Sermon excerpts from Easter 4, April 29, 2012
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Today is the 4th Sunday of Easter - we’re going on a full month of Easter now, good practice in becoming an Easter people - and the 4th Sunday of Easter sometimes goes by the nickname “Good Shepherd Sunday.” We call it Good Shepherd Sunday on account of the prayer assigned to this day and the readings, especially Psalm 23 - “the Lord is my shepherd” - and our lesson from John’s gospel - “I am the good shepherd,” Jesus says.
On a personal level, I love these readings. But if I am honest, I don’t at all know what to do with these readings. In particular, I don’t know what to do with a gospel that tells us that there will be one flock and one shepherd because, this morning, I am preaching to two services at one church. Two services for somewhere in the neighborhood of seventy-five combined worshipers. If statistics prove true, fewer than half of us this morning will be among the seventy-five worshipers who show up next week, which means that our church is really made up of at least three congregations: the two that are here this morning and the one that will be here next week, plus the half of us who will join them. One flock, one shepherd, three separate assemblies. Moreover, I am preaching the news that there will be one flock and one shepherd in a town with no fewer than twenty-one churches.
Tell me: can you think of any other business, non-profit, or other public entity that the good citizens of Portland, Texas, have decided we need twenty-one of? I mean, can we get somebody as excited about bringing in some really good restaurants as our town is excited about founding new churches?
Even this number, though, gets dwarfed when one does a quick search for churches in the Corpus Christi area via the online yellow pages; such a search yields results for some four-hundred churches.
Please note that I am not saying that any of this a good thing or a bad thing; it’s simply the thing. And the thing makes me wonder on what grounds I stand before you and preach one flock and one shepherd.
Importantly, I do not think that these things necessarily mean that we Christians have missed the point of the Gospel. I cannot say for sure that we have missed the point of the Gospel because I know that each and every one of you, and me, and all of us together have very dear friends in every one of those twenty-one churches - and even at our other service (that’s a joke). Friends whom we love, friends with whom you have worked and laughed and served closely.
Still, it is a strange thing that on the morning we gather to worship the God who has made it possible for us to be friends of God and one another, we worship without many of our dear, neighborhood friends, a good number of whom are worshiping in separate buildings just down the road, even as I speak.
I know better, but - at least on the surface - rather than God making our friendships possible, it sometimes looks like Jesus gets in the way of our friendships. Like we get along better - Monday through Saturday - when we just don’t go there. And I wonder: what does it tell us about the nature of our friendships when we discover that Jesus is getting in the way of them?
Many times, as Christians, we find friendship with others as we rally together around shared causes. Causes like breast cancer, poverty, addiction, justice and wealth - and we are right, I believe, to hear God’s call to action in all of these things. We tell ourselves that it is enough that we do these things because of Jesus. We collect our friendships around these causes or lesser ones, like our children’s soccer and gymnastics practice schedules, our common love or hate of take-your-pick Texas universities, golf, biking, ceramics, whatever. And again, here we are exactly right to imagine friendships in such a way that allow us to partner with people of all types and persuasions...
And yet, I wonder if even a small part of our souls is still bold enough to hope for the possibility of friendships centered on Jesus.
Good Shepherd Sunday - and John’s gospel in particular - mean to call us back to the miraculous possibility of just such friendships.
The grounds for our preaching one flock and one shepherd is Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, who calls his sheep by name. Because he calls them to himself, he also calls them together, and he becomes their center. The flock is one because the Shepherd is one. The unity of the Church becomes a mirror of the oneness of God. This is the vision of St John’s gospel.
I do not think this vision of Christ-centered friendship means that everybody in a given church must or should be soul-mates. But I do think that all Christians should set as our goal friendships with Christ at the center. And so I feel the gentle but persuasive nudge to ask myself these questions:
Am I willing to ask my brothers and sisters here: “How is your spiritual life?” as often as I ask, “How are you?” Am I willing to listen charitably when they answer? I think of the question Cursillo small groups ask each time they gather: “When in this past week did you feel closest to Christ?” Do I offer to pray with people as often as I commit to pray for them? Do our leaders - do I as a leader - take time in the midst of our planning to ask the question out loud, “How does this plan connect to what we know about the God of Jesus Christ?” or “What image from Scripture inspires our understanding in this moment?” Do I talk to my children - whatever their age - about my own life’s direction and how I understand it in relation to God’s call? And even with folks I haven’t seen in some time, perhaps this is the question: “What has God revealed to you about who God is since last we sat down and spoke?”
I put these questions out there to hold myself accountable in asking them to you. I hope they can be questions that rescue daily life from the stale, safe, default settings. I believe they are questions of the living Kingdom and an Easter people. I hope they are questions you can use not just at St Christopher’s, but with friends in the other twenty-one churches and even in our other service.
Because Good Shepherd Sunday - and John’s gospel in particular - means to call us back to the miraculous possibility of just such friendships. Christ-at-the-center friendships. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.