The Seed would Sprout and Grow, He does not Know How

A sermon for the fourth Sunday after Pentecost, June 17, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

The Kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.

In March, several of us gathered together with Mother Ann on a Saturday morning to read the entire Gospel of Mark aloud to one another. It took about an hour and a half. It’s a profound experience. You get a real feel for the urgency of the story moving forward so quickly; the Gospel of this Jesus moving toward its ending; the crucifixion and the proclamation of his resurrection at the empty tomb. Today’s Gospel lesson is from the fourth chapter of Mark, so I quickly re-read the first four chapters. It starts with John the Baptist calling for repentance and baptism. Jesus appears, is baptized, and emerges in Galilee proclaiming: “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the Gospel.” Then what we have is a series of vignettes of Jesus casting out demons and healing people and being criticized for doing so, usually for flimsy or legalistic reasons that masquerade as piety. And then we arrive at Chapter Four and Jesus starts talking about seed.

Why the sudden shift? From the outset of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is proclaiming the Kingdom of God. Now he’s explaining it. The word kingdom always referred to the ruler, not to an organization or a region.  You would have the kingdom of a despot, or the kingdom of a tyrant, or of an emperor. In last week’s Old Testament lesson, the people demanded a king, and God’s basic response was, “You’ll be sorry, but here you go…” The idea was, if you had an army and drove out any other army, then you were the king. At that time, it wasn’t a question of whether a dictatorship or a democracy or some other form of governance would prevail—the question was who would be the ruler. So when Jesus proclaims the Kingdom of God, he’s talking about the Rule of God, pre-empting the authority of the rulers of this world.

Jesus starts by demonstrating God’s rule—casting out the demonic forces that spread hate and distort our views of the world, and healing the sick and those who suffer. In today’s passage, he explains what it all means: “The rule of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow.” God is ruling and the seed is growing, but it’s growing of itself. It arises and it is not under any particular control. These little bits of nothing, that make up just a smidgen of what you would grind up to make your daily bread or breakfast cereal, they are alive and they are free. Scattered on the ground, they sprout, take root, and grow. The planter does nothing to make it happen. Now some of us have gardened, and even farmed, and we know many things go into having a successful crop—removing weeds, making sure there is the right amount of water, and so forth. But the seeds grow of themselves, their life is free. And so it is with the rule of God. Life is free, it is abundant, and it doesn’t appear because we control it.

Another thing. The Rule of God doesn’t work out like we expect it to. The second parable in today’s Gospel is also about seed—but it focuses on the single mustard seed—small, but when it grows… it grows and grows… and the mustard plant becomes huge, among the biggest of annual plants, big enough for birds to nest in. All from one very small seed, confounding the expectation of our human intuition. Our human intuitions often lead us astray. We make quick assumptions, based on a couple of observations, and rely on them to make complex judgments. That is dangerous if we don’t adjust those judgments as we go along. In today’s Old Testament lesson, the prophet Samuel was instructed by God to go clandestinely to anoint one of Jesse’s sons as the new king. After arguing a bit with God, Samuel follows instructions and goes to see Jesse and his sons. Samuel follows his intuitions and assumes that the tall, strong, good-looking, confident eldest son is the one that God was talking about.  He makes the assumptions that we are all inclined to make. But God calls Samuel to something deeper and much less obvious. After going through all of the candidates that anyone, including Jesse and Samuel, would have thought were appropriate, none of them was actually the one called to be anointed to serve as King of Israel.  It was the little kid, who had been detailed to stay out with the sheep, the least likely candidate, the one who violated all the intuitions and assumptions of those who thought they were discerning. The truth is much deeper than our impulses and the rule of God is not about how we feel about things, or what we choose in order to feel good about ourselves.

The Rule of God is the rule of love—not coercion or control. It is the rule of life growing healthily according to God’s design and not our intuition. God’s Rule is the rule of hope and freedom, not of desolation and violence.

Jesus, Mary, and Joseph
Icon by Kelly Lattimore https://kellylatimoreicons.com/gallery/

This week we have seen things in the news that are problems stemming from human intuitions that coercive control and intimidation can solve problems. When children are taken from their parents, that is a violent act. The purpose is to control, intimidate and deter people—it is to terrorize people. We have a name for that. This kind of thing happens, not when people decide that they want to be evil, but when they decide that their intuition to control and coerce will be the shortcut to making everything fine. It is not the Rule of God. It is the temptation against which Jesus teaches us to pray: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” The demons which Jesus cast out are those temptations to evil that embed themselves in people and institutions. They terrorize people and become barriers to trusting the God of Love.

The Kingdom of God is here, like seed scattered in the fields and growing to maturity. At that time God will harvest it, God will harvest the harvest of love.

St. Paul said it this way to the community at Corinth this morning:

For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away: See, everything has become new!

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Mitties DeChamplain

THE BURIAL OF THE DEAD for Mitties McDonald DeChamplain, priest, will be offered on Saturday, June 2, at 10:00 AM, in the church of St Mary the Virgin in NYC. The Right Reverend Andrew M. L. Dietsche, bishop of New York, will be the celebrant. The Right Reverend Allen K. Shin, bishop suffragan, will be the preacher. A reception in the Parish Hall will follow the liturgy. Mother Mitties’ ashes will be interred at a later date at Saint Athanasius Episcopal Church at the Cathedral Center of Saint Paul, Los Angeles, California.

Because we will be at my daughter Lisa’s wedding this weekend, I will be unable to attend Mitties’ funeral. I was asked to write a piece for the service bulletin, which I share here before we get on the plane.

 

The Rev. Mitties DeChamplain was passionate about three things: her students, animals (especially her kitties), and the church. In the church, her most prominent role was preaching and teaching preaching. One of the things she emphasized to her students was having a high “Jesus Count” in your sermon. That’s basically a shorthand for the theological responsibility of the preacher. A sermon that has a high Jesus Count is focused on our Savior, not the preacher, and it’s concrete, rather than indulging in vague sentiment or doctrinal abstractions. Most important, it’s grounded in the human and humane, which came directly from Mitties’ appreciation of life and her desire to encourage each person to discover their own voice and speak in their own way.

Mitties loved cats, and she was always finding a way to love one or two more. I remember her crossing barriers into an off-limits area to rescue a kitten from a construction zone. Every year in observance of St. Francis Day, she would bless the animals at General Seminary, both those resident on the Close and any from the neighborhood that came. We still have a photograph on our refrigerator of Mitties in a red and gold cope cradling our white bulldog Thekla’s head to give her a blessing. For us, it epitomizes Mitties love of God’s creation.

Mostly Mitties loved her students – being with them gave her life and she dedicated everything to them. She nurtured them as future ministers of the Word and as friends. She counseled them and was consistently there for them. Mitties was very gentle, even retiring, but if the time came to stand up for her students she was fierce, whether with the administration or with the operators of jackhammers outside her preaching laboratory sessions. She travelled all over to support students at their ordinations; more than anyone I know. That love continues and it’s clear that those students return that love for Mitties, and also to their congregations.

A few weeks ago, we found out that Mitties was in the hospital again and that her condition was grave. A group of us gathered in her room in the ICU to be with her as life support was removed – colleagues and students and parishioners from St. Clement’s, St. Mary the Virgin, and Trinity Morrisania. We prayed and sang hymns and talked to her and to one another about our feelings for her. The next day, my wife Paula and I visited in the late afternoon. We prayed and read psalms. Paula started reading Facebook posts to Mitties, describing how her friends and family loved her, and showing her pictures that people had posted. We can’t know if she heard us, but her breathing became slower, gentler, and, eventually stopped.

Mitties died in the midst of the church that she loved so much and to which she had dedicated her life. “Depart, O Christian soul, out of this world; … May your rest be this day in peace and your dwelling place in the Paradise of God.”

–Drew Kadel

The Spirit helps in our Weakness

A sermon for the Feast of Pentecost, May 20, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

Today is the feast of Pentecost when the church celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit. One version of that is the story in our lesson from the book of Acts. The Spirit alights on the apostles like tongues of fire and everyone in their own language understands, while the apostles preach the Gospel.  But the coming of the Holy Spirit is not just about a dramatic public event of evangelism. The Holy Spirit has always been regarded by the church as the presence of God, enlivening and guiding it.

In the Gospel today Jesus is addressing his disciples, anticipating that he will soon leave them—this is at the Last Supper, shortly before his arrest. And Jesus assures them that they will not be alone: “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf.” The church receives the Holy Spirit who continues Christ’s work among us and in the world.  Yet the world, the powers of selfishness, and service of power for the sake of domination is that very power that opposed Jesus and brought about his death.  Jesus says this: “When the Advocate comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment.” And “When the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” The Truth that the Holy Spirit leads us into is reality—that is to say real, realistic reality—and that reality is the compassion of the God we know in Jesus.  We know that love of Jesus at the outset—any child can see it—yet it takes a whole lifetime to grow into that compassion.

The World, pre-occupied in serving self, cannot receive the Spirit because it does not see or know him—too often the Church paradoxically becomes that World, pre-occupied with fears and schemes, rather than the courage and love of Jesus Christ. Nonetheless, the Spirit does guide us, in our weakness and our blindness.

St. Paul says this near the end of the passage read from his Letter to the Romans today: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” The Holy Spirit is not something superficial, nor is it something emotional; rather it is the power of God among us, between us and within each of us, guiding and healing us in his love.

This passage appointed begins: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.” A while ago, I read a wonderful book about the Roman Empire by Mary Beard called SPQR. While the book has little to do with religion and almost nothing about Christianity, it is clear that everyone in the Roman Empire at this time was very familiar with slavery and with adoption. The economy of the empire was based on slavery, from the lowest and harshest of menial labor in the mines, to very high functionaries in the households of the wealthiest aristocrats.

Wealth and comfort for the owners proceeded from the work of the slaves, yet they counted as nothing; they were regarded as invisible and of little or no worth. Any slave could be beaten or even killed, without the master having to even explain. Many early Christians were slaves and a substantial number of other Christians at the same time were owners of slaves. Everyone intimately understood the fear that dominated the lives of the slaves. Jesus, described himself as a slave to all—a most extraordinarily radical thing. Equally radical was that the church asserted that they followed this man, and honored him as God.

Adoption was also common in the Roman Empire, though not as common as slaveholding. Many Roman emperors were the adopted sons of the previous emperor. If a man of wealth and property did not have a son who he judged satisfactory to be his heir, he would choose someone to adopt as his son.  This was the Roman version of the succession schemes we often see at modern corporations, where today’s wealth is often concentrated. In the Roman Empire being adopted was a typical succession plan—those who were adopted achieved higher status and security than they had had previously.

So St. Paul says, “You did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.” The Holy Spirit, which the church receives on Pentecost, takes us out of fear and slavery through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. And not only that, every one of us is now adopted, not by a wealthy landowner, or by a Roman Emperor, but by the God who created heaven and earth. When we boldly and audaciously say, “Our Father…” at the breaking of the bread, that Holy Spirit is bearing witness “with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ,” as St. Paul says. And he continues, “If, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.” Suffering is indeed real, we can expect it, and the Holy Spirit enables us to face it squarely—without fear.

We are glorified with God as we live for others. We know the blessing of Christ’s presence through being generous and welcoming. We know God by looking Jesus in the face.

As it says in today’s psalm:

O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them

All the earth is full of your creatures.

May the glory of the Lord endure forever; may the Lord rejoice in all his works.

He looks at the earth and it trembles; he touches the mountains and they smoke.

I will sing to the Lord as long as I live;

I will praise my God while I have my being.

May these words of mine please him;

I will rejoice in the Lord.

Bless the Lord, O my soul.

 

Hallelujah!

Mother’s Day: That they may have my Joy made Complete in themselves

A sermon for the seventh Sunday of Easter, May 13, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves

Our Psalm today is Psalm number one, the very first psalm and it is really the summary of them all: “Blessed are they… their delight is in the law of the Lord … They are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither; everything they do shall prosper.” Real happiness comes from being a just person, following the will of God, trusting the love of God, even when things are not easy or restful, even when our prosperity does not look like what the rest of the world calls prosperity.

A few years ago, I was talking with the wisest woman who I know, the person who has taught me everything I know about hospitality. We were taking stock of what we had experienced and done together over the past several years. She said, “You know, hospitality comes from living a good life. A life that’s so good that you just want to share it.” We talked about that for a while. As far as finances and the goods of the world, we do pretty well, but there are those who have a lot more money, fancier houses or apartments and so forth, who are not as hospitable. And it appears that they are not as happy, they don’t have as good of lives, even on their yachts.

By the same token, there are others who have less than us who are even more hospitable. I have certainly experienced great hospitality in neighborhoods, which by most measures are quite poor. It is important to have enough in this world to get by: having enough to eat and a place to live are essential needs and rights of every person. Going without those things makes it very difficult, perhaps impossible, for people to focus, to be confident or hopeful, or to find ways forward. Yet enough doesn’t mean having everything, certainly not everything that we might want.  It is only when people insist on justice, love, and hospitality that anyone can live a good life. “For the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked is doomed.”

Knowing the love of God is the source of happiness and it is the source of generosity and hospitality. Our Gospel lesson today is the first part of Jesus prayer for his disciples at the Last Supper in the Gospel of John. If we think about this for a minute, the setting is both at the time of Jesus’ greatest model of hospitality where he washed the feet of his disciples and at the moment when he knew that he was about to be crucified and lose everything, even his life. Jesus says this to the Father, “But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.” Jesus joy is his love for his people.

He says, “I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the Evil One. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” Jesus sent his disciples into the world and he sends us into the world to have a good life. But not a good life as parts of the world would have it, not what the commercials and most of the shows on TV portray as the good life, not what the neighbors or friends at school or people living in the fanciest neighborhoods or biggest houses might put forward as the requirements of “the Good Life.”

My mother, Bernice Kadel

Today is Mother’s Day. The day in which we remember and honor women who nurture children. We have all had mothers. Even I have a mother. She’s been my mother for three-quarters of her life. Mothers and our relationships with them are as varied as all the people in the world. It’s hard to generalize—mothers are mothers in the real world and they are real people. And some take on the duties of being a mom for children they did not bear, sometimes as stepmother, or adoptive, or the person who is just there for kids.

Mother’s Day is difficult for a number of people because it calls to mind the grief of losing a child or not being able to have a child. Being a mother is definitely a real-world thing and that is the thing. In the real world it’s a risk and an investment of self to be a mother; we don’t know how it will come out, either in terms of who the child will become or what the mother will ultimately be able to do and give for the child. Each mother is different, but being a mother is a very specific choice for life. That is an awesome and scary journey to embark upon. Ultimately motherhood is the model and example of hospitality, the good life to which God has called us. Mary was Jesus’ mother—a humble woman in difficult circumstances, yet filled with the joy of God, providing a good life for the savior of the world. She made room for him within her and in that gave us all hope. That’s what mothers are for, to bring their children into good life and in that bring hope into this world.

The good life is the life of joy and delight, our joy and God’s joy. And the surest sign of that joy is that we have the confidence to be hospitable and generous, just as Jesus is to us. Thus we may be like the blessed ones in our psalm:

They are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither; everything they do shall prosper.

Sisters and brothers, continue to live the Good Life in God.

 

Beloved, since God loved us so much…

A sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, April 29, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

Our lesson today from the book of the Acts of the Apostles tells the story of the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch. In America, the thing that most people notice first is that the eunuch is black, coming as he is from sub-Saharan Africa. Of course, that’s not referenced in the text—the description is of a powerful court official of a faraway kingdom, outside of the Roman Empire; a person scholarly and devout, asking hard questions of the scriptural text of the prophet Isaiah.

The issue of race is an American issue, a modern issue, emerging from a concept that arose in European writing in the seventeenth century. I will be away when the vestry has anti-racism training at the end of May – for a happy reason, I want to add – my middle daughter is getting married.  But because I won’t be with you then, I want to share with you in this sermon some of my experiences and reflections on race and racism.

Most Episcopal churches have a predominantly white membership. I have spent most of my ministry in parishes, which, though they often sincerely expressed a desire to be more diverse and inclusive, were slightly more white in membership than the surrounding community. A few years ago, I was asked to be the regular supply priest at a congregation in the south Bronx. We felt very welcomed and included in that congregation. Almost everyone’s family originally had come from the Caribbean. Everyone, except me and Paula, was black.  I learned a lot in my two years with them.

Racism … is actually difficult to recognize when you are its beneficiary.  As I grew up, everyone expected me to do well in school and to be successful in a career.  I learned that we all had rights and, that in a free country, we could exercise those rights without fear. I became used to being respected and trusted, given the opportunity to speak my mind, and the benefit of the doubt if I didn’t get things quite right. I was aware that was not the experience of everyone, in particular persons of color, but it was a little hard to grasp: didn’t everyone get a fair and equal chance? About four years ago, a group of us quietly spoke the truth about some serious concerns, fully expecting to be taken seriously and brought into a conversation to solve the problems. I won’t go into the specifics, but I suddenly experienced not being trusted, having my motives and interpretations of facts dismissed, and being cast out from all influence and receiving no respect. This was happening at the same time that our country’s attention was focused on the much more important, literally life-and-death events in Ferguson, Missouri. I realized that what I experienced in being not respected or trusted, in a really limited and temporary way, was analogous to the lifelong experience of millions in our country: chronically not trusted, nor given respect as a matter of course, experiencing one sort of demeaning treatment or other, and having the benefit of the doubt given to those who demeaned them. It was one job and a couple of years for my colleagues and myself, but for millions, that is their everyday life.

It is easy enough to see violence, and bad words, and over-the-top racist nastiness. For Episcopalians, that generally happens far away and outside of our social group.  We can safely be outraged, condemn bad language and bad actions, even pass resolutions or send money, then pat ourselves on the back, go back to business as usual, and everything stays the same. But what is difficult, is to really see racism; the underlying and not-often-thought-about presumption that what is nice, safe and normal is what is white; therefore, what is not white is suspect, unsafe and probably not quite as worthwhile.

What’s problematic about that is the behavior that results: not taking people seriously; expecting less from them; patronizing… Women sometimes experience this sort of thing from men… or so I’ve been told. Everyone at my church in the Bronx had experienced it, including the wealthiest, best educated and most conservative.

To be fair, most people’s lives are a struggle. Comparing miseries doesn’t help, most people experience their own difficulty and that is bad enough. They have a hard time imagining how they would get by and be able to properly take care of their children, or get to the point that they could have children, if anything of significance was taken away from them. And most people try to be good and try to find a way to see themselves and their families and friends as fundamentally good – that’s how people survive.

The problem, put simply, is that the legacy of chattel slavery is indigestible for white Americans. I’m convinced that the concept of race as we have inherited it really developed from the need to rationalize and make morally okay, the practice of keeping people of African ancestry in permanent bondage. That had evolved into a perception of economic necessity, so the rationale became that these people were enslaved because their race made it appropriate or even necessary for them to be slaves. Slavery itself was legally abolished more than 150 years ago, but its legacy in racism continues.

It is difficult to see how an ordinary guy whose family never owned a plantation or who doesn’t have a family fortune going back to the slave trade profits from racism. Believe me, it’s hard for this guy, meaning me. But the benefit of unacknowledged privilege, of easier access to pathways to success, to safety and education that can be taken for granted—that is real. The problem is, that even with those benefits things are not always easy and when you think about change. … Change is good, change the bad things, but the problem is, well… change. Change knocks our security free from its anchor, it might endanger things that are important to us, we might lose what we don’t want to give up, and if you press this too far, the story of how we are good people might need to be changed.

So the problem with race and the Episcopal Church is that on the one hand we can’t afford to treat one category of people differently than another—as the Epistle of James says, “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord, Jesus Christ?” Yet it will require much change, not just in a few rules, but in our relationships and expectations of one another.

What I want is for those of us who are privileged to listen to what people who suffer from racism have to say. It will be only through careful listening and working hard to change our attitudes and our behavior that we ever have a hope of ending the evil that is racism. It’s a long process; perhaps our grandchildren will be able to explain to their grandchildren how hard the process was. And, let us pray that those babies will have a hard time understanding that.

Racism is a process of denial. Denial makes everything slippery, everything is hard to change—you just get yessed to death and nothing changes. The Episcopal Church extends denial beyond questions of race into most corners of its life. Perhaps if we can be forthright in speaking with one another on issues related to race, we can also be forthright about priorities about mission, about providing ministry for our churches, about the responsibility of laity, and about how the ministry of all baptized people can be effective in this world. The Gospel challenges us all to change, to be more welcoming, to live in the overwhelming grace of God, and to not keep it to ourselves. The Gospel challenges Calvary Church as well as every congregation to change, and that can be frightening—yet no more frightening than the alternative—to become rigid and blind, and cease to be.

Hear again from the First Letter of John:

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; … We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

 

The Model Shepherd

A sermon for the fourth Sunday of Easter, April 22, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

I am the good shepherd, I know my own and my own know me.

This Sunday in the church calendar, the fourth Sunday of Easter, is traditionally known as Good Shepherd Sunday. We always read from the tenth chapter of the Gospel of John: “I am the good shepherd.” Now, those of us who know only a little simple Greek might translate it as “I am the beautiful shepherd.” The Greek adjective means good in the sense of proper or ideal. One commentator translates it, “I am the model shepherd.”

When Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd he’s not describing what someone might encounter if he or she met a real-life shepherd.  He is describing what could be, what we might hope for, how it might be in the kingdom of God. The ideal shepherd; the shepherd in the imagination of those immersed in the Psalms and the writings in the Old Testament about David the shepherd king; the model shepherd lived a life entwined with the flock that he owned. His livelihood depended on them, and they depended on his protection and guidance, for they were defenseless against predators and couldn’t survive in the wilderness if separated from the flock and the shepherd. The model shepherd would know each of those sheep and keep track of every one.

Think about it—the sheep were the shepherd’s life. Without them there was no livelihood, no present, no future, no independence, no dignity. When you have something that important, it is worth sacrificing to keep. You contrast that with someone who is paid a few dollars a day to show up for a job, who has no promise of a future, no ownership and no real commitment to the sheep beyond the daily wage. The tradeoff for that person is very different. If there are big risks or serious sacrifices to be made, why would the hired person make them? Why not go out and find another job? Wolves are dangerous, and your own life is more important than somebody else’s sheep.

We needn’t be disapproving of the wage worker. Jesus is the model shepherd, and he goes further than any pretty good shepherd would do: he lays down his life for his sheep. Not just some sacrifice, or some risk—he actually lays down his life. When he says this, we know we are moving beyond actual sheep herding and remembering his crucifixion and resurrection.

The epistle lesson from First John starts like this: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” The life of Christ leads us into our life IN Christ. The Model Shepherd tends his flock, but we are more than sheep, we are responsible to one another, we are responsible to love and live ethically FOR one another. John asks, “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 to help?” Of course, one answer to that is to not see the need, to look away or explain that it is someone else’s responsibility. Then, there is the kind of love where people are only talking about doing good, so that they can feel nice about it. That’s why it is important to remember that we are forgiven people, not necessarily people who are always perfectly loving or truly caring. There is one Model Shepherd, and it’s not me.

First John continues, “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” No representation of ourselves as the Good Shepherds, no talk about how many sweet feelings we have about others, just reaching out to meet the real needs of others, seeking the healing and well-being of one another.

In the Gospel, Jesus continues: “I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.” It is easy to think that we have our little parish and it’s like a little sheepfold, where Jesus protects us and we feel welcome and at home and we have Jesus as our very own Good Shepherd and we can just settle down with Jesus and go to sleep. But our Model Shepherd doesn’t run things that way—“I have other sheep” maybe those sheep are a bit different or strange to us and our Shepherd calls us to extend ourselves, our sheepfold, our welcome to them.

If any of us loved being welcomed by this church community, the next, even more important step, is to extend that welcome to someone else, to care for someone else’s joys or triumphs, someone else’s challenges or tragedies. A caring community isn’t just that we have our cares met, but about living that care going forward. And that means caring for someone new, at least new to your personal circle of concern. The sheep from another fold are from the future and the present, not from what used to be or what we’ve been comfortable with.

This is a welcoming parish, we have each been welcomed by the Model Shepherd, and he welcomes new sheep every day, we see them all around us, not just here, but wherever we go. Jesus directs us beyond where we are comfortable. He lays down his life for us, that we can take some small risks for him. Jesus is shepherd of those who are beyond our doors, those who don’t agree with us, and those who don’t fit in with whatever group we may be part of. The Good Shepherd invites us to his hospitality, that we can extend that hospitality to others, to those flocks in another fold. We abide in him, and he makes us one flock, with one shepherd.

From today’s Psalm:

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil;

for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me;

you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over.

 

That we should be called the Children of God

A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter, April 15, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called the children of God.

This Easter season, we are privileged to have most of the book of the Bible called First John read in our service. Last week it began, “we have seen with our own eyes, and touched with our hands, the Word of Life” and that Word of Life is our Advocate for the forgiveness of our sins and the sins of the whole world.

This week we move forward. It continues, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called the children of God; and that is what we are.” In this community, it is clear how important our children are to us: they are our treasure, our life, our future. And not just the little kids, but the ones that are leaving the nest, in college or out working—even our children that have children, or even grandchildren, of their own. The loving parent always wants what is best for those children—not that the children always realize it—and the loving parent will make sacrifices for the sake of a good life for the children. And thus, it says in today’s lesson, that we are indeed God’s children. God cares for us more than anything, and sacrifices for our life, and always wants only what is best for us. God’s love for his children is even more than our own love for our own children.

The lesson continues, “The reason that the World does not know us is that it did not know him.” What is John talking about when he refers to “the World?” The term comes up frequently in 1 John. In the section between the part that was read last week and what was read this morning comes this verse: “all that is in the world—the desire for the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches—comes not from the Father but from the world.” The world is that realm of distraction from the love of God and toward things that we think will make us secure or happy.

Indeed, some who are particularly attached to the world believe that having enough: enough riches, or enough accomplishments, or the admiration of others, will protect them, keep them safe in a way that they need neither the love of their earthly parents nor the love of God. Indeed, there are those who immerse themselves in this world to protect themselves, to hide themselves from the love of the living God, our heavenly Father. They might be successful in building up power or wealth, but in keeping these for themselves, in holding on to the World, they end up hurting others of God’s children.

Attachment to the World is really fear. It is not a celebration of the good that we share in God’s creation. It is the opposite. Like the Israelites, who were given manna to eat for breakfast each day. Some decided that they would play it safe, just in case God didn’t keep his promise the next day. They kept the manna overnight, only to wake up and find that it had decayed into a mess filled with worms. So it is for those who think that the world will protect them, if they hang on to its prosperity and attractions hard enough. They hold on to their own power until it slips away and they miss out on the abundance of abiding in God.

This is not a matter of having a contest to see who can be most perfect, or who can give up power the most. God’s love calls us to a loving and forgiving life in him. When First John talks about righteousness, doing right and being without sin, it is about doing loving things, being people who forgive and love, being people who accept God’s love. It is not about talking about it, or even about having sweet or sad emotions about it. It is about caring for our neighbors, forgiving our friends, our enemies and even our families, and accepting God’s forgiveness of them and us.

Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.

In the Gospel today, Jesus came and appeared to the disciples and shared food with them—he ate fish with them. He said, “Peace be with you,” and then he explained to them that it is written that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day. It is written indelibly in the world, that the righteous one will necessarily suffer, and we live with him in his suffering, so that we may proclaim that resurrection. His peace is among us that we may live and share in the repentance and forgiveness of sins to all God’s people, to all the children of the Father.

He is among us, and we will see him, raised from the dead and living among us.

O God, whose blessed Son made himself known to his disciples in the breaking of bread: Open the eyes of our faith, that we behold him in all his redeeming work; who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.