Wool and mutton, 4 Easter (B) – 2015

April 26, 2015

Acts 4:5-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18

The Fourth Sunday of Easter is always Good Shepherd Sunday, and there are always sheep everywhere you look. This year they’re especially thick – we hear two of the most familiar and cherished portions of scripture – the 23rd Psalm and the section from John’s gospel where Jesus says “I am the good shepherd.”

Over the centuries, this image of Jesus as the good shepherd and his followers as sheep has been, for whatever reasons, terribly appealing. The amount of stained glass, painting, music and poetry that it has inspired is truly staggering, and the number of sermons, articles, hymns, retreats and meditations devoted to it is doubtless vast beyond measure. So, it’s with great trepidation that any preacher wanders into this particular pasture and tackles these particular critters. You need to watch where you step.

Still, in all the words read and heard on the subject of the Good Shepherd and his sheep, there is one thing about all this that no ones talks about. It has to do with the simple question of “Why in the world do shepherds have sheep in the first place?”

Ever thought about that?

Shepherds probably keep sheep for pretty much the same reasons that ranchers keep cows, farmers keep cotton, and the Colonel keeps chickens.

Being a shepherd and taking care of sheep, and being a sheep and having a shepherd, are, sooner or later, going to have something to do with wool and with mutton. There’s just no avoiding it. And this little reality never shows up in the stained-glass windows or in the cutesy paraphrases of the 23rd Psalm on chintzy greeting cards. But keep these two things in mind: wool and mutton.

In a sense, this is rather encouraging. After all, one of the problems with this shepherd-and-sheep business – as popular as it is – is that sheep have a reputation as being passive, stupid, unimaginative, docile and dull. So if we are the sheep of our Lord’s pasture, does that then mean we are supposed to be like sheep: just hanging around, occasionally getting lost, not doing much, looking cute and being taken care of because there is absolutely no way we could survive for 15 minutes on our own? Is the whole point of the story that we aren’t worth very much, and that we aren’t very capable?

No. Remember, shepherds don’t generally keep sheep as pets – they aren’t all that much fun to have around. Instead, there are reasons for the whole enterprise, and expectations for all concerned. The sheep are useful, they are important, indeed they are necessary. If the sheep don’t produce, the shepherd is flat out of business. Which brings us back to wool and mutton. This is the piece of the Good Shepherd business that is about us; it’s about our part of what’s going on with this familiar and comfortable talk about green pastures and still waters. The Lord expects things of us, and if we don’t come through, well, there are no contingency plans.

We have to be careful here, and keep things straight. The point is not that there’s some fine print on Jesus’ promise to be the Good Shepherd, or that he’s only a good shepherd for the most useful of the sheep. Jesus isn’t going to leave us to the wolves or turn us into dog food – or whatever it is you do with worthless sheep – if we don’t produce. The Lord cares for us and has blessed us. He has laid down his life for us. That sacrifice, that love, that continued care, these are simply gifts. They are given without condition and without exception. We don’t try to do stuff in the hope that God will be nicer to us or love us more. There is no “more.”

Nonetheless, there are expectations – there is the business of wool and mutton. The care that the Lord offers us is intended to lead to something, something real and substantial.

We are to produce, to give back, from who we are – from what we can do, from what our situation in life is, from our various skills, abilities, resources and gifts.

We don’t grow wool, that’s not of our nature. But it is of our nature to worship and to serve; to reach out and to share; to study and to pray; to increase in holiness and to tell the truth; to seek for justice and to be willing to sacrifice. It is of our nature to choose to grow, in a disciplined and steady way, into the fullness of the stature of the person of Christ – and to do this in community, and with integrity. This is expected of us. Now, this isn’t about church work – Sunday morning and committee stuff – although that can be part of it. Instead, this is about the work of the church, which is much larger and a whole lot more interesting.

And that costs, it can cost a lot. Once more, remember the wool and the mutton.

At the same time, don’t forget that this also means that each and every one of the sheep has purpose and value and worth, and that each is important. Each and every one of us can contribute, and is called to contribute, in one way or another, to the mission of the church. You can’t be too young or too old or too new or too sick or too ordinary or too uneducated, or too ornery, or too busy, or too anything to avoid the reality of wool and mutton.

We are needed; and without us, without any single one of us, the mission and work of the Lord and his church are impoverished. We matter, and things are expected of us. We aren’t pets, kept for our owner’s amusement. We are valuable assets.

One of the many truths of the biblical story that our culture is eager to forget is that there is no such thing as being chosen for privilege. We are not chosen, picked out, protected by our Good Shepherd for the sake of our own comfort, convenience, personal needs or ease of life. Nobody in the Bible is chosen for this sort of stuff. Instead, God’s care and protection are always given that we might be better equipped for service. It always means that something special, something more, is expected.To be sure, Jesus is the Good Shepherd, he pays the price, and protects us and cares for us. That’s the way it is. But there is more to it than this. We are valuable, and important; and we have an essential role to play in all of this. There is the business of wool, and of mutton.

 

— The Rev. James Liggett has recently retired as rector of St. Nicholas’ Episcopal Church in Midland, Texas. He is a native of Kansas and a graduate of the University of Houston and the Episcopal Divinity School. He has served parishes in Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma.

Only one voice calls us each by name, 4 Easter (B) – April 29, 2012

By the Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek

(Acts 4:5-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18)

As is often the case, what is not included in our lessons may be of utmost importance in our hearing what is going on in these lessons.

For instance, in Acts a lame man has been healed, and Peter and John have been hauled before some sort of ecclesiastical court to explain why the lame man is not still lame. And our gospel narrative begins way back in Chapter 8 where Jesus is accused of being possessed by a demon, and in Chapter 9 when he heals the blind man by the Pool of Siloam.

Then comes one of the great “I AM” passage, “I am the good shepherd,” which we have a portion of this morning, and which ends:

“There was again a great division among them because of these words. Many of them said, ‘He has a demon and is mad; why listen to him?’ Others said, ‘These are not the saying of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?’”

In this we hear what is perhaps the central question of faith, “Why listen to him?”

Why listen to Jesus? Why do we listen to Jesus at all?

After all, there are so many other voices competing for our attention. Take, for instance, cable news networks, reality shows, singing competitions, dance competitions, “Law & Order” on three channels simultaneously, not to mention the commercial advertising that makes all this television possible in the first place!

Then there are the politicians of all stripes: the president and his surrogates issuing “important announcements” and speeches almost daily, not to mention those on the primary circuit; mayors and governors all demanding we listen to them, while their opponents on city councils and state legislators are crying, “Don’t listen to him, listen to me!”

Corporate interests such as big coal and big oil insist that the environment is just fine and would actually be improved if we could find a way to use more fossil fuels; and then there are the investments schemes, weight reductions schemes, this-can-only-be-purchased-on-TV schemes, all the way down to the Pocket Fisherman scheme designed to take more money out of our already empty pockets.

There are family members unhappy with the family, neighbors unhappy with the neighborhood, immigrants seeking just some shred of dignity, talk-show hosts who know it all, and of course every lay person, deacon, priest, and bishop trying to convince us that they know what is best for the church!

Like those at the end of the story, and those in the Acts of the Apostles, who are offended by what Jesus says and does, there are all these competing interests and voices trying to get us to turn away from Jesus and turn our lives over to them instead.

Lord, You have spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me! Lord, I know you want me to listen to you! Lord, if you are listening for just one minute, just for one second of one minute, can you please shut out all the competing voices, interests, merchants, politicians, and commentators for just a few minutes of silence? Lord, can you please still the waters, can you please make me lie down in green pastures, can your rod and your staff please, Lord, comfort me, touch me, protect me, and heal me? Lord, please give me the time, the place, and the space to listen to you!

When we look and listen to the shrill voices that surround us on all sides every day, we begin to know the plight of the one who gave us the Twenty-Third Psalm. And if we are paying attention at all, we will stop, and listen for the Good Shepherd – the Beautiful One. We will stop and listen for Jesus. And what we will hear if we are listening closely is just two words: “I am.”

For people of faith, for people of the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus, those are the only two words we need to hear: “I am.”

Jesus says, “I am.” The people of God have heard these words before. Standing barefoot, in front of a bush that burns and is not consumed, we hear a voice and we ask, like the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland, “Who are you?” The answer comes back, “I am who I am. … I am what I will be. … Just tell them I AM sent you.”

The one who says “I am” also says, “I know my own, and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for my sheep.”

Let’s pause for just a moment and understand what is being said here. We are known. We all want nothing more than to be known. We spend a lifetime looking for relationships, reflecting on experiences, searching for someone who knows us, or even more fundamentally, to know ourselves. There is no doubt about it, the most fundamental human condition: a desire to know and to be known.

All these other voices competing for our attention do not really want to know us. Can’t possibly know us. But there is one who does. The one who says, “I am,” wants to know us. In fact, the one who says, “I am,” already knows us just as the Father knows him.

God knows us. And in that knowledge, we know God. If we really let ourselves hear what Jesus is saying, we can come to know God. Not a lot of propositions about God, not things about God, but we can experience the reality that is God.

This naturally frightens us. But such fear is not mere sentiment, but rather manifests itself in a way of life, as the First Letter of John speaks about it – a way of life that shows we respect the majesty and power of the God who says, “I am.” A life that ought to “lay down its life for another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

And not just in what we do, but in who we are.

For all those who listen to Jesus – the shepherd who becomes the Paschal lamb slain on the feast of the Passover to save us from our sins– we are the sheep of his pasture. We are poor sheep like those he tends and leads beside still waters. We become his people, his body and blood for the world. We are sheep turned to shepherds through the mystery of the breaking of the bread.

The one hope is that as folk come to know us, they find not the sheep turned to shepherds, but in truth, the Shepherd, the Good Shepherd, the Beautiful One. It will be so if we abide in Him and He in us. It will be so if we let him set our hearts on fire with the breath of his Holy Spirit. It will be so as he opens our hearts to the Word of God. The lame will walk, the blind will see, if when he calls us by name we will only listen.

There are many competing voices. But only one voice calls us each by name. Only one voice knows us by name. Only one voice speaks the great, “I am.” That voice is Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

 

— The Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek is co-rector of Saint Peter’s Episcopal Church at Ellicott Mills, Ellicott City, Maryland, a parish in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. He is also chaplain and teaches at Saint Timothy’s School for girls, the diocesan girls’ boarding school in the Diocese of Maryland. His sermons are archived at www.perechief.blogspot.com.

Only one voice knows us by name, 4 Easter (B) – 2009

May 3, 2009

Acts 4:5-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18

As is often the case, what is not included in our lessons may be of utmost importance in our hearing what is going on in these lessons.

For instance, in Acts, a lame man has been healed, and Peter and John have been hauled before some sort of ecclesiastical court to explain why the lame man is not still lame. And our gospel narrative begins way back in Chapter 8 where Jesus is accused of being possessed by a demon, then in Chapter 9 he heals the blind man by the Pool of Siloam.

Then comes one of the great “I AM” passages, “I am the good shepherd,” which we have a portion of this morning, and which ends:

“There was again a great division among them because of these words. Many of them said, ‘He has a demon and is mad; why listen to him?’ Others said, ‘These are not the saying of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?’”

Which perhaps asks the central question, “Why listen to him?” Why listen to Jesus? Why do we listen to Jesus at all?

After all, there are so many others competing for our attention. There is, of course, the president and all his official and unofficial spokespersons now issuing almost daily speeches and announcements to direct our attention away from the country’s problems and instead focus on their agenda. Then there are mayors and governors all demanding we listen to them. There are corporate interests trying to convince us to use more and more of their products. There are commercial interests on TV, in the paper, on the radio, and calling us at home every day trying to market and sell more things, more services, and put us deeper into debt. There are family members unhappy with the family, there are neighbors unhappy with the neighborhood, there are immigrants looking for some shred of dignity, there are talk show hosts who know it all, and of course every lay person, deacon, priest, and bishop trying to convince us that they know what is best for the church.

Like those at the end of the story and those in the Acts of the Apostles who are offended by what Jesus says and does, there are all these competing interests and voices trying to get us to turn away from Jesus and turn our lives over to them instead.

Lord, you have spread a table before us in the presence of those who trouble us. Lord, we know that you want us to listen to you. Lord, if you are listening for just one minute, just for one second of one minute, can you please shut out all the competing voices, interests, merchants, politicians and commentators for just a few minutes of silence? Lord, can you please still the waters, can you please make us lie down in green pastures, can your rod and your staff please, Lord, comfort us, touch us, protect us and heal us? Lord, please give us the time, the place, and the space to listen to you!

When we look and listen to the shrill voices that surround us on all sides every day, we begin to know the plight of the one who gave us the Twenty-Third Psalm. And if we are paying attention at all, we will stop and listen for the Good Shepherd – the Beautiful One. We will stop and listen for Jesus. And what we will hear if we are listening closely is just two words: “I am.”

For people of faith, for people of the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus, those are the only two words we need to hear: “I am.”

Jesus says, “I am.” The people of God have heard these words before. Standing barefoot, in front of a bush that burns and is not consumed, we hear a voice and we ask, like the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland, “Who are you?”

The answer comes back, “I am who I am. … I am what I will be. … just tell them I AM sent you.”

The one who says “I am,” also says, “I know my own, and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for my sheep.”

Let’s pause for just a moment and understand what is being said here. We are known. We all want nothing more than to be known. We spend a lifetime looking for relationships, reflecting on experiences, searching for someone who knows us, or even more fundamentally, we search to know ourselves. There is no doubt about it, the most fundamental human condition is a desire to be known.

All these other voices competing for our attention do not really want to know us. They can’t possibly know us. But there is one who does. The one who says, “I am,” wants to know us. In fact the one who says, “I am,” already knows us just as the Father knows him.

God knows us. And in that knowledge, we know God. If we really let ourselves hear what Jesus is saying, we can come to know God. Not a lot of propositions about God, not things about God, but we can experience the reality that is God.

This naturally frightens us. But such fear is not mere sentiment, but rather manifests itself in a way of life, as the First Letter of John speaks about it – a way of life that shows we respect the majesty and power of the God who says, “I am.” A life that ought to lay down its life for another.

As verse 16 says: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuse help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

For those who listen to Jesus, the shepherd becomes the Paschal lamb slain on the feast of the Passover to save us from our sins, and we are the sheep of his pasture. We are poor sheep like those he tends and leads beside still waters. We become his people, his body and blood for the world.

There are many competing voices. But only one voice calls us each by name. Only one voice knows us by name. Only one voice speaks the great, “I am.” That voice is Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever.

 

— The Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek is rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Ellicott City, Maryland, a parish in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. He also travels throughout the church leading stewardship events for parishes, dioceses, clergy conferences, and diocesan conventions. He has long been involved in the work of The Episcopal Network for Stewardship (TENS), and the Ministry of Money. He frequently uses music and storytelling in his proclamation of the Word.

Ours is the story of an Easter people, 4 Easter (B) – 2006

May 7, 2006

Acts 4:5-12;Psalm 23; 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18

This is the story of an Easter people on a Sunday morning, welcoming a visitor who steps in off the street.

“Hi! My name is Joe” his name tag reads as he stands in the parish hall at coffee hour. He looks a little out of sorts, standing by coffee urn, a sugared doughnut snowing on his shirt.

Joe has just moved to the area. He is starting a new life in a new town, and he’s trying out a new idea. He thinks there may be a home for him here, in this church, among these people, who all seem already to know each other’s names. Joe hasn’t been inside a church in years. He remembers only vaguely a place with high ceilings. He recalls wondering as a boy if the high ceilings were meant to hold God in up under the rafters. Where else would God be?

Someone comes up to greet Joe and says, “Hi, My name is William – but everyone calls me Sparky.” It is obvious by his nickname, that Sparky has a history here. Sparky has a story, and a place in a bigger story here. He shares affectionate ties to other people who are part of that story, too.

Joe returns the following Sunday and the one after that, and soon after that he notices that the altar hangings are a different color. A few of the hymns become familiar. The little girl who sits with her parents in the pew behind him finally smiles at him when he turns around to pass the peace.

After several months, he misses a few Sundays because of a surgical procedure that keeps him home in bed recuperating. He is surprised when a parishioner calls to ask about him. Joe has never been missed before.

He is equally touched when he finds that his name has been added to the prayer list. He signs up to help cook at the annual parish pancake supper. Joe discovers he has a knack for flipping pancakes and is affectionately given the nickname “Flip” by other members of the cooking crew. “Flip” sticks, and that’s what everyone calls him now.

Someone overhears Flip talk about how much he enjoyed skiing in college. His name comes up when the youth group asks for another driver and chaperon for their winter ski trip. He agrees to go, and though he is not a particularly outgoing guy, the kids appreciate his low-key way of making sure no one is left out, and everyone has a good time. They ask him if he would teach their Christian Ed class next year.

The class, under Flip’s supervision, decides to raise money to buy children’s books for an after-school tutoring program the church has taken on as a community outreach project.

They decide to serve a pancake breakfast the first Sunday of every month after the early service. The donations they receive generously support their book-buying project. Flip encourages some of them to volunteer as tutors as well. Friendships develop, and the children are sent home with presents at Christmastime, every gift chosen with a particular child in mind, his name printed in big letters on the tag.

This is the story of an Easter people, called by Jesus, to call his own, each by name, often quietly, without a lot of fuss, into his abiding love. Through the voices personal and particular, of those who gather to be his Church, he calls his own to him. Many in the world are listening for that voice, sometimes discovering their own true names for the first time, spoken through it.

It is a voice heard in the compassionate concern expressed by a neighbor who shares a cup of tea with a frail shut-in. It is heard in the invitations extended to co-workers who belong to no faith community, but may be wiling to give one a try. It is heard in the story of the Good Shepherd read for the first time to a group of pre-schoolers. They know wolves are no laughing matter.

Faithfully, year in and year out, the gathered body of Christ stands watch. Through lean budget years and fat ones, the gathered Body of Christ learns that to stand watch with the staying power of the Good Shepherd is truly a labor of love.

The daily routine, of standing with those sheep day in and day out, is not particularly exciting. How easy it would be to fall asleep. How tempting to leave for a while and seek out a more spectacular view than the pasture has to offer. Forget the wolves; they haven’t been seen for a while, so maybe they are no longer out there in the trees, waiting. The hired hand’s not such a bad guy. Why not trust him with the job? He seems reliable enough.

Christ calls the Church to abide in his love, to stay alert, and to risk its life to protect those who are so easily overlooked by a world too impatient and uninterested to stay with them. Christ’s love abides in his Church. He lives here, he is not passing through. He does not turn and run. Through the spirit he has given us, we know that love abides in us; Love has made a home and settled here. Love hangs around, explores the neighborhood, introduces itself, tells stories about where it came from and how it got here. Love invites company in to sit and visit. Love offers refreshment.

Where love comes to abide, space must be cleared for the guests who will come to visit and stay. There is room no longer for storing such bulky furnishings as petty insecurities, self-importance, jealousy, and contempt. Others will be arriving soon. When love moves in, the word gets out.

Where love abides, activity may not look like much on the surface. It may appear no more exciting than watching a shepherd watch his sheep. Abiding love sometimes just stands there, too, like the shepherd, watching, so that you’d hardly know anything is happening at all. You’d never guess the wolf prowls about behind the trees.

Abiding love keeps the wolf at bay, greeting people at the door and handing them bulletins. It sits in the chair next to the bed holding hands, saying a prayer, turning back fear. Love stops by and calls up just to check in, unconvinced that the hired help will follow through. Love cooks pancakes.

Love stands still and scans the horizon, watching out for the stragglers and the ones who never quite measure up. Love stands still and holds out a hand to those who get knocked down again and again. Who but love searches out the ones no one else misses when they are not around?

“Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action,” John writes in his epistle. This love may not often take us into the action-packed drama of Peter and John standing as prisoners in the midst of the assembled powers of Jerusalem, witnessing to the healing power of the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. More often the boldness that God requires manifests itself in no greater action than shaking someone’s hand, learning her name, or signing your own.

Ours is the story of an Easter people, gathered on a green pasture, taking note of the lay of the land. Over there predators hide behind quick fixes and bright promises. Beyond that rocky outcrop a spring-fed stream flows clear. The path to it must be kept clear and open. In this open space no high ceiling holds in God. Listen and you can hear His voice calling your name. Follow it.

— The Rev. Mary H. Ogus is rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Clinton, North Carolina. A graduate of the M. Div. and STM programs at the General Seminary in NYC, she is in her second year of parish ministry.