The One I Feed, Easter 4 (A) – May 7, 2017

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

An Episcopal bishop who served many years ago in the upper Midwest of the United States used to love telling stories he had learned from the Native Americans of the area, many of whom were Episcopalians. Here is one of them.

A wise man among the Indians – many Native Americans in the Midwest prefer to be called Indians – was asked by his grandson about the conflict and discord in the world. The elder reflected for a moment and then replied, “My child, there are two dogs battling within my heart. One is full of anger, hatred, and rage. The other is full of love, forgiveness, and peace.” The old man paused, and he and his grandson sat for a moment in silence by the side of the stream. Finally, the boy spoke again, “Grandfather, which dog will win the battle in your heart? The one filled with hatred, or the one filled with love?” The old man looked at his grandson and replied, “The one I feed will win.”

Our world today, decades later, is still untamed and full of conflict. We can see it daily on our televisions and read about it online. We do not have to drive very far in our cars to feel it even on our streets. The world is a dangerous place, whether we live in the Middle East or the American Midwest. Yet, the conflict we experience is not truly there on our streets or in our neighborhoods — much less in lands far from us. The conflict is always fought out in the human heart. The Indian sage was right. Too many of us still feed the dogs of hatred and rage.

Jesus knew this fact at least as well as we do, for his world was really not much different from our own. Indeed, many of the conflicts of his time and his land are with us even today, their unfortunate victims spilling over into refugee camps and resettlement centers across Africa, Europe and parts of Asia. The human heart does not change so quickly or easily. And, the world today still has its share of “thieves and bandits,” as Jesus calls them in our Gospel account today, ready to snatch and scatter the flock.

We in the West like to think that we are in control, that no one can hurt us if we just build a wall tall enough to keep them out, and that no problem is so intractable that it cannot be solved. All we need, we are tempted to believe, is a little common sense and some well-honed negotiating skills. After all, that is how deals are done. Yet events of the past few years must make us doubt our most cherished convictions. We actually do not have our act together. And, we remain as vulnerable to our own sinfulness, gullibility, and the blandishments of contemporary life as to far-off terrorists and revolutionaries.

Left to our own rhetorical devices, we might not have chosen dirty, bleating, vulnerable sheep as the appropriate image for ourselves as Christians populating this sleek post-modern world of digital efficiencies and sophisticated technological solutions. Surely, we share precious little DNA with ewes and rams after all. Yet as one animal behaviorist also reminds us, “We spent quite a long time evolving together” with our animal cousins. So, like it or not we probably have more in common with the sheep of Jesus’ story than we care to admit. Despite its thin veneer of order and discipline, humankind remains as messy and chaotic as is a flock of sheep without a shepherd.

The shepherds of Jesus’ day endured sun and rain for days or weeks on end and were often as dirty and smelly as the flocks they tended. No smartly-styled business casual attire for them. But unlike their oblivious ovine charges, shepherds then as now were ever vigilant and uncomplaining, watching for danger and trouble, providing pasture and allaying the thirst of their flocks. The shepherd knew his sheep as no one else. And the sheep followed him, as Jesus tells us, “because they know his voice.”

Jesus speaks of himself in this Gospel passage as “the gate for the sheep.” Some scholars contend that shepherds of the period would often place their own bodies across the small opening or aperture of the sheep enclosure during times of peril, risking their lives for the sake of their flock. Perhaps it is this image of the shepherd as human gate that Jesus has in mind with this metaphor; his own presence stretched out, as on a cross, bridging the disciples’ –and our own — base insecurities. “Whoever enters by me,” he assures us, “will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”

The hymns sung today at church will likely not include the Whiffenpoof song but the words are nevertheless apt and worth remembering. “We’re poor little lambs who have lost our way. Baa, baa, baa.” It is all too easy to lose direction — to lose our bearings and a sense of who we are and where we are going in our lives. It is all too easy, in other words, to go astray like lost sheep. But it is just then that we are most vulnerable to the “thieves and bandits” of the world, most vulnerable to the more destructive animal instincts that lurk in every human heart, our own included.

This is certainly worth bleating about, of course, but it does not make us somehow notorious sinners. It is hard to imagine vicious sheep after all. Still, we are all too familiar with the well-known story of the wolf in sheep’s clothing. Even today there is wisdom in Aesop’s ancient fable. Appearances can be deceiving. Each of us is capable of sin and hurt. There are always creatures at war within our hearts, hidden beneath our warm woolens and tasteful tweeds. Which of them shall we feed?

The old bishop often concluded his story of the Indian teacher with a kind of postscript: “Which one of the dogs will win?” asked the boy of his grandfather. “The one I feed will win,” replied the elder. But then he continued, “My child, feeding one dog or the other is only part of the answer. For the Great Spirit feeds each of us—and it is from the Great Spirit that we first learn to feed others at all.”

We are all fed by the Great Spirit of mercy and forgiveness this Easter season. People everywhere, ourselves included, are starving for the Spirit’s love and compassion. We have come to the Paschal banquet ready to keep the feast, eager to partake of the Lord’s abundance and be nourished for the journey ahead. But the world around us is still a place of famine and danger. And, the human heart ever yearns to hear the voice of the shepherd who brings peace and God’s reconciling love. As we have been fed, so must we now feed others in Christ’s name.

The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedűs, a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, is currently chaplain of Saint Margaret’s Anglican Church in Budapest, Hungary, and an area dean in the Church of England’s Diocese in Europe. Visit our Saint Margaret’s Facebook page at www.anglicanbudapest.com and like us. Isten hozott!

 

Download the sermon for Easter 4 (A).

Baptism into the fold, 4 Easter (A) – 2014

May 11, 2014

Acts 2:42-47Psalm 231 Peter 2:19-25John 10:1-10

In her retirement, some years ago, a woman lived in the English countryside. And from her living-room window, she could see a large hill, at the top of which was the ancient parish church. One of the bell-ringers who helped summon people to worship was a shepherd. In lambing season, his flashlight could be seen at all times of the night, seeking out newborn lambs, making sure they were safely delivered and that the mothers were safe and fine. The young lambs were suitable prey for the foxes that lived in the surrounding woods.

The shepherd’s job was to feed, guard and care for all the sheep who lived within the enclosure of the field. In the gospel today we see a similar imagery. The Jewish shepherd brought his lambs into a enclosure, surrounded by a wall of stones, into which there was a single entrance. Because the flock constituted the wealth of the owner, his available property, the job of the shepherd was so guard the flock, if necessary, with his life.

Jesus takes this familiar imagery and applies it to teach about his relationship with his church. This section of John’s gospel is chosen during the Easter season because it points to the Easter themes. In the early church, converts were brought to baptism on Easter eve. Eastertide was, for them, a time when they began to enjoy a new life, a new identity and a new purpose. The new converts had spent up to three years leaning about the Faith. During that period they were not permitted to join the Christian community around the altar. They couldn’t receive communion. They were at the gate to the fold, but not yet inside it.

One may imagine their thrill and joy once they were brought through the gate, as they were baptized into and through Jesus and assumed the name “Christian.” or “the Savior’s People.” Of course, the step they had taken involved danger. Many lost the support of family and friends, lost their jobs, and in times of persecution, faced danger and death.

It’s important for us to grasp the fact that these new Christians had been led by the Risen Lord into a fellowship.  Today we have become used to what might be termed “personal religion”: “Jesus saved me,” and “I’m going to go to Heaven when I die.”  At first glance, that is what Jesus seems to be saying: “Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”

The people who first heard John’s gospel would have heard something quite different. They did not come from our culture of individualism. We need to listen with their ears. The words “enters by me” meant to the first Christians – and should mean to us – baptism. We don’t baptize ourselves. We are baptized in church, on a Sunday, surrounded by Christians. From that moment on, we have pasture, we may be fed at the Lord’s Table, by the Lord’s bounty. We become part of those who have been “enclosed” in the communion of the church.

To the first Christians, “coming in and going out” happened in the context of the church’s growth and the church’s danger. The people doing the growing were those who had been “saved,” rescued, taken out of a hostile world. As they shared their new faith and brought others to the door to the fold, the church grew by leaps and bounds. Someone said of them, “See these are they who turn the world upside down.”  Because of their success, they threatened the power of the Roman Empire, whose “thieves” sought to invade and destroy the fold, the church.

Yes, this new community, the church looked forward eagerly to the final result of salvation, when God would rescue the world, the universe he made and loves and restores his people to the Garden from which they were expelled in the Genesis story. Do note that when we talk about the Genesis story, we aren’t talking about history, but we are talking about truth. When we seek to envision the New Heaven and Earth, we struggle for adequate words, as did the John who wrote the last mysterious book in the Bible, Revelation. Yet what is expressed is the truth-in-hope the Christians of St. John’s time had embraced.

We, too, have entered into the fold through our baptism. We share a common essential identity as Christians. We gather in the fold of the local church to have fellowship, to be taught, to be fed. We go out to make disciples, to work for the Kingdom, to love justice and mercy, to care for the poor and the outcast.

Such a corporate calling is exciting and demanding and continues to cost. Today, somewhere in the world, Christians are losing their lives simply because they are Christians. They may live in distant land, but in the fold of the church, they are our sisters and brothers. The words Peter wrote, that we heard this morning, hit hard with our persecuted friends:

“It is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.”

We are safe from such suffering. However, we are called to sacrifice much if we are to gain more. Grasping these truths challenges us to live a much more extraordinary life than merely believing that somehow by attending church we are validating a ticket to Heaven.

Our Lord offers us “abundant life” now.  We are called to build Christ’s church and to suffer for those who are the victims in our society, the poor, the sick and the lonely. We embraced this calling in baptism.

This morning, as we gather around the Table to be “strengthened for service,” we commit ourselves afresh to living out our faith, as the Book of Common Prayer says, “not only with our lips, but in our lives by giving ourselves in Your service.”

 

— Fr. Tony Clavier is a retired priest and a missioner in the Diocese of Springfield.

Sheep who are called, 4 Easter (A) – 2011

May 15, 2011

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

It’s not easy being called sheep. Sheep have become the symbol, in our culture, of mindless compliance with societal norms. Many an Internet commentator has delivered a withering, independent-minded diatribe against the unquestioning masses he derides as “sheeple.” Even if you’re comfortable with compliance, there’s also the bald fact that, as stated by the farmer in a classic Monty Python television sketch, “Sheep are very dim.”

Jesus, however, seems to credit sheep with a good deal more sense – in any case, with the one important sense of knowing their shepherd’s voice. Important not because the sheep are followers in their essence, but because they are wanderers by nature. And sensible not because the sheep are dim enough to follow any voice, but discerning enough to follow only the right voice. That discerning ear matters because the sheep are facing real dangers, from without and from within.

Jesus promises that with the Lord as our shepherd, we will “come in and go out and find pasture.” Outside the fold, sheep are under threat from predators. The shepherd’s rod and staff are not only comfort, but protection. But the biggest risk comes from the sheep themselves – they are apt to wander off, each to its own way. God our Providence promises to sustain us, but it’s hard for us to believe in God’s abundance. Instead, we are constantly scouting for greener pastures, imagining that we do not have enough by God’s hand. “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,” writes Robert Robinson in his hymn that names God the “fount of every blessing.”

Jesus, however, seems especially concerned about dangers inside the sheepfold. Even in our place of shelter and rest, thieves may come in to steal and kill and destroy. Some slip over the walls and whisper to us that our Easter hope is misguided, that we truly are following blindly, that death, after all, will have the final word. Some thieves call to us from outside, telling us that our shelter is a prison and that we’d do better to leave behind our false sense of security.

Then, sometimes, our own wandering hearts tempt us in the same way, giving us false hope that there’s an easier path to transcendence, without all the work and uncertainty of transformation by the grace of God. In that same Monty Python sketch, a visitor to the farm is shocked to see sheep up in the trees – nesting, as the farmer tells him. The sheep are also trying to fly, convinced by a sheep named Howard that they are, in fact, birds. The farmer explains that Howard is “that most dangerous of all animals: the clever sheep.”

Perhaps we, too, are trying to be too clever. And wouldn’t it be easier if we could just take wing? If our human natures were merely an illusion, waiting to be cast off? If we didn’t need to be patient followers, trusting beyond our immediate desires? If we didn’t need to suffer the indignities of our limitations, and if we weren’t called to ease the sufferings of our neighbors? Wouldn’t it be easier if our shepherd and savior didn’t first have to suffer death upon the cross, before he entered into heaven?

In the eyes of the world, we may seem foolish to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. A thousand competing voices call to us that we should look for escape instead of sacrifice, should seek an easier bliss than the peace of God, should search for our own greener pastures and leave the rest of the flock behind. Christ crucified is still a stumbling block, still looks like foolishness to many. Why would we worship a God who became like us, who died as one of the lambs?

But Jesus doesn’t call us to become something different; he calls us to grow into who we truly are. The Good Shepherd doesn’t round up the sheep with a whistle, or herd them with whips and prods and dogs. The Good Shepherd calls the sheep by name.

In the end, our only wisdom is to know our shepherd’s voice. Our one skill as sheep is to listen – to listen from the deep place in which we recognize who we truly are, and whose we truly are. Because the Good Shepherd is the only one who calls us by our own names, our true names, our Created names.

It’s still not easy to be called sheep. But it’s our blessing, our safety, our abundance, to be sheep who are called – called each by name.

 

— The Rev. G. Cole Gruberth is priest-in-charge of the Southern Tier Episcopal Ministry, a community of seven houses of worship and welcome, within the Diocese of Rochester, N.Y.

4 Easter (A) – 2005

April 17, 2005

Acts 2:42-47Psalm 231 Peter 2:19-25John 10:1-10

An Episcopal bishop who served for many years in the upper Midwest loves to tell stories he learned from the Native Americans of the area, many of whom are Episcopalians. Here is one of them.

A wise Native American man was asked by his grandson about the conflict and discord in the world today. The elder reflected for a moment and then replied, “My child, there are two dogs battling within my heart. One is full of anger, hatred, and rage. The other is full of love, forgiveness, and peace.” The old man paused, and he and his grandson sat for a moment in silence. Finally the boy spoke, “Grandfather, which dog will win the battle in your heart? The one filled with hatred or the one filled with love?” The old man looked at his grandson and replied, “The one I feed will win.”

Our world is still untamed and full of conflict. We can see it daily on our televisions and read about it in our newspapers. We do not have to drive far in our cars to feel it on our streets. The world is a dangerous place, whether we live in the Middle East or the American Midwest. Yet, the conflict we experience is not truly on our streets or in our neighborhoods, much less in lands far from us. The conflict is always fought out in the human heart. The Indian wise man was right. Too many of us feed the dogs of anger and hatred.

Jesus knew this fact at least as well as we do, for his world was really no different from our own. Many of the conflicts of his time and his land are with us yet today. The human heart does not change so quickly or easily. The world still has its share of “thieves and bandits” ready to snatch and scatter the flock, as he makes clear in today’s gospel account.

We like to think that we are in control, that no one can hurt us if we do not let them, and that no problem is so intractable that we cannot solve it. But events of the past few years have made us doubt our conviction. We are not secure even in our own little worlds. We really do not have our act together. We remain vulnerable as much to our own sinfulness and the blandishments of contemporary life as to far-off terrorists and revolutionaries. All of us are starving for love and compassion. Yet the world is torn apart by hatred, anger, and rage. In spite of its thin veneer of order and discipline, the human condition remains as messy and chaotic as a flock of sheep without a shepherd. Thieves and bandits lie in wait at every bend, ready to snatch heart and soul.

Left to our own rhetorical devices, we might not have chosen dirty, bleating, vulnerable sheep as the appropriate image for ourselves as Christians in this sleek post-modern world of digital efficiencies and sophisticated technological solutions. After all, as animal behaviorist Temple Grandin tells us in her recent bestseller, Animals in Translation, animals perceive the world far differently and much more chaotically than we do. Surely, we might be tempted to think, we have little in common with them. Yet Grandin also reminds us, “We spent quite a long time evolving together.” Like it or not, we probably have more in common with the sheep of Jesus’ story than we care to admit.

Like the flocks they tended, the shepherds of Jesus’ day were often dirty and woolly, enduring sun and rain for days or weeks on end. But unlike their charges, they were vigilant and uncomplaining, watching for danger and trouble, providing pasture and allaying thirst. The shepherd knew his flock as no one else. And the sheep followed him “because they know his voice.”

Jesus speaks of himself as “the gate for the sheep.” Some scholars contend that shepherds of the period would often place their own bodies across the small opening of the sheep enclosure during times of peril, risking their lives for the sake of their flock. Perhaps it is this image of the shepherd as human gate that Jesus has in mind with this metaphor, his own presence stretched out and bridging our ovine insecurities. “Whoever enters by me,” he assures us, “will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”

Our hymns today will probably not include the “Whiffenpoof Song,” but the words are nevertheless worth remembering. “We’re poor little lambs who have lost our way. Baa, baa, baa.” It is all too easy to lose direction, to lose our bearings and a sense of who we are and where we are going. It is all too easy to go astray like lost sheep. And that is worth bleating about. For it is then that we are most vulnerable to the “thieves and bandits” of the world, most vulnerable to the more destructive animal instincts that lurk in every human heart: to hatred, anger, and violence.

This of course does not mean that we are notorious sinners. It is hard to imagine vicious sheep after all. It even sounds funny. But we are also familiar with the story of the wolf in sheep’s clothing. There is wisdom in Aesop’s ancient fable of course. Appearances can be deceiving. Each of us is capable of sin and hurt. There are always creatures at war beneath our woolen pelts. Which shall we feed?

The bishop likes to conclude his story of the Indian elder with a kind of postscript. “Which one of the dogs will win?” asked the boy of his grandfather. “The one I feed will win,” replied the elder. But then he continued, “My child, feeding one dog or the other is only part of the answer. The Great Spirit feeds each of us. It is from the Great Spirit that we first learned to feed others at all.”

This Easter season we are all fed by the Great Spirit of love and forgiveness. We have come to the Paschal banquet ready to keep the feast, eager to partake of the Lord’s abundance and be nourished for the journey ahead. But the world is still a place of famine and danger. The human heart listens for the voice of the shepherd who brings peace and God’s reconciling love. As we have been fed, we must now feed others in Christ’s name.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus, a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, is currently chaplain of Saint Margaret’s Anglican Episcopal Church in Budapest, Hungary, a ministry of the Church of England’s Diocese in Europe. Please visit and “like” Saint Margaret’s Facebook page at www.anglicanbudapest.comIsten hozott!