The power of community

RCL Year C, 4 Easter


Well I confess, it’s a confusing Sunday to try to be preaching to you all. There’s good news and bad news, you could say. The good news is that today is the day we welcome 8 new individuals and families to our congregation, people who have decided to throw their lot in with this community as we travel forward on the path. They’ll commit to us and we’ll commit to them to support each other and be family to one another. It’s a day for celebrating.

But the bad news is that this week has been a scary one, with the bombings in Boston, the poisoned letters to government officials, the explosions in Texas, the gun control efforts not getting anywhere, and then finally the video and capture of the bombers. People have been feeling jittery and jumpy, in need of comfort and assurance. It’s not an easy week just to rejoice and celebrate together in community.

You might have noticed the theme coming through clearly in our scriptures and hymns today – it’s Good Shepherd Sunday, the day when we hear and focus on the idea of God as our shepherd, on Jesus as the good Shepherd and us as the sheep. That familiar psalm dear to so many, ‘The Lord is my shepherd – I shall not be in want.’ The reading from Revelation, with, ‘The Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and wipe away every tear from their eyes.’ The words of Jesus, saying ‘No one can snatch them out of my hand.’ These are all of them words and images we often hear and use at funerals and memorial services, times when we need comfort and assurance. So it’s good timing for this image – we need that reassurance this week of God carrying us over the thorns and through the rocks, taking us to springs of water and to safety.

Many of you called or emailed me Monday, knowing I’d been at the Boston marathon last year and might know someone there this year, and I thank you for that. As we had to do together so recently after the Newtown shootings, we instinctively came together in grief and horror and prayer, checking in with one another about how we all were. Runners all over the country did that this week, pledging to wear their race shirts to work on Tuesday in solidarity. The city of Boston went through an intense kind of community experience, finally celebrating together in the bars on Friday night. The town of West, Texas went through another kind, caring for each other in the aftermath of the explosion. On social media and in all kinds of communities, people tried to walk each other through these new tragedies. One Facebook post that got shared repeatedly was remarkably good – from the comedian Patton Oswalt, of all people. He pointed out,

You watch the videos of the carnage and there are people running TOWARDS the destruction to help out… the vast majority stands against that darkness and, like white blood cells attacking a virus, they dilute and weaken and eventually wash away the evildoers and, more importantly, the damage they wreak…So when you spot violence, or…hatred or ignorance, just look it in the eye and think, “The good outnumber you, and we always will.”

It was a reassuring reminder of what people do together in community, so much of the time. We here today at church together are doing all of that too. Here as in other communities we try to support one another, to rejoice together, to grieve together, to care for one another. We’re a force for good against the evil. We try to shepherd one another, in other words. And rather than try to summon it all up on our own, we do it with God’s help. So I guess today’s Good Shepherd Sunday welcoming is about that: welcome to the flock.

We’ve talked before about the idea of stewardship, more than just a church word for giving money. A steward is one who cares for something on another’s behalf – the owner gives something into the care of the steward, and trusts the steward to care for it as if it were his own. A bad steward doesn’t do that – doesn’t care enough to take good care of it. In today’s shepherd imagery, the shepherd is also a steward – shepherds themselves were hired to care for the sheep. They were not the owners of the flock usually, but were out with the sheep day and night making sure that they were protected from wild animals and taken to good pasture. Jesus makes a distinction between shepherds who act just as hired hands, who run away at the first threat to the flock, and the shepherd who cares for the flock as his own. The hired hands are in it for themselves. The good shepherd is in it for the owner, and for the flock. Jesus as the good shepherd is caring for his flock, God’s people, on God’s behalf. The sheep, Jesus says, know his voice and follow him.

The sheep is us, of course. We try to listen for Jesus’ voice in the midst of all the other voices we hear. Which is not always that easy, given how many voices there are to listen to. Often we don’t realize until later what voice we were hearing –recognizing God’s actions or hearing God’s voice in events that happened long ago.  The hard part, of course, is hearing and recognizing that voice in the present, especially when tragedy strikes, or things go wrong or are just plain confusing. The metaphor of the shepherd is so simple: we’re all sheep, look up in front of us and there’s the shepherd, the one with the staff in his hand, ok, we follow him. But it’s not quite that simple in our lives. That’s the problem with being one of Jesus’ sheep.  Hearing his voice and recognizing it requires a lot of wisdom and maturity and thought. Blindly following can take us down the wrong path altogether, following after a ‘hired hand’ in the words of the metaphor. Just because someone has a staff doesn’t mean he’s the shepherd, after all.

But part of being together in a flock is that we can check out with one another just what we’re hearing and seeing. We’re all sheep together, but there’s a way in which we all are each other’s shepherds as well. We are stewards of each other, caring for one another not just because it’s the right thing to do or because we like each other, but because we do it on God’s behalf. Each one of us belongs to God, as God’s beloved child. And we’ve been brought together here, even here today in this very church, as a community of God’s beloved children. Not just sheep jostling around together and waiting for direction, but children, and shepherds of one another. Which means I try to care for you with every bit as much love and attention as God has for you – and you do that for me. We look out for one another. We point each other towards the one Good Shepherd among us. And we even sometimes are the voice of that shepherd for each other – the voice that calls out the truth, points out where the light is shining, speaks words of hope in time of loss.

So today as we say the old words of the creed, and as we sing and pray together, and as we go through the ritual of welcome for our new members, I encourage you to hear the voices of all those around you. This community outweighs the evil in this world, and not just in sheer numbers. We outweigh it because we are here gathered around the light, the strong wise voice of God speaking in our midst and calling us to love more deeply than ever. Listen carefully to God’s voice in the voices around you, and know that this is stronger than any hatred or fear. The Good Shepherd has us safely in hand, in each others’ hands. All is well.