Easter 4A – May 7, 2017
1 Peter 2:19-25
A sermon preached by Rev. Beth Orling (Lutheran) at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, WA.
‘Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.’ 6Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
7 So again Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
About the third or fourth week of Eastertide some years ago in a beautiful Philadelphia cathedral, I listened to a professional choir and orchestra present Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B Minor.
It’s a long, monumental, complex and extremely beautiful work. Like our Sunday liturgies, there is a Kyrie (Lord have mercy), a Gloria (hymn of praise), and the Creed, as well and the Holy, Holy, Holy and Lamb of God sung before Communion. Bach never intended this work to be sung in a church service. It was a massive audition piece he wrote as part of a job application. It would make a worship service last 2 ½ to 3 hours at least. Not your every Sunday fare!
But someone decided it would be meaningful to sing the B Minor Mass in the context of worship. They invited a priest, a Eucharistic minister, and lectors to read the lessons and Gospel, preach a sermon, and celebrate Communion. Lovely, we thought; we could spend three hours with such beautiful music. The men who lead worship dressed in their finest robes, brought three acolytes, and planned the most elaborate and beautiful service they could, including clouds and clouds of sweet-smelling incense. Now you have to watch incense around singers, but they seemed to do alright. Folks suffering from asthma had probably left the space long ago. I sat in the front row and was surprised to see the thurifer [the man with the incense burner] ADD more incense to the already heavily burning censor, but “so be it,” I thought. The thurifer left the large chancel to enter a smaller hallway with his burner smoking.
The choir began to sing the Nicene Creed, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth.”
Suddenly little emergency strobe lights began to flash and a loud, authoritative recorded voice began, “An emergency has been detected in this building; please leave the building immediately and do not re-enter until authorized to do so.” This announcement repeated itself over and over about every 7 to 8 seconds. Orchestra, choir and clergy were guests using an unfamiliar building. No one thought of the smoke alarm.
People began to fidget. The priest stood up rigidly and said it was probably the incense and sat back down stone-faced. We waited. A few people began to talk. Some got up and went to the restroom. Within half an hour, everyone was milling about – like sheep without a shepherd – firetrucks had come and gone, there was no fire, but the alarm continued to blare. No one had a key to the control box to turn off the horrible voice. Some people left the building and went home, not waiting to be authorized to re-enter.
Finally, the conductor summoned the choir and orchestra. Professional musicians have to be paid, after all, so why delay any longer? The only way out of this was to sing. The sopranos bravely began, but the awful voice continued, “An emergency has been detected in this building; please leave the building immediately and do not re-enter until authorized to do so.”
The choir had a few problems focusing, but they soon began to follow their leader. The conductor’s baton was his voice and the musicians knew it well. Eventually they seemed to tune out the awful voice of the machine which blared on and on. They began to rally.
The hardest part was when, in the creed, they had to sing very softly, “was crucified under Pontius Pilate, suffered and was buried.”
But what came next was terrific! Bach spares no instruments and the choir sings at the top of their voices, “et resurrexit tertia dia,” “and he rose again on the third day.” The little flock of choir and orchestra drowned out the fearful voice of the world, drowned out the voice of misplaced fear, of religious intentions run amok, of automation out of control.
Alleluia, Christ is risen! (Congregation: He is risen indeed, alleluia!)
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In today’s Eastertide Gospel, Jesus talks about how his followers hear his voice and follow him. Jesus was not a shepherd, as far as we know, but he put himself in the shepherd role following the long tradition of his people to see kings, leaders and teachers as shepherds and their followers and students as sheep. Now, none of us wants to be a sheep. Sheep are notoriously stupid and stubborn. John Muir, once hired to assist a shepherd, said he’d rather herd wolves than sheep. I’ve tried, without the help of a dog, to move just a few sheep out of a garden. Very difficult!
Even if we don’t want to admit how we might sometimes be sheep, we ARE invited to listen to Jesus’ voice and to follow it. Jesus’ desire was that all people might have abundant life. He warns us against the thieves who try to steal, kill and destroy – thieves such as blame, self-centeredness, judgmentalism, greed, misplaced fear and anxiety, inordinate striving for money and power or wanting above all to be like others whom we think are better or happier than we are. Thieves like drugs, hateful speech, or disrespect of our partners, parents or children. These things rob our world, rob our families, rob our souls of the abundant life Jesus offers.
Listen to my voice, says Jesus, for I call you by name and I offer abundant life. Just as a good sheep dog can help the shepherd greatly, other people assist our Lord in calling us to the green pastures of abundant life. It’s important whose voice we choose to follow – the mechanical fire alarm or the conductor with the baton, the guy who crawls in through the window or the one who opens the gate.
Many of us have questions, doubts, fears about what we believe, about how our world is today. It’s important to face those questions; they can lead to spiritual growth. Wise friends who travel this journey of life with us can help. The wisdom can come from many sources, not only from our church and family, but from our friends and their spiritual traditions, from our capable thinkers, from good teachers, thoughtful writers.
How do we decide which voice to follow?
That’s a great question. And I’d like to answer it in as simple a way as I can. The voice must lead us – and our neighbors, near and far — to abundant life, to a life of love and caring, as Jesus loved and cared for his followers and those he met along the way. A life not fooled by faulty fire alarms of fear, but rather a life that will sing against that fear and proclaim the resurrection, Christ’s abundant life. A life as described in our first reading this morning.
“Day by day, as [the early Christians] spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the good-will of all the people.” May God grant us such abundant life, such glad and generous hearts, and such good-will among all whom God blesses us with as companions on this journey. Thus, we can pray with the shepherd-king David, “Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Amen.