Read Martha’s Sermon from April 21, 2013
(To print out this sermon, click here for a .pdf file.)
St. Margaret’s Church
Easter 4, Year C
April 21, 2013
The Rev. Martha Kirkpatrick
Acts 9:36-43; Ps. 23; Rev. 7:9-17; John 10:22-30
This gospel lesson should have us on high alert. Why? Because it’s too easy to be lulled into what we think it says, what we’ve been taught and conditioned to think it says. And that is a problem. There are words that should wake us up. First, whenever we hear the words “the Jews” we need to pay attention. And whenever we hear words attributed to Jesus along the lines of “those who believe in me” we need to pay attention. Whenever we hear words attributed to Jesus that appear to set up an “us” and “them” we need to pay attention.
“The Jews.” We know what John did not mean, which is how we would understand the word today, to refer to people who are of the Jewish faith, which by definition are not followers of Jesus. This would be anachronistic reading, and as we know Jesus was a Jew, the disciples were Jews, and Paul was a Jew. Scholars do not know exactly what John meant by “the Jews.” The likely references are either geographical — referring to “the Judeans” — or to the religious authorities, especially those particular Jewish authorities who were opposed to Jesus, and not all of them were.
Next there is “you do not believe, [therefore you do not belong.”] Believing and belonging. We think of this as a head thing: “I have thought about this, and I have come to accept certain propositions about Jesus, about God, as truth. And I go to church regularly where these opinions are shared and reinforced.” This is not what John means. Jesus didn’t go around erecting churches to himself. Jesus doesn’t mean here “people who have accepted credal statements about me.”
Remember that Jesus is wisdom incarnated. Jesus came as a wisdom teacher, a teacher of the transformation of consciousness. When we listen to this gospel story with that in mind, things open up and start to make sense.
To begin with, the followers of Jesus didn’t take a belief test. They didn’t sign on to a Creed. Jesus hadn’t said “plainly” to them “I am the Messiah” in a way that convinced their rational minds. They recognized him. In the Gospel of John, it is not Jesus that call the disciples, but the disciples who see, recognize, experience and follow Jesus. Something inside them recognized him and said “yes.” A while back I had us recite the Creed substituting “we give our hearts to” for “we believe.” This is much closer to the original language. This idea of “belief” as a head thing is not what the word “credo” means. When Jesus says “you do not believe” we might better understand it as “your heart has not found its way to me,” in a “raw immediacy of presence.” We know Jesus by coming into contact with our own direct knowingness. (CB, The Wisdom Jesus, 7). “Stop waiting for the words to come out of my mouth that convince your rational brain,” Jesus is saying to his challengers. Come and see. Experience, and know. Open your hearts. Allow yourself to be transformed from the inside.
This in turn helps understand what we might mistakenly read as a “you verses them” in the text. Believers and nonbelievers. Belongers and outsiders. Innies and Outies. This is dualistic thinking, and dualistic thinking is not of Jesus. But sometimes we need to make distinctions in order to move forward. We need to see how we are asleep by holding up the example of others who are awake. We need the example of people whose hearts are fully alive to Christ within. And when we experience this, we need to bear witness to it, so others can see. When we are in touch with our own inner knowing, it’s not a light that we’re meant to hoard to ourselves, but to be that light to illumine the way for others. It is available to everyone! We all need the example of people who know Jesus so that we too may recognize Jesus from our own place of inner knowing. Cynthia Bourgeault calls this “recognition energy. … the capacity to ground-truth a spiritual experience in your own being.” and the gospels are built on it. (CB, The Wisdom Jesus, 8).
It is experience. It is “come and see.” It is “see the works that Jesus does in the name of God.” That is the truthing that we know within, through our own experience.
One of the recognition touchstones for people in Jesus’ day was the image of the good shepherd, which is found throughout today’s readings (as it is Good Shepherd Sunday). Given who we are and the times we live in and how many shepherds we know, we may struggle with this image intellectually, if we just leave it up to our brains. But not, perhaps, if we can let ourselves rest in the image, and how it feels, and how we experience it.
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.”
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.”
We walk through the valley of the shadow of death many times in our lives. This has been such a week. Joy and celebration are violently interrupted by bombs made of kitchenware and packed with nails and pellets with the sole purpose of injuring people. A week when an explosion in the town of West Texas at a fertilizer factory that kills many people and wipes an entire town off the map is the second news story. Images on the news of streets that are familiar to us, places we have often walked, visited on school vacations; many of us have lived there. An event that has always been a joyful hallmark of civic pride, now marred by violence, injury and death. A city in lockdown as the police hunt for a 19-year-old.
Where is the good shepherd, in the midst of all this? How do we recognize Jesus and know Jesus in the midst of these horrors?
“The works I do in my Father’s name testify to me,” the Gospel says. The reading from Acts helps us to see how this plays out. Living in a time and place that was dangerous and fraught with violence, Tabitha, the only woman called a disciple in Acts, knew Jesus. Peter knew Jesus. To know Jesus is to hear Jesus’ voice is to open ourselves to the power of God working through us. This remarkable woman, who clearly gave so much of herself through her quiet servant ministry, was beloved of her community. She gave so much to them, and they gave her her life back. Peter raised her, but it was the community who called him there in the first place. Together they became a community of resurrection hope and new life.
“The works I do in my father’s name testify to me.” Her community saw God through Tabitha’s work, and Peter’s. So we ask ourselves, in the midst of all that has happened this week, where have you seen God at work? Whose hands, whose actions, have been lights in the midst of darkness?
Lots of people’s, I think. How about Martin Richard, the 9-year old boy who was killed, who had written a year ago “no more hurting people”? And there are the people who ran toward the explosion to tear down the metal barricades to get to the wounded. The good shepherd was in the prayers and comfort that went out to the people of Boston as they spent the day inside their houses in lock-down, as the hours tick on, waiting for something to break, not knowing what it would look like or how it would resolve. “He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.” We recognize God in people who refuse to succumb to fear. “I shall fear no evil.”
Brokenness and loss, grief and vulnerability; we’ve seen it all this week. Yet when we know Jesus from the inside, we know that whatever happens we are in the hands of Jesus. Knowing we are in the hands of Jesus gives us the serenity and confidence and power to be the hands of Jesus.
“Surely goodness and mercy shall pursue me all the days of my life. And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Amen.