Sermon Easter 4
May 15, 2011
The Reverend Lois Keen
Acts 2:42-47; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10; Psalm 23
In a blog post at Episcopal Café I read about a Chicago banker who lost her job last year and was facing living on the street with her child. A man who himself has been living on the street for seven years has been paying her rent in a hotel to keep them off the streets.
The man is repaying the banker’s past kindness. He panhandles to get the money for her hotel. [See the whole story here.]
Who is the shepherd? Who are the sheep?
What we read and hear of scriptures on a Sunday morning, from the Hebrew scriptures or the Epistles and Gospels of the Christian scriptures, we hear in bits and pieces that don’t necessarily hang together, and we hear them out of context.
Today’s reading from 1 Peter, chapter 2, is irresponsibly out of context and, on Good Shepherd Sunday, a poor choice. I suppose it is here because it mentions the shepherd in the last line. The reading itself, however, must not go without comment from the preacher.
If you go home and read all of the first letter of Peter, you will find that Peter is encouraging people who, for their faith, are living as foreigners in their own land, and enduring great trials, which Peter says have been sent in order to test their faith as gold is tested, tried, in the furnace.
He reminds his readers that they are living stones, rejected by others but precious to God. As virtual foreigners, for the sake of God, they are to obey all authorities in their pagan society. And then, he writes, specifically to slaves, literal slaves, not figurative slaves, “Slaves, in reverent fear of God, submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh.”
And then follow the words of today’s reading, words addressed to those slaves, instructing them to put up with abusive masters.
In or out of context this passage is among the texts of terror that have been used by well-meaning ministers, and not-so-well-meaning abusers, to keep women in abusive marriages and to justify all kinds of abuse of adults and children alike. The excuse for this is found in today’s selection: “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.”
Free men and women who suffer persecution for their faith may find encouragement to endure, and to give their suffering some meaning to their lives from 1 Peter. Certainly in Peter’s time, when abuse and molestation of women, children and slaves was expected, and recourse against abuse was impossible, these words surely did give comfort, encouragement and meaning.
Today, however, now that we know better, now that we know the legacy that abuse carries with it in perpetuating violence and more abuse, this scripture must never be used to justify abuse, or to encourage a person to endure abuse.
And this passage must not be left to just lie there without comment from the preacher.
Clergy or counselors or others in authority who still do misuse this passage, are the thieves and robbers of John’s gospel, who come into the sheepfold by ways other than through the true gate, the Good Shepherd.
And now we come to John’s gospel and the true gate. When John was writing his, the good news of Jesus gave real life to all sorts of people who were otherwise outside the pale – not just adulterers, and prostitutes and tax collectors and women and the little children, but undertakers, and people who tanned hides or worked in gold, and, yes, shepherds. It was, therefore, imperative that this gospel should be held up as the only way to that real, true, abundant life.
The Christian communities were breaking down barriers between insiders and outsiders, righteous and unrighteous, holding all property and things in common, as Luke reports in the Acts of the Apostles, and living in a way that was turned against them. They did not comply with the civil cult, the civil religion. They did not burn incense to Caesar nor would they call him “Son of God” as the law required. This put them at constant risk of persecution, so it was necessary that they protect one another – only letting in the true shepherds, and those who had been tested and found not to be spies, because all others could cause the sheep to be scattered and even slaughtered.
Having said all this, while the bits of scripture chosen for today have some things in them that require rehabilitation, things that raise red flags, they are scriptures and as such we take them seriously, while not literally or out of context. So how can we reframe these readings?
Today, to be a Christian may just feel like being a foreigner in your own country. Christianity is getting a bad rap because of the beliefs and practices of some, the most vocal, whose understanding of their faith in Christ makes them enemies of other Christians who do not believe as they do. As we Christians war with one another about “absolute truth” and just what is the “faith once delivered to the saints”, atheism is becoming a militant religion all in its own right.
A very tiny example of what makes Christianity a mockery in the world today is my experience of an extremely conservative Episcopal Church in another part of this country. There, one day, I observed milk crates of bag lunches being guarded by women in the church porch while the poor and homeless were inside having to attend Bible study before they could receive their “free” lunch.
The expectation that the poor have to earn their lunch by attending revivals or prayer meetings or Bible studies probably goes back at least to the Dust Bowl era in this country, and it makes a lie of the gospel it hopes to preach.
But mostly we are foreigners in our own land because so few people today know anything about us except through the media, which is interested only in the sensational. So 1 Peter can bring us some comfort: We are living stones, precious to and loved by God, even when we’re despised by others. And, at the same time, we can push past Peter to realize, after 2,000 years, that all people, because they are created by God, are living stones, precious to their Creator.
We can even reframe the instructions to endure abuse. We all experience trials, sickness, pain, and anguish. While we are experiencing that part of those trials which we can do nothing about, we can make of them an offering to God on behalf of others who are also suffering.
Those of you who have shared with me the journey through breast cancer treatments may relate to this. Chemotherapy was horrible. Over the months of my visits to the infusion unit I got sicker and sicker. My time was hard, and at the same time I saw others, every week, who were having a worse time than I, whose cancer was worse, whose treatments were worse, who were much sicker.
Their trials did not diminish mine. Instead they united me with these other living stones, for whom I offered to God on their behalf my own trials and whatever measure of healing I was receiving. You can do this, too.
We can also reframe those parts of the Gospel of John which seem to say that only baptized Christians will be saved and get into heaven. We know that God has been at work from the beginning working to restore and reconcile all people to God, one another and creation. We Christians are baptized to participate in that work which is God’s, the work of restoration and reconciliation. We know that for us, Jesus is the true gate into that work. When we hear and recognize his voice, we try to follow him.
And, after 2,000 years of following, and failing, getting it right, and getting it wrong, we begin to see that Jesus, as he says earlier in the gospel of John, does indeed have sheep from other folds about which we know nothing and about Jesus’s way with them that we also know nothing about, though we might catch glimpses once in awhile, even in atheists!
So Jesus is the gatekeeper of our souls, but not a gatekeeper who keeps out non-Christians. We are coming to recognize that God’s enterprise of salvation may be a greater mystery than we ever thought, and much more far-reaching than we imagined.
A story from one of the Desert Fathers of the 4th century which might be helpful. A soldier came to the holy man as asked if God could accept him. The old man asked the soldier, “Tell me, my dear, if your cloak is torn do you throw it away?” The soldier replied, “No. I mend it and use it again.” The old man said to him, “If you are so careful about your cloak, will not God be equally careful about his creature?”
My friends, the world needs to hear this about God, especially when scriptures and life seem to fly in the face of a loving God. If you yourself are so careful about your cloak, or your house, or your yard, will not God be equally careful about all God’s creatures?