding forty years ago in New Hope which did become the stuff of a family story, which is why I thought of that. Our disaster, or potential disaster, happened when the caterer didn’t show up.