Fr. Bill Carroll – The Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 25, 2021
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
There is a beautiful, beautiful line from the Exsultet, the ancient hymn that we sing toward the beginning of the Easter Vigil, and it always strikes me: “How wonderful,” we sing, “and beyond our knowing, O God, is your mercy and loving-kindness to us, that to redeem a slave, you gave a Son.” These words proclaim the heart of our faith. Christianity is all about God’s love for sinners. It is about Jesus laying down his life for all of us. Paul makes the same point in his letter to the Romans, where he writes “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
Some of us may struggle with the ways that the saving death of Jesus is sometimes presented. Too often, we remake God in our image—as a violent God, who needs to punish someone. We imagine that we appease God by our suffering—whereas the truth is the opposite. WE are the ones who make each other suffer. We are the ones who need to be appeased.
But God (the real God) is pure love without remainder. “In him, there is no darkness at all.” God’s “perfect love casts out all fear.” As Pope Francis once said, “God has no enemies, only children.” And so, Jesus loves all of us, including his enemies, all the way to the Cross. He lives and dies for all of us. Indeed, he invites strangers into his community, and shows his enemies how to live as his friends. “How wonderful and beyond our knowing, O God, is your mercy and loving-kindness to us, that to redeem a slave, you gave a Son.”
That brings us to today’s Gospel. In it, we hear about shepherds and sheep. We hear about the wolves and the hired hands. Jesus is talking to people who know how dangerous it can be to keep sheep. He is speaking to the People of Israel, and they know that, in the Scriptures, the word “shepherd” is often used to describe their king. When the biblical prophets talk about good shepherds and bad, they are using this language to condemn rulers who divide and kill the sheep, rather than uniting and protecting us. Listen to the words of Jeremiah in a time of war and national disaster:
Woe to the shepherds (he preaches) who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture…Therefore, thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock (and driven them away). And you have not attended to them… I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer…
Brothers and sisters, Jesus is the Good Shepherd and the world’s true king. He is not like the ones who came before, or any who have come since. He keeps the promises God makes through the prophets. He is the king after God’s own heart, who lays down his life for the sheep.
That’s why we hear about the Good Shepherd in Easter season—and at many, many funerals. Jesus is the Good Shepherd, who joins us down here in the Valley of the Shadow of Death. He is the one who saves us when we are in danger. He is the one who finds us, whenever we get lost. He joins us in our flesh, and he triumphs there. By his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus casts out the powers that divide and oppress us. He conquers everything that wounds us or makes us so very afraid. He breaks the power of sin in our life. He breaks the power of death itself. And then he invites us to follow him.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd. And that’s an image of strength, as well as love and tenderness. By his teaching and example, Jesus redefines the very nature of power. Real power is so much stronger than the things we think are strong. Real power is always the power of love.
Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, once said that “This is what the love of God is like: It is free and therefore it is both all-powerful and completely vulnerable.” Imagine how our world would change if we understood this and put it into practice. It would put a stop to our greed and self-centered behavior. It would end our violence and our divisions.
A few years ago, I helped out with the Episcopal Youth Event in Oklahoma City. (Some of you may have heard me tell this story before.) The theme, both because of the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building back in 1995—none of the youth who were there were even alive when that happened, and also because of all the violence in our homes and in our streets ever since—the theme of that event was Path to Peace. And, at that event, I heard our Presiding Bishop say something that has stuck with me. Speaking to several hundred youth (my own daughter among them), he said “If you want to change the world, follow Jesus.” I think most of us are aware that there’s something wrong in our world today. We have tried every other way to change it that we can think of—and then some. Let’s try Jesus.
And then, as these same youth gathered by candlelight to pray—and to remember—at the National Memorial on the site of the bombing, just a few blocks from where I used to work, my old boss, the Bishop of Oklahoma, told them the same thing. “You have the power,” he said. “You have the power to follow Jesus, transform your communities, and change our world.”
Brothers and sisters of Trinity, I am here to say the same thing to you. We have the power. God has given us his Holy Spirit. And so, in the power of that Spirit, we can change the world. God has called us to cooperate with him in transforming the world, so that it looks more like Jesus and his love. We can do that, beginning here in Longview and the various neighborhoods where we live and work and play.
God has given us the power to change the world. But we can’t do it alone. We need each other. We need the power of Jesus Christ, living in us. We can only do the work God gives us to do in the power of his Spirit of love. And God has given us his grace, so that working together, we can help him change the world. Too often, as the Presiding Bishop keeps reminding us, the world is the nightmare we have made it into, rather than the dream God has in mind.
The Holy Eucharist (where we gather together for worship) is where we catch sight of that dream. It is where we catch sight of the vision of Jesus. The Eucharist is where Jesus meets us, renews us in his Spirit, unites us in the one Body, and then sends us our—so that we can pursue God’s dream together. Martin Luther King called it the Beloved Community. Jesus called it the Kingdom of God. It is a Kingdom where God’s love reigns supreme—where neighbor helps neighbor—where we live and walk in the love of Jesus, until there is no more death, and all see God face to face.
In today’s Epistle, we read the following: “We know love by this, that Jesus laid down his life for all of us. And we ought to lay down our lives for each other. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?” The Apostle goes on to urge us, in the strongest terms possible, to love—“to love not in word or speech,” he says, “but in truth and action…for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.”
We can put our whole trust in such a God. We can trust our lives to Jesus, who lays down his life for us all. In Jesus, we have been set free to love each other—to risk everything for our neighbors—to risk everything for the people he puts into our lives. And so, though we may be tempted to shrink back when the wolves begin to prowl, we are not afraid.
For God’s love has claimed us. God’s love is utterly, totally free. God has given us that love. It is strong. It is tender, boundless, and real. God embraces each and every one of us as his children. He will never let us go. His love is all-powerful and completely vulnerable. He has shared it with us in Jesus.
Brothers and sisters, let us love one another…….Let us love all the people God gives us to love. Let us love other people with the love that conquers death. And let us love each other boldly, with reckless abandon. Let us love each other not in word or speech, but in truth and action. Because the world that we leave to our children and grandchildren, to say nothing of our witness to Jesus, depends on it. And so, let us feed the hungry. Let us house the homeless, and welcome the stranger. Let us never turn away those who come to us in need. Let us figure out how to listen to them, respond to them, and offer them real help. Let us live in solidarity with all who suffer.
Where there is violence, let us sow peace.
Where there is hatred, let us sow love.
For God so loved the world.