Sermon for Sunday, April 29,2012
The Rev. Sam Rodman
This is a great gospel reading, and not just because it is Good Shepherd Sunday and not just because we get to hear Jesus say the reassuring words: “I am the Good Shepherd … I know my sheep and my sheep know me” This is a great gospel lesson because of what it says about the resurrection.
And by way of confession, since you all don’t know me very well, I am what you might call a resurrection groupie. I love the Easter season because of all the resurrection stories. I find them fascinating, mysterious, confounding and magnetic. I am drawn to them over and over. And even this Good Shepherd passage from John, I can’t help but see through the lens of the resurrection.
Listen to the last couple of lines again. “For this reason the father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have the power to lay it down and I have the power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.” Jesus is anticipating his own resurrection. In literary terms it is a foreshadow. And did you notice what he says about it? Jesus says something new about resurrection. Jesus says the resurrection is a command. Only John would try something this bold and extraordinary. Resurrection not as a gift, a promise, a hope, not a metaphor. It is a command. Now that is radical. Resurrection as the 11th commandment. Who could have possibly imagined this?
Well, John did. And if you don’t think he is serious, jump ahead to the next chapter. You know, the one where Lazarus is raised from the dead. The words Jesus speaks from the entrance of the tomb after he has wept for his friend are most often translated “Lazarus, Come Out!” OK that’s good, strong, forceful, but not nearly as bracing as the more literal translation: “Lazarus, Here! Now!” … Now that’s a command. And the authority Jesus draws upon to perform this miracle is the same authority that will raise him from the tomb on Easter morning. It is the commandment of God. “Here! Now!” The words should send a chill up our spines, and ring in our ears. They should shake our very bones.
The first rector I served with at St. Thomas’ Whitemarsh, PA, was a man by the name of Dick Hawkins. Dick grew up in Walpole, MA and eventually attended Episcopal Divinity School, but he was an undergraduate at West Point. And one of things they taught at West Point was something called command voice. It was all about tone and volume and an officer used it to deliver an order that was to be obeyed directly, immediately, without thought and without hesitation. The idea was that command voice would proceed from sound to action in one continuous uninterrupted motion. Jesus says “Lazarus, Here! Now!” And the dead man begins to stir, and then to rise.
But, what does this have to do with the Good Shepherd, you might ask? All this talk about resurrection. And why is it here, in the middle of Easter season, that we celebrate Good Shepherd Sunday?
Jesus says “I know my own and my own know me.” As you probably already know, sheep don’t see very well. That is why they are often considered dull and slow. But sheep have very sharp ears, and this is how sheep know their shepherd, by the sound of the shepherd’s voice.
Command voice is not the only kind of voice that a good shepherd might use, but it is a good place to start, because it gets the sheep’s attention. It wakes us up to something vital, even essential. In John’s gospel the new commandment we most typically identify with Jesus is the one that is referenced in our epistle this morning: “And this is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” This was undoubtedly spoken in a softer more gentle tone, the kind we usually associate with the good shepherd. What is brilliant about the way John weaves this gospel together is that these two commandments are related: love and resurrection. In fact, they are inseparable.
In John’s gospel Martha, Mary and Lazarus are like part of Jesus’ extended family and the bond they share is a special one. And for John, there is a deep connection between Jesus’ love for Lazarus and the words with which he raises him: “Here, now.” Just as there is a deep connection between love freely expressed or boldly offered, here and now, and the essence of resurrection power.
We actually know this already, because we experience it. In fact, we experience it often enough, that sometimes we even take it for granted. I am willing to bet that every single person in this church, at one time or another has had their spirit, their heart lifted by the love of another person. It might have been a parent, a friend, a child, a spouse. Sometimes it is simply the sound of their voice whispering, “It will be OK” or “You can do this,” or “I forgive you.” These are experiences, here and now, of resurrection power. It is a foreshadow of what is to come.
In John’s gospel, Jesus will be able to lay down his life and take it up again, because God’s love for him is so alive and present and real for him here and now that he trusts it will carry him right through his agonizing death on the cross and out the other side, to life. Life that is full of peace and joy and a power that can lift us up, again and again and again.
A prayer that I have been saying all week that celebrates this resurrection potential in our daily lives comes from Thich Nhat Hahn, a buddhist monk from Vietnam who is the author of Living Buddha, Living Christ;
Our true home is in the present moment.
To live in the present moment is a miracle
The miracle is not to walk on water
The miracle is to walk on the green earth in the present moment
To appreciate the peace and the beauty that are available now
Peace is all around us –
In the world and in nature –
And within us –
Within our bodies and our spirits
Once we learn to touch this peace,
We will be healed and transformed
It is a matter of faith and
It is a matter of practice
Often when people talk like this, it can sound like a way of soft -peddling the resurrection. That is not what I mean here. Quite the opposite. I believe that the event of Jesus’ resurrection is so powerful it literally permeates every aspect of our lives, here and now. And that our love for each other is infused with this power. And this is one of the ways Jesus continues to be our good shepherd, calling us by name, opening our eyes, helping us to experience this peace, inviting us to love more freely, more boldly, more abundantly. It is all about recognizing his voice.
A friend of mine who lives in Milton had a serious staff infection in the shoulder of his right arm about 12 years ago. When the infection was at its worst, they thought they might have to amputate his arm. In the end they were able to preserve the arm, but they had to remove the shoulder, which means, in effect, he lost the use of his right arm. He has adapted to this major change with grace, with great courage, with very little fanfare or acknowledgement. In a quiet, dignified, and unassuming way he has simply gotten on with his life.
Then, about six months ago, he received a call from a friend of a friend to say that their 17 year old son, an avid ski racer, had had a horrible fall two years earlier and, as a result, and has not, since that time, recovered any movement or motor control of his left arm. The man had heard that my friend continued to ski and to race even after he lost the use of his arm. He was calling to ask if my friend would be willing to join the family in Colorado, for a few days, and ski with his son.
Without hesitation my friend agreed to meet them, and he made the arrangements for the trip. He spent two days with the young man talking about everything from technique and balance in skiing, to driving tips, to how to cope with people who pity and patronize you. As my friend spoke about the experience last week over dinner, his eyes lit up as he relived some of their conversations. And then he said something completely unexpected. He said: “For the first time, I felt like this horrible thing that happened to me was now somehow part of a larger purpose.” A bit later in the conversation, he added: “You know I went there to try and do what I could for this young man, but I ended up saying some things to him that I have never shared with anyone, before now. It was so good just to talk …”
Jesus still speaks in many voices. Sometimes it is the command voice of one who is trying to get our attention and urgently demanding a response: “Lazarus, Here, now!” Sometimes it is the gentle voice of one speaking words of support: “You’re doing great.” Sometimes he is speaking through an invitation to reach out to someone in need, someone who may be struggling. And sometimes the good shepherd is speaking to us in and through the sound of our own voice, giving expressions to feelings long unspoken, or hurts that have been hidden deeply away.
Jesus is still our good shepherd. And he is still commanding us to love one another, the way he has loved us: freely, boldly, abundantly. And he is still lifting us up, raising our spirits, here and now, giving us, often through one another, words of encouragement, and helping us to find our own voice, These all become opportunities for us to practice the command, the gift of resurrection, … Here, Now!