Sunday, May 15, 2011

More Than a Lifeguard (St. Michael's)

St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, Gainesville FL
May 15, 2011

Year A: The Fourth Sunday of Easter
Acts 2:42-47
Psalm 23
1 Peter 2:19-25
John 10:1-10

More than a Lifeguard

I’ve started reading a book called Almost Christian. The book is a summary of and reflection on the recent National Study of Youth and Religion – a massive, multi-year look into what American teenagers think about religion.

The survey found that young people – probably mirroring their own parents – are not hostile to religion. They just don’t care about it very much.

On one level, we might rejoice that our young people don’t hate religion or despise the church.

But, apathy is probably even worse than strong, if negative, feelings.

Here’s how the author summarizes what American youth think about religion:

1. A god exists who created and orders the world and watches over life on earth.

2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.

3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.

4. God is not involved in my life except when I need God to solve a problem.

5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

When you think about all the horrible things that people could think or believe, this is not a bad set of beliefs. We might even agree with at least some of them.

But, especially on this Good Shepherd Sunday, it’s number four that really catches my attention:

God is not involved in my life except when I need God to solve a problem.

The author describes this belief as thinking of God as a divine lifeguard. We don’t think about very much about God the lifeguard when we’re having a great time splashing our way through life.

But, the moment something goes wrong, the moment there’s a crisis, the lifeguard suddenly becomes very important. And later, once the crisis passes, we don’t think about the lifeguard again - until the next time we’re in trouble.

There’s nothing wrong exactly with thinking about God as a lifeguard, except that it’s such an impoverished metaphor for who God really is and for the role that God wants to play in our lives.

The Lord is my lifeguard doesn’t quite cut it, does it?

A lifeguard is way up there, while we’re down here in the pool.

A lifeguard is way up there, looking down on anonymous people bobbing in the pool, ready to jump into action at the first sign of trouble.

And, it’s true that, like a lifeguard, God comes to our aid when there’s a crisis, pouring out the grace and strength we need in a crisis.

But, God is much more than a lifeguard. God is a shepherd.

God is a shepherd who knows us and cares for us. God is a shepherd who’s down here with us – wanting to be discovered by us and known by us.

At the heart of our Jewish-Christian tradition is the story of God reaching out us, revealing Godself to us, innumerable ways, over and over again.

A couple of weeks ago there was a story in a British newspaper of a young Scottish girl named LuLu who was told by her teachers to write a letter to God. In this letter she was told to ask God, “how did you get invented?”

LuLu’s parents were startled when they heard about this assignment. Rather than trying to answer the question themselves, they forwarded Lulu’s question to a number of British religious leaders. One of those leaders, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, took the time to personally respond to LuLu’s question.

In his response the archbishop imagined how God would reply to LuLu’s question. Here’s part of it:

‘Dear Lulu – Nobody invented me – but lots of people discovered me and were quite surprised. They discovered me when they looked round at the world and thought it was really beautiful or really mysterious and wondered where it came from. They discovered me when they were very very quiet on their own and felt a sort of peace and love they hadn’t expected.

Then they invented ideas about me – some of them sensible and some of them not very sensible. From time to time I sent them some hints – specially in the life of Jesus – to help them get closer to what I’m really like.”

The archbishop’s response to LuLu is both charming and profound.

His response touches on the great truth of how we discover God who is so much more than a lifeguard.

When we look at the beauty of the world, we discover a God of unlimited imagination and creativity.

When we make time for quiet – to reflect and pray – we discover God in a sense of peace and love we hadn’t expected.

And most especially in Jesus the Good Shepherd, we discover a God who loves us enough – who wants so much to be discovered by us - to join us on earth as a flesh and blood human being.

In Jesus the Good Shepherd we discover a God who calls us each by name.

In Jesus the Good Shepherd we discover a God who gives us life and wants us to have it abundantly.

And we heard what that abundant life is like in the snapshot of the early church in today’s reading from Acts:

“Those who had been baptized devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”

With that foundation of prayer and worship they grew ever closer to the Good Shepherd. And, we’re told the apostles did amazing signs and wonders.

In times of crisis, those early Christians didn’t look to God as a lifeguard because, thanks to Jesus, they knew God was already right there in the water with them.

In times of crisis, those early Christians looked to God they knew as a shepherd – God who knew them, loved them, protected them and led them.

And what was true in the First Century is just as true now in the Twenty-First Century.

Just look around.

Four years ago, right here at St. Michael’s, in a time of crisis, a handful of people put their faith in Jesus the Good Shepherd.

And look what happened and is happening.

Thanks to Jesus the Good Shepherd and a handful of hardworking sheep, a church that just about everyone thought was going to die lived on.

More and more people found and continue to find Jesus the Good Shepherd right here in this pasture.

Lately about sixty sheep have been gathering each Sunday in this pasture.

And today I’m pleased to announce that for the first time since the split St. Michael’s has hired a parish administrator.

So, look what happens when week after week we come here and listen to the old stories of Scripture, when, like the early Church, we devote ourselves “to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers.”

Look what happens when, despite our own weaknesses and failures and frustrations, we allow God into our lives, allow God to be our shepherd.

Look what happens when we recognize and share the great news that God is so much more – and wants to be so much more - than a lifeguard watching over us from a distance.

Look what happens when we recognize and share the great news that the Lord is our shepherd.

Thanks be to God.