The Rev. Elaine H. Breckenridge
Easter 4, 2014
Listen to this…Sermon 2014.05.11 EHB
Once there was a famous actor who was the guest of honor at a social gathering. At the gathering he received many requests to recite favorite excerpts from various literary works. An old preacher who happened to be there asked the actor to recite the twenty-third Psalm. The actor agreed to but on the condition that the preacher would also recite it. The actor’s recitation was beautifully intoned with great dramatic emphasis for which he received lengthy applause. The preacher then took his turn and his voice was rough and broken from many years of preaching. His diction was anything but polished. But when he finished speaking there was not a dry eye in the room. When someone asked the actor what made the difference, he replied, “I know the psalm, but he knows the Shepherd.”
The Shepherd. While our civic calendar tells us it’s Mother’s Day, our church calendar tells us it is Good Shepherd Sunday. As we do every fourth Sunday in the Easter season, we are reading from John’s tenth chapter, a chapter devoted to sheep, shepherds and most importantly, the good shepherd.
Perhaps some of you, like me can remember the earliest pictures you saw in Sunday School–the image of a shepherd; a staff in his hand, a little lamb around his neck standing in the midst of the most beautiful countryside. We were told, back then that the shepherd was Jesus.
Now, the shepherd is only one metaphor that the writer of John’s Gospel uses for Jesus. As heard today, Jesus is also the gate–the entrance, the way into the safety of the sheepfold.
I remember my childhood images of the sheepfold at night. I could see Jesus tucking the sheep into bed each night. Lovingly the shepherd, would lead the sheep into the enclosure, looking each one over closely. Calling each one by name, he would sing them to sleep at night. Then he himself, the shepherd would be the gate, the barricade. He would lay down in front of the enclosure so that the sheep would not wander away nor would the wolves have a special supper.
But I have never stopped to think about the morning after. Imagine all the sheep huddled together during the night. In the morning, the shepherd would call each sheep by name, leading them out, one by one, counting them to make sure that all members of the flock were there. Out of the security of the sheep pen, on a good day there would be freedom for the sheep. Grass to eat. Pools of still water to drink.
Jesus whom we might think of as the protector of the flock by night, is also the shepherd who brings the flock into new landscapes, into the light of the sun and into the place where fresh nourishment can be found.
O.K. but what does that metaphor have to do with us? Sometimes I wonder if there might be a tendency for us to believe that parish life is life lived in a protected enclosure. I know I sometimes think that way.
We might think of our coming here as a place for sanctuary from the rest of the world– a place of refuge, a place for rest and renewal. Like a flock of sheep at night, perhaps as congregants, some of us come here expecting that the liturgy will lead us beside still waters and restore us. We may not want to be too challenged, lest it disturb our sleep.
But once again, the Good News is always as challenging as it is comforting, because this Gospel, reminds us that Jesus is not here to simply lead us into a blessed peaceful night’s sleep. No, he’s here to lead us out, out into the world to spread the Good News that the abundant life consists in working for justice, freedom and peace. This Gospel is a wake-up call to get us moving up and out of the safe enclosure we call church.
Our mission, Bishop David told us when he was here, “Is to leave this beautiful house of prayer and go out to find God in the neighborhood.”“The Episcopal Church is coming to a neighborhood near you” he recently said in an on-line video –“coming not to build new churches, but to meet our neighbors, to hear their stories and find out ways in which the church can help.” The word missional, as I am learning, “is to reenter the neighborhood and community to discover what the Spirit is doing there–to start with God’s mission-and join in, shaping our local church around that mission.” *
O.K. I will be honest. I find that to be a very challenging message. I would much rather rest in green pastures beside still waters. And the message is especially challenging for me because I am still very much a stranger in a strange land here in Lodi. My neighborhood is small, consisting mostly of St. John’s, Lodi Lake, Rayley’s and In-Shape gym.
I would like to follow the Bishop’s lead but I am going to need your help to practice it. I am going to need all of you to shepherd me in the direction of the neighborhood. What is our neighborhood? What are the boundaries? We need some scouts who can lead the way, those who know this neighborhood far better than I do. If we are to join God in the neighborhood, where should we go? What path shall we take? It’s easy for me to be confused.
And speaking of paths and confusion, as I was thinking about this, yesterday, I was reminded of a dream I once had.
The dream was about being stuck in the wilderness. And the wilderness was unpleasant, but I had been there a long time and I was used to it. I wanted to move out of the wilderness and yet I was afraid to leave. I was afraid to leave because my wilderness was actually a valley, and there were many paths, eight to be exact, paths that seemed to wind their way out of the valley. But which path was I to take?
Was I capable of choosing the right path that would get me out of that place and bring me closer to God? I was convinced that only one path was correct and I was equally convinced that I would choose the wrong path. I was harassed and helpless, like a sheep without a shepherd.
In my dream, there finally came a day when I could stand it no longer and I prayed, “God help me” and I chose a direction. I headed out on the path nearest to me, and as I journeyed just a few yards down the path, there was Jesus–standing there. He had a hand extended to me, and he called me by name. “Elaine.”
And what did I do? I turned and ran in the opposite direction believing him to be an imposter. So I tried another path, and there he was, again standing, with an extended hand, calling me. “Elaine.” Still, wanting to make sure I was right, I had to try each path, believing that with each choice, I was making the wrong one.
But at each place, Jesus was there. There was no judgment, only love. He was patiently waiting for me to join him. Of course I was bound to run out of choices, and as I chose the eighth path, the last path, I ended up actually walking it with Jesus. Ironically, walking the path with Jesus led me into another valley.
But this time, I was not alone, because in this valley, there was a crowd, a group of people milling around, like sheep without a shepherd, also trying to decide on what path to take.
That dream mirrors my experience of the Christian life. All paths, all ways, all choices can lead to God when we call upon God to journey with us. The trick is accepting that we cannot walk the path by ourselves.
Oh we can, but we will be miserable. It seems that we must be willing to pass through a divine gate if we intend to leave the wilderness for the abundant life. The spiritual life is not about choosing the right path, as much as it is about choosing a relationship with God as we make all of our life choices.
The abundant life is also the land of community. The abundant life is more life with God and more life in community. And the church’s role is to help us learn how to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd who calls us each by name. “Elaine, here I am—right this way.”
As we set off to join God in the neighborhood, let us remember that no matter what path we choose the Good Shepherd goes with us. And so I shall end with where I began with Psalm 23. This time I offer you a free translation of Psalm 23, from The Message, by Eugene Peterson.
God, my shepherd! I don’t need a thing. You have bedded me down in lush meadows, you find me quiet pools to drink from. True to your word, you let me catch my breath and send me in the right direction. Even when the way goes through Death Valley, I’m not afraid when you walk at my side. Your trusty shepherd’s crook makes me feel secure. You serve me a six-course dinner right in front of my enemies. You revive my drooping head; my cup brims with blessing. Your beauty and love chase after me every day of my life. I’m back home in the house of God for the rest of my life. AMEN.
* Alan J. Roxburgh, Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood