Sunday, April 29, 2012

29 April 2012 -- 4th of Easter

4TH SUNDAY OF EASTER — 29 April 2012
Trinity, Iowa City – 11:00 am
Baptism of Peter 

Acts 5:4-12  |  Psalm 23  |  1 John 3:16-24  |  John 10:11-18

“I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”  [John 10:11]

   [Good Shepherd Window]


   Lots of us really like this window!  Others of us, not so much.  But I’m not going there.

   The thing is, “awww!” isn’t really all that appropriate a thing to say about sheep.

   How many of you grew up on a farm where you raised sheep?  (Yes, you can count grandma and grandpa’s farm where you went in the summer.)  Yeah, me neither.  I grew up in cities.  It was easy to go to Sunday School in an urban church and be sentimental about sheep.

   In the Gospel reading today, Jesus is not being sentimental about sheep.  Jesus frequently talks about sheep.  Jesus talks about the real world in which he and his followers and his hearers live.  Jesus doesn’t talk a lot about “religion” – whatever we mean by that.  Jesus talks about fish, and wheat, and olive trees, and vineyards.  And about sheep.  Remember his story about the lost sheep?  The Hebrew Scriptures talk a lot about sheep, too.  As we heard in Psalm 23 today (“The Lord is my shepherd”), or as in Psalm 100 (“We are [God’s] people and the sheep of his pasture”), or Psalm 80 (“Hear, O Shepherd of Israel, leading Joseph like a flock”).  Recall that the ancestors of Israel (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) were all shepherds, as was Moses after he fled from Pharaoh’s court in Egypt into the Sinai desert, as was David before he was anointed as Israel’s King (“I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep, to be prince over my people Israel” [2 Samuel 7:8]).

   So the Bible talks a lot about God’s people (that would be:  all people, folks!  "So there will be one flock, one shepherd."  [John 10:16b]) -- God's people being the sheep of God’s flock, and about Jesus as our good shepherd, but there isn’t anything sentimental or cute about it.  Jesus is not complimenting us.  Sheep are not cute.  The shepherd searching for the lost sheep was probably muttering under his (or her) breath pretty good, but he still looked high and low, and rejoiced when the lost one was found.

   What I hope all this business with sheep makes clear to us is that God loves us, God cares for us, God rescues us even at the cost of life itself, and this is not because we deserve it, and certainly not because we are so cute, but just because!  Just because that’s who God is.

   I was wandering through a greeting card department the other day, and saw a card for Mother’s Day that said, “As we used to tell the children, I’ll show you unconditional love when you’ve earned it!”

   Well, I’m afraid there are some parents who are really like that.  God is not like that.

   Yet we just can’t get it out of our heads that that is what God is like.  God will love me, if I behave myself.  God will care for me, when I am a good boy.  God will save us, if we can demonstrate that we deserve it.   When we can prove that we have earned it.

   And that’s wrong.  And we know up here somewhere that it’s wrong.  And yet we still won’t let go of it.  We just seem to be unable to get it, that God’s love is free gift.  And “free gift” means FREE GIFT.  The gift of life, fullness of life, wholeness of life, now and beyond.  

   Jesus told a story – I expect you know this story – about a man who had two sons.  [Luke 15:11-31]  Well, the younger son was an arrogant little snot, and he talked Dad into advancing him his share of the inheritance, and he went off to the big city and blew it all living high on the hog.  Which meant that he ended up living low with the hogs.  That was a bummer.  “What can I do now?”  he asked himself.  “I can’t just go home.  Well, maybe if I kind of sneak home, and really moan and whine about how awful I’ve been, maybe they’ll send me out some leftovers to eat on the back porch.”  So he’s shlumping up the alley so he can knock at the back door, but his dad is out in the yard and sees him coming, and runs out to him and throws a giant hug on him before the boy can even finish his little rehearsed speech.  “You’re just in time for dinner!’ he cries, and he hauls him into the dining room and sits him down beside him at the table.

   That’s how God is.  This is a story about grace.

   You probably also remember that the older brother is now in a snit (as older brothers are wont to be), because his little bro didn’t deserve that kind of unconditional love.  He hadn’t earned it.

   No, he hadn’t.  Neither have you.  Neither have I.  Neither had St. Francis.  Neither had Mother Teresa.  It doesn’t matter!  “Deserving” and “earning” don’t have anything to do with it.

   Yes, but…!   Yes, but…!   Yes, but what about all my sins?  Isn’t God offended by my sins?  We’ve pretty much always thought God is offended by our sins.  We very frequently say it.  (If you root around in the Book of Common Prayer you’ll probably find some stuff like that.)  I don’t believe that God is offended by our sins.  (God isn’t all that easily offended, and the things that do offend God might surprise us.)  But I do believe that God is deeply grieved by our sins.  Because our sins damage and even destroy ourselves, and our sins damage and even destroy each other, and (as we are becoming increasingly aware) our sins damage and even destroy the world that God created for us to live in.  God does not want us to destroy ourselves, or each other; God grieves over us, because God loves us.  God wants us to be whole, and not to be broken.  And sin breaks us, and sin breaks others, and sin breaks the world.  And so what we need to do about that is to come home.  To accept God’s love.  To let God make us whole, and to make each other whole, and to make God’s world whole again.

   Today, in a few moments, we will celebrate Peter’s baptism.  Baptism means a great many things, but suffice it for now to say that baptism is an effective sign of God’s love, God’s free love, welcoming us into the new life of the Body of the Risen Christ.  Some of our Christian brothers and sisters believe it is important that we be able to make a mature profession of faith; and growing into mature faith is indeed important for all of us.  But life is a gift, not a wage, and where is life more obviously a gift than in an infant?  We don’t earn this gift of God’s love by anything we do, by anything we achieve, by anything we prove, by anything we deserve, by any theology we profess.  God loves us.  “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  [Luke 12:32]  The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.  Just because.

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