Proper 22 A
Matthew 21: 33-46
Tenancy and Love
Let me sing for my beloved a love song concerning his vineyard. It is hard to hear the gospel this morning as a love song, like the one we have just heard from Isaiah, but that is what it is, a kind of photographic negative of the love we claim we bear toward one another and to God. It is shot-through with rejection and even violence, the things we see when love has gone terribly wrong, when a relationship has disintegrated past misunderstanding to the point of possessiveness and murderous intensity. In the context of Isaiah, however, we have to hear the parable of Jesus as a song of love, of something that can and must be redeemed. Understanding that the impulse toward violence is pervasive, as much in Jesus day as our own, we need to see our own identities as beloved, especially if we are also to be the inheritors of the generosity of God and bearers of love toward one another.
As much as we have heard the parable of the vineyard, it is easy to see it as thinly veiled recrimination against those who persecuted the prophets, each of whom came to offer warnings towards God’s own people to change their minds and turn toward a restoration of relationship, with the Son as the final victim of a murderous lot. But it is harder to hear it being about us. We are not murderers; we aren’t particularly interested in violence, in spite of what our televisions, movies, magazines, newspapers tell us day-to-day, all the mirrors of ourselves that we cannot escape. We are a loving people and we simply want what is ours, whether it is our houses, careers or stock portfolios, all that we tell ourselves that we have earned. The violent are those other people, those who would jeopardize all that we value and believe we possess, the things so deeply ingrained in us that they have become part of our identity.
But as the beloved of God, we have to hear our own place in this story and it has to do with the tenacity with which we want to defend what believe is ours, even to the point of distorting the image in which we were made. We, after all, are the ones doing the work in the vineyard and we believe that work has intrinsic value. What we forget is that we are working under a tenants’ agreement and not a deed of ownership. The vineyard we are tending is not our own, which actually presents certain advantages; we are relieved from the responsibility of determining who merits being treated as human beings, who is deserving of dignity and who is not.
The violence we claim to abhor comes from forgetting about the issue of ownership, when we make the struggle about what we can claim instead of what we can give away. Hannah Arendt, one of the great chroniclers of violence in the last century, says that, as a phenomenon, “Violence is close to strength, since the implements of violence, like all other tools, are designed and used for the purpose of multiplying natural strength until, [finally}…they can substitute for it.” Consciously or not, what we forget is that our strength is not measured in terms of force but in our generosity, what we are able to give to God and what we are willing to be to one another. Our lives are gifts to each other and our relationships, to God and each other, are founded on gratitude, not on competition or coercion. In the kingdom of God that Jesus is trying to establish within the very gates of Jerusalem, the animosity of the authorities rending the air, he is telling all who will listen that we need to represent God’s interests, not our own, that our charge is to be as generous with one another as God has been with us. After all, it is the tenants, not the owner, who are in deep need in this world of shared interests.
The irony is that, as the beloved, broken tenants we are, we are able to use far more of the land than what we could ever claim as our own. The issue, for Matthew and for Jesus, is how effective we are at producing the fruits of the kingdom. Once it is dug, cleared of stones and planted with choice vines, the promise of God is that the ground is very fertile indeed. All that is necessary is to see that it is soil ripe for cultivation rather than a battleground for ownership.
I have an alternative parable that I hope has something to say about this. There was a landowner who had a vineyard in a church in downtown Chester, of all places. The tenants there came from all backgrounds. Their lives could not be more different: some were well and others were sick, some did the heavy lifting while others worked the finances. There were those who helped with the inner life of the people around them. But they became aware that the ground was unbelievably fertile. There were people surrounding them who had deep real physical needs, people around them who were hungry in many ways. These tenants had the opportunity to ignore the need, to fight among one another, or to turn on anyone who pointed out the suffering. Instead, they understood themselves as custodians, people working the vineyard as members of a long line of those committing themselves to something greater than they were. We don't have to guess at the results, because, if we open our eyes, we see them every day.
In case we think the church does not see what the penchant for violence does to us and our relationships, there was a statement that came out of the House of Bishops last week about the shooting in Las Vegas. “Christians,” they said, “must act and engage in the debates that shape how Americans live and die, especially when they die due to violence or neglect.” It is because we are all tenants in this vineyard; none of us can escape the fact that we are human and, in the economy of salvation, are dependent upon one another in ways we can only guess at. Violence, whether it happens in a mass shooting in a large city or in a steady stream in our smaller communities, is an affront to us all.
I have always thought that the people who compiled the lectionary had a sense of humor, putting this reading at the time when we consider how to be stewards of the church, the materials and programs that help sustain our lives together. But if what I am saying is about stewardship, it is about being stewards of one another. The Church is not a building but people; our charge is not toward competition but to nurture one another in our journeys toward discipleship. Tenants that we are, we are nevertheless beloved and called to be free, free from everything that stands in the way of being completely in love with God, to see and nurture that love in each other. As guests in the vineyard, all we are asked to do is to remember the promises of God, to offer the fruits of what we have cultivated and give ourselves away as the gifts to each other that we were always meant to be.
Proper 21A 2017
Matthew 21: 21-32
By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority? Just who do you think you are? I have been reflecting on the events of the last few months in our house and much of it has to do with how we perceive authority. Not long after our wedding, my wife Kelly was given a cancer diagnosis. Preparing for all the tests she has undergone recently, we have been presented with a distinct type of authority: doctors in starched lab coats in offices lined with diplomas from esteemed medical institutions. We have approached this authority cautiously, right up to a surgery this past week that was full of unanticipated complications, even a few missteps by the medical staff, all of whom were, after all, very human. Reflecting on our experience, I believe it has far more to do with identity than the authority we cede to others. Although we knew we had to give over some of the authority in our lives to others to begin the healing process, healing has to do with the reliance we place in God, which is why we have located far more authority in the prayers of those around us than in the citations for excellence that we saw around the hospital late this week. All we have experienced has more to do with who we are and where we are willing to place our faith than in the claims of the medical establishment.
There is something like this tension between authority and identity in the response of the chief priests and the elders when Jesus puts his question to them about the origin of John’s baptism. After all, they had asked him about his authority before, and the money-changer’s tables he has upended has made the question all the more insistent. Jesus is challenging their own authority: they cannot say that John’s baptism is from heaven because they do not believe him, and fear of the crowd keeps them from affirming that it was of human origin. Despite their implicit claims as the keepers of tradition, they too are far too human not to be caught in a trap about human and divine claims of authority. It is easy to picture them staring at this Galilean upstart who threatens everything they know about themselves. If I am honest, it is someone who has stared back at me when I have tried to find my own footing on alien ground this week, refusing to make the sense I have wanted in some very trying, painful moments.
And so Jesus returns their question in a parable about two sons, one of whom dutifully tells his father that he will work in the field but does not, while the other, the ”yes” man, promises his father that he will go but ultimately goes back on his word. If the question is, “Which of the two did the will of his father?,” even the authorities have to answer that the first son has been the one who was faithful. I hope I’m not the only one who feels the sting in that response. Who of us, having promised the phone call or the thank-you note, has not put it off when our lives intervene, when we simply cannot manage it and rely on the grace and understanding of the people we love? Who has promised something, tried to make a deadline, when mother ends up in the hospital, the baby falls sick, the deadline passes and we must face the consequences? I am not arguing with Jesus’ conclusions that, “the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom ahead of you,” because it is the ability to change our minds that Jesus is after, something that has nothing to do with maintaining authority. Indeed, it means questioning everything about who we are, embracing our lives in trust as they come and not how we would like them, that defines us. That commitment is embedded in our baptismal covenant, proclaiming by word and example the good news of God in Christ, striving for justice and peace among all people and respecting the dignity of every human being, all of it accomplished with God’s help. These commitments are a part of who we are, and if our lives need ballast, it is to these questions we return. Our identity is bound-up with them and we cannot be sure of who we are without them.
Who do you think you are? If you are like me, the accusation of Jesus hangs in the air: after witnessing the response of those outside the margins, “you did not change your minds and believe him.” Shifting the foundation of our belief does not mean simply transferring our allegiance from one set of norms to another. It means emptying ourselves, allowing ourselves to be humbled to the point of death, even death on a cross, as Paul reminds us. To adopt the same mind that was in Christ Jesus means allowing ourselves the freedom to abandon our conceptions of the way things ought to be for something we are not sure of, something beyond where our reason takes us to a purpose only God knows. It does not guarantee us freedom from pain. It does imply that questioning our identities, having the foundations of our lives shaken, is not meaningless, even if we cannot know it at the time.
If we need a model for this kind of self-abandonment, Julian of Norwich, one of the great mystical voices in our tradition, provides it. She fell ill at age 30 and had a series of visions, which she spent the remainder of her life interpreting; her Revelations of Divine Love is the most sincere and hopeful record of what it is like to interpret the movement of God in our lives. “God is nearer to us than our own soul; for he is the ground in whom our soul stands, and he is the mean that keeps the substance and sensuality together, so that they shall never part. For our soul sits in God in very rest and our soul stands in God for very strength and our soul is kindly rooted in God in endless love.” It is a God who made us, loves us and keeps us, who is always trying to change our minds about where our allegiances lie, transforming us from “yes” men into those who are willing to empty ourselves of all pre-conceptions about what God is doing with us.
Mohandas Ghandi, the leader of the Indian movement for independence, once allegedly said, “I like your Christ; I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” I believe that perception is borne out of our preoccupation with certitude and authority, about what God is doing with us at each precise moment and the pain it can cause. To change our world we have to be able to change our minds and our hearts, to know that there is much we cannot know except the God who, even in things we cannot understand, does not always give us the answers we want but never denies us the love we need.
Mark 9: 2-9
Even after the year I have been in Philadelphia, I am still fascinated by the number and the beauty of the churches in this place. I am most aware of it in the early mornings, when I often walk through town and see the steeples that peek through the skyline before the light of the dawn; I think about the sheer numbers of people at work in all these worshipping communities, preachers and lay people of all traditions, all wrestling with the miracle stories and the parables, as we have done these past weeks, trying to put them into context, sometimes sanding down the edges so that we won’t be hurt too deeply by the mystery that imbues them.
But in the transfiguration, none of this kind of craftsmanship is possible. It stands like a kind of diamond in the middle of Mark’s gospel and stubbornly refuses everything we do to make it easy to handle, to categorize it and so gain some kind of control over it. Part of the reason is that it is deeply personal, so much so that most of it happens in a cloud, the eternal addressing the manifest God with the intimacy of a father addressing a son. There have been all kinds of questions throughout the gospel about the identity of Jesus; when Peter makes his confession about who he believes Jesus is, “the Messiah of God”, Jesus responds with a prediction of his own suffering and death and then tells his followers about the centrality of suffering as part of discipleship. So when we are up on the mountain with Peter, John and James, we are as surprised as they are to see their Lord, dazzling white, speaking with Moses and Elijah and when the cloud envelops them all, with the voice asking us to listen to “my Son, the Beloved”, we can hardly blame the disciples for the terror. The membrane between the everyday and the divine disappears and if we do not feel shot-through with that light, we are not paying attention.
But because it all happens within the context of prayer, it speaks about our own prayer lives and those for whom we pray. This story is one of the most important passages in the Orthodox church; monks in that tradition were said to glow during prayer—something called deification or divinization. One took on the illumination of God as one proceeded in one’s prayer life. Whether you can believe in this glow or not, thinking this way points toward something central to our own identities. Every one of us is created as sacred, all of us, each part of us, made so by the one who became human so that we might be divine. It is a difficult thing to wrap your mind around, especially in a culture where we are overwhelmed, distracted by images of what we are told to want or be, but we become more fully who we were made to be when we see it is our whole self that is created holy. Indeed, we cannot know ourselves until we understand how completely beloved of God we are.
It is easy to see this belovedness in our own lives, even if ours are far more ordinary than three dumbstruck disciples on a mountaintop .Faith means living in a paradox, seeing the radiant holiness of the manifest God through the day-to-day discipline of our own prayer life. It lies in a tension—the glory we can glimpse only fleetingly, viewed through the lens of what is most ordinary in us. It is in what Rowan Williams calls, “the relentlessly prosaic element in the journey to holiness” that we are changed, and the world is changed with us.
We are caught in a tension: like Peter, James and John, we are witnesses to the divine presence, while as disciples, we are called to the day-to-day struggles, the small things that are bound-up with our relationships, with each other and with the God that we can really only approach with prayer. Like Peter, we want to make dwelling places for the divine, hardly knowing what we are saying or doing; like Elisha, we do not want to leave those who have loved us and formed us, clinging to the promise of the gift of the spirit. But it is not seeing the ascension of those we love in fire and horses or in the glow of the living God but in what seems most routine that we are saved. It is in the simple act of prayer, of saying “yes” to what confronts us moment-by-moment, that we too are transformed.
All of us are standing on a mountain now, with the expanse of Epiphany behind us and the soul-transforming opportunities of Lent ahead, greeting us in a few days’ time. If we understand our prayer lives this way, we too have to leave the mountain and meet the crowd below. Whether our prayers have the Technicolor, heart-stopping glow of the divine, or they are blessedly ordinary, like mine, we have the opportunity to see the white-hot love of God in each of us; in doing so, we will be honoring the divine in the other and the belovedness of that God in ourselves.
One of my favorite spots to visit years ago was a house of prayer in Adrian, Georgia, about two hour’s drive south of Atlanta, a town with one stoplight and no mountains in sight, where the only glowing things were exposed metal benches in the summer heat. In one of the common rooms in this place, a Jesuit priest has needle-pointed a passage from Thomas Merton’s diary. Merton lived as a recluse, especially during the last part of his life, but that separation made him more conscious of the connection with the divine in each of us . The quote on the piece of needlework was from Merton’s observations on the crowd in front of him from a park bench in downtown Louisville:
I have the immense joy of being a man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are walking around shining like the sun.
Indeed, it cannot be explained, any more than any of our extraordinary encounters with the ordinary. But, if we are honest, our visions on the mountaintop are rare compared with the daily work of prayer that molds us, transforms us each day into the image God had for us before we were. What cannot be molded, changed or sanded-down is the love of that God, both for a beloved Son and for those who are themselves transfigured by God’s love and offer it, in their turn, to everyone around them.
Proper 12 A 2017
Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52
Years ago, when my children were small, I bought them a book about the parables of Jesus, which we read regularly together for several years; as they grew older, they began to read it to me. It is focused around the parable of the sower, which we heard several weeks ago, and the mustard seed, the first of the parables we just heard this morning. The author of this book assures us that Jesus spoke lovingly and simply to the people around him, and at the time I thought it would offer some relief, some contrast, to the fantastic stories that my kids enjoyed then. The irony, of course, is that these parables, and the ones that follow, portray the world as a scandal, a world every bit as outrageous as the ones we would see together in movies or they would stare at through their video games. They are places we enter through our imaginations, and because they are infused by a vision what our world could look like if we had the courage and insight of seeing our world with the eyes of a child, where pearls of great price are not to be hoarded but wondered at and shared, where things small as a seed could be large, fantastic growing things, they are images which they could only wonder about, images which they and the rest of us will spend our lives trying to understand. These parables in Matthew, ones in a chapter full of parables, function by their own logic, and it is the only logic that matters because they deal with a world on its own terms, where no one behaves as they should and yet everything is really as it ought to be, if we are really listening.
As I have been reminded in the camp at Chester Eastside and the VBS at St. John’s, the temptation to place these parables in the context of a child's imagination is almost overwhelming. Children, at least the ones I know, are mostly unacquainted with scandal, at least as adults experience it. If you are a parent, you may have had the experience of pulling your child indoors when a quarrel erupts across the street or a salacious image on the T.V. compels us to change the channel. But genuine scandal is something entirely different, because it undermines all we take for granted about the way we understand our world, where we know what things are worth, where we can rely on our world to behave in predictable ways. Hidden treasure is meant to stay hidden, yeast rises to leaven our bread. But in the parables, we are in the world of the already and not yet, where all we can do is let them work on us silently like a leaven of yeast or the growth of a plant until our world is so full of the wonder of scandal that it is hard for us to remember how it could have been otherwise.
The book we had in our house speaks of the “small and great things Jesus says with great tenderness, the gentle, loving things people had never heard before.” The actual context, the frame for all the parables we have heard recently, is rejection, first by members of Jesus’ own family and then in the town from which he came. And so what he offers are pictures of the kingdom that are utterly at odds with what his listeners would have recognized. The mustard seed is indeed small, as anyone who has worked with them will tell you, and it indeed produces a huge plant. But it is not a tree, and no bird from that part of the world or ours could nest in its branches. What Jesus is echoing is the tree as the sign of the empire, which all of his hearers would have recognized, but it is an entirely different kind of empire, designed to subvert everything we know about how the world works. That the kingdom he is proclaiming, already growing among us, should come in the form of an herb would have been astounding to all, except for the excluded, the outcast: it is greatness bound-up with the ordinary, a vision of a Messiah riding to triumph on a donkey, confounding every expectation we have about what salvation might mean.
Overturning all expectations, that is, except those embedded in the next parables. The amount of flour the woman uses is extraordinary: three measures of flour is enough to feed over a hundred people. More surprising, however, is the yeast she uses to leaven all she is making. Jesus’ hearers would have understood yeast as corruption, and it is hidden, not mixed or kneaded into this abundance. Its work silent and unseen, this profusion of what is outrageous. Yet it points to a kingdom of plenty, born of the outcast and the unclean, waiting for the revealing of its own abundance. Although shot through with what is suspect, even abhorrent, it nourishes us; it gives us a new idea of what it might be like to be fed in a world where scandal is tied-up with what makes us whole.
The value of this kingdom is worth enough for the plowman and the merchant to offer all they have for it. Whether it is deliberately sought or not, when we see it, this treasure buried in the field is so far beyond what we could have envisioned that it is worth all we have, all we are, to be a part of it. It is worth everything because it is part of a wealth we can hardly explain. It is part of a system of value where real worth is in its hiddenness, where something is priceless exactly because we cannot see it. In a world locked in paradox, what we have is beyond value because we are forced to see it with new eyes, and that new way of seeing is worth more than the treasure itself.
I remember a trip I took to New York some years ago. I went with a group of kids from the south; we saw and participated in many wonderful things, although I strongly suspect that, for a bunch of kids from middle Georgia, the subway was the real highlight. But in many ways the rich unexpectedness of the kingdom was most apparent for me one day on a side trip to the Museum of Modern Art. Among all the Picassos and the Mondrians were a few pictures by Rene Magritte, the graphic artist of surprise, the Son of Man in a suit and bowler with an apple positioned directly in front of his face, a set table with an eye staring back from the pancake on the plate, a night scene with a brilliant blue sky overhead. Everything was very clear, and yet all our assumptions are violated, as they are in the kingdom that grows among us in ways that are calculated to disturb us. If we are willing to step back at all these pictures, to look at all these stories as a whole, we are compelled to reevaluate what is more real, the world we want to see or the kingdom of the unexpected breaking in on us.
The temptation is to try to reduce parables into allegory, something standing for something else, in an effort to control them, to find in them something to hang onto, as if the kingdom can be domesticated or even dismissed. But these stories are about all of us, with our dual citizenship in this world and in the kingdom. They say yes to the idea that we are holy, whether we are not the trees we wish we were or whether we are viewed as suspect or unclean by those around us. As Frederick Buechner says, “Either life is holy with meaning, or life doesn’t mean a thing. You pay your money and you take your chances.” If we are seeking this meaning, the chance we take is that we will be shocked out of our complacencies. Indeed, our understanding of our holiness depends upon it.
Easter 6 A 2017
I remember a story I heard not long ago, about a mother who was taking her daughters to dinner one night. It had been a long day, the restaurant was mostly empty, and the waitress was taking a little extra time with each of the customers after the crush of the early evening. These children, both of them girls, had been adopted from orphanages in China when they were infants, in a time before they could remember; they were well-behaved, polite and beautiful. When the waitress approached their table to give them their menus, she looked at the mother and then at the two children. She smiled at the mother and asked where her beautiful girls came from. The mother had heard this question many times before and it may have been the lateness of the hour or the exhaustion of a single mom, but she paused for a moment, looked up at the waitress and said very evenly, “Why, they came from the same place all children do. They came from God”.
I believe that this young woman was being honest, but I also think she is offering some light for our gospels during Eastertide, especially for the promises Jesus has made for this morning. By any conceivable measure the situation of the disciples is a precarious one. They are in the midst of betrayal by one of their own, a threat which John’s own community would have felt keenly, with their own deaths an ever-present possibility. Even in death, however, the promise is not abandonment but the love of a family; they will not be left orphans but, if they love one another, will receive the spirit of God among them. By the keeping of his commandment to love one another, that promise radiates outward to his disciples and beyond them, to the inheritors of that promise sitting with all of us today. The arrival of the Holy Spirit is not a replacement but an extension of the love of Jesus toward those who, in their own halting way, full of misunderstanding and fear, are creating a new world in that upper room. It is one based on communal love, one that could not be more different than the world outside.
To be an orphan in Jesus’ day, and in John’s, meant exclusion from the system through which all people found their identity, the great extended families of the Roman and Semitic world. It is to be in a kind of limbo, without the mooring of a parent or family by which they can be identified. But even before the Easter event, Jesus is redefining what it means to be a family. These disciples are his children, and the love that binds the disciples to him is greater than incomprehension or weakness. It is not a private relationship or devotion that he is offering them; it is a love that ties them to him and to each other. Just as Jesus identifies himself both with the Father and the Spirit that is yet to come, they are to imitate that communion with each other.
I believe it is helpful to remember that connection between the love of God and the brothers and sisters on whom we depend. It was a staple of the faith from its earliest days in many communities, especially among the desert monastics. Their concept of the spirit of truth contained the idea of mutual interdependence, that we all stood on the circumference of a great circle, with God at its center. As each of us moved closer to God, we became closer to one another. In the same way, as we became closer to one another, we inevitably became nearer to God. It was in that movement that they found the presence of the “other Advocate,” the presence of the Father in Jesus and the dwelling of both in the community of believers. Even in an atmosphere of imminent betrayal, the promise of God is the love that will penetrate them all, through the life of their community and in their own hearts.
No one, least of all those in the early Christian communities, pretends that believing these relationships are easy or that they will save us from suffering. The author of First Peter makes it clear that suffering is part of the bargain, that “it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil.” The promise, however, is that we cannot be harmed, in the deepest part of ourselves, if we are eager to do what is good. By this calculus, suffering is negligible because it is temporal, unrelated to the eternal promise of interrelationship among all of God’s children and the coming of the Holy Spirit. Even if our lives are fleeting, we are not orphans, and it is the love of God for us, reflecting the love within God, that will sustain us.
In Jesus’ promise is the invitation to find our own identity in that love, a promise made good in the resurrection appearance. And we find that identity because we too are adopted, with our idiosyncrasies and our enmities, at our most beautiful and our most broken. Anne Lamott talks about this God who refuses to leave us alone, who gives us each other in this new kingdom coming to be in that upper room. “You’ve got to love this in a God,”, she says, “consistently assembling the motleyest people to bring, into the lonely and frightening world, a commitment to caring and community. It’s a centuries-long reality show—Moses the stutterer, David the adulterer, Mary the homeless teenager. Not to mention all the mealy-mouthed disciples. Not to mention a raging insecure narcissist like me.” We are all tied together by this love commandment, and the gift of the Spirit cements that love among us, even those of us who count ourselves among the motley bunch of God’s people.
Something I have heard both from parents of children who are adopted and biologically their own is how deep a process of self-discovery it is. We grow in our own self-understanding as we come to know these people who have entered our lives; something draws us closer to each other as we discover how individual we are, in our eating and our sleeping (sometimes), in our play and what fascinates us; it is our mutual delight that sustains us, almost as deeply as the food itself. It is the same with the love of God: we too are drawn into the mutual indwelling of the Father and Son, and the promise is that, as broken as we are, we are inseparable from that love, a love that calls us out of ourselves and into love with the rest of God’s adopted children. We will not be left alone because we were made for each other, in a time before any of us can remember, and we have the conviction, even at our most stressed and least lovable, that we too are children of God.
Easter 4 A 2017
John 10: 1-10
Today is known as Shepherd Sunday, and those who have been in the church for a few years will know it from the twenty-third psalm, which we hear every year, to all the talk of lambs among us, the ones among us and the one at the center of the throne in heaven. In my mind's eye, I often wait for the sheep themselves to show up, meandering down the aisles, memories of cotton-ball sheep from Sunday-school classes, guests and old friends that wander in among us. The readings for this morning are about the lambs we all are, the ways we are led in and out by the shepherd of us all, the parts of our relationship with the holy that are most reassuring, which is why we hear them at times when we are in need of comfort, times of distress or grief. But it is the claim that Jesus makes over his sheep that really defines this morning. It is the God revealed through the presence of a protector, one who guides us, who loves us too much to leave us alone, the one leads us out and brings us back. I am the good shepherd; I am the gate for the sheep.
A long time ago, someone gave me an icon of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. It is one that I have treasured, because, like many icons, it acts as both a picture and a mirror. In my case it has taught me a great deal about what it means to be a shepherd, to be pastoral under all circumstances, because those of us who have given our lives to this vocation do so under the guidance of the shepherd who is the guardian of our souls, who calls us to return when all of us go astray. I have been especially grateful for this icon since I heard a talk from Desmond Tutu about how we completely misunderstand this image of Jesus; in my icon, which is a copy of one many of you may have seen, the sheep lies across the shoulders of the shepherd, a beatific expression on his face, the whiteness of his wool immaculate. In truth, Tutu says, that sheep ought to be covered in mud, bloodied be the scrapes he has been through, stinking from the fetid water he has been playing in, which is how I feel on days when I have haven't been especially attentive to the voice I should have been hearing, calling me back to the life I know I need. And yet Jesus, broad-shouldered and impassive, has a claim on this sheep, one who knows his voice and simply has to decide whether it is more alluring than those of the bandits and thieves who are after his life.
It is this claim on us that Jesus talks about as the gatekeeper for the sheep that we all are this day, and it is both about invitation and promise. All of us take comfort in the psalm we have said together this morning, about the God who sees us through our own darkest valleys, whose goodness and mercy shall follow us forever. I would be willing to bet that many of us have it committed to memory, or at least the parts that speak most deeply to us, and I am quite sure that I have heard it in more hospital rooms than any other single piece of scripture. But to hear of Jesus as gatekeeper is about the abiding, protective love of God, especially when we are lying in bed, being eaten alive by worries or guilt about the messes we have made in our lives. It is an invitation to recognize the voice of the one who is calling us, asking us to make a decision about whose voice is the one we are going to follow, apart from the other voices that tear at us. It is, in the end, about relationship, the relationship we are willing to cultivate with each other and the living God instead of the whistling in the dark we often do when the world encroaches on us.
After all, we know the thieves and bandits in our lives and their voices are legion. They are the voices we hear in answer to the despondency and fear we carry, the things to which we cling to buy us a sense of peace. We want to believe that the shareholder letter, the reassuring note about our pension plan, gives us the kind of security that keeps our lives from being taken away, little by little. But when we use language like “my family”, maybe “my spouse” or even “my sheep”, we are using the language of relationship, one for which we would give up anything else in our lives. It is about the God and people to whom we are bound so tightly that we are a part of them and they are a part of us, a God who offers what saves us through the person of Jesus. It is not about the fluffy, immaculate, docile people we often wish we were but about a relationship that defines who we are in relation to the love of God. It is that relationship that means life to us, so much so that we would not recognize ourselves without it.
It may be easier to see this relationship in others than it is in ourselves. When I was in my early twenties, another lifetime ago, I remember the experience of playing Bach's b-minor mass with Robert Shaw. I was young enough that I didn't really understand what it was in which I was participating, but I do remember what he looked like when we got to the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God, almost at the end of the piece. I don't even remember who the alto soloist was. I simply remember what Mr. Shaw looked like, utterly spent, a man in his mid-eighties who had done this a thousand times before, but for whom there was only this moment, imbued by the love of God, this fusion of this most haunting music with everything that he was. Sitting there on that stage, watching the sweat pooling on his face and shirt, tears starting down his cheeks, it was impossible for any of us to know where he stopped and the music began.
In case we have any doubt, it is the claim of that relationship that remains with us all the days of our lives. Someone I know has described an experience of sitting with a friend when she was dying, someone who kept trying to give away what she owned but who kept receiving gifts from well-meaning friends. One day someone gave her a polished stone with a hole in it to wear around her neck, and she didn't know what to do with it. “' What is it?', she breathed, turning it around and around in front of her face. Then she brought it close to one eye so that she could look straight through the middle of the stone. 'Ah,' she said, 'now I see. This is the way through.'”
The promise of the Good Shepherd, the gate for the sheep that we all are, is nothing that any of us can quantify, put on a balance sheet or lock in a safety-deposit box. It is just that, a promise, and there is blessedly nothing we can do about it. It is made by someone who knows us better than ourselves, who is indeed a part of ourselves, and the invitation is simply to stop what we are doing to earn away the things that are eating at us and to listen for a very faint voice, the voice we do our best to drown-out by agonizing over the messes and fears of our lives. It is then that we can count on the presence of the shepherd, the one whose goodness and mercy will follow us no matter what we do, so that all of us, wonderful and flawed as we are, will find a way through.