“Trusting the Good Shepherd, the Guardian of Our Souls” by Brenda Seat

people holding hands while standing all around a globe, with a spray of maple leaves in the upper right hand corner

The 4th Sunday of Easter

April 30, 2023

This is the fourth Sunday in Easter-tide. For the last three Sundays we have heard the vivid personal encounters of the disciples with the risen Christ. But today and in the following Sundays until Pentecost we move from those personal encounters to passages using metaphors, parables, or recalling episodes in Jesus’ ministry that help make sense of the events of Easter and Jesus’ earthly ministry.

Making sense of Jesus and his ministry and the events of Easter became one of the ongoing missions of the disciples and followers of Jesus. We have to remember that the Gospels were written for this very purpose, to make sense of things, not necessarily as a chronology of Jesus’ life. In fact, John’s Gospel expressly states that its purpose is “that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God and that through believing you may have life in his name.” 

Suddenly the things Jesus said that they didn’t understand while he was alive make so much more sense after the events of Easter, but the process of that understanding took many years and then many more years until they were written down.

Our lections this Sunday focus on the metaphor of the sheep and shepherd.

We begin with the familiar words of the 23 Psalm, “the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” A truly comforting passage that I have said to myself as a mantra many times, in times of sorrow and overwhelming pain, as I am sure many others have too. The image of a gracious, kind, protective, generous, thoughtful, merciful shepherd is one that truly captures what many of us have experienced in our relationship with Christ and in community.

In the Acts passage, the disciples and followers of Christ experienced this deep love, sharing things in common, at least initially, praying, and breaking bread together in the manner Jesus had offered bread during the Last Supper.

The writer of I Peter, exhorts the followers of Christ to be strong in the face of persecution, reminding them of Jesus’ own unjust suffering and reminding them that by following Christ they have “returned to the shepherd, the guardian of their souls.”

Finally, the Gospel lesson in John offers us a metaphor of Jesus calling himself the Shepherd of the sheep and saying that he is the Gate through which all who enter are saved.

And so with all these references to the Good Shepherd, today, the fourth Sunday in Easter is known as Good Shepherd Sunday.

I want us to think back three years ago. It had been around 3-4 weeks since the pandemic really began. Do you remember what that was like? We did not have any idea about vaccines, we had no real idea what this virus was like. We had no idea what was possible or what was impossible. We were like sheep without a shepherd.

On May 10, 2020, two months into the pandemic, I preached a sermon on Zoom where I quoted Laurie Garret, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, who had written a book in 1994 called The Coming Plague, foretelling what began when Covid struck. She eerily predicated the waves of viruses that would sweep our nation and predicted that the in a “best case scenario” we would be able to find a vaccine, ramp up production and then vaccinate the world, and hopefully do that in 36 months. Well, we haven’t vaccinated the world yet, but on May 11, 2023, a little more than 36 months later, the White House will announce that the emergency declaration regarding this pandemic is over, and we will return to normal. Or will we?

Like the disciples and the early followers of Jesus, we have experienced and are still experiencing something maybe not as earth shattering as the resurrection, but something nearly as consequential.  We are realizing that our old lives are dead, and we are trying to find what this new life, this new way of being, this post-Covid life will look like. These are a few of the things we have learned in the last three years:

  • Even though we now have vaccines we have come to realize we are more vulnerable to disease than we have ever been before, and that some are even more vulnerable because of underlying health conditions.
  • We realize more clearly that national boundaries are meaningless in our highly connected world and that a worldwide coordinated effort is necessary to prevent disease from spreading.
  • We have seen that good, steady leadership matters in ways that we never quite imagined.
  • We have seen that science, which ultimately gave us the vaccine, is not always able to answer urgent, necessary questions without research and time.
  • Finally, we have learned that “we are all in this together” and that economic and political systems that produce sharp distinctions in wealth, access to health care, food and shelter keep all of us vulnerable and at risk.

We learned these things, but I am afraid that we are not really internalizing and paying attention to them. Instead, I see many of us, myself included, going “back to normal,” while some, especially on the right of the political spectrum, are regressing in infantile ways, searching for control and conformity. It seems that we are still hoping that we can resuscitate that old life rather than seeing it for the corpse that it is.

I wonder about the disciples. How did they negotiate this journey into new life after Easter?

Our Acts reading takes place soon after Pentecost, and we see signs of the early church beginning to form, although at this point they are still going to the temple. They gathered together, they prayed, they held things in common, assisted those in need, devoted time to the apostles’ teaching, and broke bread together and “ate their food with glad and generous hearts.” 

We know that this period of holding things in common did not last long, but it is interesting to note that they emphasized this inward/outward dance that is part of our own tradition. They studied, they prayed, they cared for each other and those in need, and they earned the goodwill of the people around them. They focused on their spiritual condition and from there other things flowed.

The events in our Epistle reading probably occurred quite a few years after the events recorded in Acts, although written earlier. Here we find that things are not rosy. The Christians, mostly Gentiles in Asia Minor, are suffering persecution from the pagan culture that surrounds them. An elder in the church in Rome, using the name Peter, is writing to them and exhorts them to see Christ as their example. Christ did not return the abuse he received or threaten, but rather trusted God to judge justly. The reading ends with: “At one time you were straying like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd, the Guardian of your souls.” 

What we see is that they spent a lot of time working on themselves, studying, praying, coming together for shared meals, breaking bread, working on generosity, and caring for others, and also working on their own response to suffering, abuse, and injustice. They were internalizing the good news of Easter and that took time and effort. It was not something that happened overnight, it was something that took work, effort, mindfulness, and persistence.

I recently read an article by Tim Andersen, a Christian and a scientist who writes a very interesting blog called the Infinite Universe (www.andersenuniverse.com). The post I read was entitled The Noonday Devil: How the ancient sin of acedia keeps us unhappy and how to escape it for good (April 22, 2023, Medium).

Acedia, or sloth, one of the seven deadly sins, is often misunderstood. Acedia is not laziness in the normal sense of the word – of not wanting to DO anything – but rather it is an unwillingness to change what needs to change in order to BEcome a better or different person. One of the examples given is from the movie Groundhog Day in which Bill Murray keeps waking up to the same day over and over again until he finally changes himself and breaks the cycle. But I’m sure you can think of your own examples of people in your life who constantly complain about their work or their job or their circumstances, and yet are unwilling to make the changes that will make things better. Instead, they want to manipulate the world around them to get what they want without having to do the real work of changing themselves.

As Andersen states, “That is why Sloth is a spiritual rather than a physical problem. At its root it is not laziness but an unwillingness to allow love to do its healing work because that would mean letting go of the person that you are. No matter what you do or try, how busy you are, how pious, how charitable, or how many therapy appointments you attend, as long as you refuse what love is trying to do in you, you continue to feel empty inside.”

Andersen ends his piece with these words: 

Could it be [that] we are too comfortable with the way we are and don’t want to become what we have the potential to be, people who love others and themselves unconditionally?

That is a hard question to answer.

As you know, I have been a part of a group of alumni who have been trying to hold accountable the school Keith and I attended in Japan and the mission boards for the abuse that many children suffered in the dorms or at the school. It has been a difficult and exhausting process. It is easy to get stuck in us vs. them mentalities, it is easy to project and release anger on those who are currently in places of leadership and power, even though they were not directly responsible for what happened to us some 50 years ago. It is easy to get wrapped up in the anger and grief and forget that the people you are asking to take responsibility are just ordinary people, just like me.

As some of you have heard or read in the article I sent out that was published in Christianity Today, the alumni representatives, the attorney who led the investigation and the representatives of the school and the missions were able to overcome these natural barriers between us and come together and work together in a unique way that has been healing for all of us. There were several pivotal moments in this process that created this end result, but the most powerful one happened during a joint retreat attended by alumni and representatives of the school and the missions. Over the course of a couple days the alumni and the reps of the school and mission met separately preparing for a joint meeting. When that day finally came, the alumni started by telling their stories of abuse, the shame that they felt and the impact that abuse had on their lives. At some point one of the alumni described the Japanese practice for an apology which is to kneel down on the floor, placing your hands and forehead on the floor while apologizing. Next it was the representatives’ turn and impromptu, without any plan, one of them got down on the floor with his head on the floor and apologized, and the others followed, apologizing for the wrong that had been committed. In that moment new life could grow. In that moment something shifted – a stone was rolled away – and light pierced the darkness of shame and grief. 

It took 50 years to get to that moment, but it happened.

But the inner work for me continues. I know I have shared about how my favorite teacher was found to have been complicit in silencing and hiding from teachers and parents, incidences of abuse. Unfortunately, he has never fully apologized. His response has been that he did the best he could and is sorry that it was not good enough. He is in his 90s now and just recently contacted Keith and me to see if he could swing by to talk with us. I could feel the rage building inside me and told Keith I didn’t think I could sit with him and contain that rage. Luckily, I was really sick on the day he arrived and Keith was able to arrange to take him to a restaurant.

I have been holding this rage and this question about how to forgive someone who is not really contrite for more than 4 years. What is it that is keeping me from letting this go? Can I not entrust this to the one who will judge justly? Andersen’s question reverberates within me. Am I too comfortable with the way I am that I don’t want to become what I have the potential to be, a person who loves others and themselves unconditionally?     

Whether we are ready or not, change is coming. The choices ahead of us as a country, as a church, and as individuals who profess to be followers of Jesus are huge. There will be change, but we can be a part of shaping and helping that change come into being. We have an opportunity here and now that might never come again. Are we willing to do the work to BEcome a different and better person, a different and better church, a different and better city, a different and better state, a different and better country, a different and better world?

Where do we start?

In my sermon from 3 years ago I quoted what the curators of the John Wesley Museum in Bristol, England created based on John Wesley’s’ teachings. Called the “Political Manifesto for Today,” I think it bears repeating (https://www.newroombristol.org.uk):

  • Reduce the gap between rich and poor
  • Seek to ensure full employment
  • Introduce measures to help the poorest, including a living wage
  • Offer the best possible education
  • Empower individuals to feel they can make a difference
  • Promote tolerance
  • Promote equal treatment for women
  • Create a society based on values and not on profits and consumerism
  • End all forms of enslavement
  • Avoid engaging in wars
  • Avoid narrow self-interest and promote a world view
  • Care for the animals with whom we share our planet.

What kind of manifesto would we as Seekers write? Are we ready to let go of our acedia and truly become the people we are meant to be?

It is possible, but only if we trust in the guidance, love and support of the Good Shepherd who is the guardian of our souls.

Christ is Risen!

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