Sunday, May 03, 2009

The Gospel According to Whoopi

Fourth Sunday of Easter – Year B (RCL)
Acts 4:4-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:1-18
Sunday, May 3, 2009 –
Trinity, Redlands

“I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.”

Who among us doesn’t get a warm, fuzzy feeling when we hear today’s Gospel lesson invoking the imagery of Christ as the good shepherd? I would hazard a guess that most of us, upon hearing this story, or any of the similar Gospel stories such as the parable of the lost sheep, recall the various paintings or stained glass windows we have seen depicting Jesus as a shepherd – such as this window here in our own church. Such images always depict Jesus holding a lamb, looking caringly down at it, while the lamb gazes at Jesus with a look of peace and contentment. And at Jesus feet, there are generally several other sheep, looking up at him in grateful adoration. When seeing such images, we cannot help but identify with the lamb in Jesus’ arms or the sheep at his feet, feeling that sense of peace and contentment, of being cared for, of grateful adoration for the One who is our shepherd. After all, that was Jesus’ intent. We are the sheep, and he is the one who shepherds, who tends those under his care – his sheep, us.

But when we really stop and think about the imagery being presented, should we really feel all warm and fuzzy? By all rights, we should probably actually be a little offended. The imagery Jesus uses to describe us, his followers, is that of sheep. Have you ever stopped to think what sheep are really like? They are basically stupid, senseless animals who have a tendency to wander off and get in trouble if not watched every moment. They don’t follow directions. They want to do their own thing. And left to their own devices, they have a tendency to get themselves in some pretty difficult predicaments. Sheep require a lot of watching, a lot of care and guidance, to keep them out of trouble, to keep them safe from harm, to keep them alive.

Wait a minute. That does sound an awful lot like human beings, doesn’t it? I mean, as much as I hate to admit it, I probably have more qualities of sheep than I care to acknowledge. And who of us couldn’t use some occasional help and guidance to keep us on track and out of trouble?

Now I certainly don’t mean to disrespect any of you or to denigrate the human race. And I honestly do not think that Jesus, in using the imagery of sheep and shepherd, was intending to offend his followers. In the rural, pastoral society of Jesus’ time, the image of sheep and shepherd would have been common, one to which nearly everyone could relate, at least on some level. It was a convenient image to convey the sense of caring and concern that Jesus was attempting to impart to his followers.

And in conveying this imagery of sheep and shepherd, Jesus actually manages to take it to another level, at least as applied to the relationship between sheep and shepherd, between Jesus and us, his followers. Remember, Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd” but followed it up with the statement, “I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” Jesus is talking about not just tending his sheep, but of actually knowing them. Tending sheep is not just his job. The sheep under his care are not just objects to be looked after. Those under his care are individual beings whom he knows. What did he say? “I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” He relates his knowledge of his sheep, of those he is charged to care for, in terms of relationship. As one commentator notes, this knowledge “is not something abstract but realistic, concrete, grounded in love and mutuality” (Heen, 41). We’re not just talking about casual acquaintances. Jesus really knows his sheep. He really knows us. Jesus says he knows us just as his Father knows him and he knows his Father. Jesus is not talking about any relationship. He is talking about intimate, caring relationship.

When you consider that Jesus is talking about an intimate caring relationship with his sheep, with those under his care, there is much more to what Jesus is saying in today’s Gospel. There is much more about what he wants for us than to just keeping us together and out of trouble. Perhaps a modern-day equivalent of this broader story is contained in one of my favorite moves, Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit. For those of you who may not have seen this absolutely delightful movie, it and the first Sister Act movie are about a Las Vegas lounge singer named Deloris Van Cartier, played by Whoopi Goldberg. In the first movie, Deloris goes into a witness protection program, whereupon the police hide her in a San Francisco convent, where she masquerades as a nun, Sister Mary Clarence. As Sister Act 2 begins, she is back in Las Vegas. The nuns she befriended in the first movie need her help to teach the music class at the high school they serve. So, Deloris dons a habit once again, and goes to Saint Francis High School in San Francisco, reprising her masquerade as Sister Mary Clarence.

Sister Mary Clarence is immediately placed in the position of being shepherd to a bunch of unruly sheep. Her students are a bunch of undisciplined, street-wise kids from the poor neighborhood surrounding the high school. They are not interested in school. They just want to hang out on the streets, have fun, and coast through high school by taking easy classes, like music (okay, for some us, that would not be easy, but hey . . .).

As she attempts to tend, to reign in her sheep, Sister Mary Clarence comes to recognize that her students, who are resistant to her attempts to make them work, do have musical talent, although not of the type proscribed by the school curriculum. She sees great potential in these kids – a group of kids that many of the teachers, the school administration, and other adults have written off as being useless with no future. In the process of working with the students, she manages to instill a little discipline, teaches them to harness their energy and their talent, teaches them the importance of teamwork, and turns them into a choir. When she started working with them, they were uncooperative, getting into trouble, and couldn’t work together to save their lives. By the time she was done, they were a choir – a choir that manages to make it to the finals of a state choir competition.

Sister Mary Clarence was made shepherd over a bunch of unruly sheep. Despite their resistance and lack of discipline, she saw potential in them. Because she loved them, cared for them, and wanted the best for them, she was willing to work with them and to help them discover and realize that potential.

I think that when Jesus says he is the good shepherd, what he is really saying is that he is a shepherd to a bunch of unruly sheep, who have a tendency to wander off and get in trouble, in the same way that Sister Mary Clarence was shepherd to a bunch of unmotivated, undisciplined, street-wise students. And just like Sister Mary Clarence, Jesus sees the potential in his sheep. He sees the potential in us. This is all because he is not just tending sheep. He is in relationship with us – intimate relationship. Because he loves us, cares for us, and wants the best for us, he is willing to work with us and to help us realize our potential. The difference between Jesus and Sister Mary Clarence is that while Sister Mary Clarence, or rather Deloris Van Cartier, was willing to put her Vegas career on hold for a few months to help her sheep realize their potential, Jesus was willing to put his life on the line for his sheep. He was willing to go to the cross, to suffer and to die, for the sake of his sheep. He saw such potential in us that he was willing to do whatever it took so that that we might discover and realize that potential. Sister Mary Clarence gave her sheep a new chance that they might realize their potential. Jesus gave us new life that we might realize ours.

Part of this process of discovery and realization of our potential means taking responsibility for our actions. For us Christians, those called into the Body of Christ, that means a double whammy. Not only are we responsible for ourselves, we are also responsible for the realization and well-being of the entire Body. For us, that means the church. As we’ve already noted, Jesus tells us “I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” This statement doesn’t just point to the love and mutuality inherent in the relationship between Christ our shepherd and us, his sheep. As related to us, this knowledge, this love and mutuality, “flows from the love of God through Christ to abide in the church. Christ, who shares this mutuality both with God and with humanity, is the only and perfect mediator between heaven and earth” (Heen, 41). Christ is the mediator between God, the Creator, and us, made in the image and likeness of God, called to be co-creators with God in the building of the Kingdom. That is the potential given to us by virtue of being God’s beloved creation. That is the potential we are called to realize.

We here at Trinity have an exciting opportunity to enter into and engage in this process of co-creation, in this process of discovering and realizing our potential. As we have announced over the last several weeks, the parish is about to embark on a strategic planning process. Through this process, we will have the opportunity to prayerfully and critically evaluate life and ministry here at Trinity. We will look at our strengths, those gifts, graces, and talents which contribute to the effective mission of this place. And we will look at our weaknesses or areas that are opportunities for growth, those areas which may be holding us back from expanding our current ministry or from engaging in new forms of ministry. Based on this evaluation process, we will then discern what this means for Trinity parish, developing a plan whereby we might expand upon and maximize our strengths. We will prayerfully discern where God is calling Trinity to go and what God is calling is to do in the future.

In short, we know that there is great potential in this place. Christ, as our good shepherd, recognizes that, and has called us to discover and realize that potential. Through this strategic planning process, we will work on identifying what that potential is, and discern the best way to realize it, to make it not just a dream, but a reality. But to do that, we need help, lots of help. There is no way that the handful of people comprising the Strategic Planning Steering Committee can cover all the bases. We need people who have experience in the many different areas of parish life and ministry. We need your experiences. We need to know what your gifts, graces, talents, and passions are. Collectively, we are the Body of Christ in this place. It is only collectively that we will be able to discern what our potential is and it is only collectively that we will be able to realize that potential.

I find it most appropriate that we are embarking on this strategic planning process, on this opportunity to discover and realize our potential, during Eastertide. After all, this is the season of resurrection, of new life, of the promise made to us by the Risen One of new and eternal life. That promise does not just apply to us as individuals. It also applies to us as the Body of Christ, which is only made possible through Christ’s death and resurrection. By providing us with the hope and promise of new life, Christ was saying, “I see great potential in you.” The best thing we can do to honor that potential, to honor and receive the gift that God through Christ has given us, is to do our best to discover and realize that potential.

In this Easter season, we celebrate the One who died for us, who was raised to new life for us, who defeated the bonds of sin and death, who by his actions promises us new life. But even more, we are called to recognize that that new life begins here and now, filled with hope and a great deal of potential. And with Christ, our good shepherd to guide us, to support us, to encourage us, we have all that we need to discover and realize that potential.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Heen, Erik M., et al. New Proclamation: Year B, 2009, Easter through Christ the King. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008.

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