Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The Morning Star

May Christ, the Morning Star who knows no setting, find it ever burning, he who gives his light to all creation.

I have been getting up early enough to enjoy the sunrise lately - well the days are getting shorter so not so early, really. I walk due east down the driveway each of these cool mornings to get the paper and I have been enjoying the Morning Star. This lovely experience has had me singing in my head, for two weeks, a part of this refrain, over and over, “The Morning Star who knows no _______.” I couldn’t remember the rest.

So, I looked it up and finally remembered.  It is from the Exultet!  I have sung this at most Easter Vigil’s for the past 20 years. Yet it was not until my recent encounter with the Morning Star that it began to take new meaning for me.

I looked up stuff on the Morning Star too, to learn what star I see that has evoked this song to repeat this loop meme in my head. I learned that it is likely the planet Venus, which is also the Evening Star.  It has been named after Satan at points in history. I choose not to study this name for it at this time. I like the name Venus better anyway. (And yes astronomer friends, it could have been Jupiter, Regulus or Mars.)

In learning that the Morning Star and the Evening Star are the same planet-star reflecting the same sunlight, I am flushed with a childhood memory. It is of my cousin Champe who introduced me to the rhyme - “Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight . . .” when we were leaving the lake after one lovely summer day.  I was 6, she was 9.  She taught me to make a wish on the first star I saw.  It was likely, usually, this star - the Evening Star - West at dusk. East at dawn. I still wish, and remember, when I first see Venus at dusk and dawn.

Champe died tragically at the age of 23.  My first real grief experience. I was 20.

But the ancient phrase that has been my earworm these two weeks is that from the oldest chant the church knows - The Exultet.  Almost as old as the various names for this planet-star.

“The Morning Star who knows no setting” is a metaphor for the resurrected Christ. Our experience of reflected light from Venus is that of a star that is always there, even though daylight causes it to elude us.

Whether we die of a sudden illness like Champe, or from a violent act like being shot while enjoying a concert, we all die.  Too many die way too young.  At the wrong time.

At my house this morning, neither of us saw the Morning Star, we moped in our oatmeal, spoke little, turned off the news, listened to each others’ sighs.

But most days the Morning Star reminds me that all of us are invited to consider the resurrection of Christ as meaning in our lives, as hope of our own resurrection.  Most of us can’t seem to make that leap of faith.  Even many Christians. But this Morning Star that knows no setting is worth considering: Maybe His message of hope and love really does shine on and through the darkness of these days of violent citizenship and insolent leadership. Perhaps it is worth praying that we will “find it ever burning” even when we feel consumed by darkness - or daylight.  Maybe the idea that “he who gives his light to all creation” is not a phrase to incite un-civil discourse between science and religion, between ownership and relationship, between even right and wrong. Perhaps this messiah is waiting on us to change the world and eager to empower our prayers for unity and truth.

Shine on.

My soul waits for the LORD,
more than watchmen for the morning, 
more than watchmen for the morning. (Psalm 130:6)

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Paraprosdokian - A Sermon on Word Play

Proper 8A, 2017
Genesis 22:1-14
Romans 6:12-23
Matthew 10:40-42
The Rev. Canon Dr. Kathy Dunagan
St. Paul, Kingsport

Good morning. I am Kathy Dunagan. I am a Canon in the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia and live in Bristol, Virginia. I’m glad to be here as your supply priest on this first Sunday of your transition. I am impressed with your hospitality. In my work I travel to a different parish almost every Sunday and I don’t always see such hospitality. It is a good thing to practice good hospitality, especially during times of transition.
I am also a therapist and so I’m going to start with a definition from psychology. Cognitive Dissonance is a conflict or anxiety resulting from inconsistencies between one's beliefs and one's actions or other beliefs.  The classic ethical dilemma is of the man who can’t afford the medicine that can cure his dying wife so he steals it.  He is a good man.  He doesn’t believe in stealing.  But he is desperate.
There is a lot of cognitive dissonance and also a lot of ethical questions in the readings today.  Jesus told us last week to receive (or decline) hospitality when out in the mission field. This week He tells us to be hospitable emphasizing that hospitality and acts of mercy extended to disciples are, in effect, extended to Christ.  Paul’s ethical implications of union with Christ are again found in this continued reading from Romans where Paul outlines his theology on moral relativism. And we have this amazing and oft quoted story from Genesis of God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac.  We’ve been following this story for three Sundays and we have learned just how good and faithful Abraham has been.  Why would God, especially at this point in the story, test Abraham and command him to commit murder?
So in order to live into these rich lessons, we might do well to recognize in ourselves our tendency to struggle with cognitive dissonance and ambivalence in our daily lives. 
Part of the problem, and likely the reason for this story from Genesis, is that we immediately start making demands of God.  Like children we get angry and anxious and stomp our feet and demand that God is not being fair!  It is not fair to treat Abraham this way!  He has been so very faithful to God and he loves God so very much. Why must he suffer so?  Why must we suffer?  Part of the problem here is that we ask these questions from our stance of creating God in our image instead of remembering that’s it’s the other way around.
Our God-created-in-our-image is expected to provide for and protect us like a good parent and always, always, always be good and faithful to us.  The trickery in this story of Abraham and Isaac causes us to want to lose faith in God.  It just doesn’t seem fair.
Isaac carried the wood up the mount to be sacrificed.  Isn’t that strange? Isaac is obedient, as is Abraham, but Isaac even carries the wood.  Jesus too carried the wood to his sacrifice. Obedient to the very end.
You see, Abraham loved God so much that he was able to sacrifice his only son. Abraham loved God so much that this did not seem trickery to him.  He knew absolutely that God would near hurt him or Isaac. 
I learned a new word this week - Paraprosdokian. This is a literary term used by scholars who work with rhetoric and literary criticism.  It is a comedic technique in literature..
A paraprosdokian is a sentence which consists of two parts. The first is a well known figure of speech and the second is an intriguing variation of the first which forces the listener to reinterpret it.
Groucho Marx made a career out of paraprosdokians.
“Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.”

“She got her good looks from her father; he’s a plastic surgeon.”

“One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas I’ll never know.”

“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”

Another character who made good use of paraprosdokians was Winston Churchill. When the US finally entered the Second World War he said, ‘You can always count on Americans to do the right thing — after they’ve tried everything else.’

Here are a couple more: 

Hospitality is making your guests feel like they’re at home, even if you wish they were.
I was going to ask God for a bike, but I know God doesn’t work that way. So I stole a bike and asked God for forgiveness.

Another master of the paraprosdokian was Jesus.
Some of the best examples of Jesus’ use of this funny way of turing a phrase are in Matthew’s Gospel. At the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus takes universal experiences inherent in the human condition -  poverty, grief, war, injustice, hunger, thirst, suffering, and persecution and calls them “blessings.”
Perhaps it is time we rediscovered the “punch lines” in Jesus’ most memorable teachings.
The Gospel lesson this morning is from the second of the 5 major bodies of teaching in Matthew. (7:28; 11:1; 13:53; 19:1; 26:1) We have been studying this section for three Sundays.  We have been studying for three Sundays the stories of Abraham, the very beginnings of the formation of who we are as the Church. 
We have also studied the same Pauline theology for these three Sundays, a sort of Paraprosdokian of St.Paul is from this letter to the Romans and it’s about sin.  Paul asks the question that goes like this: If we are now under the expectations of Grace and not Law, does this mean we can sin all we want to because we’ll be forgiven? Sounds sort of like stealing a bike.  Or it’s like that bad theology that suggests we can sin all through life and gamble that we’ll have the chance make amends last minute, just before we die and still get into heaven.  But we know, it doesn’t work that way!  
Paul’s point was to dispel what seems like an obvious question:  “Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?”  In other words, “If God’s grace is extensive enough to encompass our sin, presumably more sin on our part would prompt more grace on God’s part.”  Right?  Well, of course not!  That’s just silly!  Thus Paul’s explanation to the church in Rome about moral relativism.
We are called to resist evil and to do good. But we are called to do this not as people motivated by the hunger for power, but as resurrection people eager to serve.
We are not in it for what we can get for ourselves at the expense of others, but for the good of all.
I’ve borrowed these last two lines from a scholar who says that we are called to be like Christ and so she calls disciples of Jesus, “little Christs.”  She’s the one who introduced the word paraprosdokian to me.  She goes on to say:
As “little Christs” we are called to follow the way of Christ in the way of Christ. This means we not only share the same destination, but we share the same way of getting there.
Sometimes in fact most times this causes us to be in conflict with the value system of our culture.
In this way we ourselves become “living paraprosdokians.”
We, like Jesus, become the punch line of history.
Perhaps that is why Paul said we are “fools” for the sake of Christ.
I am sure there are many in government, business, and the halls of power who see the Christian ethic as foolish. Whoever heard of winning by surrender? Or leading by serving?
And yet the scripture is relentless in its reminders that we are called not just to believe or cheer God on, but to be disciples who actually follow in the footsteps of Jesus (God Incarnate).
Sort of ups the ante doesn’t it? - Joy Sylvester-Johnson
Paul Simon has a new album out. Well, not so new, it’s actually a year old but that’s new in my world.  Anyway, it’s called Stranger to Stranger and holds a theme about hospitality and home and travel and coming home again and being in relationship with each other. 
There is a lot of humor in his lyrics.  I think Paul Simon is a great poet.  One song on this CD has a repeated line that goes, “I can’t talk now, I’m In a Parade!” This song tells the story of a schizophrenic in a psychotic episode in an ER.  The schizophrenic is talking on a cell phone explaining the bizarreness of his thoughts while he waits his turn for help.  It’s funny, not sad. Somehow Simon leads the listener to empathize with the crazy patient and to realize that we all struggle with at least cognitive dissonance, if not outright bouts of psychosis.
The hit from this CD is called Wristband and it too is funny.  This song tells the story of Mr. Simon’s experience one day when he got locked out of a large arena where they were setting up for a concert that night.  He walks around the block and attempts to enter a door in the front but is stopped by a security guard who denies Paul Simon entrance to a Paul Simon concert because the real Paul Simon doesn’t have a wristband.
“Wristband, my man, you’ve got to have a wristband. If you don’t have a wristband, you can’t get through the door.”
Simon goes on, in the bridge of the song, where he gets more serious and waxes poetic about the members of our society who are marginalized, “the folks that never get a wristband, the kids that can’t afford the cool brand.”
Jesus told us last week to receive (or decline) hospitality. This is in the oft quoted section of Matthew where we are told we sometime should choose to shake the dust off of our feet and leave. This week He tells us to be hospitable emphasizing that hospitality and acts of mercy extended to disciples are, in effect, extended to Christ.  In other words, be nice to each other.
Cognitive Dissonance?
Whenever I preach myself into the particular corner of trying to figure God out, I tend to pull out my favorite Christmas movie.  I know.  It’s hokey and over used and there’s 176 days left until Christmas, but I love the story of George Bailey who get’s to live out for us the fantasy of the quintessential second chance of his Wonderful Life.  
George Bailey prayed, in a moment of desperation, that he wished he’d never been born.  And in the fantasy of the movie, he is awarded this wish.  He then spends the next few hours in the Scrooge-like hell of encountering all of his family and friends to whom he is now a stranger.  No one knows him.  No one loves him.  No one accounts for him and he ends up suicidal.  It is in the penultimate scene in which his second prayer – to live again – lifts this curse and he encounters his friend Bert the police officer, when George finally knows the gift of being known. Bert the cop finds the lost George on a bridge staring at the icy water below.
Bert: [shouts] Hey, George! George! You all right? Hey, what's the matter?
George Bailey: Now get outta here, Bert, or I'll hit you again! Get outta here! 
Bert: What the sam hill you yellin' for, George? 
George Bailey: You... [suddenly stunned]  George ? . . . Bert? Do you know me?
Bert: Know you? Huh. You kiddin'? I've been looking all over town trying to find you. I saw your car plowed into that tree down there and I thought maybe you - hey, George, your mouth's bleeding. Are you sure you're all right? 
If you’ve seen the movie, you know the rest.  If you haven’t seen the movie, you probably have at least seen the famous last clip of a joyful family gathered for their prodigal celebration.
It gets me every time.  I watch this 60 year old movie every Christmas and I cry every time!  But it’s not watching George Bailey run through the snowy streets of his beloved home town, nor the Christmas carols, not even the rejoining of all those relationships you’ve just spent ninety minutes watching break apart.  No, what I love about this movie is just this scene, when this lost soul hears a friend call him by name.  He is known, he is found, and so he knows the way home, and he knows what to do about his adversities. 
Abraham was known by God and so he knew how to follow and how to obey and how to listen and discern what to do next.
St. Paul reminds us to that we are known by God. In his letter to the Romans he emphasizes that our Baptism frees us to a life of Grace but not a life of lawlessness just because we are always, always, always forgiven and welcomed home.
Jesus commands us to always, always, always welcome the stranger and to also be the stranger and accept hospitality.  In other words. We are commanded to be nice to each other.
In all of these stories we can recognize this one truth - We are known by God. We are loved by God.  We are sustained by God.  There is little else that matters.
So when we are feeling the schizoid pull of cognitive dissonance, when we are faced with daily challenges, it helps to learn to live into ambiguity. We are able to do this because we are in relationship with a God who knows and loves and sustains us.

Amen.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Laughing at Strangers, a Proper 6A sermon

Proper 6A, 2017
Genesis 18:1-15, (21:1-7)
Romans 5:1-8
Matthew 9:35-10:8(9-23)
The Rev. Kathy Kelly Dunagan
All Saints, Norton

I was quite taken by the story yesterday (6-17-17) of 35-year-old Patrick Hale of Murfreesboro, Tennessee who was called a hero for helping police arrest two Georgia fugitives on Friday evening. Did you see this story? The fugitives escaped from prison in Georgia on Tuesday and killed two law enforcement officers before leading police on an intrastate man hunt all week and at least one high speed chase which included shooting at police. The convicts had invaded another home in the area and stolen that couple’s car after tying them up and stealing food and a car from them. They threatened the couple as they left telling them they had nothing to lose and that they expected to be dead within 24 hours. I guess that meant they were planning suicide by cop if they got cornered. They took that couple’s car and police caught up with them ensuing the high speed chase. The fugitives wrecked that car on the interstate and ran onto Mr. Hale’s property. Mr. Hale said that he was home alone with his young daughter and saw the men approaching his house on foot.  He said he loaded every gun he owned in order to be prepared to defend his home and daughter but that he then decided to flee the house in a car.
Mr. Hale’s car apparently looked like a patrol car. So, when he backed out of his garage, he came face to face with the two fugitives. After a touch and go moment, the fugitives decided to surrender. Mr. Hale apparently had been listening to all of this unfold on TV or radio. He said later of that moment this: “I realized I had two ex-cons wanted for murder who had just shot at law enforcement who had nothing to lose, and for some reason they surrendered and laid down on the concrete in my driveway. If that doesn’t make you believe in Jesus Christ, I don’t know what does.”
Now, when I read that over my tea and newspaper yesterday morning I laughed out loud.  I’m not sure why, except that it seemed silly to me to equate faith in our Lord to luck - in this case the luck that these fugitives had left their weapons behind in the wrecked car, luck that they apparently mistook Mr. Hale’s car for a patrol car, luck that 45 other officers showed up 3 minutes later, a corner the fugitives knew they were in and luck that they decided to lay down and surrender, a last minute change of plan from suicide by cop. That’s all just luck, right?
I’ve been working on practicing reconciliation intently over the past year or so. In our national situation of great division, I have been working on listening to the other, listening to that opposite opinion or both sides and trying to understand. I believe this is what we are called to do by Jesus - to seek peace, to seek unity, to seek the love of God in, among and for ALL people. I’m a pacifist.  I don’t like guns. I don’t understand why some folks want to own arsenals. I also hold a personal faith that emphasizes Grace and mystery.  I am usually suspicious of Christians who practice a faith that emphasizes personal salvation and prosperity. But in this practice I have come to understand that these other perspectives are not necessarily bad theology nor are they necessarily bad practice. 
So I decided to listen to more of Mr. Hale’s story and to discern why his statement made me laugh. As I learned more about his story I came to think a bit differently about Mr. Hale’s statement in the long run.
The initial news story from the Associated Press said that Mr. Hale held the men at gun point during that 3 minutes of waiting for police and that made him a hero. That story went out fast and was all over the television news.  Mr. Hale held a press conference a few hours later in order to clarify some things. Primarily, Mr. Hale wanted it to be known that he did not see himself as a hero, that the press had put an untrue spin on his story because he did not hold those men at gun point. He had loaded all of his own guns, he had prepared, he had one weapon with him in the car. But he decided to take his daughter away from harms way instead of getting into a shooting match.  He was in that car backing slowly away from the men on foot hoping to keep his distance and flee to safety while keeping an eye on their next move. He answered some questions at that press conference and said that he had not thought of reward money only the need to protect his home and family. He talked about how he had prayed for safety as he made his get away and he repeated his sentiment verbatim that the way things turned out left him more certain of his belief in Jesus Christ.
His wife beside him, his little girl was apparently behind the podium as he made this statement. You could hear her inquisitive little voice and her parents gently hushing her as he set the record straight but you couldn’t see her. At his last answer, to the question of what he was thinking during his ordeal and why he made the decisions he made he lift up the toddler in his arms and said, “This is why.” 
This is a wonderful story. It is a wonderful story for Fathers Day. A wonderful story of a man driven to protect his family who prayed for God to intervene and keep them safe. In the end he was grateful that no violence came to his home or his family. There is nothing wrong with that.  This is also a story that goes well with today’s lessons which are at root about Father Abraham, the father of the Abrahamic religions, the prototype of all believers. These are stories of the beginnings of the multitude of God’s people, the blessings that come from being hospitable to strangers. But the theme here that I want to lift up is our identity as Christians. What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus? What does it mean to believe?
As we begin ordinary time this year, I think it is important to stop and check out where we are in our story telling, and in our story living.  At this point in the season of the church we have come from waiting on God in Advent through the joy of the Incarnation at Christmas, through the solemnity of Lent through the joy of the Resurrection of Easter and also through the mystery of the Ascension. At the beginning of Lent I challenged you to contemplate what it means to be this community rather than focusing only on our individual sins, to focus on our collective repentance, our collective discernment of God’s call for us to mission.  Remember that?
Well, today I want to challenge you to consider what it means to be Christian in the first place and to begin new ways of discerning what to do about that.
I laughed at this stranger’s story because he seemed to have an understanding of Christianity that seemed silly to me. One focused more on the prosperity of the individual than the mission of the community. But as Joe and I discussed Mr. Hale’s statement over lunch yesterday, we were able to name multiple times in our lives when we were frightened and feared even for our lives. At such times one is apt to pray for safety and when the crisis has passed one is also moved to pray prayers of thanksgiving.  Why not indeed praise God at such moments with clarity of belief in Jesus and belief in salvation?
I once counseled a man who told me that he was “raised in a very conservative Christian home and church.”  I’m not sure what that meant exactly, but it was something he went on to tell me that he wanted to leave in the past, something harmful in some way, something he wanted to “recover from,” as if his faith practice had been like an addiction.
He told me that the fathers of this past church experience told him that the key to faith is to be able to claim, on a personal level of faith the phrase “I know, that I know, that I know.”  Then he told me that he had come to believe, in his nearly thirty years, that he more values the mystery of Grace than a theology of certainty and that he was struggling to learn how not to “know” so much.
Well, I figured I knew all about what he meant by living into a faith built on God’s Grace and mystery. But I was left pondering what it would be like to personally claim the phrase, “I know that I know, that I know.”
I imagine for those first followers, who actually witnessed the Resurrected Lord and the Ascension of our Lord, those men and women who were so blessed, who didn’t have televisions, iPads, laptops, or Google. I imagine for them it was merely a memory.  They knew that they knew that they knew because they stood there and heard Him in person ask God in prayer “That they may know you, the only true God.”
At the beginning of his earthly life, when he was first conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ humbled himself by becoming fully human, without losing his divinity.  In the Ascension, when his life on earth came to an end (not in death, which was not the end, but in exaltation) Jesus Christ was glorified, without losing his humanity.  This has profound implications for the rest of us, for what it means to be a Christian but even more so for what it means to be human. (previous paragraph quoted from here)
But my question is not what to do in order to feel closer to a God who seems to drift away, but how it is that we experience the God who knows us – God, the God, who is and always was right there at home in our hearts.
Whenever I preach myself into this particular corner, I tend to pull out my favorite Christmas movie.  I know.  It’s hokey and there’s 190 days left until Christmas, but I love the story of George Bailey who get’s to live out for us the fantasy of the quintessential second chance of his Wonderful Life.  
George Bailey prayed, in a moment of desperation, that he wished he’d never been born.  He is awarded this wish.  He then spends the next few hours in the Scrooge-like hell of encountering all of his family and friends to whom he is now a stranger.  No one knows him.  No one loves him.  No one accounts for him and he ends up in trouble.  It is in the penultimate scene in which his second prayer – to live again – lifts this curse and he encounters his friend Bert the police officer, when George finally knows the gift of being known. Bert the cop finds the lost George on a bridge staring at the icy water below.
Bert: [shouts] Hey, George! George! You all right? Hey, what's the matter?
George Bailey: Now get outta here, Bert, or I'll hit you again! Get outta here! 
Bert: What the sam hill you yellin' for, George? 
George Bailey: You... [suddenly stunned]  George ? . . . Bert? Do you know me?
Bert: Know you? Huh. You kiddin'? I've been looking all over town trying to find you. I saw your car plowed into that tree down there and I thought maybe you - hey, your mouth's bleeding. Are you sure you're all right? 
If you’ve seen the movie, you know the rest.  If you haven’t seen the movie, you probably have at least seen the famous last clip of a joyful family gathered for their prodigal celebration.  You know the part where George holds his youngest little girl in his arms as she plays with the bells on the tree.
It gets me every time.  I watch this 60 year old movie every Christmas and cry every time!  But it’s not watching George Bailey run through the snowy streets of his beloved home town, nor the Christmas carols, not even the rejoining of all those relationships you’ve just spent ninety minutes watching break apart.  No, what I love about this movie is just this scene, when this lost soul hears a friend call him by name.  He is known, he is found, and so he knows, that he knows, that he knows.
In my retelling of this story today, I am thinking of fugitives running from past sins and wrecked cars and lost people desperate for some grace. And of Sarah laughing at the gifts of strangers. And of being sent out out “like sheep into the midst of wolves,” maybe taking on the risk of getting lost too. Maybe Mr. Hale was not the only one saved on Friday night. Maybe salvation and protection and mystery and Grace and even certainty are ours for the receiving.
On the other hand -  it’s not just through sentiment that we know and are known.  Faith in God comes out in action as discipleship, not sentimentality.  Staying home watching exciting news stories or sappy movies is not a celebration of the incarnation, resurrection and ascension any more than sitting here now without considering what to do when we leave here.  The reason I am so deeply moved by lost George Bailey shouting out the line, “You know me, Bert?” is because it is my connection, my hermeneutic, to the larger story and joy that God knows me.  What’s your connection to the story? Who are we as Christians? How are we best known?
We gather in this place to practice our faith in these sacraments and traditions. We long for others, for so many others to join us. We look for ways to join them. And in the end we find that we are all the same, all afraid of violence and all seeking safety and salvation. We are already one.
And we know, that we know, that we know.

Amen.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Listening for The Good Shepherd's Call

Easter 4A, 2017
Acts 2:42-47
1 Peter 2:19-25 
John 10:1-10

O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

There is a story about an Easter pageant at a Christian school. The little boy had just one line in the play it was “He’s not here, he is risen.”  He must have been playing one of the angels depending on which version they were doing. But the little boy was nervous and excited and not sure he could remember his line and the teacher and his mom were there helping him. (Here’s my chance for a shout out to all those moms since I won’t be here next week. Thank you for everything, including helping us get through scary stuff like school plays!) So the little boy practiced, and practiced, “He’s not here, he is risen,” “He’s not here, he is risen,” and just before the performance of their play he said he felt confident he could do it and so they started. But, when they got to his line he froze. He got out the first part - “He’s not here,” but then he just froze. So his mom was whispering his line to him from the wings, “He’s not here, he is risen.” And she said it again, “He is risen.” And finally the boy came to himself and he said, “Oh yeah,” and then he said loudly, “He’s not here, he’s in prison!”

So today we arrive once again at what we affectionately call “Good Shepherd Sunday,” the fourth Sunday of Easter.  These readings are packed full of imagery and metaphor. The focus of this portion of the gospel of John, however, is on Jesus as the door or gate of the sheepfold.  Now, the image of Jesus as shepherd makes for a far more natural comparison than comparing Jesus to a gate. These two images are part of a richly layered, extended metaphor that speaks of sheep, shepherd, gate, gatekeeper, strangers, thieves, bandits, and wolves. All of these, except for the wolves, are introduced in the first ten verses, and all of the elements of this extended metaphor contribute to understanding who Jesus is, and who we are in relation to him.

But Jesus begins by describing who he is not. Those who climb into the sheepfold in a sneaky way are thieves and bandits who do not care about the sheep but only about their own gain (10:1). By contrast, the shepherd enters the sheepfold openly, by means of the gate (10:2). He is recognized immediately by both the gatekeeper, who opens the gate for him, and by the sheep, who know his voice (10:3). When he calls his sheep by name, they follow him, and he leads them out to pasture (10:4) where they can graze and roam safely. The sheep will not follow a stranger but instead will flee from one whose voice they do not recognize (10:5).

The function of the gate is to keep the sheep together in the sheepfold during the night, safe from thieves and predators. During the day the gate is opened so that the sheep can go out, following their shepherd, to find pasture. The gate and the shepherd work together for the well-being of the sheep, so that the flock thrives. Jesus is both the gate and the shepherd at the same time; he guards and protects his sheep from danger, and he provides for their nourishment, for their life in abundance.

It is important to note that the metaphor of the gate is not one of exclusion, it is not a license to think of ourselves as Jesus’ true sheep while we think of others as outsiders. If we use it that way, we become like the Pharisees. The purpose of the gate is not to keep out other sheep. Indeed, Jesus says (in verse 16), “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.”  The purpose of the gate is to guard against all that threatens the well-being of the sheep -- thieves, bandits, and wolves.

Much has been written about how sheep are rather unintelligent animals. It is true that without a shepherd, they will not necessarily be able to find food or water, and that they will easily get lost and not be able to find their way home. However, the thing that Jesus emphasizes about sheep is not that they are stupid but rather that they know the voice of their shepherd. Whatever else one can say about the mental capacities of sheep, they have this in their favor: they recognize the voice of the one who cares for them. They follow their shepherd, and they won’t follow a stranger whose voice they don’t know.

A Story: 
Winnie the Pooh went for a walk one winter morning.  Piglet saw him from a ways off while sweeping the snow from his front stoop and decided to join him.  Pooh Bear seemed to be walking in circles and Piglet was curious to see what he was up to, maybe, even if it was hunting Woozles.
Hallo!” said Piglet, “what are you doing?”
“Hunting,” said Pooh.
“Hunting what?”
“Tracking something,” said Winnie-the-Pooh very mysteriously.
“Tracking what?” said Piglet, coming closer.
“That’s just what I ask myself.  I ask myself, What?”
“What do you think you’ll answer?” asked Piglet.
“I shall have to wait until I catch up with it,” said Winnie-the-Pooh.  “Now, look there.”  He pointed to the ground in front of him.  “What do you see there?”
“Tracks, Paw-marks” said Piglet, with a jump.  And then, to show that he hadn’t been frightened, he jumped up and down once or twice in an exercising sort of way.  “Oh, Pooh!  Do you think it’s a-a-a Woozle?”
“It may be,” said pooh.  “Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t.  You never can tell with paw-marks.”
The two went on from there around a spinney of trees until they came upon another set of tracks.  With increasing anxiety and excitement, they ventured on discussing at first the possibility they might be tracking “Hostile Animals” and then later they talked about trivial things to distract themselves from fear.  Around they went twice more finding more tracks each time.  When they came upon a fourth set of tracks Piglet couldn’t take it anymore and invented a lovely reason for returning to his home saying he just remembered something he forgot to do and just then, Pooh heard a noise above them, someone whistling.
He looked to the sky and saw none other than Christopher Robin sitting in the branches of a big oak-tree above them.  Their dear friend came down from the tree and comforted them with merely his presence while Pooh tried to explain why he and Piglet were walking in circles around the tree examining their own tracks in the snow.

This is my favorite story by our beloved A. A. Milne and it takes me back to a time in my life when I lived each day in childhood’s bliss of no worry but only excitement about the next adventure I might enjoy.  It was a time when I was surrounded by family and friends and everything in my life seemed cohesive.  

Here is another story from that time, a memory.  We were at a church camp, near Damascus.  I can’t remember the details, but I remember an experience I had one summer evening that has stayed with me for life, as lessons learned through experience are apt to do.

We were finishing up our day and were playing one last game.  It may have been Tag, or our more elaborate favorite, Fox and Hounds, or some new game, I don’t remember, but there was a “get ready, get set, go” called and a group of about 12 children took off running scattered into the woods.

It was a sparse grove of tall hardwoods that seemed to have spilled out of a thicker forest beyond.  I took the lead ahead of my two best friends.  We were strategizing and giggling as we ran.  I was pushing myself to run as fast as I could, probably trying to beat the boys to whatever the goal was, when it happened.

I stopped cold and realized that dusk is much darker in the woods than in the meadow I had just run from.  I was suddenly afraid to go on and turned to tell my friends but they were gone.  It was as if they had vanished into thin air.  I guess they found the ball, or whatever the goal of the game was or the game had ended, and they had returned to the meadow.  But I was left behind.  I could see no one.  In fact, I was very much alone in the dark woods.  I could hear voices in the distance, but they seemed miles away.  I stood there frozen, aware only of my panting breath and the touch of a cool evening breeze from the river nearby.

All I had to do was follow the voices back to the meadow where my mother would hug me and my father would carry me to the car.  All I had to do was follow the still laughing voices of my siblings and friends.  And I did.
But for that brief moment, I was lost.  And I knew it.  And I realized how easy it would be to get lost for good and not have such an easy way of finding home.

So, Jesus is not in prison. He is risen.  There is no need to go looking for him, he will always be there, looking for us. But it is important for us to remember to be watchful for thieves and bandits who do not care about the sheep but only about their own gain. Still, the best route in our effort to follow the Good Shepherd is not in obsessing about our own tracks in the snow but rather in listening for His voice, that voice we recognize in our hearts and when we do this we will know what to do next.


Amen.

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