Sermon for the 4th Sunday of Easter, May 7, 2017

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Easter, Year A
May 7, 2017
The Rev. Evelyn Wheeler, Rector

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

Sheep don’t stay in the pen, behind walls or fences.  And Jesus isn’t the wall or the fence – he’s the gate.

Sheep are intended to keep moving. 

This portion of the letter of St Peter is not addressed to us, at least not directly.  In the preceding sentence, which we did not read this morning, he wrote: “Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.”  Then he wrote, “For it is a credit to you” … and the rest that we did read a few minutes ago.

So it wasn’t written to us, but to those who had little or no control over their lives, what they did or did not do, whatever they might want or not want to do; if their master bid them to do anything, they were bound to do it.

Peter offers them comfort beyond their circumstances, telling them that their suffering for doing what is right brings them closer to Christ.

Suffering is a way that many Christians find brings them closer to God.  Some of the saints of the church even sought visions or experiences of great suffering, not because they were masochists, but because they understood themselves to be participating with Christ in his suffering for the sake of the world, and they wanted to love as he loved.  They offered themselves – their souls and bodies – to mirror the path that Jesus walked in their own lives.

Julian of Norwich asked for such a vision, and was given the gift of seeing the sufferings of Christ on the cross, and the grief of his mother and friends at his death.  And she was the one who famously said, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”  This was no “prosperity gospel.”  This was a declaration of faith that nothing can separate us from the love of God.

This is what Peter is telling slaves, as well.  By Christ’s wounds, they were healed.

Does this message, then, hold nothing for us who are not slaves?  By no means!  For one thing, as we all know only too well, there are times when we feel we cannot control our lives either!  And there are times when we are pushed to do what we would not, or to not do what we would like to.

Freedom is not about doing what we want, whenever we want, to whomever we want.  It is about being free from all outside pressures, and internal shortcomings, to do what Christ would have us do – not least, to love the Lord as he has loved us, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  To do the right thing for the right reason and no other.

And we know that Paul also suffered – not just by being beaten and imprisoned, but also by things about himself he could not fix.  Do you remember he wrote, “I don’t the things I want to do, and I do the things I don’t want to do, and there is no health in me!” 

But Paul realized that suffering was one way in which he could share the pain and sorrow of Christ, and thus become more attuned to God’s grace and mercy not only for himself but for others as well.

The early Christian community described in the Book of the Acts is a wondrous thing.  People were joining by the thousands and the hundreds; every day more people came together to follow the Way of Jesus.  In this particular community in Jerusalem, before the Romans destroyed the Temple in the last great uprising in the year 70, they worshiped with their fellow Jews in the Temple, and then they came together to follow the teaching of the apostles, to break bread, to be in fellowship, and to pray together.  They were so overcome and so joyful that they felt a deep need to share everything in common – whether they were rich or poor, free or slave – and they did so with glad and generous hearts.

Imagine.

So it is in light of these two teachings – about suffering and about sharing, that I would turn to the psalm text before us.

We read the 23rd Psalm frequently – and many of us even have it memorized - in the King James version.  Do you?   It seems like such a comforting psalm – peaceful, bucolic, pretty green countryside, vanquished enemies, and a loving and caring watchman, a shepherd who protects us, cares for us, comforts us, and leads us through all the hard places of our lives.  We associate it with funerals, too – but it’s not just for funerals.  Today, I’d like to take a second look at a couple images in this psalm.

He makes me lie down in green pastures.

I saw an interesting video online yesterday, in which a teacher took a tour group to the Sinai, to show them what he thought the Psalmist meant when he wrote about “Green Pastures.”[1]  Standing in the midst of the wilderness desert of Sinai, he said that the name of the area was Mimbar, or “green pastures.”  He pointed out “It’s not a rich and deep field of alfalfa!” as he showed them the dry, rocky hillside across the ravine, where two shepherd girls led a flock of sheep across the landscape. 

That’s the green pasture,” he said.  He told them that moist winds from the Mediterranean and nighttime dew condensed on the rocky ground each morning. He pulled a melon-sized stone from the earth, and indeed one could see that the portion of the rock that was under the surface was damp. 

Then he showed them what they had missed – a sprig of grass at the base of the rock.  And another sprig, and another.  Not a rich field of alfalfa, but over the entire hillside, around each little pile of stones, there were two or three or five sprigs of grass.

The sheep, walking along the hill on the other side, were taking a bite, maybe two, then moving on, and taking another bite or two.  One or two sprigs of grass at a time, they went from one end of the hill to the other, following their shepherds.  All day long.  And when the sun went down, they lay down in their green pasture, until the morning came.

They were not “in want.”  They had enough, but only because they never stood still.  They had enough, but only because they followed their shepherd to the next “green pasture.”  They trusted.  If we trust our shepherd, we, too, may be led to such a green pasture, and like the psalmist, our souls may be revived.

I admit, this was not my idea of a green pasture!  Maybe it’s not yours, either.  It seems a pretty meager sort of “enough.”  Maybe we need to ask ourselves, “How do we define ‘enough’?”

We follow a shepherd who faced death itself and triumphed.  Is that enough?

There’s another problematic image in this psalm – “He sets a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”

Isn’t that nice?  We get to eat, and our enemies get to watch us do it.

But is that what God does?  Remember our Lord forgave those who killed him, even while he was on the cross on the edge of death.  Does this shepherd also feed us, but not our enemies?  Is not grace offered to all?  Is not the whole point of the Gospel to love God and our neighbors?  Did he not tell the disciples to love their enemies, and pray for those who

 persecuted them?

Do we really think he’ll set a table for us, and not invite our enemies to eat with us?

If Jesus died and rose again so that we could be reconciled to God, would he really stop there?

Of course not.  So now, we can sit down with our enemies, reconcile with our enemies, and share God’s grace with our enemies, in peace, our heads anointed with oil, and our cups running over. 

This is how God’s goodness and mercy follow us all the days of our lives, and it is how we dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

The gate is open.  All we need to do is walk through it, rejoicing!

 

[1] Ray Van der Laan, https://Youtu.be/kdzhbv2eGxk.  Accessed on May 6, 2017.

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