Community is Us – May 12, 2019

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Sermon preached by the Reverend Louise Kalemkerian, Associate Priest
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Fourth Sunday of Easter

In the name of the Shepherd who calls us each by name, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.  AMEN.

This is the Fourth Sunday of Easter, the middle Sunday of the season, always known as Good Shepherd Sunday.  For reasons I don’t know, the 4th Sunday of Easter always signals a shift from Jesus’ resurrection appearances toward the Pentecost event.

In today’s readings we are presented several times with the familiar shepherd motif. The text from Revelation declares that the “lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd” and the Gospel reading is about belonging to God, as sheep belong to a shepherd. Perhaps nowhere is this metaphor more poignantly presented than in beloved Psalm 23, which assures us that God the shepherd guides, leads and restores us, even in the darkest of times.

The Gospel calls us back to a time before the Crucifixion, as Jesus is walking in the temple. The Temple, built by King Solomon to the glory of God, had been destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BCE when they conquered the Israelites.  Remnants of it remained, including The Portico of Solomon. Jesus is in Jerusalem for the Feast of the Dedication, when the restored Temple was re-consecrated in the 2nd century BCE.

As he is walking, as the text says, the Jews gather around him questioning, perhaps taunting him. “C’mon, Jesus, how long will you keep us in suspense? What’s the deal? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”  It’s important to remember that throughout John’s Gospel the references to “the Jews” are not to the Jewish people as a whole but to those religious authorities who are disputing among themselves about Jesus.

Jesus replied that his life and teaching had already provided all the evidence any one could ask. Jesus’ teaching and healing ministry was well-known; in the previous chapter of John is the story of Jesus healing the man born blind.  Everything Jesus had done had been done in the name of God.

Jesus’ challengers wanted a straightforward response from him saying, “tell us the truth, plainly.” Tradition taught that the Messiah would be a powerful king and drive out the oppressors and rule with justice for the poor and weak, restore right worship, and bring a golden age of prosperity.  And Jesus would certainly not be that.  He knew if he answered in the affirmative, his enemies would accuse him of blasphemy and even try to stone him.

Jesus refuses the bait. Instead, as he often did, he turns the question back to them, saying, “I have told you and you do not believe,” with a discernable impatience in his voice. How has he told them? His works, he says, testify to who he is. There is plenty of evidence, he assures them. The real issue, he tells them, is their own unbelief.

Actions speak louder than words, as the adage says. Jesus points to his deeds. “The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me.” People come to know the truth of a person by how that person lives and acts. That’s what Jesus was saying; look at what I’ve done, and then decide who I am. Which is all any of us can do.

Jesus says his sheep know who he is, that they recognize him and follow him, while others don’t. A text like this seems exclusionary.  As if some are in and some are out.  It makes me uncomfortable. These words seem not to be the Jesus I know.  I think what Jesus is saying is that we can choose to follow him or not.  That exclusion is self-imposed.  That God wants relationship with each and every one of us. That Christ is the one who initiates a relationship with us sheep; we do not make him our shepherd; he calls us each by name.[1]

And at the same time we can opt in or opt out. Which I do, from time to time.  That some days I’m better at following Jesus than others.  That some days I believe more.  That some days I reflect Jesus’ love and care for others better than other days. Like Mary’s little lamb some days I follow Jesus to school, and other days I decide to sleep in.

And what helps me stay connected to Jesus is relationships.  People.  Friends.  Loved ones.  As Richard Rohr says, “Humans are not independent substance, nor is any part of creation; it all exists in radical relationship … I would name salvation as simply the readiness, the capacity, and the willingness to stay in relationship. As long as you show up with some degree of vulnerability, the Spirit can keep working. Self-sufficiency makes God experience impossible!”[2]  My friends, we need each other.

As far as I know, sheep function mostly in flocks.  (PS – I have no experience with farms or farm animals). With other sheep. With sister and brother sheep in Jesus’ flock.  In other words, this isn’t about me; this is about us, together. We learn to follow Jesus, to recognize Jesus, to serve Jesus with others in community.

Brother Curtis Almquist, SSJE puts it this way: “There is no private faith in Jesus; it is always a public faith: personal yet public.  Jesus always worked with groups.  He spoke to groups, he fed groups, ate with groups, healed people in groups.  When we read he encountered individuals, they were representatives of a group, or he sent these individuals back to groups.  Saint Paul said these groups of Jesus’ followers were like a body: very diverse parts – a foot is very different from an eye – but these parts are absolutely interconnected and interdependent. It’s not about me, individually, or you, individually; it’s about us.”[3]  We, you and I, are Jesus’ sheep together.

This communal identity for the followers of Jesus –– will inform everything.  It will inform how we treat one another – our ways of speaking and listening to one another, our kindnesses, our offering of forgiveness and peacemaking, and the sharing of our resources.  Our belonging to one another will make us especially attentive to those who are different from us.  Jesus talks about this repeatedly: our belonging to one another because we all belong to God.[4]

It’s in community, in the daily, hourly business of trying to live out the example of Jesus, the business of walking in the Shepherd’s footsteps, is how we learn to belong to one another.  In living in the company of fellow sheep we learn to follow. We belong to the flock, we have a place among the sheep, we eat at the Table, we bring our children for baptism and we pray that we grow in relationship with and trust in the Shepherd.  Together, we belong before and as we grow into believing.

Remember the prayer Jesus gave us, the Our Father.  Not my Father. And all the petitions in that prayer are plural. We belong to one another; we need one another.  We all bear God’s image. And all persons are loved totally, unconditionally by the Shepherd.  Belong, Jesus says.  Consent to belong.  Belief will follow.

During this transition time, the need for community, particularly this St. Paul’s community, is stronger than ever. You and I are the ones to keep its strength up.  We each are called to make a conscious effort to uphold our values of radical welcome, hospitality, social justice, inclusion. As our beloved rector Fr. Lang retires, we need to work with one another, support one another, listen to one another, be patient with one another, honor, trust,, love one another.  Some things no doubt, will be different than before .  Change will happen.  And the community of St. Paul’s will continue to thrive. If you have questions or concerns, please speak to the wardens.

Know that God loves and cares for us all the time, through this process.  Remember too that this is God’s church, and God is in charge; we are the stewards of it. And it is still Easter!

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

[1] Bartlett, David L.. Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Kindle Locations 14904-14909). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

[2] Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation, May 9, 2019,

[3] Curtis Almquist sermon, The Marks of Mission, April 12, 2016.

[4] Ibid.

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