April 21, 2013, 4th Sunday in Easter
It is winter. . . .still winter, we might say. 4th Sunday of Easter and the scene outside seems stuck on constant loop, and the lectionary has bumped us all the way back to Hanukkah. It reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ description of Narnia under the witch’s reign – always winter, never Christmas.
The Feast of the Dedication, or Hanukkah, that’s the context of this scene. Jesus is walking in the portico of Solomon during the feast, the commemoration of the time when the Jews had been banned from worshipping God for over three years, and finally after the Maccabean revolt had an opportunity to re-dedicate their temple.
It is winter, they are remembering one rededication, but doing so rather carefully because even as they are celebrating the freedom they gained in the past the Jews look outside their window and see history stuck in a loop. . . another empire, another foreign ruler watching over their shoulders and making sure that their demands for freedom don’t go too far.
The porch of Solomon was a site of memory but also a place of slaughter. It was a place that had been rededicated but only after too much blood had been shed, too many children had died. In Jewish lore of the time there was speculation about where, when the anointed one, the Messiah came, the new age would begin. Where would the anointed one declare that the reign of God was at hand that the new age of God’s people worshipping without fear would begin? Some people thought it would be at Rachel’s tomb, since Rachel was the mother of all the exiles, the one whose weeping would not be silenced. And some thought it was here, at Solomon’s Porch, at the place where the innocent had been slaughtered and God’s people had not given up on longing for God’s reign.
And in this place, Jesus uses language that evokes the kingship of David, where he speaks of being a shepherd, the kind of leader who will gather the scattered and protect the vulnerable.
Because vulnerable is what they are – and it does not matter where they are
Even this massive temple is not safe, and it too will some day in the not too distant future be destroyed. Even this place of celebration can be in a moment marred by violence. Even this holy place can be desecrated.
Like seeing Back Bay turned into a scene of bloodshed
Like seeing a passenger plane used as a weapon
Like seeing an elementary school attacked.
Even our most sacred places can be violated. . . and our most revered heroes fall
The next verse, by the way, is that people took up stones to stone Jesus for what he said
And the next story is that his dear friend Lazarus is dead.
Death is all too close, all the time. Illness and violence strike randomly, even to Jesus himself.
What makes a shepherd a shepherd is not that he leads us away from every danger, but that he leads us through.
It is not mere protection Jesus offers, but assurance, the knowledge of being known, of never being alone. Of being unsnatchable.
Wells, the chaplain at St. Martin in the
Fields – which by the way is not just an orchestra but also a homeless shelter
– argued recently that the key word in the Christian faith is WITH
We tend to imagine that the important word is FOR. That what God does FOR me makes me a Christian and what I do FOR God and neighbor is what it’s all about. So we ask what our church life does for us; and what our church does for their neighborhood. We occupy ourselves with doing more and more of the right kind of service for the world and build communities intent on telling people what the church can do for them.
But Wells argues that the heart of the Gospel is instead the little word WITH, as in when the angel says to Mary, this child shall be Emmanuel, God WITH us, and when Jesus says, Lo I am with you always, even unto the end of the earth.
Thou art WITH me, thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
What a shepherd does for the sheep is first and foremost simply being with them, through good and bad.
Shepherds, after all, don’t cause the grass to grow or the waters to be still. They do not make wolves and lions go away; they cannot make sheep more perfectly sensible and independent. But they are with their flocks, and in that with-ness, the flock is assured.
And so, as Jesus is standing on this porch of Solomon, talking about being a shepherd, he emphasizes that he is a shepherd because he is WITH his Father, and in his communion with God he offers us communion with him. He is a good shepherd because about to enter into the ultimate with-ness of humanity, entering into the suffering and death which is always part of the human experience.
My Sheep are with me. And no one will snatch them out of my hand
What might that mean, if you lived as if you were unsnatchable? What might it mean to give witness to all God’s sheep being unsnatchable.
How would we life,
If it did not matter whether you look good enough, or work hard enough, or are liked by everybody? If you believed that even the scariest events of our time could not separate you from God’s love?
What would it mean to live knowing that goodness and mercy will pursue us, like sheepdogs nipping at our heels, all our lives? That even when the scene outside our doors or inside our hearts seems stuck on a constant loop, a Groundhog Day blizzard over and over again, even then goodness and mercy will keep invading our lives, keep running into the chaos, into the bloodshed, into the hurt with Words of strength and acts of compassion.
What might it mean to be a church that knows that being with God means being with our brothers and sisters, and that no one, not even the most unloved by the world, is considered lost by our good shepherd?
Such a witness does not run from the places of darkness. Such a witness is not paralyzed when it seems like there is nothing we can do for the hurting or the wounded. Such a witness says simply, let us be wth God’s world because God is with us.
It was popular to say this week that we are all Bostonians or all Texans, but wise voices from outside this country reminded us that we ought to remember how often violence invades the lives of people throughout the world, sometimes at the hands of our own government.
So yes, said one journalist at Britain’s the Guardian, "I'm all up for us all being Bostonians, today. But can we all be Yemenis tomorrow, and Pakistanis the next day?" Can we be with one another even then?
Jesus is with us because God has chosen to be with us. And when we pray with one another, when we hurt with one another, when we enter into this life WITH one another, we give witness to that God who has said, YOU are unsnatchable.
We have received that promise at our baptism . . . You belong to Christ
And we are commissioned in that same moment to witness to that reality to the world – we are anointed, chosen. We who count ourselves one with Christ, we are anointed to be one with God’s world.
You belong to Christ. We invite you to hear these words, to receive a sign of that anointing, and to live it