Sunday, April 26, 2015

A Flock of Holy Friendships:
Our Good Shepherd’s Gift to Us

Sermon preached on the 4th Sunday of Easter, Year B, at St. Francis House. These are the readings assigned to the day: Acts 4:5-12Psalm 231 John 3:16-24John 10:11-18.

[Last Wednesday night, some of us were talking about a bunch of things and the lectionary came up. The lectionary is the schedule that tells churches when to read which readings. While the arrangement isn’t perfect, there are a couple of significant perks to reading the Bible together this way. One is that we hear more of the Bible read than we would probably hear if we were only reading the parts we liked best or with which we were most familiar. Another is that, on account of the lectionary, many churches across the world end up hearing the same scriptures on a given Sunday, which is a neat witness - a reminder that the Church throughout the world is one. Yet another perk of the lectionary is that it lifts up themes that connect the different lessons we hear on a given Sunday. So, a few weeks back, when Jesus said he’d be lifted up like the snake Moses put on a pole, the lectionary helpfully assigned the snake story from the book of Numbers in the Old Testament reading slot, so you and I would know what the heck Jesus was on to.

Sometimes the connections provide, as with the snakes, contextual background. Sometimes the connections are more generally thematic. Other times, the connecting threads are so thin as to stay mostly hidden from view.

In any case, after having that conversation on Wednesday, it happens that today’s lessons provide a great example of the lectionary in action. Assuming the lectionary builds around the gospel, our starting point today is these five words of Jesus: “I am the good shepherd.” This quote and what Jesus says after it set off at least two thematic lectionary alarms - shepherd-ness, generally, and, more specifically, this shepherd’s particular readiness to lay down his life - that trigger all our other lessons today (except Acts, which is a kind of stand alone reading each week in Easter). At it all up, and you get a Sunday that regularly goes by the nickname “Good Shepherd Sunday.” That’s our starting place. That’s where we pick up the story.]

The good shepherd is, well, good. This much we know. Being good, for this shepherd, means knowing the sheep and being known by the sheep. Between them, shepherd and sheep, there is a mutual trusting. They run to his voice! The good shepherd stands between the sheep and the wolves. The good shepherd is ready to lay down his life for the sheep. The good shepherd has already laid down his life for the sheep. 

Elsewhere in Scripture, we learn that because the shepherd is good, he will leave all the others to go find one sheep that is lost. “What shepherd wouldn’t?” he asks, with lighthearted laughter and a note of self-deprecation in his voice. The shepherd’s modesty aside, the answer is obvious: “NO SANE SHEPHERD WOULD!” But the good shepherd does.

To be a sheep of this shepherd is to belong to the flock. You know you belong to the flock, that the flock will not turn on you or leave you behind, because the shepherd has promised to leave the flock where they are to reclaim you. So the flock will never simply forget you. The flock knows your importance to the one who tends you. You belong to the flock, because you belong to the shepherd, the only shepherd in town who would lay down his life for you. There is no dismissing any sheep of this shepherd. 

To belong to the flock, moreover, is to be learning the love of the shepherd for you and the others - the rest of the flock - for whom the shepherd has also dropped everything to be. To be in the flock is to know you are both surrounded by and one of those whom the good shepherd treasures. For sheep of this shepherd, kindness toward the other sheep is not an abstract moral virtue, arbitrarily imposed; kindness is the practice of looking at, treasuring, the other sheep the way the shepherd does.

Now, for the preacher’s unexpected and brilliant sermon twist: you are not a literal sheep. And Jesus, our good shepherd, was a carpenter by trade. To head for a farm following worship tonight, to stare at and cuddle the lambs - while, not a bad thing inherently - would be to mishear the opportunity these scriptures present to you. That opportunity begins with the reminder that to be a Christian is to be engaged in life-long training to see the others and the world around you through the eyes of Christ. 

The eyes of Christ are a challenge to the wisdom we’ve grown up on. In the sermon we call the Beatitudes, or blessings, Jesus sees and lifts up the poor, the hungry, the meek, the mourning, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted. To these, says Jesus, the kingdom, mercy, and comfort of God belong. 

Elsewhere, Jesus sees tax collectors and sinners as occasions for God’s grace to be felt in its fullest, in ways the very best of the rule keepers can’t feel or receive. He sees a handful of women and some backwater fishermen as a good place to start. Jesus sees a boy’s fish and bread lunch as a banquet in waiting, and his enemies as a good place to aim a man’s love. He sees the death we live our lives denying as a thing we need not fear. Because he exposes the impotence of death’s sting, Jesus sees the vulnerability that reconciliation requires as a risk worth the taking.

For us to see the world through the eyes of Christ like this may sound ambitious, but we metaphorical sheep can start simply: in John’s short letter tonight, we are invited to begin with the other metaphorical sheep of the metaphorical flock that is the Body of Christ, the community of faith: “We know love by this,” says the letter’s penman, “that he laid down his life for us -- and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”

Of course, learning to love one another in the community of faith is not always easy, in the same way it is sometimes easier to get along with strangers than with family. But if we start with a strong commitment to love the other proverbial sheep in our wonderful proverbial flock, we will find even our love of strangers deepened beyond a superficial niceness. We will begin to insist on seeking and finding Christ in them. And we will have discovered more of our truest selves - in the truth and vulnerability of the worshiping community - with which to share with strangers.

Tonight, I want to suggest two steps toward loving one another in this community of faith. The first is to let yourselves be friends. The second is to let Christ live in your friendships.

We talk a lot about friendship here - how to be a holy friend and what you can expect of the holy friends you find here. But I was still surprised when, this past Friday, Terri brought me a copy of a welcome booklet from the 1940s iteration of St. Francis House - located with the help of the UW Archives Department - and it listed, in the chaplain’s message (way back in nineteen-forty-something), friendship as the first quality of this place. Maybe great minds think alike, but more likely we continue in the legacy of the holy friends who came before us. 

The first step toward loving one another is to let yourselves be friends: friends who care for each other, reach out to each other, inside and outside of the hours we share in this place; friends who remember and show interest in one another’s lives; friends who eat together, pray together, laugh together, sometimes cry together, trusting that the shepherd who loves you has given you one another by virtue of our sharing one flock. To be friends is to see one another as gifts of God. The first step toward loving one another is to let yourselves be friends.

The second step toward loving one another is to let Christ live in your friendships. Realizing that this second step runs the risk of sounding pious, I think what I mean is that I hope you share with one another the parts of your lives that matter most: the true parts, the God-at-work-in-you parts. I hope you will talk about how God is moving and what you are seeing of God’s movement in this world and in your life. I hope you will ask questions of your friends here that let others tell you what they see. I hope, at some point, you will experience the great gift of being prayed for by a friend, and praying for a friend who needs a prayer especially from you. I hope you will become friends who struggle through the hard parts of Scripture together, and the best parts of Scripture together. I hope you will never forget the gift it is when you show up for each other, and that you also remember how, at various points in the course of the year, you have teamed up together, to reach goals you could not have accomplished alone. 

There are two steps toward loving one another in this community of faith. The first is to let yourselves be friends. The second is to let Christ live in your friendships.

To be friends is to see one another as gifts of God; is to see one another with the love Christ has for you. 

For sheep of this shepherd, kindness toward the other sheep is not an abstract moral virtue, arbitrarily imposed; kindness is the practice of looking at the other sheep the way the shepherd does.


Sunday, April 19, 2015

"And Now, Friends..."
(Speaking Conjunctions of Hope)

Sermon preached at St. Andrew's and St. Francis House on the 3rd Sunday of Easter, Year B. These are the readings assigned to the day: Acts 3:12-19Psalm 41 John 3:1-7Luke 24:36b-48.

Of all the conjunctions in the English language - for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so being examples of the most common - the singular popularity of but is largely undisputed. With this one, tiny, seemingly insignificant, three-letter word, a speaker can qualify or negate almost all of what has come before it. “Stripes and dots are both lovely patterns, but - your jacket and tie still don’t match.” “This is an exquisite dinner you’ve prepared, but - I would have preferred that you had killed and/or cooked the squid beforehand.” “I would like to stay good friends, but - we both know this is getting too difficult.” Indeed, you may have had the experience of listening to a friend whose long litany of agreements with you only caused you to wonder, as you were listening, just when the crucial but would come.

Of course, but does not always mean “I don’t mean anything I’ve said before” or “I don’t agree with what you’ve just said.” Sometimes we use but when what we really mean is, “I’d like a turn to talk now.” Sometimes but simply signals that we aren’t fully paying attention to what the other person said. So, in the absence of paying close attention, we tell ourselves that the illusion of disagreement ‘but’ can provide will at least keep us from appearing boring or uninteresting.

Thankfully, not all buts are so cynical, and best of all are the buts that surprise us for the good, that arise precisely in the moment of an acknowledged disagreement or mutually recognized difficulty or other apparent impasse; in such moments, a well placed “but” can unexpectedly open up the possibility of hope. “Ordinarily, stripes and dots don’t go together (I’ll concede), but - you make that suit look good.” “I know things look bad - you may feel like you are alone - but - you are not alone; the rest of us are with you.” “I know this relationship is difficult right now, but - I’m not giving up on us.”

One of my favorite “buts” in Scripture is exactly a but of this latter kind. It’s a conjunction of unseen possibilities and hope. The moment of possibility is found in the book of Genesis, and the conjunction found there comes to frame the whole story of God’s love for God’s people. This conjunction of hope comes after Abraham and Sarah, and a bit before Moses. Sarah gives birth to Isaac; Isaac marries Rebekah who gives birth to Jacob, whom God names Israel. Israel fathers twelve sons, the next to last of which is his favorite: Joseph. 

Joseph may sound familiar. He’s the one with the musical named after him: Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Joseph’s dad, Israel, has given him the dreamcoat as a sign of his being the favorite. The other brothers aren’t as keen on the dreamcoat. So Joseph’s brothers throw him in a pit before selling him as a slave to Egyptians. Fast-forward a bit in the story: Joseph has ascended to the position of Pharaoh’s right hand man; the brothers have by and large moved on; Israel assumes his favorite son has long ago been killed by animals - because the brothers had smeared animal blood on the amazing dreamcoat. Famine comes over the land, and Joseph, as the the top guy in Egypt - in part because he predicts the famine - is put in charge of securing provisions. Joseph is the one everybody in the land must come to for food. Eventually Joseph’s brothers also come to Joseph, bow down to Joseph, asking for food. Only they don’t know it’s Joseph. When, eventually, Joseph reveals himself to them, the brothers are certain they are dead men. That’s when Joseph squeezes in the but that changes everything:

“…you intended to do me harm,” he says, “but - God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So (another conjunction of hope) don’t be afraid…”

In Joseph’s remarkable response to his brothers, we discover what makes certain buts so big, so important; conjunctions like these embody a wrestling for control of the narrative: Joseph’s brothers live in a world determined by what they have discovered about themselves in their very worst moment, when they left their brother for dead and traded him into slavery. By contrast, Joseph lives in a world determined by what he has discovered about the God who never stops intending for good. By his unexpected conjunction, Joseph communicates the story of God’s action as the truest story about their lives. Joseph insists on the story of God’s ceaseless movement toward the flourishing of God’s people - and names his decision to live with his brothers in light of this story. 

Put more provocatively, Joseph refuses a story defined by his brothers’ endless fascination and self-absorption with their own worst moment: their sinfulness, their brokenness, and their failings. Joseph names the narrative as belonging to God, and so the story the brothers see as ending in their deaths instead becomes the story of a startling forgiveness: “Do not be afraid.”

Today’s reading from Acts is a reenactment of this Joseph moment in the earliest life of the Church. The conjunction is different, but the hope is the same: Peter, in the days that follow that first Easter morning, is talking to the Jewish people - the same people symbolized and embodied by Joseph and his brothers, the twelve tribes of Israel. Like Joseph, Peter is confronting these people with the truth about themselves in their very worst moment. Though Pilate had decided to release Jesus, Peter says, “you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses.”

At the mention of witnesses, I confess I begin to grow anxious. For how long does Peter intend to further his uncomfortable prosecution of the crowd? What shape will retribution take? Peter’s audience is dead to rights, thoroughly exposed. This is when we expect a characteristically hot-headed Peter to close in for the kill. (To be clear: to exact justice on his own terms is not just what we expect of Peter; it’s what we would expect of us.) Peter does in fact go on, building his case, appealing to the healing power of the risen Christ before he throws down and drops the hammer. 


He never drops the hammer. There is no throwing down. Instead: we hear one unexpected conjunction and three of the most remarkable words - in their context - in all of holy Scripture. Peter says this:

“And now, friends…”

And now friends. 

With respect to the Christian’s call to love and charity toward her neighbor, these words are the whole Gospel. Speaking to a people living in a world determined by what they have discovered about themselves in their very worst moment, when they had left their brother for dead and shouted “Crucify!” with all their breath, Peter witnesses an alternative to a world so determined: he communicates a new story - the truest story - the story of God’s ceaseless movement toward the flourishing of God’s people - “in what you did,” Peter says, “God was acting, fulfilling the prophets” - and he names, Peter owns, his decision to live with his sisters and brothers in light of this story, a story determined by what he has discovered not about their failings but about the God who never stopped intending for good.

“And now, friends…” 

And now friends.

Do you see how forgiveness, generosity, and mercy might be more than abstractly noble moral ambitions, but might form the heart of living witness to the risen Christ? Had a part of your soul longed for such a possibility from within the substance of what it means to be good? 

Would you lean toward God’s desire and promise that forgiveness, generosity, and mercy would flourish in you as holy practices by which you name the story of God’s ever intending good, even when the world around you acts its worst? 

Have you grasped, even at your worst, the truth that self-love is not self-indulgent because it names the Gospel’s refusal to let your worst moment define you? Do you hear, as if spoken to you, in Joseph and Peter, the invitation to trust the ocean-deep love of the risen One for you? 

Would you discern, with God’s help and good friends, the outlines - if faint - of new possibilities for well-placed and unexpected conjunctions in our relationships with those we love and those we find hard to love - conjunctions that sing the song of resurrection? Where in this week, in whose lives, will you make the commitment to meet a soul loved by God, trapped in pain, determined to determine themselves by their worst, left for dead, and there squeeze in the but that changes everything?

Let us pray. 

Almighty and everlasting God, who in the Paschal mystery established the new covenant of reconciliation: Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ’s Body may show forth in our lives what we profess by our faith; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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