Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Lord is my Shepherd

One commonality among most of the mainline church denominations is that they name their Sundays according to the liturgical season they fall in.

For example, Sundays during the Advent season are referred to as 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Sundays of Advent. The same form of reckoning holds true for Sundays in the Epiphany Season, the Season of Lent and the Sundays in the Easter season. Other Sundays of the year would then be referred to either as Sundays in Ordinary Time like in the Roman Catholic Church or as Sundays after Pentecost, as in our case in the Episcopal Church.

There are however other Sundays that are given extra names. The 2nd Sunday of Easter is a good example. If you recall, we referred to it as The Doubting Thomas Sunday. Today is the 4th Sunday of Easter and is another example of Sundays that get an extra label of identification, if you will.

This Sunday has been referred to as “Good Shepherd Sunday” simply because in all lectionary years in the three year cycle, the gospel lessons always hover on the theme about sheep, shepherd and shepherding. Consequently, a lot of sermons and reflections made for this Sunday had been based on the ovine imagery.

Today, we will carry on with that pattern and continue to explore some more in terms of its relations to our respective faith journeys as Christians. But first, let’s talk about its context.

By the time Jesus used this ovine imagery, the metaphor about sheep, shepherd and shepherding has been very much ingrained in the Jewish psyche and had become an integral part of their heritage and culture.

Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation, was known to be a keeper of great flocks and herds. Moses, the great lawgiver, was tending the flocks of his father-in-law, Jethro, when God called him into a special service. David was a shepherd boy called in from the fields and anointed to be the King of Israel.

The same imagery was also imprinted upon the literature of the day. The 23rd Psalm is frequently referred to as the shepherd psalm. "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters." When the prophet Isaiah spoke of the coming of the Messiah he worded it by saying: "He will feed his flock like a shepherd! He will gather his lambs into his arms."

“Sheep Talk” was indeed very much a part of the heritage of Jesus. It would be safe to say that, at this juncture, when Jesus talked about sheep and shepherd, his listeners would just “know” what is involved, they'd know what he is talking about and it would have been an effective conversational piece.

And what an effective teaching tool it was! Jesus, fully aware of the rampant use and popularity of such an imagery, capitalized on it and used it as a tool in his teaching ministry. Along with other records in the gospels of the references to ovine images that Jesus made, John’s gospel has the whole 10th chapter dedicated to the ovine allusions that Jesus did for himself and for his listeners.

Jesus used it to teach the people and more particularly the Pharisees the truth that he is truly the Promised Messiah and the Son of God. This story is told immediately after a healing miracle that Jesus did involving a man who was born blind.

Understandably, not all who witnessed the blind man’s restoration of sight believed that it was because of Jesus. The argument, I think, was not so much that his sight came back just like that but more so on how they could dare attribute this miracle to this itinerant preacher named Jesus of Nazareth.

This line of reasoning stems out of their belief that any and maybe all physical infirmities or bodily defects are the resultant effects of sins, a kind of penalty or punishment caused by God himself. Blindness was naturally considered as such.

The flip side of it says that any healing and in this blind man’s case, restoration of sight, could only be done by God. To say that Jesus of Nazareth, this carpenter from Nazareth, did it was tantamount to blasphemy.

For surely, they, the Pharisees, who were considered leaders of the religious establishment of the day, would have been privy to it. They would have known it. It was their business to know it. The conclusion therefore that they had was that there’s no way that Jesus could have done it, especially because he did it on the day of rest, the Sabbath. They could not accept this truth even if it came from the blind man himself.

The dialogues that took place between the ex-blind man and the Pharisees; between him and Jesus and between Jesus and the Pharisees were all sharp and astutely done.

It was this situational confrontation that eventually led Jesus to make his claims about shepherding as he confronts the Pharisees, knowing that they must have some self-induced claim to their being “shepherds of Israel” as well.

Jesus then begins by claiming that he is the Gate of the sheepfold and only through him should the sheep Israel enter. Then, beginning in verse 11 in today’s gospel lesson, we find Jesus claiming that he is also the Good Shepherd whose commitment to the flock in his care is so definitively different from that of any hired hand. He is "good" because he is more than willing to sacrifice for their sake, even his very life. He also assures others of his willingness to gather other “sheep” so that in the end, there will only be one flock and one shepherd.

Such claim prompted the Pharisees to regard it to be so atrocious that they even attempted to stone him. In the end, we know that Jesus’ relationship with the “shepherds” of the religious establishment of the day finally deteriorated and culminated in his crucifixion and eventual death.
And now, for our personal take on that claim.

If such claim were to be addressed to us, immersed as we are in our faith journeys, I wonder what our reaction might be.
So a good place to begin with is by exploring how comfortable we are when regarded as “sheep”. Having heard and known some of the negative traits and behavior of sheep, I wonder why we keep on perpetuating the image of our being like sheep. Or is it merely because our Lord Jesus has already made the claim to be the “good” if not the “best” of all shepherds that we somehow ‘logically’ assume we are the sheep?

I personally like the imagery of our being likened to sheep in spite of their seeming negative characteristics - like their being dumb and prone to wander around. We somehow emulate that very characteristic as we wander into different thickets of life and get stuck in messy situations of our own choosing. Lured by what initially seems to be “verdant” pastures, we easily embark on that which is presented to us without the benefit of giving it enough time to be seriously considered. Consequently, we get headed in the wrong direction and we end up getting caught in unhealthy situations, physically and spiritually. We find ourselves in harm’s way. In this regard we are no better than those “foolish” sheep.

There is, in fact, something very sheep-like about us, creatures of God and that while God has given us something that puts us on a higher pedestal in the order of creation, as a gift loaded with responsibilities, still, many are tempted to believe that such gift gives them a preferential status of some sort and exempts them from any accountability whatsoever and therefore need no further help from God, the Great Gift Giver. And that’s just simply incorrect!

If we consider ourselves as sheep, figuratively that is, then we definitely need a shepherd; one who will lead as we journey through life’s peaks and valleys; through life’s varied, dangerous pastureland.

And we, by God’s providence, have a Good Shepherd who is always ready to go after us, even when we stray too far. His voice is constantly reaching out to us in and through faith communities in the totality of their life and work and in the spreading of the Good News of Salvation.

We have the Good Shepherd who has shown His loving grace calling and helping us back to the safety of his fold. It is the same good shepherd who allows his sometime foolish sheep; his oftentimes stubborn, hardheaded sheep to wander and be caught in the crags of the rock hills.

We have the Good Shepherd who risked his life for our salvation. We have the Good Shepherd who is willing to leave the other sheep and seek for the one who might have been wandering elsewhere in the vast virtual grazing land; a shepherd who knows his own just as his own know him.    

As it turns out, being a sheep is harder than it appears. It's hard to admit we don't always know what is best for ourselves. It's humbling to have someone else guide our lives, urge us and prod us into doing what we don't want to do. It's hard to be part of a flock; one of many cared for and loved sheep, all of whom the shepherd looks out for just as much as the shepherd looks out for us.

But God promises that the challenge is worth our effort. We are the protected sheep; nourished with the gift of grace and individually counted as precious. Jesus offers to lead us – and all we need to do is to follow. Jesus offers to love us – and all we have to do is let ourselves be loved. God promises to care for us – and all we need to have is the faith that God, the Good Shepherd, knows the path.

So what is holding you back?

Sunday, April 22, 2012

“I’m sorry”. Really?

An incident happened on my recent flight, one that I thought might be an interesting lead in for today’s reflection.

Most airline passengers prefer to be seated either on a window seat or an aisle seat. I’m one of them. It creates for me a kind of a comfort zone, however short-lived and limited it is. I only have to worry about the person either on my left or right. 

This time, I was seated on an aisle but the relative comfort zone I was hoping to have wasn’t there. 

There was this lady who was seated about five rows in front of me and she would frequently get up to visit the tail end of the plane presumably to get to the lavatory. And when does and passes the row where I was at, she would hit my arm and shoulder; even after I have moved inward so as not to obstruct the aisle. This happened quite a few times actually and each time she did it, she’d say “I’m sorry” and I could tell, off the bat, she really didn’t mean it.

“I’m sorry”. Really? Have you had a similar experience of people telling you “I’m sorry” but you just know they really don’t mean it? Quite honestly, there had been those occasions when we have done similarly and said “I’m sorry” but we really didn’t mean it. It didn’t come from the heart. In other words, the feeling wasn’t there.

It’s similar to the kind of nonchalant “I’m sorry” that happens when a parent reprimands his child and tells her “Say sorry to Grandma” and to which the child obliges by saying “I’m sorry” and then does her thing again. Our very own granddaughter Kloey does that, occasionally.

So you get the picture? And that kind of “I’m sorry” could get annoying mainly because we had been taught to mean what we say.

Putting this in a different context, we are taught to feel sorry or to say that we are sorry for the times that we had offended not only the God who expects us to be what He created us to be but also the rest of the created humanity. The language that best describes this is “to be of contrite hearts”. That’s when we truly feel the remorse for having committed actions that make our relationships with God and our fellow creatures go awry.

And while we might be tempted to take it lightly, as in that lady’s or that child’s nonchalant versions of “I’m sorry”, it is in fact imperative for us to be of contrite heart, to beseech the God of mercy for His forgiveness and to mend broken relationships by all means possible.

In our First Lesson for today, we are reminded of this need to seek out for that healthy alliance with God. From the Book of Acts, we read the following: “Repent, therefore, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped away.”

Repent. Be sorry. Have a contrite heart. Seek out His forgiveness. Return to God. These are what are expected of us in the event that we falter from our calling to be God’s people and fail to be missional about our baptismal covenant. We are to rise beyond the mere formality of telling our God “I’m sorry.” We need to seek out someone’s forgiveness when we say, “I’m sorry” as well as offer it when someone says, “I’m sorry” to us.

Seeking for forgiveness is more than just saying you are sorry – it’s about being different and living in a whole new way.

We often tend to think of God’s forgiveness as simply the wiping clean of a slate; as though our actions are simply x-marks on our spiritual blackboard, a kind of running tally of our accomplishments and our failures. We draw up two columns; one for the good deeds we have done and another column for the not-so-good actions. As is often the case, our “bad deeds column” would get a little too many, and so we seek out God’s forgiveness so that they can be erased. 

And in a certain sense, that’s not entirely false. There’s some truth to it. God’s forgiveness gives us a kind of a “make-over”, a fresh start, and a chance to turn back the clock and begin anew.  And for that, we should be truly grateful.

However, forgiveness is so much more than that.  Jesus bore our sins not simply so that our sins would “disappear” but also so that our relationship with our God would be mended, healed, restored and strengthened. No longer would our failures to love or our unfaithfulness permanently create a wider chasm between God and us. Jesus’ saving act changed all of that. And therefore, it’s probably more correct to say that a profound kind of reconciliation is really at the heart of true forgiveness, one that holds out for us the possibility of an intimate communion with our God. 

During this season of Easter, we are invited to reflect on and wrestle with exactly what Jesus’ death and resurrection means for each of us.  In faith, we believe that Jesus died so a broken world might be healed, he died so that the gap that had grown between God and his beloved children might be bridged, he died that we might be redeemed and saved. Because of this reality, all of creation has been reconciled and created anew.  And in a personal sense, each one of us has been reconciled.  I’ve been made new just as you have.

So, now what?  Now what do we do?

Over the next several weeks we will hear passages from the Acts of the Apostles, passages that reflect some of the challenges faced by the early Christian community. You would then notice that their stories about how they coped up with their faith expectations are very similar to ours. Indeed, a lot is expected from those who value their decision to follow Jesus.

Struggling with faith expectations revolves around the issue of “What is the Lord asking of us?  What is he asking of me?  What’s the best way to follow him?  What does it mean for him to be your Lord or my Lord?” These are questions that the post apostolic faith community must have wrestled with and these are the kinds of questions that we, not surprisingly, are wrestling with as well. Come to think of it, that seems like an awful lot of “what”.  Yet, if we focus too quickly on the “what”, we might be stepping around a more important and profound question, the “Who?” “Who was I created to be? Who is my most authentic self? Who does God want me to be? Who did God die for me to be?” 

When we begin to ask those questions and sincerely long to embrace whatever answer God chooses to give, then we’re on the path to real reconciliation, real transformation and real change.

My dear friends in Christ, rest assured that Jesus’ perfect and selfless act has made possible the forgiveness of our sins.  He took them upon himself and rendered them powerless through the power of perfect love. Our virtual chains have been broken. We had been set free. The victory has been won. That is the continued Easter message we hear.

What a gift, indeed!  Yet, the gift does not end there.  Jesus is offering so much more: new life, abundant life and everlasting life – full of purpose, meaning, joy, beauty, and peace.  Our world has never been the same.  We all have been changed.

So when we say, “God, I’m sorry”, please, mean it. And by doing so you affirm your need to be reconciled with him and become the loving person God created you to be.

Peter had issued a good reminder: “Repent and turn to God.” Each time we seek God’s forgiveness, may we have the courage to take that next step of embracing the renewed and transformed life God offers. Then, like those early disciples, may we have courage to allow our new-selves transform the world, and help make it a place teeming with peace, hope, generosity, kindness and love.

Shall we then do better than just say “I’m sorry”?

Sunday, April 8, 2012

"I know. But ..."

Alleluia! Christ is risen. The Lord is risen, indeed. Alleluia.

What a joy it is to be with you this day, gathered as a community of faith, praising God and thanking him for the wonders he has done.  Indeed, as our youth would call it: “What an awesome God we have!”

I was once approached by a lady holding a sign “Homeless. Hungry.” asking me for spare change. I stopped, looked at her and thinking she was one of those “legit” ones, I started to dig onto my pocket, only to realize it was empty. I had no spare change. I was totally embarrassed by it and felt bad that there was nothing I could do. After all, I had an empty pocket.

As I was preparing for this blog, I got into thinking about that troubling experience and somehow went on to think of other images of “emptiness”, as in empty hearts; empty words, empty promises and empty relationships. And more “images of emptiness” just kept on coming: empty houses, empty churches, empty wallets, empty lots and many, many more. I’m sure that you, too, have your “images of emptiness”.

Every time we visualize such images, notice that we often think of something that is tainted with negativity, something bad or something undesirable and perhaps, even with some embarrassment. Most of us don’t want anything that’s empty, especially empty pockets.

But today, it is different. We are in the midst of something empty and it’s not necessarily something negative or bad. Today, we are in solidarity with other faith communities rejoicing in an empty tomb. We are of one accord in welcoming a very powerful image of emptiness, the image of the empty tomb – the great sign of God’s power over every evil and even over death itself.

The tomb may have been empty, but the world would be forever filled with the power that the empty tomb represents – the power of the resurrection. Quite often, we have the tendency to think of this day in only one way and that is that Easter simply means that we now can hope for eternal life with God when our earthly lives have ended.

We think of Easter as only related to our great hope of life yet to come in the future, after we have passed on to the beyond. And there is truth in making that claim. Easter is certainly about that, and we should not underestimate what that means for each of us and for humanity as a whole.  Jesus has truly reconciled us to the Father, and because of that, we have an opportunity to dwell with and in God, forever.

Early last week, our granddaughter Kloey said something funny, especially at her age, when she tried to reason out with us over something we told her she couldn’t have. She got what would have been her Easter dress but as it turned out, it was rather small for her. So just as she was about to try it on, we told her she couldn’t have it. It won’t fit her. But she didn’t want any of that logic. She held on it and said: “I know, BUT…”, and then she proceeded to say her piece. “But I have to wear it!”

Similarly, we could disagree with the common future-oriented view of Easter and say: “I know. But” We know Easter alludes to the end-times BUT, it so much more.  “I know, but …” Easter ought not to be confined just to that which is yet to come. It has a lot to do with the present. It has a lot to say to where we are and how we live our life.

The power of the resurrection is not something that only impacts our lives at the end. Rather, it’s a power that is at work right now. And this power, this great triumph over sin and death represented by the empty tomb, has the ability to fill all the emptiness inside of us – the wounds, the brokenness, the sorrow, and even sin.  Through the Holy Spirit, the power of the resurrection has been unleashed to the world, ready to transform darkness into light; transform despair into hope.

The power of the resurrection transforms humanity’s disappointment and daily “deaths” into possibility and something that’s filled with life. The power of the resurrection brings about new life – a whole new way of being, a paradigm shift on how we view whatever comes our way as we make our journey through life.

The power of the resurrection, the power revealed by the empty tomb, can make an unbelievable difference — a life-changing difference for each of us if and this is a big if, if we are willing to change. And not just if we are willing to change, but more importantly, if we actually want to change, long for it, and, are sincerely open to it.

God wants to transform our lives into lives of even greater beauty, meaning and purpose. He wants to transform us into people who see and care like He does. He wants to transform us into a community who love like he loves.  When we subject ourselves to this transformation and invite the power of God’s saving act to penetrate our hearts and minds, everything will be different.

But make no mistake about what I’m saying as though Easter and the power of the Resurrection is some kind of a magic potion.  Even if we allow ourselves to be transformed into people God created us to be, we will not be free of the struggles of this life. Every one of us will still experience obstacles, failures, and disappointments. We will still encounter sorrow and heartache.  And yes, each of us will someday die. 

But none of those things can get the best of us – not even death itself.  The victory has been won and because of it our difficulties in this life can be resurrected and created anew.

That’s what Easter is also about, each of us allowing God’s saving power to turn every difficulty and cross we have to carry in this life into an Easter moment, an experience in which God’s love, mercy, and compassion triumph over whatever we’re going through. 

My dear friends in Christ, heaven is not just something we long for in the future. In many ways it already began for us at our baptism, through the power of the Holy Spirit, when each of us was united to our Lord Jesus in a profound way. And therefore, in a certain sense, heaven is something we can begin to experience right now, in this time and place, whenever we allow the power of the resurrection help us experience life in a whole new way, as new creations – seeing, acting, and loving as God does.

Empty tomb?   “I know, but …” it doesn’t sound too bad, does it? 

My prayer then for us is for the emptiness in each of us to be filled by every good thing that God offers, not just this Easter day, but every day – every time we need the power of the resurrection to make a real and lasting difference in our lives.

Alleluia! Christ is risen. The Lord is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!