Sunday, May 07, 2006

Of Sheep and Shepherds

My first up-close-encounter with Jesus was the mosaic that hung above the drinking fountain at the Lutheran Day School I attended from first grade on. Every time I stopped to get a drink – between kick ball games or turns at the jump rope – there he was: looming above me surrounded by fluffy sheep with a lucky lamb wrapped around his shoulders gazing down with a patient, loving look on his blond-haired-blue-eyed face. Jesus the Good Shepherd.

So every year I love it every year when “Good Shepherd Sunday” rolls around … the Sunday in our lectionary cycle when our lessons focus on sheep and shepherds as icons of who God is for us and who we’re called to be for each other.

We hear the challenging words of Ezekiel, the prophet who called the shepherds of Israel to account for the sheep who had gone missing on their watch while they fed themselves: You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost …

We hear the familiar words of perhaps-the-most-memorized and beloved passage in all of scripture: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” And we heard the comforting words of Jesus – for us the incarnation of that Lord who is our shepherd – assuring us that we are known and loved and protected by the one who loved us enough to become one of us to show us how to love one another as He loved us. “… 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. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

“One flock. One shepherd.” I guess that’s how we’ll know that the “kingdom come” we pray for every Sunday morning has finally “come.” In the meantime, we have our work cut out for us as the church for we seem this morning to be very far indeed from that vision Jesus holds out for us of one flock, one shepherd. The challenge I bring to the pulpit this morning is that we are too often failing too live up to that high calling of gathering in the lost, strengthening the weak, healing the sick. The sad truth is that we are so absorbed in church fighting than we don’t seem to have any time left for kingdom building – and the election yesterday of a new bishop for the Diocese of California is a striking case in point. While the media was focused on what the sexual orientation of the bishop-elect would be, those who were charged with electing the new bishop were focused on what kind of shepherd each would be – and what kind of church they were called to be.

It is this larger question I want to focus on this morning: the larger question of what it is to be church – what it is to be in communion with each other – what it is to BE the Body of Christ in the world, for these are the questions consuming the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion at the moment. It would be fair to say that this is really nothing new, that these are issues we have been wrestling with for at least as long as I have been aware of what’s going on in the church: and that is beginning to seem like a very long time, indeed! But it is also fair to say that in the last few years the volume has been so turned up – the debates have become so acrimonious – the divide has become so wide – that it seems the bread of anxiety is outselling the bread of life. “See those Christians, how they love one another” is unfortunately not the first thing that’s leaping to most minds as we journey together into God’s future and the church’s next General Convention – which looms rather shockingly less than 60 days away. (Didn’t we just DO that???)

Yet in the days and weeks ahead I believe we will have a unique opportunity to witness to the church not as the institution it too often settles for being but to the community it was created to be – and to the difference we can make as we go out from this community to follow Jesus into the world. I also believe we can best prepare ourselves for the challenges ahead of us by looking at a little of the history behind us.

Just a week ago I was in Memphis and I was able to squeeze in a visit to the Civil Rights Museum – a moving and inspiring tribute to those who dared to dream of a nation where liberty and justice for all truly meant all. At the entrance to the museum is a striking sculpture of a spiral of human figures reaching high into the sky, each one standing on the shoulders of another – paying tribute to all those who have gone before and continue to support us as we carry on the struggle toward equality for all in this nation of ours. Our brother +Gene Robinson has spoken of this very sculpture as an icon for the work we are about in the Episcopal Church – in the Anglican Communion – striving for equality for all in this church of ours as we stand on the shoulders of the giants of justice – the good shepherds -- who have gone before us.

One of those shepherds was Bishop John Krumm – the former bishop of Southern Ohio who retired in the Diocese of Los Angeles and was active until his death in 1995. I’ll never forget when Bishop George Barrett – another giant of justice – climbed into the pulpit to begin his homily at Bishop Krumm’s funeral.

“John Krumm was never disillusioned by the church,” he said, stabbing his boney finger into the air for emphasis, “because John Krumm never had any ILLUSIONS about the church!” And then went on to recount how he had served the church he loved ably and prophetically for nearly 60 years in ordained ministry during times of extraordinary change and challenge.

And that’s the church I grew up in. It was a time when the sheep were scattered and the church was both paralyzed AND polarized over the last great schism that was going to split the church, destroy the Anglican Communion and (I think I’m right on this) destroy western civilization as we know it: the ordination of women.

John Krumm was in the forefront of that struggle – so my first awareness of him was as one of the list of those my Aunt Gretchen used to mutter about over Sunday dinner if -- in spite of my mother’s best efforts to steer the conversation elsewhere -- it ended up on church politics.

My Aunt Gretchen died with the “Save the 1928 prayer book” bumper sticker on her car and when I ran into her best friend Pat Reiman at a diocesan event after her death and my ordination, Pat said, “Gretchen would have been so proud … or at least I’d like to think she’d have come around by now.” And I think she would have – come around by now – because one thing for sure: she’d have kept coming around. She wouldn’t have let anything drive her away from the church: even the church itself which sometimes seems to spend more time getting in its own way than it does getting on with it’s mission and ministry – when it gets so busy fussing that it forgets its foundation.

Which brings to mind the first hymn I ever memorized – all five verses -- at that Lutheran Day School ...

The Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord
She is his new creation by water and the word
From heaven he came and sought her to be his holy bride
With his own blood he bought her and for her life he died.

“The Church’s One Foundation” is not any particular creed or doctrine or theology or agreement on who should be ordained to what … nope “The Church’s One Foundation Is Jesus Christ our Lord.” That’s the message I internalized as a junior choir member and it’s the message that has sustained me and sustains me still. It was Thomas Jayawardene – a priest from India, however, who gave me the image of I hold onto of what exactly it is that we’re BUILDING on that foundation.

At a Lenten series at St. Paul’s Ventura in the early 1980’s he asked us to consider that the institutional church is NOT the building but the SCAFFOLDING God has given us to build the Kingdom. The job of disciples, he said, isn’t to build the church – the job of the church is to build the Kingdom… to Realize the Reign … and that made sense to me in a way that building the church for the church’s sake never had. I think I count that moment as the first in a series that called me out of the “but we’ve always done it this way” church and into the transformational community church.

Bill Moyers describes it as the historic conflict between the religion of the priests and the religion of the prophets … of the tension between the religion about Jesus and the religion of Jesus.

“The religion OF Jesus. It was in the name of Jesus that a Methodist ship caulker named Edward Rogers crusaded across New England for an eight-hour workday. It was in the name of Jesus that Dorothy Day marched alongside autoworkers in Michigan, brewery workers in New York, and marble cutters in Vermont. It was in the name of Jesus that E.B. McKinney and Owen Whitfield stood against a Mississippi oligarchy that held sharecroppers in servitude. And it was in the name of Jesus that Martin Luther King Jr. went to Memphis to march with sanitation workers who were asking only for a living wage.”

This is building the kingdom rather than the scaffolding. This is both receiving and becoming the bread of life in and for the world. This is high calling we have been given as 21st century disciples of the Jesus who is still known to us in the breaking
of the bread.

It is in the name of Jesus that many of us took to the streets last week to march in solidarity with those working for just immigration reform. It is in the name of Jesus we a million signatures were presented to the White House calling for the end of the genocide in Darfur. It is in the name of Jesus that we continue to preach peace in a time of war – in and out of the election season. And it is in the name of Jesus that we will be in Columbus Ohio at General Convention 2006 – standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before us as we call the church to quit fussing so much about the scaffolding and get on with the work of building the Kingdom!

The church OF Jesus, my brothers and sisters, is the church we love and serve and need never be disillusioned by even as we pray for it to become all God would have us make it be.

Mid toil and tribulation and tumult of her war
She waits the consummation of peace forevermore
Till with the vision glorious her longing eyes are blessed
And the great Church victorious shall be the Church at rest.

The sheep of other folds will all be gathered in together. There will be one flock and one shepherd. And then, my brothers and sisters, the kingdom will have come – and we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Thanks be to God. Alleluia. Amen.

3 comments:

Catherine + said...

I know of no one who could have said it better
[...well, with the exception of my own priest! but my bias shows through!]. And this ewe, said "Amen! Alleluia!"

Jeff Martinhauk said...

ONE flock. Many folds, but ONE flock. For ALL the sheep.

You know what, I think I'd even sign up to take John 10:16 literally.

j

rmf said...

I like the idea of thinking of myself as a sheep who if he is on his back needs help getting righted. I certainly feel that way sometimes! :)