Sunday, April 21, 2013

Hearing the Good Shepherd

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
April 21, 2013

Year C: The Fourth Sunday of Easter
Acts 9:36-43
Psalm 23
(Revelation 7:9-17)
John 10:22-30

Hearing the Good Shepherd
            This may sound strange and surprising, but when I was in seminary I often found the chapel to be a very tense place.
            It was probably caused, at least in part, by my own insecurity. But in the chapel I was careful not to make a misstep. I was nervous that if I made too many mistakes – if I mispronounced something, if I stood when I was supposed to kneel, if (God forbid!) my cell phone rang during a service, if, if, if – then people would think that maybe I wasn’t really cut out to be a priest – that I had misheard God’s call – that the whole thing had been a big mistake.
            What made me most nervous in the chapel was singing.
            I remember the first services I attended there – I remember being surrounded by so many beautiful voices – the beautiful voices of people who had grown up in the Episcopal Church – who had been in church choirs their whole lives – people who knew the repertoire and who could really sing.
            And then there was me.
            As most of you know, I grew up in the Roman Catholic Church – a tradition that gave me many gifts, but singing wasn’t one of them.
            In my memory, it feels like in church we sang maybe a grand total of five different hymns. I use the word “sang” loosely. And, often, we didn’t sing the whole hymn – just whatever was needed to cover some liturgical action, like the procession or recession.
            One of those five hymns was called “I the Lord of sea and sky” – maybe better known as “Hear I am.” I bet all of you former Roman Catholics know the refrain:
Here I am Lord. Is it I Lord?
I have heard you calling in the night.
I will go, Lord, if you lead me,
I will hold your people in my heart.
            It’s a hymn that never fails to make me tear up, because of the words themselves and, I admit, a sugary dash of childhood nostalgia.
             “Here I am” isn’t in our hymnal but it is in a supplement called “Wonder, Love, and Praise.”
            Anyway, back to the seminary. One day we sang “Here I am” one day during a service in the chapel. As I was croaking it out and trying not to cry, I heard whispers behind me - and some chuckling.
            I shouldn’t have, but I turned around - and saw it was two professors.
            They noticed my look, I guess, and after the service they explained that during the hymn they had asked each other if they ever had heard the Lord “calling in the night.”
            And the answer was no.
            I was reminded of this story when I reflected on today’s lesson from the Gospel of John.
            Remember that John is the last of the four gospels to be completed, probably around the end of the First Century – several generations after the earthly lifetime of Jesus and his first followers.
            So, John is a complex and profound product of divine inspiration working through decades of Christian reflection on the meaning of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.
            And the Gospel of John also reflects some of the painfully divisive issues and challenges facing at least one Christian community near the end of the First Century.
            The passage we heard today is especially dense with rich theology.
            We’re told that Jesus is walking in the Jerusalem Temple at the festival of the Dedication – better known to us today as Hanukkah.           
            So that’s the setting for this little exchange between Jesus and some people described as “the Jews” – representing the many people who did not accept Jesus as messiah.
            They want to know, “If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
            Jesus reminds them that he has told them. And, he tells them, “The works I do in my Father’s name testify to me.”
            After Jesus dismisses them as not part of his fold, he says:
            “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”
            “My sheep hear my voice.”
            And that’s what reminded me of the hymn…
            “Here I am Lord. Is it I Lord?
            I have heard you calling in the night.”
            And I wonder: when do we hear the call of the Good Shepherd?
            How do we – how would we - hear the call of the Good Shepherd?
            Last week here in church we heard the dramatic story of the conversion of Saul, when on the road to Damascus still breathing threats and murder, he was knocked to the ground, blinded and heard the voice of the Risen Christ: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
            Saul heard the call of the Good Shepherd in a startling, life-shattering way, sending his life hurtling in a totally different direction, on his way to becoming St. Paul.
            But, few, if any, of us hear the call of the Good Shepherd quite like that.
            And, we all know, it’s hard to hear the call of the Good Shepherd – or anything else, for that matter, in our modern world with its many, many tempting distractions, relentlessly drawing our attention to computer screen, cell phone, texts, facebook, twitter, and other social media I’m sure I haven’t even heard of yet.
            It’s hard to hear the call of the Good Shepherd in our lives – lives often filled with work and worry, with loneliness and longing, with pressure and pretending.
            And it’s hard to hear the call of the Good Shepherd in our fallen and broken world filled with senseless, heartbreaking, violence – in a world armed to the teeth, in a world where some people are willing and able to use both crude and sophisticated means to maim and kill people going about their lives – running  - or cheering on runners – in a marathon.
            In our lives – in this fallen, broken and messed-up world – it’s hard to hear the call of the Good Shepherd.
            But, the Good Shepherd continues to call us.
            In today’s gospel Jesus tells the people who question him, “The works that I do in my Father’s Name testify to me.”
            And in today’s reading from Acts we heard about Peter – good old flawed, bumbling, often misguided Peter, raising Tabitha from the dead. The point is that the Risen Christ continued to do his works through a flawed vessel like Peter. And the Risen Christ continues to do his works through flawed, bumbling, often misguided people just like us.
            And what are those works? It’s the work of self-giving. It’s the work of self-sacrifice. It’s the work of transforming seeming defeat into triumphant victory. It’s the work of turning death into life.
            These past few days I’m sure we were moved by the selfless acts of courage, heroism and skill by police and FBI agents in Boston – the people whose job is to run straight into danger.
            I think I was most touched, though, by the stories on Monday of the marathon runners who kept right on running – not home, not to their hotel, not off to hide and collapse somewhere - but straight to the hospital to donate blood for the victims.
            I bet those runners are just as flawed, bumbling and imperfect as the rest of us. Yet, on that horrible day they were willing to give of themselves – to sacrifice – to transform seeming defeat into triumphant victory – to turn death into life.
            In and through them and so many others, we can hear the call of the Good Shepherd – the call to love one another, the call to give away our lives in service to God – the call to give away our lives in service to our broken, fallen, messed up world.
            May the world hear the call of the Good Shepherd in and through us
            And, then, maybe, this can really be our song:
            Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord?
            I have heard you calling in the night.
            I will go, Lord, if you lead me.
            I will hold your people in my heart.