Sermon delivered by the Rev. Cristina Rathbone
May 8, 2022
John 10:22: At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.
Our Shepherd, the Lamb
It is good to be back! It was wonderful to be away with my family, and it was very good and important to finally meet most of the clergy of the diocese face-to-face at clergy conference, and… It is really, really good to be back. Thank you Steve and Lee and John and Kathy and Pennie and Annalise and all of you, really, each in your own way, for caring for each other the way you do, and for offering yourselves to each other in ways that birth life and love and that sustains this powerful little community…
I think most of you know that part of the reason I went to Miami was that my extended family was gathering there to celebrate the wedding of my niece Margarita. I was asked to preside at the wedding which I was honored and grateful to do, and it’s only true to say that – as always happens before weddings – I found myself growing increasingly nervous as the hour of the ceremony approached. It was being held outside, on the beach, and many people worked long and hard to make it beautiful, but for me the tone of the event was ultimately set by a cousin of the groom – a differently abled woman who was led to a chair lined up in the sand close to the front of what was becoming our worship space a full hour and a half before the ceremony began.
Olivia was a small woman, dressed smartly in bright pink shirt and fresh white trousers for the occasion, and when her companion sat her down in the very hot sun I went over to see if she wouldn’t prefer sitting in the shade. “Oh no!” she said, beaming. “I LOVE the sun” and then she settled in with joy so bright and true that a few minutes later when the wedding planner arrived with her lists and her requirements and her worries, I kept finding myself sneaking away to hang out with Olivia in-between things. First, I brought her my back-pack: “Could you look after this for me?” I asked. “Oh yes!” She replied with what felt like real gratitude, and then took it on her lap like a cat and held it gently and happily there. Later, when no one could agree whether the groomsmen should stand in front of or behind the flowers, I snuck away to bring her a drink of water. I asked her if she liked weddings and she said she loved them. “…and I love embroidery too,” she added with an even bigger burst of joy, and we laughed again then and made toasts with our plastic cups of cool water to embroidery and to pink and purple which were her favorite colors and to friends and to the sand and the sun until I knew that with her – with the openness of her heart and her joy in simply being present – that we would all be fine, and, more than that, that – as long as we had eyes to see and hearts to feel — we would all be led by her to the still and bright waters of communion and joy. And so it was. So it was….
But why am I talking so much about this wonderful woman, Olivia? Well, because this is Good Shepherd Sunday, and because for me, at least, Olivia was the shepherd of us all at my wonderful neice’s wedding. The wedding planner was the person in charge, of course, and whatever she said went, and in the end she and I did manage to wrestle a lovely ceremony from out of the chaos and the stress. But from her position of supposed weakness, it was Olivia who led us to the center of the heart of the event which was, of course, joy and love and celebration and togetherness.
I’ve thought a lot about Olivia as I’ve sat with the gospel passage this past week. In fact, I’ve started to wonder whether her form of leadership – gentle, full of love and vulnerability and weakness – isn’t related quite closely to the way that Jesus himself leads us out of our own chaos – and also our own attempts to control it – into the living waters of freedom and peace. Because here’s the thing: before Jesus ever claimed the mantle and authority of being ‘The Good Shepherd’, he was the lamb, right? The lamb of God, who in his smallness and his weakness and his vulnerability and his gentle obedience saved us all.
In fact, wasn’t it just this quality of being lamb that made him such a good and trustworthy shepherd in the first place? He began his life on earth, after all, not as a person apart, but as one of the flock just like us – as small and weak and needing of love and care to grow as the rest of us. Later, and again, his ministry started not with any kind of power or clout but with a humble request to be baptized along with the rest of the flock – thousands of typically hopeful and despairing and muddled up human-beings-in the fast running waters of the Jordan. And even after that, as he grew in strength and clarity becoming a shepherd and a guide unlike any before him through his work with others and his prayer, he retained this quality of gentleness and humility so that even when he most clearly harnessed and then channeled the power of God Godself on our behalf; when he healed the demoniac, for example, or fed the five thousand, or raised Lazarus from the dead, he did so as both shepherd and lamb, right up to the end when he willingly submitted to death on a cross and then, after three days, rose again.
Both strong and weak, then, both lover and beloved, both shepherd and lamb, Jesus’ role was always the same: to guide us into the green pastures of freedom and peace and to free us from fear by feeding us instead with the everlasting food of goodness and mercy and love. And the truth is he did it more often with humility and littleness than as competent person in charge. In fact, from start to finish he sloughed off his power-to-control in favor of simply being and remaining with his flock as the force of pure love. It’s just who he was. It’s just how he was. And of course it’s just who and how he is right now, too – for and with us.
A good shepherd indeed… except the word ‘good’ isn’t quite right it turns out. Or at least isn’t the only option. The word in the original Greek is Kalos which can just as legitimately be translated as ‘beautiful’, or ‘perfect’, or ‘wonderful’. So how does The Wonderful Shepherd sound to you? Or The Beautiful and Perfect Shepherd? Perhaps it’s just me, but even these small word changes return the surprise and make room for the image of Jesus as both lamb and shepherd to come to life again. And given the state of the world as it is right now; given the state of humanity as we are right now – in the Ukraine of course, but also right here in this country where racism and strife and division continue to hold sway – well, enough to say for today at least that we need a perfect shepherd more than ever. A wonderful shepherd. A shepherd who is also a lamb…
So, here’s a question for you: who are the lambs among us today? Can you think of someone in particular? And where might they lead us if we let them become shepherds, even for a time? Where would we go…? Who would we become….?