May 7, 2017

4 Easter

Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10: 1-10

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  AMEN.

            In a brightly lit emergency room inside a hospital, I pulled out my prayer book and opened to the 23rd psalm.  I looked into the eyes of a woman standing a few feet away from and watched as tears fell from her face towards the floor.  I began to read: “The Lord is My Shepherd, I shall not be in want, he makes me to lie down in green pastures and leads me besides still waters, he revives my soul and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake.  Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.”

            I stopped. 

            The woman’s tears continued, as she stared at the body lying on a gurney – a woman who was her friend, who had breathed her last.  Shortly after, a nurse entered the room, and draped a sheet over the deceased woman’s face, and rolled the gurney out of the room to the morgue. 

            Like the teary eyes of that woman in the emergency room, the 23rd psalm today brings us immediately to death’s doorstep.  But we are not meant to stay there.  We are meant to walk through it, and with God beside us, we fear no evil.

            Today is Good Shepherd Sunday – a reference to the image of God as our shepherd in the 23rd Psalm, and also in the Gospel of John today, in which Jesus is identified as the Good Shepherd.  What these two readings in the Bible – John chapter 10 and the 23rd psalm – have in common is that they both point us toward life, and away from death.

            In John chapter 10 Jesus is talking to a group of people, employing the common image of a shepherd watching over a flock, and using that image to describe who he is as a Good Shepherd.  In essence Jesus is borrowing on the image of a shepherd in the23rd Psalm, stating that he, the Lord is our shepherd.  This kind of imagery is lost on many of us in the 21st century, but I will never forget seeing an honest to god real shepherd, over twenty years ago. 

            I was travelling with my brother, and we were in the middle eastern country of Jordan, which borders Israel, visiting the ancient city of Petra, a city carved into the rose-colored rock of the land.  While exploring the outlaying areas, I from out of nowhere  a shepherd with a heard of twenty of so sheep walked past us.  At first I thought I stumbled into some Six Flags over Jordan Bible theme park, but this was the real thing.  The shepherd kept his flock close, led them to his home, which is in a cave.  It was like going back two thousand years in time. 

            If, as Psalm 23 and John 10 both proclaim that God is our shepherd, then what does that mean for us today?  The answer is simple.  In the Gospel today, Jesus says:  “The thief comes only to kill and destroy.  I came that they might have life and have it abundantly.”  That’s the answer, the sole purpose why Jesus came to us – so that we could have abundant life.  So what does it mean to live abundantly, following God’s shepherd?  Not what you think, probably.

            Abundant life is not about easy living.  It’s not about the soul less acquisition of more and more things.  Abundant life, as Christ teaches it, is about one thing: sacrifice.  I know that doesn’t sound enticing, but it’s the truth.  Our culture tries to sell us lies about abundant living being all about ownership of stuff, but Jesus teaches us that abundant living is the result of sacrifice in our life.  This teaching, whether we realize it or not, is the message we hear every Sunday – our Sunday service is about sacrifice.  We put money in a plate – that’s a sacrifice.  We gather around a table where God is offered to us in bread and wine, where we hear the words “Christ our passover is…sacrificed…for us.” 

            An unpopular, but necessary spiritual truth is that there is no such thing as abundant life without sacrifice.  If we don’t learn that, then spiritually we are still in pre-school.  Think about what you sacrificed to be here today – sleeping in, brunch, a casual morning.  Was the sacrifice you made worth the abundance you now feel? 

            Years ago I attended a retreat with Episcopal clergy from all over the country, and we began each day with worship, which included a sermon.  I don’t remember any of the sermon’s – except one.  The priest, who was from Alabama, stood up, and said “The world and the church do not owe you a damn thing.”  He actually used more colorful language than that, which is why it was so memorable to me.  But it was true - his words were prophetic to me then, a realization that all of us are not entitled to anything, rather we are called to abundant life, a life that though full is not equated with being comfortable or easy.  Jesus’ life certainly wasn’t.  Jesus taught us a graduate –level hard hitting spiritual truth that the prerequisite for true abundance in life is sacrifice.  Maybe that doesn’t sound like good news to you this morning, but it does to me, and here is why.  All of us know the feeling of helping another person.  We feel good.  We feel abundant.  Why?  Because we are created to give ourselves to others. 

            So if God is calling you to abundant life, and you feel that everything in your life is scarce, you don’t have enough time, you don’t have enough money, you don’t have enough love.  Jesus would say you don’t need more of those things, and challenges us today instead to consider then what do we need to give up, what do we need to sacrifice?  What needs to die, so that resurrection can occur?

            The body, now wheeled out from the room.  I sat beside the woman, her tears still flowing down her face, in shock about losing her friend.  I held her hand, and said nothing.  She looked at me, and it was something like 2:30 in the morning – we were both tired, and she squeezed my hand, tightly, and said “thank you.”  And in that holy moment, for the first time, I understood life, abundantly.  AMEN.