The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, Summerville
“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly,” the “they” meaning, you, me and especially today the two young people being confirmed. That’s as good a vision statement as there is. Life abundant, to the full, maximized, being the person created each of us to be. It was way back in the 2nd century that Bishop Tertullian said, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.”
I trust it goes without saying that the abundant life Jesus promises does not mean possessions, money or stock portfolios. We recognize the lie in the two-page spread of the Volvo advertisement that says above a picture of a beautiful car: “Meet your salvation.” And even though we might chuckle, we know the untruth of the line on the t-shirt that says: “The one who dies with the most toys wins.” Yes?
When have you felt most full, a moment when your cup was running over? I think of my daughter’s wedding a couple of years ago with my heart nearly bursting out of my chest and saying to the people attending: “Gathered here this night are most of the people I love most in the world.” I also recall standing in an orphanage in downtown Amman, Jordan holding in my arms a wounded Iraqi child. She was Jesus and in that moment it was only the longing for love that bound us together. It is that all-embracing abundant love that is called forth in God’s people as we celebrate these Great 50 days of Easter.
So what are the implications of the abundant life Jesus gives for this community here at Good Shepherd? Why do you exist? For what purpose are you here as a parish?
Have you ever, while driving around, noticed various church signs, you know, the ones with messages on them? I do a lot of driving around the Diocese and come across many, some better than others. One read: “Repent, now is the day of salvation.” Another: “Christ is your fire insurance,” I assume alluding to the threat of burning in hell. I don’t like those kind much. Down the road, from a different denomination: “Mother’s Day is coming. Virtues are learned at mother’s knee, vices at some other joint.” Clever perhaps, but less than stirring. I wonder, what does the world that knows little about Christianity, except for such signs, think about us?
One block down, another church sign: “Big garage sale next Saturday. Cheap prices, great deals!” And then, just down the road in the same town, another sign: “We’ve got room for you at our table. Hospitality practiced here. Everybody welcome.” Nice, the best of all of them. The trouble is it was a sign in front of a restaurant, not a church.
The Jesus we discover today is the one who calls us each by name. It is a statement of profound relational intimacy. This ideal Shepherd is the one who kept telling stories of the unlimited nature of God’s love and reach. He came to tell us that love defeats everything, even death. Nothing and no one is beyond his embrace. Jesus was kind of annoying that way as he was constantly rescuing people nobody thought could be saved or was worth being saved. He was relentless, even dangerous, in his kingdom vision where he was always expanding the borders, forever gathering together those the culture tried to separate, forget, dismiss or deem unworthy.
Does it ever strike you that much of our public discourse these days seems bent on limiting borders and trying to decide who we can keep out? We’ve even had laws proposed in this country where it would be an illegal act to give water or any kind of aid to an undocumented person – someone who, by the way, Jesus knows by name. I am very concerned, and I hope you are too, by rhetoric that seems to be increasing in volume that is anti-black, anti-woman, anti-immigrant, anti-gay – language that diminishes us and makes us smaller. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, general intolerance and even domestic hate groups are significantly on the rise in this country.
Jesus, in his continued teaching about the Kingdom of God, over and over again holds up a possibility that is dramatically different than this. Christ the Shepherd teaches of a God who is like a careless farmer throwing seed with abandon leading to miraculous growing and reckless harvesting with no sorting out of the good from the bad. He is a Shepherd who not only desires that there be one flock that knows of the love of the Shepherd, he is willing to leave all of them just to find the one that is lost. It raises the question for us always to be considering – what kind of community we are building here at Good Shepherd and what kind of vision we are giving to this community, our neighborhood?
Today, with the confirmands, we again have the opportunity to reconnect to our baptismal reality in Christ, to “respect the dignity of every human being,” to “strive for justice and peace among all people,” and to “seek and serve Christ in all persons.” According to Jesus we have a God who is a bit reckless and extravagant with his love. It makes us a bit nervous. It got Jesus killed. What if someone gets loved or included who we think doesn’t deserve it? But this is the kind of God we have. I wonder – if we were more clear about this kind of dangerous Jesus, living on the edges, might we be a bit more attractive institution because we actually acted out of our espoused values as a people of the Christ, the Shepherd? That’s what folks of the Z generation in the 19-29 age range seem to be telling us!
All of us are called to serve out beyond these walls, the places where we live and move and have our being. The world will know we are a people of our word when we exhibit in “word and example” the costly, wild, reckless, self-abandoned love that takes shape in our deeds as we walk this earth. This is the love of the Shepherd. It is abundant – and the world is hungry for it.