Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Fourth Sunday of Easter – May 11, 2014
In the name of God who made and knows us; the Savior, who redeems and befriends us; and the Spirit, who enlightens and sustains us. Amen.
Jesuit priest and psychotherapist, Anthony de Mello, tells this story: A Quaker put up a sign on a piece of property next to his home: “This land will be given to anyone who is truly satisfied.”
A wealthy farmer stopped by to read the sign and thought, “I might as well claim this before someone else does. I am a rich man and have all I need, so I certainly qualify.” With that he went to the door and explained why he was there.
“And art thou truly satisfied,” the Quaker asked. “I am, indeed, for I have everything I need.” “Friend,” said the Quaker, “if thou art satisfied, what dost thou want the land for?”
Today’s Gospel is a gospel about abundance—the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep, the gate to a pasture of abundance.
Abundance is a word we use quite frequently around here. We have framed our perspective around stewardship and giving with an understanding of the abundance with which God has blessed us as individuals and as a community of faith. We have moved away from the language of scarcity, acknowledging the lavishness of God’s love for us and the wealth of gifts with which God has endowed the church community. We are blessed with the richness of the diversity of our people, with wonderful sacred space, with beautiful worship and with the fertility of a vineyard that produces so many committed to the assorted ministries that support our life together.
Hospitality has been a core value of this parish for the past twelve years since we made a commitment to offering God’s radical welcome to all. One of the foremost expressions of that value has been the coffee hour. Earlier on, when there were fewer people and only one principal service, it became almost a feast every week. There were casseroles and lots of deviled eggs and tea sandwiches. Guests commented on how impressed they were with the abundance which they experienced. Time and growth and the difficulty of staffing this time for fellowship have presented some challenges to how we do and what we do with the coffee hour, which by the way some Episcopalians have suggested should be the eight sacrament of the church.
Why is it important? First, because God’s way of inviting us into communion with God has first been with food; from the manna God provided to the Hebrews in the desert to the way Jesus created abundance out of a few fish and loaves of bread to the meals he shared with outcasts to the last supper at which he gave us his own Body and Blood, the Holy Food and Drink he offers us here every week. What we do when we move from this space to our parish hall is a reflection of God’s hospitality and abundance in the church. So it is for us a community issue and we need to own it and sort it out together.
This week you will receive online a very brief survey to help us figure out how we can offer the kind of hospitality that is consistent with our overarching commitment to excellence. Printed copies will also be available next Sunday. Please complete it as soon as you can. Help us to continue to make the coffee hour an expression of God’s own hospitality to us.
It’s more than just about food. It’s about affirming for those who come that we value their presence as God values them as God’s own beloved, that we do receive them as if we were entertaining angels because, after all, who knows? It is a time for relationships to begin and be nurtured and for community to evolve and grow. It is, all joking aside, sacramental.
Today is often referred to as “Good Shepherd Sunday” because the Gospel on the fourth Sunday of Easter always includes these shepherding images of Jesus. Many sermons have been preached about sheep and shepherds and more will be every time this Sunday rolls around. I’d like to raise up a different image that is included in John’s text this morning. “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”
Jesus refers to himself as “the gate,” which is one of a number of translations of the word θυρα in the original Greek text. Another translation of the Greek θυρα is “opportunity.” How might these translations inform the way we think about the church?
A distinguished architect once declared that the most important part of a church is the front door. You might expect it to be the chancel, or the Altar, or the baptistery, but, no, he maintained quite adamantly that it is the front door. The front door is the first thing newcomers see when they walk up the path to St. Paul’s. What do those doors say about us? Well, first of all, our front doors are wide open, not just on Sunday but everyday.
Hopefully, that carries with it a clear message of invitation. And on Sunday morning, everyone who enters is welcomed by several of us. All of this is important and yet it’s what happens once we go through those doors that really matters for these doors speak to the opportunities that lie beyond.
One of those opportunities is that here God invites us to use our human capacity to imagine—to form mental pictures of the self, the neighbor, the world, the future, to envision new realities.
Theologian James Whitehead defines it as “the enduring ability to imagine life in a certain way,” in other words, learning to see the world, each other, and ourselves as God sees us.
When we pass through those doors we discover the opportunity to probe deeper into the things that make us uncomfortable, that cause us anxiety, that grieve us. Here is where we come to question the Good Shepherd about the horridness of almost 300 Nigerian school girls kidnapped by militant Islamists. We pray for their safety even as we ask why such evil exists in our world.
We remember so many other ways in which our faith is challenged: human trafficking, child abuse, pervasive gun violence, high school kids stabbing one another, terrorists threatening our safety, and the lack of abundance for so many in our world; minorities living without equal rights and those living in abject poverty.
As all of that and more weighs heavily on our hearts, Jesus invites you and me to walk through the gate, through which we might discover the God of extravagant and unconditional love—the door to safety and security, the door to the fullness of life, to the banquet and feast, to the green pastures and still waters. It is the door to mercy and goodness and grace. It is the door to the abundant life.
Like God’s all embracing, motherly arms, these doors are open to all of us and to all who are not yet here. They are icons of welcome and mirrors of the life to be discovered beyond them, where a community of sisters and brothers struggles, prays, and learns to see the world, each other, and ourselves as God sees us.
God is within us here, our Good Shepherd waiting to be acknowledged, waiting for us to break away from our real world and its craziness even for an hour, waiting for us to ask for grace and to be open to receiving it. Jesus’ shoulders are broad and strong enough to carry us all and every bit of angst, doubt, heartache, and even deep emotional baggage that comes with us. Here we are invited to grab the hand of God and obtain the energy and vitality to return to the world renewed in spirit.
“Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”