We humans love to settle down. We find comfort in routine. We design our lives and communities for predictability in order to gain security -- a sense of control over an outside world that threatens.
Disney's Moana resists this social inertia and its mantra, "tradition is our mission", on her Polynesian island. She finds herself yearning for years to know what lies beyond the reef, the line islanders have been forbidden to cross. Her gut-level push back against the ways things have always been can remind the church of its own tendency toward institutional survival over and above, at times, the pursuit of its real mission: "to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ" (The Book of Common Prayer, p.855).
In an important turning point early in the movie, Gramma Tala reveals a cave to Moana that contains the boats of her "wayfinding" ancestors. "We're voyagers!" she exclaims in surprise. I experienced a similar moment of interest and wonder when hearing the newly elected (Episcopal) Presiding Bishop Michael Curry's paraphrase of Jesus' suggestion to Peter as he held his empty nets: Go to where the fish are -- don't wait for them to come to you! In other words, there is a going out movement and seeking approach to the Christian life that is not an ancillary activity but central to our Christian identity as missionaries, not churchgoers.
Of course, church going is becoming less popular of a pastime today, anyway, given the ways society has changed over the past several decades. Such an external threat, much like the encroaching darkness in Moana, may very well serve as the impetus that invites us to claim once again our missionary mantles.
And God knows missionaries are needed to share the good news in this place and in this time! This Sunday's lectionary includes Paul's evangelical antics in Athens, a city crammed with idols and a made up of a citizenry confused by its own hyper-religiosity. In a way, Athens then isn't so different from America today -- so accustomed to and distracted by the next best consumer product or political scandal that as a people we're losing our moral compass and our spiritual grounding in God.
Who did God create us to be as Christians? Churchgoers...or missionaries? Even though our churches are beautiful and we love the people there and the food is wonderful and we leave feeling well fed we leave every week any way. We leave because we have a mission, a purpose, that God calls us to out in the world, beyond the reef, beyond the church doors. That mission is to look for God’s work around us and point it out to our family and friends and neighbors and coworkers, so they’ll be curious about God and search for God, too. And when it’s time we know the way home because we remember who we are -- children loved by God. So our island, our church, becomes a place of safety and comfort and refuge between our voyages into the world where we, with courage and boldness, notice God at work and point those moments of glory out to all who would hear us.
This is not easy work, and most of us haven't had much practice as "wayfinders," as missionaries. I think the "Parable of the Life-Saving Station" can be a helpful conversation starter within our churches, but without the need to dwell much on the depressing ending. Since fewer and fewer folks are depending upon church as a club with social cache, I think respectability is less our obstacle to mission then basic inertia and a lack of practice.
Let's begin then and experiment and fail and succeed in God's name -- and in the process reenergize ourselves as we claim again our Christian identity as missionaries.
The John 10: 1-10 Gospel reading for the 4th Sunday after Easter transports us directly into the world of animal husbandry – a world which hasn’t changed much for the past 2000 years. However, the image of sheep is at the center of Jesus’ discourse which centers on one’s spiritual life. In verse 6, John, as if to underscore the fact that Jesus’ sheep image is not to be taken literally, informs us: “Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them”.
So here we have what is perhaps one of the most essential teachings of Jesus being misunderstood by his disciples and labeled explicitly by John as a communication failure -a breakdown of language and teaching. Two questions immediately jump to mind: First, how can this happen given Jesus’ teaching authority? Second, why does John go out of his way to point out this failure?
First, let us return to the sheep. The French expression, Revenons à nos moutons is famous and simply means, Let’s return to our sheep. This expression is used in French whenever someone goes off topic, or gets lost in something that is not central to the original discussion. It is a verbal reminder to bring the subject of the conversation back into focus. This expression was used in a 15th century Parisian comedy in which the lawyer representing a crooked shepherd who had stolen sheep from another shepherd, attempted to divert the courtroom away from his crime, forcing the judge to continually repeat the phrase, Let’s Return to our Sheep!
When we focus on the idea of physical sheep, we tend to think of rather dumb animals which are raised by their owners for wool, milk, hides, and especially their meat for human consumption. In most parts of the world, lambs are protected from predators like wolves only to be later slaughtered for human consumption and enjoyment. For some, this sheep image/metaphor, when used as a comparison with people, is uncomfortable since sheep seemingly lack those highly valued qualities in us such as intelligence, self-determination, independence, and the ability to defend and protect ourselves from danger. It was perhaps this jarring mismatch of the nature of humans vs animals that caused John to note the lack of understanding in Jesus’ discourse.
However, sheep also lack something else. Like all animals, they are innocent and have no guilt to deal with. We recall John the Baptist’s words earlier in the same Gospel verse 29: Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”. How is it that a lamb, totally lacking in those qualities which we humans value the most, can assume the highest and most absolute value imaginable – that of salvation?
One answer might be found in Psalm 23, The Lord is my Shepherd. This Psalm was read on the same Sunday as John 10:1-10 and brings sheep into the picture again. Perhaps the New Testament evangelist is returning to the Old Testament sheep in the 23rd Psalm.
In contrast to Jesus’ words in John 10 (spoken in the 3rd person, as a teaching story, descriptively) which involve movement of the sheep - going both out of and back into the sheepfold via the gate/portal (Christ himself), the 23rd Psalm paints a radically different setting and picture. In the psalm, it is none other than the sheep themselves who speak in the 1st person (I statements) to God the good shepherd in the 2nd person (you statements). “Surely your goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever”. The sheep of Psalm 23 are in an intimate relationship with their shepherd in whom they place all their faith and trust. The sheepfold and gate mentioned in John 10 are nowhere to be found in the Psalm. Here there is no need for a metaphor or figure of speech. The sheep are out/outside the sheepfold now - verbal, conscious, and facing death and evil with courage due to their relationship with the shepherd. There is little to misunderstand or misinterpret in this memorable psalm.
“Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”
I am a newcomer to this community and this town -- in fact, it is my first visit not only to St. Paul’s but also to Palm Springs. Given that, you’d think I should be cautious about offering you directives, but I’m going to dive right in: today, you’ll really need to let go of linear thinking or a need for singular, black and white answers. You need to get comfortable with paradox. Before you get worked up, let me just say that I’m only following Jesus’ lead, as described in the Gospel of John. He is using figures of speech, as he does throughout the whole book, to try to communicate about who he is, the nature of God, and who we are. But the figures of speech are, shall we say, less than perfectly consistent. He’s talking about a shepherd. But then, surprise! He says he’s the gate, not the shepherd. But then -- wait for it -- in the very next verse, not read today, he says, actually, I am the good shepherd. We can get really worked up about all of this, and look for creative stories about shepherds in the Middle East who lay down across the gap in their sheep enclosure at night, thus being BOTH gate and shepherd (and these stories exist), or we can follow Jesus’ lead and simply explore the varied imagery; work with it.
What’s beneath the images of both gate and shepherd? The primary elements of these roles as we encounter them today seem to be protection and provision: protection from evil, from those who seek to kill or steal or destroy, and provision of life, nourishment, abundance through travel to the right places. “Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” When we hear the word pasture, it means not simply a beautiful place; it means food for life. While there are many concepts here that invite further reflection, today I’d like to focus on the paradoxical movement that runs beneath the pastoral themes of our gospel, the 23rd psalm, and even to some extent the description of the early church we heard in Acts: it seems that no matter how you parse the small details, the bigger picture of our life under the shepherding of Christ is one of coming in and going out; journey and rest; peril and protection; giving and receiving; “heading out” and then safe haven; movement to and from the enclosure.
Of course, we know this on some level -- our tradition teaches both of these aspects as essential to the life of faith. We have lots of words for these two parts of dynamic movement in and out: action and contemplation; mission and fellowship; the church that takes risks and the church that offers retreat.
Yet like so many places of paradox, it is a constant challenge to keep this equilibrium, to hold onto both elements as essential and not favor one over the other. I hope you can trust that it is no cheap shot to the church that I love, the church that raised me, that most of the church communities I have known have tended to favor the image of life in Christ as place of retreat, refuge, and peace, over the life in Christ that journeys. When I was in middle school and my parents divorced, the church was my refuge, my safe place. This is a good and holy thing. But for finding abundant life, setting out to places of risk is also essential: “the shepherd calls his own sheep by name and he drives them out; he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him.”
Wait a minute, you say. He drives them out? I thought he just “leads them.” Maybe you’ll notice that this is not the translation we heard. But it is a valid translation of verse 3: same greek word that in other cases is translated more strongly. To further venture into this theme of movement, I’d like to invite you into a fresh hearing of that old favorite, psalm 23, with the help on the Hebrew translation from Joel LeMon, an Old Testament professor at Emory University -- because I studied Greek in seminary, and not Hebrew. But here is the image of the 23rd psalm I developed over time: a somewhat sentimental one, with a beautiful but hazy image of lounging in a green pasture, a lovely place beside a lake with God where there is comfort and peace, an ultimate reality that is true even when we face death. Much of that is based on the text. But there’s also a lot missing: namely, that this psalm describes an ongoing journey that God oversees and guides, a journey in which rest and nourishment are simply one relatively small part of the picture.
Here’s a recap, with a couple translation changes and annotations that emphasize accuracy and consistency with other Hebrew texts over tradition: The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He leads me beside still waters; he leads me into well-worn grooves of goodness that glorify God; when I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; your rod and your staff -- they comfort me, because they represent protection from real and present dangers; goodness and mercy shall chase me and pursue me all the days of my life, and I shall continually return to God’s presence, my whole life long.
How is Christ, the good shepherd driving us out of our safe enclosures to find new nourishment, new life? Do we feel goodness and mercy on our heels, pursuing us even when we are not sure we’re ready to be found, not ready for the journey with God?
Today I’d like to share with you a bit of what I see and hear on the journey with the people of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in San Diego’s neighborhood of North Park, when God’s grace helps open my eyes. My husband Colin and I have been sent to St. Luke’s to serve as pastors and priests to the existing congregation, which is primarily Sudanese-American, and also to explore 21st century ways of being church and proclaiming the gospel. While we have not managed to find that perfect balance of rest and risk, either, here is where I see on the journey as the Spirit of Christ leads us, drives us, to new pastures of reconciliation and growth.
I see a petite man and his even more petite wife, filing into church week after week with their five children in tow. In the past few months, our choir has begun to sing songs in Swahili with beautiful harmonies, led by two men who have been in this community for less than 6 months with their wives and children. They are from the Congo, and so they speak French and Swahili, not English and Arabic, like most of our congregants from the Sudan. And yet when someone in the congregation caught wind that they were looking for an Anglican church back in late October, they arranged for our van to pick them up each week, because they don’t have a car. And now the choir is singing more often in Swahili than Arabic, because the choir is open to change. I hear my church leaders, most who have been in the U.S. for 15 years or more, say that they want more than anything for St. Luke’s to be a place where refugees find a sense of home, whether they are from the Sudan or elsewhere, as the church did for them. I watch them make the calls and drive the vans and visit small apartments to pray with the family when they hear a relative has died, even though they are struggling with a language barrier, just like me.
I see and hear the stream of men and women who gather in rooms below my office, singing together lines like Joni Mitchell’s “I’ve looked at life from both sides now.” They are the part of the recovery community, those who have found healing in 12-step programs; in the absence of other church programs, they have been the weekday blooms in the desert of our campus: about 16 groups meet in our facilities each week.
I see a homeless men resting on stairs when I arrive at the office in the morning, and sometimes, depending on their number, it makes me a little nervous. And in the afternoons, I see two small girls resting on the same stairs. They come with their mom, also homeless, to pick up mail and toiletries and apply for jobs, and sometimes, when I see them, I am so glad they are in our courtyard and not waiting on a busy sidewalk: both scenes are because of an organization called Uptown Community Services, which now makes its home at St. Luke’s from 9am-3pm each weekday. Uptown is a faith-based non-profit for the homeless, offering mail services, basic toiletries, and computer workstations.
I hear word from the Uptown board and staff about what good news our space brings to their guests, especially access to two bathrooms and a courtyard to rest outside for a bit in the shade.
I see shared dreams taking shape on the horizon: a grant proposal with the International Rescue Committee to develop our vacant lot into a small urban farm for recently resettled refugees, with integrated job training in a certified kitchen and pop-up cafe right in the heart of our bustling neighborhood.
I see 65 folks eating a potluck feast and listening to a reading from the Bible, but this is unlike any potluck I’ve ever been a part of before: I set the tables with my favorite handyman from AA, filled flower vases with a stay at home mom from the neighborhood and watched toddlers from her church test the vases’ stability, ate dinner with a lay leader from Sudan while listening to two friends who live on the street compare notes about the odd-jobs hunt. It was a Maundy Thursday community dinner that brought together folks from St. Luke’s, a nearby Nazarene church plant made up of young families, the recovery community, and Uptown clients. We sang a hymn that made all the Episcopalians squirm and then a woman I’d never met asked if she could wash my feet.
There is more I could share, but let’s pause there.
Colin and I are edging out of young adult status, but we still count as millennials, and we have a working theory about how evangelism, transformation, and conversion works most often with young adults. It does not belong to us, nor is it unique to us, but it finds a very welcome home with today’s gospel, and is central to our strategy at St. Luke’s: “Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. I came that they may have life, and have abundance.” Coming in, going out, abundant life: the good news Jesus gives is very dynamic, not a static outsider to insider invitation into the sheepfold.
For young adults on the lookout for truth and goodness, searching for truth with a capital T, beginning with an invitation to worship Jesus, to join the flock in the enclosure, may not be the best place to start. Inviting them to journey and work alongside Christ followers as we do the sort of reconciling kingdom work Jesus taught us to do seems like a better place to start: praying and sharing experiences of God in our lives as we try to walk in the way of Jesus, with the Spirit’s help, together. We will be recruiting folks in the neighborhood into small groups, each group organized a common project or mission that embodies in some way God’s healing and justice. As we work together, our meetings will still be oriented around prayer and a common meal. We will still talk about God, a lot. We will still rely on God’s grace. But we hope these might be communities where people see Christ at work, through transformation.
This is an initiative of the Diocese of San Diego, so in very important ways, you are already a part of this; you have joined us. What we learn will be shared with the diocese, and we hope other churches might learn from our successes and failures. We are grateful for your support of these faithful experiments.
I’d like to share one final story of journeying to unknown places. On our first Sunday at St. Luke’s, I looked out at the congregation as I gave my first homily and had a hiccup of faith. Was it Christ who had called us here? The real human differences between a young white Anglo and the pan-African elders looking up at me from the first few pews seemed, suddenly, too big. But I meekly said something about God knowing us better than we know ourselves, and a few of the ladies nodded firmly. I drew breath again, but still weakly. After the service, which had been something of an emotional rollercoaster, I felt on an even keel again as I ate the delicious potluck feast prepared to celebrate our arrival. But then something unexpected happened.
My senior warden called me over to a side table, where the matriarchs sat, the five women who often sit together after services, because they don’t speak English. They want to speak to you, Joseph said. And then, one by one, through Joseph’s words of translation, I heard the most startling and Christlike words of welcome I’ve ever encountered: We were praying for a leader, Roda said, and God sent us two. I can see in you that you seek to walk in the ways of God and will lead us, Tabisa said. God has sent us a wise daughter, and we are so happy you are here. We welcome you as a daughter and as a pastor all at once.
Do you see this feast of grace? I am a young white American woman with some slave holding ancestors who has never set foot on the great continent of Africa. Tabisa is a deacon and a war widow who raised six children through famine and violence.
There is no earthly logic that would unite us in love and trust, that would invite her to affirm and bless me. Yet in God’s kingdom, through the glorious Christ who reigns and has called and shepherds both of us, we are indeed kindred. For a moment, in the basement at St. Luke’s, that knowledge moved from my head to my heart. I enjoyed a glimpse of a world transfigured, a source of faith, a pasture I’ve never quite seen in this way: it was the grace and surprise of God’s love overwhelming tired and feeble human patterns. And those minutes were glorious, beyond compare. They echo for me still.
“Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. I came that they may have life, and have abundance.”
What voice do you hear? Where is Christ calling you -- as an individual, and as a church community -- to move, to journey, to risk, for life more abundant? We come in, and go out, and find pasture, nourishment we didn’t even know existed. Do not be afraid to leave your safe places, your safe patterns. Because God is alive, and closer than you know -- wherever you go.