On this 4th Sunday of Easter we always read Psalm 23 and depending on the year, we hear readings from John’s gospel in which Jesus speaks of himself as the Good Shepherd.
Good Shepherd Sunday is about our relationship with God. Its theme is that of God’s unfailing and unending care for us.
Psalm 23 would probably be voted “Most Beloved” psalm in the Bible if there were such a survey. Although we also tend to associate it with funerals, where it is almost always read, most of us probably most associate it with its message of comfort: the Shepherd God is with me always, taking care of my every need.
The psalmist’s God who “restores my soul” is surely a close relation to the Jesus who promises
Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden,
and I will give you rest. (Matt. 11:28)
The psalm is also particularly appropriate as we are celebrating Earth Week, reminding us that it is in and through the natural world – the green pastures and the still waters (may we learn how much we need to honor and protect them) – that we meet God and find restoration.
In today’s gospel, Jesus identifying himself as “Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep” is obvious in its connection.
This gospel passage includes one of seven “I AM” statements that the evangelist John reports Jesus having spoken. Each offers a metaphor for understanding Jesus as the spiritual leader and guide who commits to care for the Children of God:
I am the bread of life
I am the resurrection and the life
I am the light of the world
I am the door
I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life
I am the true vine
In stating that “I am the good shepherd”, Jesus was not offering a NEW image through which his followers could understand who he was, but rather, connecting himself to an image that was deeply familiar to his listeners through their knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures.
So. Shepherds. Most of us don’t know and appreciate the nuances of sheep and shepherds as did most of Jesus’ listeners.
My best connection – apart from watching demonstrations of the herding skills of sheep dogs at the various wool festivals that I love to frequent – is that of a small flock of sheep that lived across the street from my aunt and uncle’s home in rural Connecticut where I frequently visited as a child.
When my Aunt Peggy married Roger, she moved into his home in the midst of what had been an extensive family farm, which was now broken into parcels for Roger and his six siblings. The land across road belonged to Roger’s brother Edwin, and he used it for used for raising sheep.
Near the road and visible from Peggy and Roger’s house was an open-faced shelter behind a gate that gave access, and behind that, acres of pasture. I loved to cross the road to visit the sheep as a child, especially in spring when there was a new crop of lambs. I even had good luck to see one born, one year. I remember two things about that – that the lamb was up and nursing in about five minutes, and that as soon as it’s mother had licked it clean, it went down in mud and was filthy again.
The emphasis in the Psalm is the psalmist’s reliance and dependence on God, as sheep depend on the shepherd. I distinctly remember clear relationship between Edwin and his sheep: while they came trotting from the pasture back to the shelter when he showed up with food, they wouldn’t let others get anywhere near. They were in fact capable of being somewhat aggressive when protecting the lambs, and it was a firm rule that this was not a petting zoo and I was not allowed to enter the gate. (Jesus echoed the familiarity and trust of shepherd and flock: “I know my own, and my own know me”.)
Psalm 23 is not, I think, a statement about God viewing us as sheep-like, but rather, an expression of the human need for a trustworthy shepherd. The psalmist gives voice to something that is in all of us – what we might imagine that it feels like to be a sheep:
The Psalmist trusts that God does provide for all that we need, and provides in abundance. Jesus offers himself as the expression of God’s love:
For all of these images of comfort and protection, Psalm 23 is full of words of movement, describing a journey, and it acknowledges that having a caring shepherd does not eliminate the difficulties of the journey.
Faith does not claim that God will eliminate the sorrows of life, but rather, will accompany us through them.
Finally, the Psalm promises that the Good Shepherd enfolds us in loving care not only now, but beyond the bounds of our living and of our imagination: “I will dwell in the house of the Lord FOREVER”.
We are accustomed to hearing Psalm 23 in times of trial and sorrow, as I observed earlier, but isn’t it also perfect for times such as these when we can celebrate and give thanks for the guidance and abundance that brings us safe to this day?
We have been reminded of our vulnerabilities in the last year and more; we have certainly been traveling “through the valley of shadow”; our having to sit six feet apart and not yet receive the sacraments doesn’t quite feel like “still waters” or “a cup running over”, but we will get there.
God reaches out – in the Word, in the Eucharist, in the fellowship of the Church, in giving us the joy and privilege of serving the Gospel – to offer us what we need.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Luke goes to great lengths to describe the physicality of the resurrected Jesus. He seems to appear out of thin air, and the disciples assume he is a ghost, an apparition of some kind. He tells them to look at his hands and feet; to take in the fullness of his flesh and bones. Even in the disciples joy and astonishment, there remained some doubt and uncertainty that this could really be the resurrected Jesus. It is only when Jesus asks for something to eat; when he joins the disciples at the table, in the intimacy of this familiar act, that they truly recognize Jesus. It is then, that Jesus “...opened their minds to understand the scriptures…”, and prepared them for what was to come next.
These resurrection experiences plant seeds of curiosity. If we were in the disciples sandals…
Would we have believed right away, as the women did?
Would an abandoned shroud and an empty tomb assured us, as it did for Peter?
Would we have been filled with a holy curiosity as the two disciples on the road to Emmaus were?
Would we have recognized the resurrected Jesus at table, in the breaking of the bread, over the intimacy of a shared meal?
For that matter, what does resurrection even look like?
In the here and now of 2021, a year into a global pandemic...
How do we recognize resurrection?
Within creation? Within our community? Within our own lives?
What are the resurrection experiences that we need to lift up and hold onto?
I believe there have been at least two shared resurrection experiences which have emerged from this global pandemic, and there are likely many more.
The first resurrection experience was the gift of noticing what happens to the earth when humanity slows down our almost frantic level of busyness and productivity. When the global lockdown began, and travel restrictions were put into place, there was a very sudden slowdown of economic activities.** It resulted in reduced fossil fuel consumption, and as a result, reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Initially, there was a reduction in our consumption of resources, and a decrease in our waste disposal, which reduced pollution and improved water quality. There was a reduction in transportation and industrial activities, which reduced noise pollution and improved air quality. The lockdown also reduced pressure in tourist destinations, which reduced pollution and promoted ecological restoration.
For a brief moment in time, our planet was able to take a breath; the kind of breath that comes from resurrection. She could feel in every inch of creation the way we had slowed down our consumption, the way we had paused our abuse. And for those watching the images of clear city skylines in their newsfeeds, we found images of our planet we had never really seen before. This unique moment in time did not undo all of the permanent and irreversible harm we have done to this fragile earth, our island home. What it did accomplish was to demonstrate just what is possible when we are determined to stop something. It showed us what we are capable of when we stop putting consumerism and capitalism before the needs of the planet which we so casually plunder.
The second resurrection experience born of the pandemic was the rather sudden, yet abundant, gift of time.For many of us, this was the first time in our lives we really slowed down, and quite literally went outside and smelt the roses, watched the birds, and discovered what silence and slowness can do to restore our souls. This last year has pushed many of us to tend to our inner lives in ways we could hardly have imagined a year ago. It has resulted in people’s faith growing, evolving, expanding. We find ourselves living into a more sustainable rhythm, and as vaccines bring a greater sense of normalcy with each passing week, the question becomes--will we maintain this resurrection experience in the months ahead?
How many more signs do we need, how many more wounds do we need to touch in the body of the Risen Christ, to believe that resurrection experiences are made possible if we can just slow everything down. Slow down our way of life, our consumption of the planet. Slow down our way of being, our constant push to be more productive.
There are any variety of ways we might continue to engage in a slower rhythm. One ancient practice, from the beginning of creation, is practicing sabbath. This idea that one day, each week we will stop and rest. Walter Brueggemann has written extensively on the impact of sabbath. In his book, Truth & Hope, he writes that, "Sabbath is a disciplined, regular enactment of the conviction that our life is pure gift and not achievement, that our identity consists in who we are before God and not what we do in the world."****
A group of environmental activists and religious leaders have picked up on the wisdom of practicing sabbath, and seen the extensive impact practicing sabbath can have on the planet. This radical idea gave birth to the Green Sabbath Project in 2019.***
A group of radical thinkers asks us:
“Is there nothing you can do about the environment?”
“Nothing may be one of the best things you can do.
One day every week. Do nothing.”
The Green Sabbath Project asks those committed to the project to choose one day a week that you will set apart as a day of rest. By doing nothing one day each week, you will be giving a gift to the planet and to your own sense of well-being. Knowing the rhythm of sabbath rest and work can be a foreign concept in today’s world, they make some suggestions on how to engage in rest and in work on their website:
On our days of rest, they say to us:
During the rest of the week, they say to us:
Practicing sabbath is the most meaningful spiritual practice I have ever experienced, and honestly, it is the easiest. The weekly practice reminds us of our proper place in the order of things--we are but one of many creatures within creation. The world will not stop spinning if there are emails in our inbox, or if a text message goes unanswered until tomorrow, or if a chore gets put off one more day.
This week, I invite us to reflect on the practice of sabbath and the impact it can have on the earth, our society, and our own inner life. What other resurrection experiences might be born from practicing sabbath? Amen.
*All taken from Luke 24:1-53
** The facts in this paragraph are drawn from an article: “Environmental effects of COVID-19 pandemic and potential strategies of sustainability” by Tanjena Rume and S. M. Didar-Ul Islam, published in Heliyon in September of 2020, available on the National Institute of Health website.
****Walter Brueggemann in Truth & Hope: Essays for a Perilous Age
As we move from one season to another (seasons of the earth and seasons of the church) we can look back, gather our thoughts and memories and then look forward with clearer eyes We don’t have to split the past from the present or the future. We can integrate and celebrate what we have learned and try to make sense of this rapidly changing world. (We have an opportunity to take stock of our experiences of the past year today at 11:30 using the coffee hour link)
On this 2nd Sunday of Easter, the readings bring forth a couple of themes that resonate with my experience this past year.
The first is the a deeper understanding of the themes of scarcity and abundance. Psalm 133 is full of symbolism which describes a people of abundance: the choicest oils, a city green and vibrant, and a people living in unity. From our Canticle today we hear of a holy people, freed from their oppressors, and speaking with tongues of new-born Easter people. Luke tells us, in the Acts of the Apostles, that there is plenty enough of everything if everything is distributed fairly. Anna Woofenden has written a lovely book about establishing a “Garden Church” in southern California. The book is called “This is God’s Table: Finding Church beyond the walls. Anna says that a feeling of scarcity is what separates us. That the worry that there might not be enough can actually tear us apart in community. Luke says that to be of one heart and soul (or to be united in the Beloved Community), we must reorient our lives towards justice and generosity, and away from scarcity.
Early in the Pandemic we saw what it means to have a mentality of scarcity, and I sometimes felt overwhelmed by it myself. We saw what happens when we view life as an 8” pie. If one person takes a big piece, that leaves less for everyone else. A scarcity mentality sees limitations in all things. A mindset of abundance sees a pie amazingly, infinitely huge, sort of like how I imagine the size of God!
In our James and Andrew Good News Garden Group, we learned from native American culture about “The Honorable Harvest” This is a covenant of sorts, a promise of reciprocity between humans and the land, a way of living that ensure everlasting abundance. Here are the ideas in this covenant:
When I’m feeling a bit of ministry burn-out, and my glass feels half empty, wise counselors remind me to reach out and tap into the abundance of resources that are out there in the world. This year I found a group of Faith Community Nurses from Northern California. They have become important “virtual colleagues” and their creativity and support has given me energy when I needed it most. I recently reached out to friends who are passionate about food justice issues and they have connected me to several groups of folks who have organized distribution of surplus fruit and vegetables in the Town of Montague. Seems there is an abundance of ministry partners as well.
So, how can we develop a spirit of abundance? Can we try to focus on what we have, to hang out with folks whose glass is half full, not half-empty, to believe in both/and not either/or, and to develop daily gratitude practices, to take a few moments each day to thank God for this abundant life.
The 2nd theme that speaks to me comes from John’s Gospel about faith. I will no longer refer to Thomas as doubting Thomas. Instead, he will be Honest Thomas. Thomas was not with the other disciples when Jesus made his post-resurrection appearance to them, and apparently the disciples did not do a good job of convincing Thomas. I’m a pretty scientifically minded person (although I do have a firm belief in things that cannot be proven!). Nurses, you see, like to see, hear, touch and even (sorry) smell the evidence before making a nursing diagnosis. Like Thomas, “Show me” is our mantra also. We measure, compare, and evaluate endlessly. I love that Jesus doesn’t chastise Thomas. He understands that belief is difficult, and he gives Thomas the proof he needs. I believe Jesus is telling all of us whose faith has wavered from time to time…. “remain steadfast, you will come to believe.” Keep looking, keep searching. One Forward Day by Day writer said that doubt is not the opposite of faith, it is the companion of faith.
I find myself thinking back to the spirit of abundance again. I think that Jesus is telling Honest Thomas, that he is enough, just as he is, in his unbelief and his belief. That he and we are wonderfully made, and we are made new in abundance at Easter. Consider your own abundant life this Easter season.
In the world that God hopes for, there is enough, and we- are -enough.
The last time I preached Easter morning I chose John’s gospel, the most detailed and complicated version of the Easter story. It’s the one where two of the male disciples go to the tomb with Mary Magdalene, but then run off, leaving Mary alone weeping, and she meets the risen Christ.
This morning I wanted to listen to Mark’s account. It’s the earliest and simplest version, and it seemed to me that after the year we have been through, we could connect with the deep uncertainties reflected in Mark’s telling of the story.
Mark’s Easter story is in some ways also the most interesting. If you look in any modern Bible, you will find that right after the account we heard this morning, somewhere in parentheses, it will say “The short ending”. And there will be a space, and then another twelve verses, and another parentheses enclosing the description “the longer ending”. The additional twelve verses include three resurrection appearances (including a commissioning of the disciples by Jesus) and the ascension. Older Bibles, including the King James’ Version, don’t differentiate two endings, but simply include all 20 verses of chapter 16.
Modern scholarship has determined that there is an issue with what past generations accepted as the ending of Mark’s gospel. The “long ending” of Mark is actually a compilation of endings by authors other than the “Mark” who is responsible for the rest of the gospel. It is generally accepted, today, that the original text ended just as we heard it:
So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
At some point, generations and many decades later, other authors, unsatisfied by Mark’s ending, tacked on additional material.
Can you imagine why? Can you see what must have bothered them about the original ending? Did you notice, as we listened today, what was missing from Mark’s Easter morning story?
Mark’s original ending has no resurrection appearance. Jesus is not there. The resurrected Christ is missing: all we have is the word of the unidentified “young man” – presumably an angelic messenger – telling the women that “he has been raised” and “he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” There is nothing that testifies to proof of the resurrection. For many Christians – though not all – the truth of the gospel story depends on a literal, bodily resurrection. No wonder that those later scribes, laboriously making copies of the sacred texts long before the printing press, felt that they just HAD to improve upon Mark’s ending.
So why didn’t Mark go further? As he was writing, perhaps 35 years after Jesus’ death, he must have known stories of Jesus’ resurrection appearances. Immersed as he was in the story, he has to have appreciated what impact it would make to conclude his testimony by reporting that the women were terrified and didn’t tell anyone.
Many, in the recent decades since it became clear where Mark originally ended his story, have thought and written about this provocative question. I’d like to share and reflect with you on two observations that seem compelling to me.
Firstly – Mark wanted to emphasize the women’s fear and uncertainty, rather than rushing into the happy resolution of a resurrection appearance. Perhaps he wanted to allow us to identify fully with their experience, which is in so many ways like our own.
Mark's Easter Gospel ends with silence rather than "Alleluia!" “Alleluia” was simply not the word the women said at the end of their long night of waiting. “Alleluia” is not what they were preparing to say when the Sabbath was over as they made their way to the tomb. They had been there on Friday when Jesus died and the sky turned dark at midday. Mark remembers all three women by name: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome. They looked on from a distance when Jesus was crucified. Mary Magdalene had been there when Joseph of Arimathea wrapped Jesus' lifeless body in linen and laid him in the tomb.
They asked a pressing question as they made their way toward the grave: "Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?" When they neared the tomb they saw that the stone had already been rolled aside. But even then, they didn't shout Alleluia. Even after they heard the young man in white tell them that Jesus had been raised, they didn't shout "Christ is risen!" That's what we might want them to say, but they didn't behave as we would like.
They fled from the tomb for "terror and amazement had seized them." The words are even stronger in Greek: tromos (trauma) and ecstasis (ecstasy). So not just “fear and amazement” but trauma and ecstasy had taken hold of them. They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. Mark's Gospel ends in silence and Jesus never appears.
Of all the Easter Gospels, Mark's story invites us to stand where those first trembling witnesses stood, and we can do so easily enough. The three women didn't see Jesus. Neither do we. They didn't hear Jesus call their names (as did Mary in John’s Easter story). Neither have we. They didn’t have the option to touch his wounded hands any more than we have. Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome are our silent sisters.
Haven’t we, too, known those moments of desolation in these past months of watching millions die of the virus that has ravaged the world? Haven’t we known the deep ache of bereavement? Haven’t we shared the fear of an unknown future?
Despite that morning’s fear, however, the women did renew their courage and their trust: we know they did. Between the women's experience at the empty tomb and Mark's writing, the three women did speak -- or we wouldn't know the story. They did speak, or we would not be here today.
The second reason Mark wrote the ending he did, suggest some commentators, is that it invites us into the story - not only by showing us how much these first disciples’ experience is like our own, but by suggesting that the gospel narrative is left for us, the hearers, to complete. This is what’s really important about today’s gospel.
In November, on the Second Sunday of Advent, our gospel reading was the very beginning of Mark’s gospel. Mark’s first sentence is this: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Mark doesn’t just mean that the first sentence he writes begins the story. He means that the whole story he tells – of Jesus’ ministry and teaching, of his healing and feeding and preaching, of his suffering and death – AND EVEN OF AN EMPTY TOMB AND THREE FLEEING, FRIGHTENED WOMEN – is “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.”
The story of the good news has continued with every generation who have felt fear and amazement at Jesus’ empty tomb and at all of the places where loss and fear touched their lives, but have lived lives of faith and service despite it. The story continues with us. Every time we confront our own moments of uncertainty, we are being told that Jesus, who was crucified, has been raised, and has gone ahead of us to Galilee – to the ordinary places where we live our lives – and we will see and experience him there.
The empty tomb promises an open future in which the Risen One goes ahead us as our companion and guide. Christ lives, and is visible to us in all of the dramatic resurrection moments we experience in our lives, where new life and new hope springs out what seemed dead and hopeless, as well as in the everyday gifts and blessings of relationship and of the opportunity we enjoy, every day, of making a difference. Christ is alive and in Christ’s resurrection, we can face the future with strength, and courage, and wisdom as we take our place as Christ’s body, as Christ’s voice and heart and hands and feet in serving the world.
Alleluia. Christ is Risen.
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