Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm
Psalm 23 is undoubtedly the most well-know and most beloved psalm in the Bible. It is written by an unknown ancient poet to remind us that in our hardest times we are not alone.
It has been a particularly difficult week in this community. After months and years of observing the epidemic of gun violence that has reached into schools, public gatherings and places of worship, as well as in the privacy of homes, where anger bubbles up and overflows, this week the violence has come close, with the shooting death of Meaghan Burns, a member of this parish.
Some of you knew Meaghan. Many of you know Carolyn. Regardless, the news of this senseless act of violence has impacted all of us. It is for times like these that Psalm 23 was written. Its text speaks to the deepest places in us.
I’ve seen the depth to which this psalm speaks to us in an experience I’ve had more than once, and I know Heather, Ann, and Jane have, as well. Sometimes when visiting a person who is gravely ill - even near death - who has been unresponsive, when I have begun praying Psalm 23, their lips move in silent accompaniment. They know those words, and the words matter, and they join me from somewhere far away, praying those words.
Psalm 23’s words and images are deeply reassuring in their promise of G’s presence & guidance in our time of need.
4th Sunday of Easter known as “Good Shepherd Sunday – a tradition that originally came from Roman Catholic tradition, that has been adopted by the Episcopal Church with our adoption of the Revised Common Lectionary.
It always includes Jesus’ discourse from the 10th chapter of John’s gospel, in which he asserts that he is the good shepherd:
-whose sheep know his name and follow him
-who are given eternal life
On 4th Easter, the “Good Shepherd Gospel” always accompanied by Ps 23. We are accustomed to reading Ps 23 on its own, but in its placement in Book of Psalms, it is a partner and companion-piece to the preceding - Ps 22. Ps 22 is Psalm of lament, even of anguish – we read it in 2 Lent, after the stripping of the altar on Maundy Thursday, and again on Good Friday.
Its themes are of great suffering and hopelessness.
Ps 22 opens with words that are particularly familiar to us because Jesus spoke them on the cross. He was reciting a psalm that was very real to him.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me,
from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.
Ps 22 comes from times of deep despair in history of Hebrew people, when hope did seem to be gone but they cried out to God for relief and redemption.
Ps 23, then, is not just a random expression of appreciation of God’s guiding presence, but it is the answer to Ps 22 – an acknowledgement of having been saved from deepest pain and despair by the Lord who is my Shepherd.
The image of God as Shepherd runs throughout the Hebrew scriptures; when J spoke of himself as shepherd, he was building on an established metaphor in the tradition of his faith. Here are some examples:
Ps 95 : We are the people of G’s pasture and the sheep of his hand
Prophet Ezekiel writes: thus says the Lord God: As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak.
And from the Prophet Isaiah: He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.
These passages must have resonated with the people of Israel, including Jesus’ contemporaries because they knew about the work of herding of sheep and goats as a major form of livelihood: sheep were source of food, a necessity for Temple sacrifice, and their wool was a staple for clothing and blankets
Because sheep were important in their world, both contemporaries of Psalmist and hearers of Jesus and John knew the importance of Shepherds.
It may not be flattering to our sensibilities to be likened to sheep, but whether we like it or not, there is truth in the analogy.
Sheep are vulnerable – vulnerable because they are not very bright. They need a leader: without one, will wander, including walking into danger.
Sheep are prone to get lost, to get caught in brambles. They need to be led to water; they can’t find it on their own. Further, sheep will only drink from still water, not from briskly running stream.
The rod and staff referred to in the psalm are essential tools: the staff (or shepherd’s crook, a replica of which carried by our Bishops,) has hook for grabbing the neck or leg to rescue a sheep caught in thicket or to capture fleeing sheep.
The rod is heavy straight pole to used to prod sheep when driving them from behind OR to ward off predators.
God our Shepherd cares for us, as Jesus says at end of today’s Gospel, that we may have eternal life.
God provides those green pastures and still waters that we need, and allows us rest in the midst of violence and discord that fill our world:
-God allows our souls to be restored when we are exhausted and worn out by the cares, the sorrows and difficulties of life.
-The Lord our Shepherd does not remove from our lives the things that terrify and trouble us: we still walk through the Valley of the shadow of death.
-We still live in the presence of those who would harm us
But God the Shepherd is by our side, allowing us to live and thrive DESPITE the presence of those things that threaten and sometimes destroy our peace.
God’s care for us is such that God’s goodness and mercy follow us –
In Eugene Peterson’s translation, The Message, he says it this way: God’s beauty and love chase after us
All the days of our lives.
Today you may hear Psalm 23 in a place of knowing God’s loving presence. I encourage you to pray your gratitude.
You may encounter the psalm today while walking in the shadow of death – from a burden you carry or sorrow you bear. Pray that sorrow – offering it to God, that God will help you in bearing it.
You may hear the Psalm, today, from a place of uncertainty or confusion. That uncertainty can be offered in prayer, as well, that the strong hand and guiding staff of the Shepherd will bring you rest.
For the love, the guidance and comfort of the Holy One, the Shepherd, thanks be to God, today and always.Amen.
Rev. Deacon Ann Wood
Before I begin, I’d just like to share a bit of trivia, written by Bishop Michael Curry in his book “The Power of Love”. It’s related to our Gospel reading this morning from the 21st chapter of John:
. . . some scholars say chapter 20 ends the gospel. But if you look in your Bible, you’ll see there’s another chapter. And scholars have all sorts of theories about whether 21 is an addition, an extension or an appendix. I’m not a scholar. I’m a country preacher, and I know preachers, and you do too. I’ve got a feeling John finished his sermon in chapter 20, the plane was landing and he remembered something else, and he took off and came around again. That’s what happened.” What’s your theory?
Jesus said “Remember I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matt.28:20)
“Remember I am with you always, even to the end of the age” – a promise that Jesus made to the disciples 2,000 years ago, that is also true for us today.
How do you experience that promise from God the Father/Mother, Jesus, the Son or God the Holy Spirit? “Remember, I am with you always.” Do you hear words of comfort, of healing or get a sensation of peace and tranquility? Perhaps you receive “marching orders” like Peter in the Gospel story and Paul in our first reading this morning. I suspect that most of us don’t experience God in quite such dramatic ways. We might receive words of wisdom when we pray, read scripture, sit in silence or meditate. We might hear God’s message to us through the words of someone else. Often messages are unexpected and quite often not recognized immediately for what they are.
In our Gospel story this morning, the disciples didn’t immediately recognize Jesus when he called to them. It was that time just before dawn, when the light is gray, misty and hazy. They’d been out fishing all night without a resulting catch, were tired and disheartened. Then Jesus called to them from the shore. “Children you have no fish, have you?” . . . “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” They followed Jesus’ directions and were successful. John, one of the disciples, then realized that it was Jesus calling to them, (He’d addressed them as children after all), and he told the rest of the crew. Simon Peter became so excited that he threw on his tunic and jumped into the sea, so that he could be the first to greet Jesus.
He did indeed reach the shore first, while the rest of the disciples hauled in their catch. What greeted them was Jesus preparing breakfast for them – Jesus is always practical; he knew that the men had had a tiring night and needed food, so he took care of their bodily needs first. When they were done, he addressed Simon Peter, asking him if he loved Jesus. Three times, Jesus asked the question – giving Peter the opportunity to affirm his love and redress the three denials he’d given, following Jesus’ capture and interrogation by Pilate. Once he affirmed his love, then Jesus gave Simon Peter his “marching orders” – “Feed my lambs” . . . “Tend my sheep” and finally “Feed my sheep”. Thus, Peter became a great shepherd of Christ’s people. Peter was transformed. His shame at having denied Jesus three times was lifted. He listened, heard Jesus’ words and was willing to learn. Peter’s experience of Jesus was a gentle time of healing and encouragement.
Paul’s experience of God occurred somewhat more dramatically. According to the story in the Acts of the Apostles, Paul was doing the business of the Pharisees, having one goal in mind, which was to scatter and murder the early followers of Jesus. He’d gone to the High Priest, asking for arrest warrants to take with him to the meeting places in Damascus. On the road to Damascus, a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground. A voice asked “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? He asked, “Who are you Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” When Paul got up, he was blind. His companions had to lead him by the hand into Damascus. He neither ate nor drank for three days. In the meantime, Ananias, the person who was called to help in Paul’s conversion, had his own experience of God in a vision. Initially Ananias questioned the directions Jesus gave him to enable Paul to see again. He’d heard of Paul’s hatred for the followers of Jesus and really questioned if Jesus knew what he was doing! Jesus’ response was simple: “Go”. Ananias went. Paul subsequently received his sight back. It was through Ananias that Paul received his “marching orders”. “The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will”, Ananias says, “to see the Righteous One and to hear his own voice, for you will be his witness to all the world of what you have seen and heard. And now, why do you delay? Get up, be baptized and have your sins washed away”. (I like this sense of ‘hurry up and get on with it; what are you waiting for’ attitude.) Paul thus became God’s chosen personal representative to the Gentiles, to kings and to the Jews. Sometimes, like Ananias, we do need to question the words we hear. Is this you, Lord? Is this really what you want? Are my thoughts and wishes getting in the way - but then what happens if we don’t pay attention or obey God’s directives?
I think of the story of Jonah and his mis-adventures, when he didn’t follow God’s orders to go to Ninevah. Jonah didn’t want to go to Ninevah – his own ego and nationalistic feelings got in the way. Because he disobeyed, Jonah ended up in the belly of a large fish and was nearly responsible for the deaths of the folk he was sailing with in the boat. If you haven’t read the Book of Jonah recently, do – it’s only 4 chapters. God can and does transform our mistakes, but we often suffer first before God sets us on the right path, or before we come to our senses and decide to follow God’s will. Sometimes, as in Jonah’s and Paul’s cases, it takes something dramatic to get us to change direction. Sometimes, we’re led where we don’t particularly want to go and we rebel.
My son-in-law, Bill, comes to mind. He’s a pastor in the Presbyterian Church. He was told that he needed to leave the parish where he’d spent the last ten years, but he didn’t want to have to move house. His youngest child had two more years to go to finish high school – the high school he’d been attending from middle school on; the high school from which his two older siblings had graduated. An opening occurred in a parish close to home, which would not have involved a house move. He applied, and became the church’s first choice, but there were numerous complications. At the same time, he heard via a colleague, of another opening in a parish further from home. Bill paid no attention. The first church fell through, much to his disappointment. He’s now following through on the second church and things are looking much more positive. Had he paid attention to the words of his colleague, he would have saved himself and his family some suffering and disappointment. Like many of us tend to do, he ignored the message from his colleague.
Paying attention to God’s words that come to you via others is important. I suspect that I’ve mentioned this example before, but it bears telling again in this context. I’d been “let go” from my paralegal position and was wondering about my future. What did God want me to do next? How could I serve God? I went to a meeting, where I sat next to a woman I barely knew, but who was a member of my parish. I told her of my predicament. She asked a couple of questions and then suggested that I visit Fr. Bolton in Springfield. Fr. Bolton headed a group studying clinical pastoral education. I listened to my fellow parishioner, followed through on her suggestion and felt like I’d found my true ministry at last. Jesus has plans for each one of us and will let us know what they are, if we but listen to Him.
Sometimes, Jesus comes to us when we’re most in need, as he did to the disciples on their unsuccessful fishing trip – when we’re feeling tired out, sad, overwhelmed or worried. Feeling tired and worried, I experienced God’s presence driving down I91 at 2 o’clock in the morning. I’d just received a phone call telling me that my husband had been involved in an automobile accident in Connecticut and had been taken to BayState Hospital in Springfield. On that occasion, as I drove down the highway and prayed, I felt a sense of peace come over me and a sureness that he would be alright. He was!
My brother-in-law, Jonathan, experienced God in a dream when he was feeling distraught about his daughter’s safety. She’d recently been married, realized what a terrible mistake she’d made and left her new husband without telling anyone where she was going or with whom she might be staying. Needless to say, my sister and brother-in-law were frantic with worry while they tried to find out where she’d gone. None of her friends could shed any light on the situation. Her new husband was very angry and believed that her parents must know where she was. One night, a week or so later, my brother-in-law was woken by a felt presence in the room. He thought it was his deceased father-in-law. Jonathan heard a voice reassuring him that his daughter was safe, that everything would work out eventually, but that he, Jonathan, had to take the lead and be the responsible father during the unpleasantness that was to follow. This was not a role he would’ve undertaken without having had this prompting. Jonathan and my sister were reassured and thankful for this experience of God’s loving care.
Last week, we heard about another post-Easter appearance by Jesus to the disciples as he had promised them before he died. They were hiding in a locked room for fear of being arrested. They also were feeling sad and distraught. Things with their leader hadn’t worked out as they’d hoped or thought they would. Jesus came to them where they were, as they were – just as he did to Bill, to Jonathan and to me – just as he does to each one of us here and now. Perhaps you’ll experience Him when you receive communion this morning, listen to the readings from scripture or hear the music. Perhaps you experience God when you walk the labyrinth, when you walk in the woods or stand on the sea shore and marvel at the beauty around you. Perhaps you’re in need of an experience of God right now – to comfort, heal, or strengthen you, or just to receive a sense of uplifting joy. If so, I pray that you will have that experience. Remember, Jesus has promised to be with us always, even to the end of the age. We know that Jesus keeps his promises. AMEN.
Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm
This morning we remember and celebrate and give thanks for the resurrection of Jesus, the Christ. We remember an empty tomb that gave hope to Jesus’ disciples, who were grieving his loss after having witnessed Jesus’ execution three days before. It is a story that gives hope to us today as well, as we grieve the profound troubles of our own world.
The New Testament actually gives us four different accounts of what happened on the third day. The resurrection story told in John’s gospel, which we have heard this morning, is the most complex and interesting of the Easter stories in the canonical gospels: it involves three disciples who each had a different experience.
John’s account of the third day begins with Mary coming to the tomb in the dark, only to discover the stone rolled away. Imagine Mary’s distress – already deeply bereaved by Jesus’ death, now discovering that the body of her teacher has disappeared. Startled, grief-stricken, probably frightened, Mary runs to secure the company and the assistance of two of the other disciples, Simon Peter and John. Unlike the gospel accounts in which the rest of the disciples don’t believe the women’s report of the empty tomb, John tells us that Peter and John respond quickly to Mary’s witness, and they hurry with her to the burial site.
What follows, in John’s text, is where the story gets interesting. When the men arrive John initially lingers outside while Simon Peter enters into the tomb itself. Peter observes the linen wrappings in which the body had been interred, but he doesn’t seem to react. Perhaps Simon Peter is troubled or bewildered, maybe just taking time to process what his eyes tell him. John then joins him, and observing the burial cloths, immediately believes. John tells us that up until this time the disciples had not understood the scriptures indicating that the Messiah must rise from the dead, but, by implication, they now are starting to get it.
John reports then, simply, that the disciples returned to their home. He doesn’t tell us what they made of their strange experience or what they intended to do with it. I suspect that they needed to talk with one another and probably with the others, to puzzle over the strange things they had observed.
But Mary was not ready to leave; we don’t know whether the other disciples even suggested that she do so. She stands weeping, and, taking up her courage, finally leans in to take her own look into the burial place. Mary sees a vision that the other disciples apparently had not – two angels sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying.
And then finally, the most surprising claim of all. Mary turns and sees a figure that she takes to be a gardener, though John tells us that it is, in fact, Jesus, himself. The figure speaks, asking who she is looking for, but she does not recognize his voice any more than she has known him by sight. Despite not recognizing him, Mary opens her heart to the stranger: Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.
When Jesus speaks once more and calls her by name, Mary knows. She understands. She believes. Just as her world changed when Jesus was crucified three days before, Mary’s world is again, suddenly, different. John tells us that when she returned to the disciples, she told them: I have seen the Lord.
Why did the three disciples who visited the empty tomb that morning have such different experiences? Simon Peter saw linen cloths and returned home. John saw the same cloths and believed, but then also returned home. Mary saw angels, and then met Jesus.
Perceiving and understanding are separate processes, even though they often happen together. We see or hear something, and we identify what it is that we have seen or heard, and we figure out what it means. Two or more of us can witness the same evidence and see very different things.
And often, what we EXPECT to see determines how we interpret what we’ve seen; sometimes we’re not even capable of seeing what we don’t expect, what we are not open to seeing.
When Mary first saw and heard the risen Christ, she saw a gardener. There was something in her heart, however, that resonated with some familiar tone, some subtle nuance, when he spoke her name. There was something in her that allowed her to discover the unexpected – something that enabled her to know that Jesus had risen from the dead, that Christ was present with her. Something that changed everything.
Beginning with Mary at the tomb on Easter morning, the good news that Christ is alive transforms lives. The good news that Christ is alive makes things new. Just as some quiet readiness in Mary’s heart enabled her to perceive what the other disciples had not, it is within us whether we can perceive the risen Christ around us, whether we can open our hearts, whether our lives can be made new by that presence. We are surrounded by the marks of God’s power and promise – but it is in us whether we can see.
Two and a half years ago two parishes in Western Massachusetts were both faithfully following the gospel, but both were facing the challenges that confront all communities of faith in today’s shifting landscape of religious practice.
One parish had a wonderful long history and many active ministries serving the surrounding community, but they were confronted by the daunting reality of a large, aging campus in a period of declining church income.
Another nearby parish was quite a bit smaller but no less faithful, with deep bonds between members and strong and committed leaders, but equally challenged by declining numbers.
The easier and apparently safer perspective for these parishes to take would have been for both to keep soldiering on as their parents and grandparents had, before them. But somehow, as the lay and ordained leaders of the parishes began a conversation together and then extended the conversation to include all of the members, the seed of a new vision took root - a vision of joining together to become one new parish.
Many of you were there – it happened with astonishing speed. In mid April of 2017 – on an unforgettable Sunday morning right after Easter - St James Episcopal Church and St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church became the Episcopal Church of Saints James and Andrew.
In her sermon that morning Heather offered the analogy of a marriage in which the new partners would need to figure out how to merge the details of their lives – not only how to spend Christmas Day in their new life together, but where to put the coffeemaker and what brand of toilet paper to use.
Merger has involved discovery, joy, new energy and tremendous creativity. It has also required patience and generosity in the face of loss, as many have had to let go of dearly-cherished ways of doing things, as the new parish has walked into its new life.
Our story of new life is part of the larger story of new life discovered by Mary, John, Peter, and the other disciples. Just as something in them enabled them to meet the resurrected Christ in a gardener, and in the upper room, on the road to Emmaus and on the lakeshore, something in these two former parishes enabled them to perceive the stirrings of the Holy Spirit, inviting them into a bold risk of new life.
Trust in the God of whom Jesus spoke and who Jesus trusted compelled the disciples to continue Jesus’ ministries and to preach the Gospel to all lands. Trust in the God we know in Jesus Christ is our calling, as well.
Life after death. The drive of all beings toward wholeness, toward healing. Life renewing itself, through the power of God, the presence of the risen Christ.
Our opportunity – our privilege – is that we can make a difference in this world despite the death, destruction and divisions we see around us. We can open our eyes and ears and hearts to the moments of resurrection with which we are surrounded. We can move forward boldly because the love of God in Christ transforms things.
Alleluia! Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia!
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