Fourth Sunday of Easter by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

 

 

[McFerrin’s Psalm 23]

There is a video making the rounds on social media. Maybe you have seen it. It’s short and to the point.

 

More than one person has shared that video with a caption that goes something like this:

Actual footage of me and my relationship with Jesus.

That’s hilarious. And it’s accurate. It’s one of those jokes that tells the truth.

In the hymn Amazing Grace we sing, “I once was lost but now I’m found.” But I wonder if those words might be more accurate if they went, “I keep on getting lost and I keep on getting found.”

This is Good Shepherd Sunday, the day every year on which we hear Psalm 23, probably the most famous and most beloved of all the psalms. (If you grew up in a certain tradition, there is a good chance that you know the King James translation of Psalm 23 by heart.) And it is the day as well in which we hear Jesus make this staggering and enigmatic promise:

I am the good shepherd.

What I am noticing in particular this year as I listen to Psalm 23 and Jesus is that each of these readings name danger, they name hurt, they name loss. Yea, the Psalmist writes, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for you are with me. And Jesus – well Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is talking about the sheep – you and me – living in danger from wolves.

From the beginning, the church has had to wrestle with the paradox that on the cross and in the empty tomb God defeated death and that, simultaneously, death and, more broadly, suffering and unfairness and injustice remained. We still die. Awful things still happen. That kind of seemed wrong to the first Christians. And, I don’t know about you, but it kind of seems wrong to me today. If we are living in the time of Easter – and I don’t just mean this particular season, but rather the almost 2000 years after Jesus’ resurrection – shouldn’t all of that be over?

I guess that I am thinking about hurt persisting after resurrection this week because this is the week in which I got the news that a friend’s cancer has likely metastasized. “Metastasized” being a variation on a lovely ancient Greek word that in, this case, means that the monster inside of my friend that is eating him alive has given birth. Nationally, this was the week in which we witnessed the trial of Derek Chauvin and held complicated feelings as we did so. While there was a glimpse of justice in the verdict, George Floyd remains dead and a guilty verdict against a police officer for this sort of crime remains vanishingly unusual. And here at Grace, this is the week in which our beloved friend and longtime groundskeeper, Frank Schramling, died. We’re going to be doing a parish workday at Grace on Saturday, May 15th – you’re invited to help – and as we encounter the layers of grief in Frank’s death, a big layer will come as we work on Grace’s grounds and he is not there.

The resurrection has happened. We live in the time of Easter. And all of this hardship is still true and real.

Why?

In case it’s not obvious, I’ve just painted myself into a corner. If a solid structure for a speech is to pose a question and then to answer that question, I’m kind of hooped. Because, as my old Jesuit theology professor, George Griener, put it, theology – the words that we say about God – are nowhere more incomplete and inadequate than when it comes to suffering and evil.

Lots of folks have tried to give a neat and complete answer to why suffering exists and, in particular, why it exists after Easter. When the door-to-door religion peddlers come to your house, they will cheerfully hand you a pamphlet that explains everything. And just yesterday on Facebook I encountered someone making the extraordinary (and yet extraordinarily common) claim that everything happens for a reason.

Really?

What the hell is the reason that my friend’s cancer has metastasized?

What the hell is that a conviction such as Derek Chauvin’s is vanishingly unusual?

What the hell is the reason that Frank is dead?

Do not insult anyone’s suffering by trying to give an easy answer to those questions.

Give them the dignity of sitting with a question that, at least this side of heaven, does not have a good answer.

Maybe I started this morning with poetry (what are the psalms if not ancient poems?) and song because, sometimes, art has a capacity to hold mystery in a way that an argument or a speech or a thesis cannot. We could write books about where Jesus is in suffering – lots of people have, and lots of those books are glorious and consoling and important – but come the end of the book we would still have the sense that our questions were unanswered, that we had barely touched the beginnings of an answer. In art, in beauty, we sometimes catch a glimpse of God, of truth, of love in a way that we cannot via any other means.

So, as I hold the news of my friend’s diagnosis, as our nation holds the news of Dereck Chauvin’s trial, as our parish holds the news of Frank’s dying, let’s sing. Let’s sing about how the Lord is your shepherd and mine. About how we, Jesus’ sheep, walk through the valley of the shadow of death. About how, even in this Easter time, we keep on falling into that ditch beside the road. About our trust, our trust in spite of everything, that Jesus is with us and will pull us back out.

[McFerrin reprise.]

Fourth Sunday of Easter by The Rev. Dick Toll

April 22, 2018

Lessons:

Acts 4:5-12

1 John 3:16-24

John 10:11-18

Psalm 23

As Christians, we proclaim the person of Jesus to be our model for humanity and our understanding of God.  The reflection of God for us is in the New Testament and primarily in the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  John’s gospel primarily portrays the Divinity of Jesus.  The other gospels are more in touch with the humanity of Jesus.

 

In John’s gospel today, we have the words of Jesus, “I am the good Shepherd.   The good Shepherd lays his life for the good of the sheep.” 

 

In the pastoral world of the first century, sheep and shepherds were a large part of the culture.  Today, in our busy life we tend to only see movies or pictures of pastoral scenes but it is a powerful image.

 

John has a way of defining Jesus that hints at the story of Moses and the burning bush in the Book of Exodus.  Remember that story?  Moses is tending the flock of sheep of his father-in-law, Jethro.  He has left Egypt and Moses is confronted by God who reveals the name of God in a way that has never been revealed before.  It is in the midst of a burning bush that is not consumed.  Moses is directed by God to rescue the Israelites from Egypt.  Moses wants to be able to say who sent him.  Moses receives the answer from God, “I am who I am.  Tell them I am has sent me to you.” 

 

John’s Gospel refers to Jesus using the statement, “I AM” any number of times.  It is as though symbolically John wants to refer to the “I AM who I AM” from the burning bush to the quotation of Jesus.  Please note that the following statements from John begin with, “I AM”.

 

“I am the bread of life.”  John 6

“I am the light of the world.”  John 8

“I am the door.  If anyone enters, he will be saved.”  John 10

“I am the resurrection and the life.”  John 11

“I am the way, the truth and the life.”  John 14

“I am the vine, you are the branches.”  John 15

“I am the good Shepherd.”  John 10

 

Yes, I am who I am.  The grounding of God in all humanity and especially in the person of Jesus.

 

This past New Year’s Eve, I had a very different experience.  My wife and I were in Paris with our daughter, her husband and their two children, our grandchildren.  I had never heard of the Paris Catacombs before.  I assumed they were like the catacombs in Rome.  Wrong.  We went to the catacombs in Paris and it was very interesting to say the least.

 

There are 180 miles of tunnels that lie 50 to 75 feet underneath Paris.  The tunnels are centuries old and were cut out of solid rock.  Miners cut out the rock to build the city of Paris.  They mined the rock over many centuries.

 

In the late 1780s, Paris had a crisis.  A plague struck and people were dying by the thousands.  There was no place to bury them and a health crisis continued throughout the city.

 

Finally, the bodies were buried in the underground tunnels.  The idea caught on to the point that over the next 50 years all of the cemeteries within the city of Paris were emptied so that buildings could be built in Paris over where the cemeteries has been.  For years there would be workers digging up graves every night and transporting the bones to the underground tunnels.  Six million people have their bones stacked in the underground tunnels.  I asked the questions about head stones and found out they were used for paving the streets.

 

I recount this story because as I looked on the stacked skulls and bones, I thought of them as living, breathing human beings who at one point in time had their hopes and dreams, their families, their thoughts, their feelings.  They lived out their lives in the presence of each other and in the presence of God.  Many of them would have related to the person of Jesus.  They had their secrets.  They had their fears.  They had their enemies.  They had their loved ones.  They were a people who were a part of evil, good, prayer, war, love, revolution, freedom, hate and resistance.  Yes, a small moment of history with six million people stacked together.  Who were they?  Who are we?  Six million people stacked on top of each other.

 

I am who I am.  Each person had been a part of the knowledge of their unique and individual I am.  They had been mothers, fathers, solders, doctors, children, sailors, politicians, poets, priests and teachers.  They made history.

 

And my guess is that some of them may have been my relatives and your relatives.  I could probable find my DNA and we are the recipients of their decisions, their commitments, their mistakes and their stories.

 

“I am the good Shepherd.”  And Jesus comes among us to show us the way.  We stray from the way and we get lost along the way.  We return to the way.

 

Each of us is on our own journey.  Each of us claims the, “I am” of our own humanity.  I am who I am…..there has never been another person like me and there never will be.  There has never been another person like you and there never will be.

 

We bring to our own moments the uniqueness of our own humanity.  Each of us is unique, gifted and we discover who we are as we journey along the way.  We hear Jesus say, “I AM” in all of those statements I read earlier.  When we accept the person of Jesus, we find him to be grounded in all our humanity and we know the God of all creation.  As I looked at all those stacked bones in Paris, I could not help but wonder how the humanity of those individuals has been influenced by Jesus.  I will never know.  But, what I do know is in the here and now of my own life.

 

I do know the good Shepherd, I do know something of the mystery of God in the burning bush, “I am who I am” God tells Moses.   I am the reflection of this God Jesus tell us in John’s gospel.  I personally accept this for myself.  I am and you are the reflections of this same living God.