Monday, May 16, 2011

Good Shepherd Sunday (4 Easter), Year A, May 15, 2011

Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 23; I Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10
Preached by Rev. Jason Haddox

One of my all-time favorite recordings is Emmylou Harris’ version of the song “Green Pastures” from the album Down From the Mountain. Harris sings this country paraphrase of the 23rd Psalm with all the artistry of the trained musician, and all the simplicity of a young child. I will not attempt to sing it for you this morning, but I would advise you to go and check Youtube or I-tunes (if you do that sort of thing), or the Augusta Public Library if you don’t. It’s worth a listen.

I’ve had that song in my head all week, working on the readings. The fourth Sunday of Easter season is always dedicated to the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, and so today we remember our neighbors on Walton Way, and other congregations for whom this is their patronal feast.

The image of Jesus the Good Shepherd is one we know very well, or at least we’ve seen it a lot. The most popular image shows the shepherd (a young man) with the lost sheep slung around his neck, coming back to the gathering of the other sheep who are waiting very patiently for his return.

But there’s something missing in the Gospel lesson today, something that isn’t actually there. Notice Jesus’ words: I am the gate for the sheep…I am the gate.” In this gospel passage, he never calls himself the shepherd; he calls himself the gate. (He does call himself the shepherd elsewhere, but that’s another sermon altogether…)

The gospel of John is filled with examples of Jesus making “I am…” statements. I am the vine/you all are the branches. (15:5) I am the light of the world. (8:12) I am the bread of life. (6:35) And all of these “I am…” statements are signposts. They are to point us, the readers and hearers, back to the original “I AM” statement—made by God to Moses, in that encounter with the burning bush, when Moses asked “If I go back to Pharaoh as you say, and tell him ‘Let my people go’, who shall I say has sent me?” And God answered him “Tell them ‘I AM’ has sent you.”

All of the “I Am”-s in John’s gospel remind us over and over of what the author is at pains to keep in front of us—that Jesus is one with God, not only as God’s messenger, but God’s own self, present in this world. That he is the I-AM.

I am the gate. Whoever enters by me…will go out and come in, and find pasture. The thief comes to kill and to steal and to destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

In the early centuries of the Christian church, throughout the Sundays of Easter season, those who were newly baptized would sit near the front of the room, dressed in their white baptismal robes. They would have been almost entirely adults, most of whom had come to Christianity from one of the pagan religions, or no religion at all. They would have known what it meant to have run away from the voice of strangers, false leaders whose voice would lead them “on to despair.” Now they were hearing the voice of their true shepherd and guide, who is also (by his own self-description) the gate—the way in, and the way out.

It occurs to me that, in addition to Psalm 23, we need Psalm 24 today. Look in the Prayer Book, on page 614, verses 7-10.

Lift up your heads, O gates;
Lift them high, O everlasting doors;
And the King of glory shall come in.

“Who is this King of glory?”
The Lord, strong and mighty,
The Lord, mighty in battle.

Lift up your heads, O gates;
Lift them high, O everlasting doors;
And the King of glory shall come in.

“Who is he, this King of glory?”
The Lord of hosts,
He is the king of glory.”

For those of us with Handel’s Messiah on our internal soundtrack, it’s hard to divorce this passage from the season of Advent. But, since many things can be (and are) true at once, we will assume that this likewise is a timeless truth. Open up, you gates and doors—something, some ONE, is waiting to enter!

Gates keep out the threatening others. Wolves and coyotes and sheep rustlers, in this morning’s gospel; invaders and conquering armies and thieves and robbers—“them people”—in other cases.
Gates also keep anyone from leaving. Jesus and his hearers all knew that once the city gates of Jerusalem were locked every night, nobody was going outside until morning.

I am the gate, Jesus says. What sort of gate?

He is the true gate. “The thief comes only to steal and kill…I come to bring life.”
He is the open gate. “Those who come in and out through me will find good pasture…”

And he is the destroyer of gates.

Traditional Eastern Orthodox icons of the Anastasis (often incorrectly called the Resurrection in the West) show Jesus rising from the grave, reaching down and grabbing the wrists of Adam and Eve, bringing them into the light, and along with them all the souls bound in the darkness and shadow of death. They are surrounded by broken chains and shackles, which have shattered at Jesus’ coming. Satan is bound, pushed down into the darkness, often depicted as having been impaled by the Cross. Jesus himself stands on two boards, arranged in the shape of a cross—the broken gates of hell itself.

In Jesus’ death and resurrection from the dead, the gates of hell are broken. Shattered. Ripped down from their hinges. Those who were bound in darkness and despair, rise up at the voice of the one who calls them by name, as he leads them out, going ahead of them into the light of Easter morning.
This event, the Harrowing of Hell, has somewhat fallen out of our awareness as Christians. And yet we speak of it every time we recite the Apostles’ Creed: He descended to the dead. Why? To set them free. To do for them what he did—and does—for all of us. Hell is empty. We may try to put ourselves—or others—back in it. And we’re good at doing just that. But that’s us, trying to play God. Jesus keeps calling us, in the voice we will recognize and trust, if we listen. And even if we don’t listen…he still keeps calling us into the light.

How are we called out, out of our own darkness and despair? Out of our own little daily deaths, into the abundant life Jesus promises?
Out of legalism, imagining that we must somehow earn God’s forgiveness before we can be worthy—into ecstatic, foolish, exuberant joy that we are forgiven, simply because God loves us and will have us for his own?
Out of consumerism, which tells us that we are only as valuable as our bank accounts or the quantity of possessions we have—into a profound awareness of the abundance which God has bestowed upon us, that all may have enough and to spare?
Out of any and every “-ism” that ever was or shall be, that seeks to produce the illusion of safety by slamming those diabolical gates and keeping out “them people”—out of our own self-imposed captivity, into the gateless archways through which God’s people come streaming, from north and south and east and west, into the kingdom of Christ’s resurrection.

New life. Abundant life. Here, in this life, right now. Right here.

May it be so for us. May it be so among us.

Green Pastures
Troubles and trials often betray us
Causing the weary body to stray
But we shall walk beside the still waters
With the Good Shepherd leading the way.

Chorus: Going up home to live in green pastures
Where we shall live, and die nevermore;
Even the Lord will be in that number
When we shall reach that heavenly shore.

Those who have strayed were sought by the master
He who once gave his life for the sheep
Out on the mountain, still he is searching,
Bringing them in, for ever to keep. (Chorus)

We will not heed the voice of a stranger
For he would lead us on to despair;
Following on with Jesus our savior
We shall all reach that country so fair. (Chorus)


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