In the path of the shepherd

4 Easter 2020

Acts 2:42-47; Ps 23
I Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10

The Rev. Dr. Deborah Meister

Sermon on Facebook (video)

A few years ago, I chose to walk a portion of the Camino de Santiago, the ancient pilgrim road which winds its way from all over Europe to Santiago de Compostella, in the northwest corner of Spain, traditionally honored as the last resting place of St. James the Great. The Camino is an undertaking: whether you walk fifty miles or five hundred, you carry all your belongings on your back, sleep in hostels, and are the mercy of wind, rain, heat, strangers, and your fellow-pilgrims. And although I was eager to do it, I also had a lot of anxieties about it, but one above all: that I would get lost. I am really good at that. As a teenager, I could get lost going from my home to my school, a trip I made every day and which involved only three turns. So the thought of walking several hundred miles across a foreign country seemed a bit— improbable. But when I got there, I found that someone — most likely, several someones — had crossed Spain with a bucket of yellow paint, placing arrows any place the path diverged or became faint. As my days on the trail piled up, those arrows became for me a sign of God’s love, and my anxiety gave way to a sense of profound trust: Someone had planned for me to be here, anticipated my needs, and was looking out for me. It was the closest I have come to knowing that I was in the care of a shepherd.

I could use some of those arrows today. I suspect we all could. This time of quarantine has been profoundly dislocating, and as we begin the conversation about opening up our cities and our lives and our cathedral again, it is increasingly clear that we will not be going back to the way things were. All kinds of things we used to take for granted will require active decisions: Is it safe to eat in a restaurant? Get on a bus? Send our children to school? What will worship look like, if we have to be apart from one another, and some of our members may still be in quarantine? When will we be able to see our parents and grandparents again, or have dinner with a friend? How will we manage those encounters, when what we really want is to hold one another and never let go, but that is the one thing we really cannot do?

When I read the readings for today, I wanted to wail. I don’t feel like a I have shepherd right now, at least, not a good one. The thief is all around us; it is stealing and killing and destroying the people and ways of life that we love, and no one seems to be guarding the gate and keeping it far away.

But the truth is, that desire reflects an immature understanding of our faith: an idea that God protects us, keeps us safe — by which we mean, keeps us safe from the things we fear, rather than from the things God sees as dangers to our soul. The primary call of God is not to be sheltered, but to grow. Christ the good shepherd does not keep us safely in the fold; instead, he calls us by name and leads us out: out where there is food, out where there is water, and, yes, out where the wolf prowls and the thief lurks, because only out there, in a place of testing, do we grow into the people God calls us to be. When I was newly baptized, I thought spiritual growth would be fun: God would help me to let go of the things I didn’t like about myself, so that I could be more loving, joyful, and free. And that was true. But there came a time when God reached deeper, when God asked me to give up, not what I did not like, but what I did: ways of being that I thought were integral to who I was because God knew there was something better which I could not yet see.

In the spiritual life, there are many kinds of arrows. We look automatically to the ones which point us toward peace and away from pain, because none of us likes to be hungry, lonely, cold, or afraid. But the truth is that hunger, fear, loneliness, and frustration are themselves a kind of arrow: they point us toward issues we need to see. That sense that a friend is using you, or that your work leaves your heart cold, or that you are dying in your marriage — each of those profound discomforts is a gift of God. If we can make ourselves see them and stay with them, if we can avoid turning away into distraction — numbing ourselves with Netflix and booze, busyness and ambition, they will teach us who we are and how we need to grow. The Good Shepherd calls us only by our truest name, and we must learn to recognize it as our own.

God does not ask us to seek out pain, nor does he promise to protect us from it. We see this even in the 23rd psalm, perhaps the most comforting of all the psalms. The psalmist begins: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; and leadeth me beside still waters.” This is the deepest truth of our faith: that God is our shepherd; that God knows us by name, cares for us, tends us, loved us into being and loves us still. He guides us the pathways which lead to life. And yet, even here, all is not halcyon. There are enemies along those paths; there is even the the valley of shadow of death — the valley in which we now find ourselves. The place in which death and loss darken our paths, shape our lives in grief and in fear. God’s promise is not that we will always walk in well-lighted paths, but that God will not abandon us in our darkness.

We may feel abandoned. We may cry out with Christ on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”— but God has not forsaken us, just as God did not, in fact, forsake Christ. Christ died to what he had been so that he could become what he needed to be — what God needed him to be. And if Christ suffered for us, so should we follow in his footsteps.
Let me be clear: this is not optional. If you love, you will suffer. You will see your child sick, your parent grow old, your friend move far away, the home you love burn to the ground. And that’s not even bringing death into the story. The only real question about suffering is not whether we can avoid it, but how we will meet it — whether we will allow it to teach us a deeper kind of compassion, a gentler way of treating those who may also be in pain. Whether we will allow it to strip us of our need to control, to dominate, to have it all together, and to teach us that we are beloved even when we are broken, imperfect, and real. St. Peter writes, “When Christ was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Peter 2:23-24)
We have only one savior, but each of us is called to enter that path of death and renewal. Each of us is called to release our death-grip on the lives we have chosen, and open our hands to receive the life God has given us — the one which is really life. And that work is hard. If it were simply a matter of being freed of everything in ourselves that we hate, it would still be hard, but it would be welcome. If it were a matter of fighting everything in this world that hurts the people and creatures of God, we would be happy warriors. But God calls us to let go, not only of what we hate, but what we love. Not to stop loving, but to stop clinging to what we love. To love it deeply, but hold it lightly. And God calls us not to reject what is broken in us, but to heal it: to heal it by accepting it just as God accepts us. Not to take ourselves so seriously, but accept that we are both small and precious: to enter into the path of humility.

A few days after 9/11, an Episcopal priest in New York City climbed into his pulpit, looked at his congregation, and said, “This is what we have been practicing for each Sunday.” He meant, of course, that praying and singing and working on discipleship are good things when all is peaceful, but times of extreme challenge are where the rubber hits the road. When discipleship is not easy, when sacrifice has teeth, then we learn both the depth of our commitment, and the power of God’s love. Most Sundays, we see both enacted on the altar, when a priest stands behind it and says, “This is my body, given for you. This is my blood, shed for you. Do this to remember me.” But it seems to me that in these last weeks, the sacrifice of Christ has moved from the altar into your lives. It is present every time you choose to face this situation with cheerfulness, every time you choose to be gentle with the housemate from whom you cannot escape, every time you put on a mask or wash your hands or cook the food you bought two weeks ago. So much love, pouring into this world through our scared and broken hearts. So much love, all around us. So many shepherds. So many.

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