Saturday, May 14, 2011

Them Sheep

Acts 2:42

I have confessed to you before that I am not a fan of sheep, though I must say that it is only roast leg of lamb that ultimately will stand between me and being vegetarian. Lambs are one thing; sheep are significantly different. There is all the difference between lambs and sheep as there is between teddy bears and great big black bears. Every year I have to go through a kind of uncomfortable adjustment on the Fourth Sunday of Easter trying to figure out a way to deal with the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd and my implicit role as a sheep.

You have no doubt heard, or perhaps have personally experienced the fact that to be called a sheep is not a high compliment. Sheep are not bright, are easily led, quite nearsighted, subject to all sorts of dangers, and rather defenseless against predators. While they have been for ages a highly valued commodity, they do have some notable drawbacks, one of which is, at least to my mind, a rather unpleasant odor, though in so saying I do not wish to offend any shepherds, certainly.

Nonetheless, the image of Jesus as a shepherd is one that stuck in the mind of the Church, and lots of Churches of the Good Shepherd are quite happy today on what is their equivalent of a patronal festival. The church in which I was ordained priest has a stained glass window depicting Jesus as the Good Shepherd. I used to look up at it as I was celebrating the Eucharist as a young priest and see something that reminded me of the pastoral vocation to which I had been ordained. Pastor, of course, is the Latin word for shepherd, so all those traits of sheep that give me pause are ironically the things which define my vocation in a way.

Today, which happens to be our Annual Meeting Day at St. Stephen’s, I want to shift the image from the Good Shepherd to the sheep in the pen. I want to climb right down and get with the sheep, hearing their bleating and smelling them, seeing them jammed into their small space. I want to look into their gray-blue watery eyes and feel the cockle burrs stuck in their fleece. I want to imagine for just a brief moment that the feelings I get at being with such animals—the curiosity and fascination, interest and some pity, concern and a slight revulsion—are not unlike the feelings that any good shepherd, or even a not-so-good shepherd might experience. I imagine that the Good Pastor himself might register such a range of feelings with his flock of human beings on any given day.

For purposes of comparison, let’s take the line from Acts 2:42 that we hear fairly frequently because it occurs in the Baptismal Covenant which we renew with some regularity. “They continued in the apostles’ teaching, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers.” Human flocks, of course, do that; sheep don’t. But let’s say that human flocks, specifically Christian ones, need to do those things in order to be good flocks as much as the sheep in a sheep pen need to bleat and grow wool and rub up against one another and compete for food and water and set about grazing when the shepherd opens the door of the pen and leads them out to pasture.

In this human sheepfold called the Church are packed a fair number of Christians, some of whom are prize-winners, but most of whom are just ordinary. Several weeks after Easter, when Jesus had finished his work, had risen from the dead, and appeared in glory, all the angels are said to have gathered around, asking him how things went on earth, and what the high points and low points were. Jesus recounted his ministry, putting it in terms that the angels understood, describing his community as a flock and himself as their shepherd. “Oh,” asked an angel, “so what are the flock up to now, seeing that the shepherd has come home?”

“Come see my flock,” said Jesus. “These are the ones that are going to do greater works than I did!” The angels peered down from on high and saw a little band of people that Jesus referred to as his “sheep.” A look of horror spread across the faces of angels, who exclaimed in unison, “Them?”

“Them,” said Jesus.

Centuries went by. Jesus is said to have been walking about one day when an angel stopped him and asked for an update. “So, Jesus, how is that flock of sheep coming on?”

“Oh, they have their good days and their bad days,” said Jesus. “On the whole, they do some pretty stunning things. They continue in my teaching. They break bread together. They pray for one another. And they constantly talk about how they can widen their little sheep pen to include more and more people in it. You should see them.”

“Well, let’s,” said the angel, summoning some of his fellow angels to the moment.

Jesus led them to a precipice. They looked over and saw a scrawny bunch of somewhat sheepish people in a pen called “St. Stephen and the Incarnation.” A look of horror spread across the faces of the angels.

“Them?” one of the angels cried.

Jesus, gazing at his sheep, said, “Them.”

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2011

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Gone to Hell

Grief and Easter

Luke 24:36b-48

It is easy to forget, when we are two weeks past Easter Day, that despite all our trumpeting of the resurrection of Jesus, Easter begins in an experience of profound grief. Not only is the crucifixion the background and necessary prelude to resurrection, but between Good Friday and Easter Day there is a descent into hell. I am not talking about a mythological notion of Jesus going to hell on Holy Saturday and preaching to the dead—whether he did that or not is neither mine to argue nor the point I wish to make. Rather I am talking about the hell that is thorough loss of the divine companion, hell that is total loss of knowing what to do, hell that is the gut-wrenching grief that rises up with a metallic taste in the mouth about a day after the funeral when the fact that he or she is no longer living begins to sink in. Say “alleluia” all you want, and it won’t make hell go away, not if death is real and not if grief breaks your heart.

Tempting as it is to gloss over such painful stuff and certainly to keep it out of any sermon whose purpose is in part to convince you that faith pays dividends—just you wait and see—we need to stick with hell for awhile just to make sure we are being ruthlessly honest. So it is to Luke’s gospel that we turn today to get a glimpse of this profound grief that Jesus’ community is going through in the wake of his horrible execution. Cleopas and his companion are headed to Emmaus, presumably their home. Back to business as usual, just as in John’s gospel Peter says after it is all over, “I’m going fishing.” Back to the familiar, except that instead of filling the void, home is in this instance more like the place where we crash when there is nowhere else to go.

Two disciples they are, on the road and talking about all the things that had transpired. This is what humans do, particularly in the aftermath of tragedy, but then, really, all the time. I sometimes wish it were different, but I doubt that it ever is going to be. When Bin Laden is captured and killed, we have to have day after day after day of stories about what happened, how it happened, how it didn’t happen, how it happened differently from how it was first related to have happened, how it should have happened but didn’t, how it might have happened. And the story keeps changing. That is not only a function of news media, it is the way human beings consistently make sense of the world. We work something over and over again, trying to get it to fit a narrative framework wherein it can possibly make some sense. We tell ourselves things such as, “Everything happens for a reason,” and, “There is something to be learned from all this,” though we do not know what the reason might be nor what it is that we should learn from it all. That is what the two disciples are doing as they walk along.

A stranger appears so subtly that the two seem not to notice anything out of the ordinary. Sometimes strangers do such things—on the bus, for example. They seem to be reading their novel or diddling with their phone, oblivious to the world around them; yet sometimes one will interject a comment into what would seem to be an utterly private conversation. It might or might not fit, and it might or might not be welcome. “What things are you talking about?” the Stranger asks. When you are grieving, you imagine that the world must register what seems to you to be a seismic event. They stop, looking sad.

“Are you the only stranger…?” Cleopas finally asks. Stranger. Must be one of the people who has been in Jerusalem for Passover and is now, like them, returning home.

“What things?” asks the Stranger. Thus begins a conversation. It is a great story, because we know more than the two disciples. We know who the Stupendous Stranger is, and thus we anticipate a moment of revelation when the Stranger’s identity will be disclosed. Luke lets us overhear the conversation. The Stranger gives his fellow travelers the space to tell their tale, their version of the events.

“We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel,” they say, giving a hint of their sorrow.

He upbraids them for being so foolish, so slow to believe. That might have tipped them off at once, since Jesus has at least in parts of the gospels a reputation for upbraiding disciples for their lack of faith and their slowness to believe. But, of course, the story is not quite ready for the climax. We have a way to go, and so do the disciples, who have not yet arrived home, and in any case, are kept from perceiving who the Stranger is because their eyes frankly can’t behold the mystery.

That, too, is one of the ways grief works. We simply don’t see clearly when the world has stopped turning and the birds have hushed singing. Of course it could be quite the opposite. Sometimes when grief is intense we imagine that the dead are right before our eyes—indeed there are stories galore of how they do appear as clear as day. It is hard then to know the difference between what is real and what is imaginary.

“Won’t you stay with us?” the disciples ask. This is not Washington, DC, where it would be fine to say thank you and goodbye and walk on one’s way. This is the Near East, and the Ancient Near East at that, where hospitality suggests, if does not dictate, asking a conversation partner to supper at nightfall. He makes as if to be going—in retrospect one wonders exactly why—but they insist. In a minute we will know why they are so insistent. But first, this strong urging on their part sets up the scene for the climax. Somehow—we are not told how—the guest becomes the host. Suddenly he is the one not being served, but in the role of taking, blessing, breaking and giving the bread. And that is the all-important moment. Immediately the disciples’ eyes are opened and they recognize who the Stranger is. This is what must happen for hell to be vanquished. And, frankly, it seems impossible that that something could ever come to pass. It is nothing less than a revelation of the Risen Jesus himself.

Why had they insisted so strongly that the Stranger come stay with them? Because their hearts had burned within them as they listened to him expound and interpret the Scriptures. His had been the words that had not only opened their grief but began to make some sense out of what seemed nonsense. Little wonder that they were not eager to let go of him! And of all the things that both make Christianity appealing and at the same time threatening, it is this peculiar mystique of Jesus. Not everyone experiences it, of course. There are some to whom Jesus is little more than a historical figure, a dead hero from ages past, or even as Algernon Charles Swinburne once called him, “A Pale Galilean,” with whose breath the world has grown grey. But for countless others, he is not dead but living, not pale but robust. And there is nothing theoretical about resurrection. It is a present reality, just as he is a present reality. How is it that we can go with the heaviest heart to the Table, hear again the story of what he did on the night in which he was betrayed, and do those four familiar things—take bread, bless bread, break bread, and give bread—and find ourselves healing on levels we cannot explain in ways we cannot quantify? How is it that a bite of bread and a sip of wine can be so much more than bite and sip—a feast, a wedding of soul and God, a passageway into a parallel universe, a healing of grief, a forgiveness of sin, a taste of something more real than our very flesh and the blood coursing through our veins? Partly, of course, it is that we choose to believe it, and thus it becomes a ballast that gives our lives a kind of steadiness. But partly it is that when we have gone the distance we can go with rational thought, we come to the great abyss of mystery. We either stare into it paralyzed and disbelieving, or we step forward into the fog, sure that we will either cross the chasm by grace, or fall into it and ironically find ourselves finally at home with the universe and the universe’s God. There is no explaining mystery, no justifying it, no rationalizing it. Like all the states we know well enough but cannot explain—such as love in a time of fear and courage in the face of annihilation—the simple Supper served by the Stunning Stranger persistently renews us, we know not why.

Yet that is the way that hell keeps being conquered, the way grief keeps being healed, the way we keep growing beyond the boundaries we erect to keep ourselves safe and sane and usually stunted, too. Just about the time we can say, “Ah! Jesus! It’s you after all!” he vanishes from sight, and we are left to ponder the mystery, usually second-guessing ourselves and wondering if we were taken in by some sleight-of-hand by the Trickster in our own mind.

Then is the hour we need to get up, go find some other disciples, share with them what we have experienced, and entertain the possibility that the Resurrection is for real, again and again and again. No one can convince you to do it. But once you invite the Stranger into conversation, you’ll find yourself exclaiming, “Did not our hearts burn within us?” And even when he eludes you, that burning will suffice.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2011