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“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters.”
First, this morning I must begin with some sad news that some of you may not have heard. Paul Brockman, a beloved member of our congregation, died shortly after midnight on Wednesday after a long battle with cancer.
Paul loved all of you, and he loved this parish, and he loved the Episcopal Church. He was a member of our Vestry, and of the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Virginia, and he served ably at two of our national General Conventions, the highest governing body of our denomination.
This morning I would like us to offer our Holy Eucharist to the Glory of God in the memory of Paul, and in thanksgiving for his courage.
There are times in my life and ministry among you when I catch a glimpse of how very thin is the line between this world and the next. This was one of those times.
All of us who were with Paul at his bedside could sense he was being healed as he slipped from us into the next dimension of life wherever or whatever that is.
I believe healing really does come to all of us no matter who we are, or what we have done or not done. It is not ours to earn, but only to have, and if we are perceptive, to notice.
In the 23rd psalm, there is a line that translated in traditional English says this: “He restoreth my soul.” But a better translation from the Hebrew is this: “He restores my whole self.”
All of me. All of you.
If there is any psalm – any biblical words – deeply imbedded in our culture, it is the 23rd psalm.
But this morning we also hear these words from John’s gospel, and they seem to cut sharply against this very idea:
“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.”
And then this: “I am the gate,” Jesus says in John’s gospel. “Whoever enters by me will be saved.”
The passage begs the question: Who is on which side of the gate? Who are the sheep, who are the bandits?
Who is saved? Am I? Are you?
These words, and others like them, have haunted the Church for all of its existence. The words seem to say if you don’t enter the sheep pen a certain way, through Jesus, you will be left out.
And where does that leave most of humanity that is not Christian, or even a particular kind of Christian? Did God create humanity to leave most of it outside the gate?
The fact is, Christianity has spent most of its existence arguing over that question. I recently read a book, The Jesus Wars, by Phillip Jenkins, that tells the very bloody story of how orthodoxy came to be in the 4th and 5th centuries, with bishops excommunicating and burning each other at the stake over their arguments about the nature of the shepherd standing at the gate.
Was Jesus God? Was he human? Was he both? If he was both, how do we understand and explain that?
Was he the substance of God masquerading in human form, or human with God substance all at once?
Did he have a human will guided by God, or the single will of God? If you lived in the 5th century, you best be careful how you answer; any answer would have marked you as a heretic in the eyes of someone.
The words of Jesus – about love, forgiveness, and selfless giving and servanthood – virtually disappeared in those centuries. It is a miracle those teachings survived at all.
My only solace in this is the realization that our church arguments today are rather tame in comparison.
At the core of those arguments – then as now – is who is included? Who receives the blessing? Who is on what side of the sheep fence?
One way of hearing these words is Calvinistic – that humans are dirty animals like sheep, and are in constant need of tending. We need to be careful of who gets inside the fence because if the bandits get in, we are all in danger.
Yet there might be another way to hear this as an echo of the 23rd psalm.
“The gatekeeper opens the gate,” Jesus says in the gospel, “and the sheep hear his voice.”
This shepherd knows us by name – each and every one of us, as the gospel puts it:
“The sheep follow him because they know his voice.”
I am convinced that this shepherd calls to everyone on this planet, in words they understand, and brings to them healing and wholeness.
Why would we think that the Shepherd can’t speak to a Muslim or a Buddhist or a Jew or a Hindu in the language and symbols that they understand? Who are we to put a limit on the shepherd?
Elsewhere in John’s gospel (10:16), the shepherd says this: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.”
The common core values of every world religion are love and hope – and that, I believe, is how God intends this world to be. God finds people in every corner of this globe and reaches them in ways unique to them.
Yet, there is an even deeper level to this gospel than this. Each of us has a part of ourselves that is good, healthy and blessed.
And each of us carries burdens that wound and hurt us, and steal from us the best of ourselves.
The shepherd will bring the best of who you are inside the gate to be healed and made whole, and leave the worst outside the gate.
“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly,” Jesus says, and that is the core of the gospel.
The parts of us that hurt us, our wounds, our diseases – all that harms us – will left outside gate, sometimes here in this world, and sometimes in the next, and the line between the two is really very thin.
That is the meaning and purpose of God’s Grace.
I was powerfully reminded of this reality with Paul Brockman this week. Even in the tears of his leaving this life, the blessings of healing and hope were coming forth all around us, and all of us with him could feel it.
“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
“You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over.Art: Russian Orthodox mosaic of the the Good Shepherd.
“Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.” AMEN