Friday, June 19, 2009


I have a new friend that has been a breath of fresh air to me. It’s nice, first, to have such a good friendly connection with someone so quickly, but more than that it’s been great to hear his perspective on some things that have bogged me -- and others -- down. If you actually read this blog you probably know me. You know some of my experiences in life, heartbreaks, joys, celebrations, and sorrows. This new friend is new, but I think that his not having the same experiences is what has been great for me.
I have a great group of friends that does its best to “strive for justice and peace among all people,” but I feel like sometimes we -- I know I do, anyway -- get too caught up in “reality.” We’ve seen votes go the wrong way too many times to get excited about the possibility of their going the right way. We have some hope, but are more prepared to grit our teeth and try again next time, planning and strategizing. I don’t think there is anything at all wrong with working out some stategery and plans and breaking barriers and building bridges. *salsa interlude* (have a dance)¡Si se puede!
And bring it back. When speaking of a friend’s being denied certification for the candidacy process he said “She’ll get it.” Just a flat “it’s going to happen.” He knew why she’d been denied it, but that didn’t matter. She’ll get it. When talking yesterday about another injustice that happens in society he said “It’ll change.” People are working for it, and it’s not good now, but it won’t last forever.
His optimism has been good for me. I talk about things’ being made right in the fullness of time (Derek Webb’s “This Too Shall Be Made Right”; “In the fullness of time put all things in subjection under your Christ…”), and I do believe that. But I think that my qualifying things with “in the fullness of time” expresses some of the cynicism and jadedness I’ve picked up only after a few years, at least to a degree.
So, what now? This friend has helped me think more about living with hope, particularly the hope of the resurrection. Yes, in the fullness of time, I believe that all things will be made right, and creation will be restored to right relationship among all its parts and to God. And there’s some hope to that statement. But I think a more matter-of-fact “She’ll get it” or “you’ll get it” is something I need to work on thinking about, particularly related to church stuff, trusting in the power of the Spirit and her mysterious ways.
As an Easter people I think we’ve been given hope about the fullness of time and all things’ being made right. We’ve been given hope about sin’s being beaten and the grave having no hold. In our baptisms we are incorporated into all of God’s mighty acts of salvation, from saving the arc in the flood to the resurrection. We’re given the spirit as a mediator and advocate and a guide to help us as we discern in community. I do my best to think of things with hope as opposed to operating out of a fear instinct. Now I need to beat back some cynicism and jadedness, too, with a little bit of optimism.

Maintaining Fellowship

I’m writing at National History Day, on 14 June 2009 and have no idea when this will actually be posted. I spent last week in Pensacola taking a break from being at home and just having some fun time with no obligations. I made it to the beach one day (of my objective of every day) and got bored there after two hours. It rained a whole lot at the beginning of the week. While I was at the beach I read through the latest Katalyst and Episcopal Peace Witness.
As I was reading the witness I came across a quotation that really “spoke” to me, as it were, particularly in light of some recent events in my life and the way I handle some situations. In Cost of Discipleship Bonhoeffer writes, “The followers of Christ have been called to peace...And they must not only have peace but also make it. And to that end they renounce all violence and tumult. In the cause of Christ nothing is to be gained by such methods...His disciples keep the peace by choosing to endure suffering themselves rather than inflict it o others. They maintain fellowship where others would break it off. They renounce hatred and wrong. In so doing they over-come evil with good, and establish the peace of God in the midst of a world of war and hate.” [emphasis added]
Some friends of mine really don’t get it, but I think that maintaining fellowship is an essential part of my theology and understanding of Christian faith. It would be a lot easier when someone drives me up the wall or leaves me hanging because they don’t think we should be friends to wash my hands of them and be done. It might make a whole lot more sense to not set myself up for the anguish of some friendships I try to maintain when people go from driving me up the wall to actually really hurting me by their words and actions.
But it’s very, very difficult for me to just be done with someone. Over the course of time I may set boundaries to keep myself from getting as hurt, but when people -- consciously or unconsciously, directly or indirectly -- hurt me, I have to seek reconciliation. In the same way the father welcomes the prodigal back with celebration and the way God welcomes us back ad infinitum (through the fullness of time, no less!), I have to try to do my best to welcome people back. And if I’m not actively pursuing a friendship (maybe as part of a boundary to keep myself from getting hurt), I feel like I have to at least keep lines of communication open: I may delete you from my buddy list so that I don’t know when you’re online, but I won’t block you. I may hide you in my stalker feed on Facebook, but again I won’t block you.
I seek reconciliation. But sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I am content to let a friendship fall to the wayside, particularly if I think that my attempts at communicating hurt are failing. But if someone seeks reconciliation, I won’t turn them away. And if someone tells me we can’t be friends anymore, I try to receive and respond to that in love and charity.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

John 10.11-18

Joseph P. Mathews, OSL
3 May 2009
4 Easter, B
John 10.11-18
In the name of God, Mother and Father; God the Son, the Good Shepherd; God the Holy Spirit, who helps us hear the Shepherd’s voice. Amen.
When I finished my last final exam as an undergraduate on Friday, I called Fr. Jeff and asked if he was busy. He said he was, that he needed to write his sermon still, and was playing catch up from his weeks away from the church. I asked him if I could come talk since I haven’t had the opportunity the last few months because of various busy-ness of being a senior. I also asked if I could preach. Somewhere or another I thought I’d preached the other two parts of John’s Good Shepherd narrative the last two years and wanted to complete the set.
By the time I’d made it back to campus I’d forgotten I had a sermon to write myself and went to the baseball game. I’m sorry, Dr. Shelton, I didn’t stay for the entire thing. I left when we were up by 12 at 8:00. If only our Trojans had had a repeat performance last night. I remembered that I had a sermon to write, and while I knew that I was preaching on part of the Good Shepherd narrative, I hadn’t actually read the text yet. But I have now. (pause for laughs and smile)
The Revised Common Lectionary splits Jesus’s description of himself as the Good Shepherd into three parts, all heard on Good Shepherd Sunday, the Fourth Sunday in Easter Season. Last year was about Jesus’s being the gatekeeper: those who come through him will be saved. This year we hear a continuation: the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep he tends and cares for them like no other. This lays a foundation for the way the Church is to take care of its own, as well.
The imagery of a shepherd is imagery with which Jesus’s first century audience would’ve been very familiar, both in their having shepherds and the language of tradition regarding a shepherd that would lead people. The Good Shepherd would have been understood as the Messiah, and the people of the day would have understood the way a shepherd and his or her sheep interacted with one another. Furthermore, they would have understood the reality of a shepherd’s self-sacrifice for the flock.
When Jesus says that he is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life, he makes a political statement: the Good Shepherd cares about the flock. The hired hand -- poor leaders, religious or civil -- turns and runs when a wolf comes. This would have especially been a challenge to the religious leaders of the day, some of whom had sold out to the wolf of Rome and allowed Judaism to become complacent in colluding with the Empire.
Jesus, however is like a good shepherd, someone who cares for the sheep, and is passionate about what he is doing. Many of you have probably had the experiencing of hiring someone who is doing something just to earn a wage or know the difference in work ethic between someone who is living their vocation, their calling in life and someone who is doing something because they have to and hate what they’re doing. This is comparable to a good shepherd and a hired hand -- one does the job fully, putting the sheep first, the other hardly does the job, leaving when adversity strikes (GBOD).
While the phrase, “I know my own and my own know me” can be, has been, and is sometimes still construed as a way of shutting people out for looking, acting, or believing differently than we do, John makes this idea hard to maintain a few verses later when Jesus says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold, I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” (Out in Scripture, 5/3/09)
Finally, this passage focuses on self-sacrifice and the way the Good Shepherd lays down his life to fend off a wolf. Jesus, the Good Shepherd lays down his life so that he can take it back up again. When Jesus laid down his life to fight off the ultimate predator of Satan and Sin, he did it with a purpose. Christ’s suffering is not like other human suffering; Christ laid down his life for his sheep against the ultimate wolf, but took it back up again. We, however, cannot save or raise ourselves. Commentators at the Human Rights Campaign note, “This passage cuts through the notion, frequently imposed on under-represented groups that our suffering is Christ-like, and we are to bear it gladly in his image. Those who construct and impose these theologies are rarely willing to imitate this lesson themselves.” (Out in Scripture, 5/3/09)
As you may know, today is my last regularly scheduled Sunday at St. Mark’s. I may be here some during the summer depending on if I come to Troy for various and sundry things, but today is the last day I know I will be here. As I read through this text while thinking about today being my last Sunday, I couldn’t help but think of parallels between this text and my experiences at St. Mark’s, both that have involved me and that I have observed.
First, the way the church, the body of Christ, the Good Shepherd has cared for the flock in so many ways. At St. Mark’s as a freshman I found a community of people who challenged my faith in a way that didn’t make me doubt, but rather pushed me to grow deeper in my walk with God. I found my first semester people who cared about me as a student, as a person, as a member of their faith community -- from talking to me about starting an edgy club on campus to telling me that I’d scraped by but gotten an A on a final to pull my math grade to an A. Today is a reversal of roles for me with many in this room having been in their own pulpits of sorts speaking to me the last four years.
It’s been my privilege to be a part of a faith community that invests its time in its members and seeks to attract and welcome new people who may be visiting from other folds and may or may not stay with us, but are a part of the same flock with the same shepherd. You at this church have emphasized continually a line from “The Church’s one foundation”: one Lord, one Faith, one Birth, regardless of how or where people express it. I saw somewhat from the outside people in this church fending off wolves by offering to provide whatever care they could when a dear friend of mine was going through major personal trouble. It’s been a pleasure to be a part of a church that has formed and nurtured me in ways that I cannot yet begin to know, spiritually and mentally.
I personally appreciate the amount of care and concern that was given to me in my ordeal around Easter with my appendix coming out, from phone calls to e-mails to an angel on my I.V. stand to an Easter basket with edible Easter grass to flowers to visits to posts on my Facebook wall, I knew that I was loved and cared for. I appreciate the way the church has sought to work to involve college students in its process and governance from electing one as a delegate to convention to helping them be there.
Jesus talks about how the sheep know him and he knows them. Chancellor Hawkins told my leadership class this semester that people want to hear their name. This year for the first time I’m able to name most of the people who speak to me. I’ve been here four years, and for much of it I’ve been addressed by name without exactly remembering who was speaking to me. Sometime during my senior year of high school my mom asked me why I liked St. Luke, my United Methodist Church so much. I tearfully told her, "They know my name."  A friend of mine’s parents had greeted me -- by name -- despite my not have done anything with them one-on-one or really in a small group. But they knew my name.
Today’s passage is about Jesus the Good Shepherd, and how the Good Shepherd cares for the flock. But caring for the flock as it is manifested today requires mutual care for one another. Writing about church community last April in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Tom Ehrich said,
“Some faith [bodies] get [the importance of community], and some don’t.  You can always tell the difference. The ones that get it make room for children, greet strangers, embrace diversity and always have time for the person who is suffering. The ones that don’t get it want children out of the way, encourage anonymity, freeze out the odd, rarely have time for human needs, and demand that people take sides in their endless squabbles.

Christianity’s health isn’t about doctrine, liturgical style, location, architecture or anything that can be bought or intellectualized. From childhood through adulthood, church is about community, places to feel safe and loved, so that we can dare to grow up, datre to make our way in the omeoneworld, dare to disagree with the powers-that-be, and dare to face death.”
In this place I have experienced the community Ehrich refers to. One of the most important things that has happened is that I’ve been dared to grow up. By that I don’t mean that I am done learning life or am fully complete in my adult maturation. But rather than treating me like a child who you’ve watched grow up or like a child or “young adult,” which is code for immature, you’ve treated me like an adult -- and expected me to treat you like adults as a peer, even when I wasn’t sure how to… and it got really tricky sometimes with the, Do I call them doctor or can I call them by their first name? This is the dilemma of going to church with one’s professors. You’ve helped me make tough, adult decisions and offered your love to me as I dare to challenge some powers that be. You’ve played a part in my discerning my call to ordained ministry, including asking some pretty tough adult questions that left me baffled in our little discernment group meetings. In this place I have learned about and seen the Good Shepherd - in the way people love one another and the way they are willing to sacrifice for one another. And for that I thank you. Alleluia! Christ is risen! Amen.