The Fourth Sunday of Easter | April 22, 2018
There’s a certain beauty to be found, I believe, in those things we know by heart…those things that are so familiar that they come to us seemingly unbidden, and in coming to us, they return us to ourselves.
The smell of a baby’s head.
The cadence of your feet striking pavement as you hit your stride.
The words of a song you have sung for so long that you can’t remember learning it.
The crack of a baseball bat hit well on opening day.
The feel of your beloved’s hand as it holds your own.
The recipe that someone who loved you took the time to teach you.
What are the pieces of your familiar? What happens, for you, when you return to those pieces of yourself? And when do you find yourself yearning for them?
One of the blessings and privileges of this life as a priest is the opportunity I often have to spend time with people…at the beginnings of their lives, and at the ends of their lives. At both junctures, in those special and excruciating moments, people tend to be surrounded by the things they know by heart, or will, one day…beloved members of their families; photos; blankets or shawls that cover them in love and prayer and memories; shoes that their feet have worn a hole into in that one peculiar spot, or socks to keep little toes warm.
People at the ends of their lives often seem beyond the point of recognition or speech; but sometimes a piece of their familiar will find words that are still in their mouths: like with the Lord’s Prayer. Or today’s psalm.
Do you know the old version? Pray it with me, if you do:
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want;
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures;
he leadeth me beside the still waters
He restoreth my soul;
he leadeth me in paths of righteousnss for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil.
For thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies;
thou anointest my head with oil;
my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
There’s something in the knowing of that – a consolation that people find they have the vocabulary for, because they know it by heart. Even at the ends of their lives, they can find the words of a promise that they shall not want…the image of walking in the shadow of death and knowing that they are not alone in it – the movement from “he” to “thou” as the psalmist faces God directly. You are with me, we pray in that 23rd psalm. You comfort me. You prepare a table for me. You anoint me. Goodness and mercy shall follow, and I will dwell at home.
Every year on the fourth Sunday of Easter season, our gospel and psalm and prayers and music are marked by images of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. We pray this most familiar psalm. We hear Jesus talking about knowing his own, about his own knowing him.
My guess, you have heard your share of sermons about what it means for Jesus to be the Good Shepherd. You have heard about the dangers of those hired hands that run away at the first scare. You have heard, no doubt, about the sketchier qualities of sheep…and, my hope, you’ve heard some defense of sheep as well.
I know this, because I have preached all of those things, and I have heard them, too.
It’s difficult to get a real sense of this passage, and easy to get all wrapped up in the talk of sheep and shepherds and who represents which, because we just get this little slice of the story. And, well, the imagery certainly lends itself. But as cute and fluffy as sheep can be, and as great a villain as we have in the hired hand who doesn’t protect them, this lesson Jesus teaches is not finally just about sheep. But we have to step back, in order to find the context for it.
A chapter before today’s lesson takes place in the gospel of John, Jesus encounters a man who was born blind. That condition in that place at that time separates the man from the community. It prevents him from doing work, requires that he must sit in public and beg for anything he gets in life. As Jesus and the disciples pass by this man, one of the disciples asks Jesus what the man has done wrong, or what mistake his parents must have made, for him to deserve this separation – as though it’s his fault. Jesus responds: “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him.”
The work of God at that moment, then, is for Jesus to make mud out of dirt and spit and rub it on the man’s eyes, and then tell him to go wash in a nearby pool of water. There, his sight is given to him, for the first time in his life. So now the man can take part as a participant in the community. It is possible for him to be returned to a familiar that has never been available to him before now.
But not so fast. Because the Pharisees are on the scene, and they’ve got some questions and concerns. The Pharisees, remember, are the enforcers of Jewish order and rules. They find their power in the fact that they know how things are supposed to work, and they keep track and try to make it so.
So first, the Pharisees debate whether the man who now sees really ever was the man born blind who used to have to beg. Next, they ask the man himself about the healing, especially taking issue with the fact that it happened on the Sabbath, which, by law and custom, would be sinful. Then, they check references by bringing in the man’s terrified parents for questioning. And finally, they bring back the man whose sight has been given to him…along with some healthy wits…the man who finally gets fed up with this repeat interrogation and says to those Pharisees: “I told you this already, and you didn’t listen. Why do you need for me to tell you again? Do you want to be his disciples too?!”
It is only after all of this that Jesus tells the story of the Good Shepherd, the one who enters the sheepfold with trust, the one whose sheep know his voice by heart, who comes that they might have life abundant. Only then – still in earshot of the Pharisees – does Jesus say the words of today’s gospel lesson: “I know my own and my own know me…and I lay down my life for the sheep.” Only then does he tell those who listen: “I have other sheep, not of this fold; I must bring them also. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd.” Dare I add: for everybody, everybody, everybody.
In speaking those familiar words, Jesus seeks to reconcile and restore – to restore the people to themselves, to reconcile them to one another in their community, and to join them together to their God. I wonder if there might be something for us, in that lesson underneath and inside of the story of the Good Shepherd today.
Today is also Welcome Sunday here at St. Augustine’s, a day we set aside to introduce and bless and give thanks for new members of this church. You all have come to us for reasons as different as each one of you, all seeking a new familiar, here. I pray that you will find and share pieces of yourselves, in the life of faith you begin and continue and embody here. I pray that as you join in worship and fellowship, in learning and service, this community will become one that you know by heart – a place where, again and again, you find that the words of God’s promise are in your own mouths, as again and again, you are restored to yourselves.
And so welcome, you who choose newly to be part of this congregation today. And welcome, you who have chosen this church and chosen this church and chosen this church again, through years and decades, you who already know St. A’s by heart, and now make room for others to join us.
We belong to each other. And together, we belong to the One who gives us the familiar pieces of ourselves, that, together, by heart, will help us to find our way home.