Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Trust & Obey... God!

SJF • Easter 7b 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG Jesus prayed, Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.

Tomorrow is Memorial Day, and that puts me in mind of wars and rumors of war, which sadly we have had more than enough of in the last few years. But Memorial Day also put me in mind of some of the great military leaders of our nation’s past. I was reminded of one of them this morning in an NPR broadcast: General George Patton, who wrote a book about leadership. In it he described how he would pick a soldier for promotion — a task he believed was one of the most important a commander could undertake. Patton wrote,

I line up the candidates and say, “Men, I want a trench dug behind warehouse ten. Make this trench eight feet long, three feet wide, and six inches deep.” While the candidates are checking their tools out at the warehouse, I watch them from a distance. They puzzle over why I would want such a shallow trench... Some of them complain that such a trench could be dug more efficiently with power equipment... If the men are the rank of lieutenant or higher, there will be complaints that they shouldn’t be doing such lowly labor. Finally, one man will say, “What difference does it make what Patton wants to do with this trench! Let’s get it dug and be done with it.” That man will get the promotion.

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In our reading from the Acts of the Apostles today we hear the leaders of the early church setting about a similar task, the task of finding someone to be promoted — not to a superior military post, but to something far more important in the scheme of things. The disciples are about to promote someone to the rank of the apostles, to take up the empty slot created by the betrayal of Judas.

Patton’s way to choose who to promote from lieutenant to captain, and corporal to sergeant tells us what he valued in a leader in the army: he doesn’t want complaints but obedience. And what the apostles do to find a replacement for Judas tells us what they are looking for in a leader of the church.

The apostles agree that the candidate must be a witness to the whole ministry of Jesus, from the time of his baptism on through his ascension. They don’t want a newcomer won over because of the resurrection. They want someone who for three years has followed Jesus with faithfulness and trust, even through the dark times when he foretold and then underwent death on a cross. In short, they want someone they can trust because he trusted Jesus. They want someone who will remain faithful because he has remained faithful.

The chosen one’s faith would be focused on one who offered his followers nothing in way of an earthly kingdom, but whom all — with one exception — followed in obedience and trust. And it is to fill that empty slot in the roster, left by that one exceptional traitor, that the Apostles now set about their work.

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Now, to get back to earthly armies, we know that an army could not function if every soldier simply did as he pleased. Even with one soldier a superb sharpshooter, another an expert in breaking codes, another skilled at hand-to-hand combat, without leadership to orchestrate these skills the army would be useless. So the army has a strict chain of command and a strict code of conduct.

In the army you do what you’re told by you superiors. There can be no ifs, ands or buts — as General Patton’s story indicates. And the army’s success or failure depends in large part on how well the individual gifts and skills are woven together by the leader to produce an effective force, individual skills knitted together by the masters of tactics and strategy.

The church works in the same way, but with a vitally important difference — which I’ll get to in a moment. First, though, the church’s similarity to an earthly army lies in the fact that each individual Christian has unique gifts and skills, whether in prayer or witness, music or teaching, worship or fellowship or stewardship. But the members don’t simply “do their own thing” — the church has its leaders too, both lay and ordained. And a major part of the church leaders’ task is to weave the talents of all of the church’s members together into a strong fabric that can bear the weight of responsibility placed upon it.

Christians work together, not as free agents, but as parts of a body. Look at how the apostles describe the treachery of Judas. He “turned aside to go to his own place.” He turned aside, to do things on his own; and cut off from those he betrayed and rejected, he died a terrible death.

So what the apostles are most concerned about in finding a replacement is to find someone who has been with them from the beginning, someone who has proved his loyalty by staying with them. They want someone who stuck with it even through Christ’s betrayal, capture, trial and death; someone who trusts and obeys God, and so who can be trusted to take up the responsibility of leadership, someone whom the members of the church will also be able to obey, and trust they will be led in the right way.

That is how the apostles choose the candidates Joseph and Matthias, and the way they make the final decision as to which one joins them as an apostle tells us that vitally important different thing about the church. It shows us that vital thing that makes the church different from an earthly institution like an army or a government.

And that lies in how the apostles put the final choice into God’s hands. They choose able candidates, yes, but then they pray to God for guidance, and put their trust in God to make the final choice, casting lots to see who will be the new apostle. Can you imagine a general or a business owner choosing who to promote on the basis of casting lots? Can you imagine a nation electing its leaders by drawing straws or holding a lottery? Of course not.

This is where the church is so utterly different, so utterly unlike the world and its armies and industries. For although there are leaders in the church, both lay and ordained, whether vestry members, priests or bishops, the reason we follow them, within the church is not just because they hold authority, but because we know they are on the same journey with us — the journey of faith; and because we know that ultimately they are not in charge, and know they aren’t in charge. For they, and we, answer to a higher authority. There is one commander in chief above and beyond all who follow him, one in whom we can with sure confidence place all of our trust, and to whom we can commit and affirm and fulfill our promise to obey.

When the apostles cast lots to determine who was to join their number, they were placing their complete trust and obedience in God. They said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen.” Both candidates had shown themselves faithful and obedient — so in once sense the apostles couldn’t lose — but the final choice as to which was to be called would be left to God.

The apostles trusted God completely, trusting and obeying. The apostles knew that God is in charge, not any vestry, vicar, rector, warden, bishop or pope. We are, all of us, obedient servants who place our trust in the One we seek to follow with all our hearts. And we trust and obey our earthly leaders in the church when we know that they too trust in God. We know that they are fellow pilgrims and fellow workers, and that they seek with all their hearts to follow him in obedience to his will for the good of the church. We are all in this together, my sisters and brothers in Christ, all of us together trusting in God to make up for what we lack, obedient to him who saves us and who strengthens us to serve, as he promised, all of us Christian soldiers, marching onward in the confidence that the one leading all of us is none other than God himself, guiding us by his Holy Spirit and the cross of Jesus, “going on before.”

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I want to end this sermon with another war story but of a different sort. When the Japanese invaded China at the beginning of the last World War, missionary Gladys Aylward led a group of more than a hundred Chinese orphans to safety over the mountains from Yangcheng. It was a harrowing experience, and at one point she was on the verge of giving up, without hope of ever reaching safety. A young girl tried to comfort and encourage her by reminding her of the story of Moses at the Red Sea. Gladys complained, “But I am not Moses.” The child, with that special wisdom granted the pure in heart, said, “Of course you are not Moses. But God is God.” May we too always have such trust and such obedience.

God is God, to whom, as is most justly due, we ascribe all might, majesty, power and dominion, henceforth and for ever more.+

Monday, May 18, 2009

Where Love Abides

SJF • Easter 6b 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.+

For as long as I can remember, at least since I was four or five years old, I have had a great love for dinosaurs. I know I am not alone in this, and there are probably more than a few people here who as children staged dinosaur combats with diminutive molded plastic figures of those ancient giants. One of my earliest church memories — I couldn’t have been much older than six — is about arguing with the Sunday School teacher about which day of creation God made the dinosaurs. (I could be a very annoying child!) There was a time I could rattle off the names, terrible-sounding polysyllables worthy of these mysterious monsters from the dawn of time. I’ve forgotten most of the names I knew, and they’ve added so many new ones as discoveries continue, that I can’t keep up. But my fascination and interest still remains.

So a few years ago, when I first saw the previews for the Disney film called simply Dinosaur, I knew I would have to see it. Well, it lived up to all of my expectations, as well of those of a theater full of attentive viewers, most of whom were much, much younger than me!

And lest you find it odd that I am talking about a dinosaur movie in the context of a sermon, I do so because a major theme of the film — and actually a major theme of just about every movie Disney or his successors ever made — is also a major theme of our Scripture readings today. For the primary message of the film is the difference between conflict and cooperation.

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This theme is echoed in our readings as the difference between self-giving love and self-centered fear. We are called to love one another, and even more, we are commanded to love one another by our Lord Jesus Christ. The fact that we are called and commanded reveals a simple truth: love is not natural, it is something we have to be reminded to do, called to do, commanded to do. If love came naturally, the world would be a very different place, and people wouldn’t be singing about “what the world needs now” — because we’d already have it without having to sing for it.

The history of life on earth, including the dinosaurs — and this is where the Disney movie departs from reality and heads off for fantasy land — life without the call and command of God is not loving. Life without the call and command of God is survival of the fittest, every man — or dinosaur — for himself, and the devil — or the Tyrannosaurus — take the hindmost. Nature without love is, as Tennyson observed, “red in tooth and claw” and natural life — as Thomas Hobbes put it — is “nasty, brutish, and short,” though Hobbes thought the answer was good government rather than the love of God.

But to get back to Disney’s fable: in the real world of the Jurassic age there was no enlightened dinosaur to teach that cooperation is better than competition, that the way to survival is not to be found through victory over the weak, but through charity. Real dinosaurs are not charitable! Love does not come natural, and love does not come easy

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Yet love does come. Even more important, love did come. Love came down in the person of Jesus Christ, the only Son of the God, God who is love — in person. God is the love that fills the universe with his desire for unity and wholeness, love that draws together things that are flying apart by spreading out his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross, to draw it all back together again, love that lifts up things that have been cast down, by stooping to the very depths to get under the weight of a fallen world and hoist it up on his shoulders.

Love came down to us in the person of Jesus Christ, and love called us and gave us a commandment: “Love one another; abide in my love.” This is the love that is greater than any other, the love that lays down its own life for the sake of the beloved; the love that puts others ahead of itself.

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This is the love we are called to; this is the love we are commanded to have for one another. This love is not just affection or warm feelings, but the gift of your very self for the sake of the ones you love. This is the love that marked the first Christian communities, such as the one that Barnabas gathered in Antioch, to which he called Saul, and in which those who believed in Jesus Christ were first called “Christians.” They must have been a particularly loving community — after all, they are one of the few to which Saint Paul did not have to write a letter of admonishment!

Somehow it seems they got it right, and the Scripture witnesses to their generosity and love in response to the prophetic warning that a world-wide famine was coming. Instead of hoarding their own resources, as well they might have done in the face of the terrible news, instead of looking out for themselves they took up a relief collection and sent it to Judea at the hands of Barnabas and Saul.

Think about that for a moment. For the ancient Christians of Antioch it wasn’t “every man for himself” but everyone for somebody else. The Christians of Antioch, were filled with the Holy Spirit, which is the Spirit of love. They didn’t fear for their own survival but risked all they could, to take up a collection to help the faithful three hundred miles away. God’s love, at work in their hearts, cast out the fear that urged them towards self-preservation, the fear that would have them concentrate on their own survival. God’s love transformed them into generous and memorable souls who were the first to be worthy of that old hymn refrain, “They will know we are Christians by our love.” And so it was in Antioch, that the believers were for the first time known by the name “Christian.”

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And this is still true. People will know we are Christians by our love. We will gain that name, that identity, not because we’ve got it printed on I.D. cards in our pockets, or name-tags round our necks; not because there’s a sign on the door or a cross on the roof. Anybody can get an I.D. card these days; anybody can put a sign on their door or a cross on their roof. Anybody can plaster a bumper sticker on their car, proudly asking you to honk if you love Jesus. Well, I can tell you, Jesus did not command us to honk; he commanded us to love each other as he has loved us! Anybody can slap a WWJD bracelet on their wrist — you know, the one that asks What Would Jesus Do? Well in response to WWJD, I say H C Y D W J W D I Y D K W H D: How Can You Do What Jesus Would Do If You Don’t Know What He Did? There are plenty of folks who call Jesus their Lord without the least interest in doing what he did, or even in doing what he said. What Jesus said is, “Love one another, Abide in my love,” and what he did was to lay down his life for his friends.

Jesus commanded us to love one another because he knew it takes a divine commandment to override the built-in natural drive to self-preservation that all of God’s creatures have carried in their brains and bodies from before the dinosaurs to today. Love is unnatural: natural selection is based on the survival of the fittest, not the love of the most generous. “Love comes from God,” as John the Beloved Disciple wrote, “We love because he first loved us.”

Love comes from God, for God is love. Love isn’t something we thought up, it is something God gives us. The love of God is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit that is given to us. It takes the grace of God to turn away from the biological imperative to preserve oneself, to favor oneself, it takes the grace of God to embrace the call of God to sacrifice oneself for others, to place others first. It takes God’s call and command to think first about the misfortune and need of another before you tend to yourself; to take up the collection for people you’ve never met when you hear they are facing famine, even when you yourself may not know where your next meal is coming from.

But this is what our loving God through Christ commands us to do, and this is what loving God through the Spirit empowers us to do. And when we do, we too will be known to be Christians as were the first believers in Antioch. We too will be known to be Christians by our love. Not because of the sign on the door, or the cross on the roof, the i.d. card in our pocket, the name-tag round our necks, the bumper sticker on our cars, or the bracelet on our wrist. But because the love of God dwells in our hearts, through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us, in Jesus Christ our Lord.+

Monday, May 11, 2009

A Dream Come True

SJF • Easter 5b 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The Ethiopian eunuch said to Philip, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent my being baptized?”

Have you ever had a dream denied? Has there ever been something you wanted with all your heart and all your soul, and yet been told, “You can’t have it”? Maybe it was a job you wanted, something you felt you were ready to do, and skilled to do, a challenge you were ready to meet — but you were told, “Sorry, you’re not qualified.” We’ve all had experiences like that; we’ve all had our hopes dashed, our dreams put on hold. Yet somehow, it wasn’t the end. We kept on hoping all the same, kept on dreaming our dream, no matter how many times it was deferred or denied.

Every three years we hear a reading from the Acts of the Apostles about a man who had such a dream — and who had the disappointments that went with it. And it is such a wonderful story I can’t help preaching about it again this year — and I hope you’ll bear with me, because the reading tells us how a dream came true one day — one day when the man was least expecting it. And that is such good news that it bears repeating.

We don’t know what this man’s name was. All that we know about him has to be pieced together from the slim facts that Saint Luke wrote in the Acts of the Apostles. We know that he was an Ethiopian, the treasurer of the Queen of Ethiopia. And we know he was a eunuch — a man with no future as far as the people of his day regarded things: for a man who could not have children had no future, no hope.

But this was a man who did have hope. He had a dream, and a hope against hope. We don’t know when this man first had his dream. But we’ve got a very good idea what that dream was. One day some years before — how long we don’t know — this man had an encounter with a new religion — new to him — the religion of the people of Israel. He might have heard about it from descendants of the exiles who fled from Jerusalem when the Babylonians attacked and conquered it 600 years before. They had fled to Egypt and then on further south “up” the Nile, to escape the destruction of Jerusalem, and later they went as far as Ethiopia — some say they even had the Ark of the Covenant with them!

Perhaps the eunuch met a descendant of one of these Jewish exiles, or perhaps a Jewish merchant, trading in Ethiopia, as he sat in the waiting room in the Queen’s palace, there on some business or other, to pass the time in the hot and humid afternoon, got to talking with the Queen’s treasurer, talking about religion. You know people love to talk about religion! We don’t know what the Ethiopian’s religion was. If he was like most of the people at that time in history, he probably worshiped idols, or his ancestors, or a pantheon of many gods. So picture this Jewish merchant starting to talk about his religion, talking about a religion with only one God — but what a God!

Perhaps that started something to work in the heart of the Ethiopian eunuch, this man who spent most of his day toting up figures and counting coins, and checking the accounts for the Queen’s household.

As I say, we don’t know how the dream started; we don’t know for sure what led this Ethiopian eunuch to seek to follow this religion from the distant north, from up in Jerusalem. But one day, he must have reached the decision — the decision to become a Jew, to become a worshiper of the one true God, the God who made heaven and earth, and all that is in them.

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And that was when his dream was stopped cold. For as soon as he got up the courage to go to that local synagogue, that strange little building off on the side of the village, to tell the rabbi he wanted to become a Jew, the rabbi would have given him the sad news: it’s against the Law. Now, it wasn’t against the Law for everybody. Most Gentiles, if they wanted to convert to the Jewish faith at that time, could be admitted to the Jewish faith in a ceremony that ended with their baptism. That may come as a surprise: we tend to think of baptism as a Christian ceremony. But the church adopted baptism from the synagogue — and John the Baptist, the last of the Jewish prophets, baptized — that’s why we call him “John the Baptist” — he baptized for repentance before Jesus instructed his disciples to baptize in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

For the Jews, baptism was a sign that you were purified, washed clean. Under the Jewish Law, people got baptized more than once, unlike Christianity, where you just get baptized once. Under the Jewish law, you got baptized whenever they did anything that made them ritually unclean. If you touched a dead body, for instance, or after certain kinds of illnesses — for women, once a month — you were expected to take a ritual bath that washed away the uncleanliness. Orthodox Jews still do that to this day.

But in those days, baptism became a symbol of purification: and when a Gentile became a Jew, the baptism signified washing away the whole former Gentile life, which the Jews considered unclean —remember from Acts of the Apostles, when Peter had the vision to come to the Centurion’s house, and the Centurion was amazed a Jew would enter a Gentile house — so baptism became symbolic of entry into a new life, purified from a Gentile past.

So one day the Ethiopian went to the rabbi to express his faith, and appeal to be admitted into the Jewish religion; he was asking to be baptized as a Jew. And the rabbi no doubt said, My friend, I see you are pious and mean well. You are seeking to worship our God — and Gentiles are welcome to do so, even in the outer court provided for them at the Temple in Jerusalem. And yes, some Gentiles even go further, and are admitted as Jews with the proper ceremony and baptism. But — how can I say this without offending you — you are a eunuch, and it is written in the Law of Moses, in the book of Deuteronomy (23.1): No man who is a eunuch shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.

At that moment, the Ethiopian’s dream was denied. All his hopes sunk. This wasn’t something he could do anything about. In case you don’t know this is one operation that you can’t reverse — there was nothing he could do — he couldn’t go to Monroe College to get new job skills; he couldn’t get a G.E.D.; he couldn’t use his wealth — which must have been significant — to buy his way into the Jewish religion. This was the end of his dream: He was a eunuch, and the Law was clear — no eunuch shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. The most he could do was to continue as he had, a Gentile God-fearer.

These were Gentiles who could not, or would not take the final step to convert to the Jewish faith, but who still honored the God of the Jews, supported the local synagogue, and might even journey to Jerusalem, to worship as close as they could in the Court of the Gentiles in the outer precincts of the Temple. The Ethiopian had been a God-fearer, and a God-fearer he would remain — traveling to Jerusalem when he got the chance, to get as close as he could to the Holy Place; so close, and yet, so far!

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It was on his return from one such trip that the Ethiopian eunuch’s dream finally came true. He was on his way back home from Jerusalem, from worshiping in the Court of the Gentiles. He had a copy of the book of the Prophet Isaiah with him in his chariot, a handwritten scroll. That alone tells us he was a wealthy man, and a man devoted to the religion he so admired, but from which he was excluded. We can tell he was devoted because scrolls like these were precious and expensive — we take books for granted, we throw them away when we finish reading them — but in those times a scroll like this would have cost a whole year’s wages of an ordinary worker. If you can imagine spending $30,000 for your own personal copy of the Bible, you will understand the extent of this man’s devotion.

The Ethiopian was reading the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah — one of the great moments of grace in all of the Bible. For had he been reading some other part of the Bible, Philip might not have found the story that inspired him to share the good news with him.

Why was the eunuch reading Isaiah? When a book costs a fortune, you will choose your library carefully! The reason this man, this Ethiopian eunuch, had a copy of Isaiah lies in these verses from the 56th chapter: “For thus says the LORD: To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, ... these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer... for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”

These were the words of the prophet Isaiah that had kept that man’s dream alive, that fed his hope. Some day God would change his own rules! Some day God would act —somehow, some way, God would change his own rules, the rules laid down in Deuteronomy, and let the eunuchs into the covenant. Some day... Here was a promise to nourish a dream, to feed a hope. Some day...

So imagine how the Ethiopian must have felt as Philip began to expound the Scripture to him, telling how the prophecies about Jesus, prefigured in the words of Isaiah about the suffering servant, had come true. Prophecies coming true? And just in the last few months? And in Jerusalem? Imagine his growing excitement as he heard how the suffering servant of Isaiah was a prophecy of Christ’s suffering and death. Prophecies from five hundred years before were coming true, then and there in Jerusalem! If they were coming true about Jesus, could they come true about me?

And as Philip expounded and explained all the other Scriptures, how they were being fulfilled day by day, hope grew in the Ethiopian’s heart. Could it be that Isaiah’s prophecy concerning the faithful eunuchs, those who sought to please the Lord, who honored the covenant — could it be this too was on the verge of coming true? He could feel the hope welling up in him, filling his heart, welling up in his throat. And when Philip finally told the man about baptism, he could contain himself no more!

He’d asked it once before, and been turned down. But he could see that new things were springing to life, the world was being made anew, the prophecies were coming to fulfillment, and his dream was on the verge of coming true. And as he felt the hope rise in his heart, the chariot turned a bend in the road. And there, in the midst of the desert, was an oasis with pure, clear water — water as bright and hopeful as his own dream was in the desert of his life up till then. And he exclaimed, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

The fact that he was a eunuch didn’t matter any more: the prophecies were coming true! The Temple, as Isaiah promised, and Jesus proclaimed, was becoming a house of prayer for all people. And Philip and the Ethiopian went down into the water, and Philip baptized him — and his dream came true.

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And we don’t know what happened to that him after the Spirit snatched Philip away. All we know is that he went on his way rejoicing, back to his home in the south. But we do know this: the church in Ethiopia is one of the oldest Christian churches in the world. And we know who the first Gentile Christian in Africa was, even if we don’t know his name.

So if you have a dream that’s been denied, don’t give up hope. Keep that hope alive in your heart; fan it with the breath of the Spirit and keep that ember glowing, even when it seems like it’s going to go out. You never know. A man like Philip may cross your path when you least expect it. You may turn a corner and find water in the middle of a desert. Keep your hope alive in your heart, keep dreaming the dream and never let it die, even though it be deferred or denied. Keep the dream alive, feed it on hope and the Spirit: water it with your tears if you must. I tell you, the world is being made new. Though the desert be broad, there will be water in the wilderness.+


Monday, May 04, 2009

Community of the Good Shepherd

SJF • Easter 4b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.+

The fourth Sunday of Easter is known as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” The collect and the readings remind us that we have a good shepherd whose voice we recognize, a caring shepherd who calls us each by name, a shepherd who places us ahead of himself, and who has laid down his life for us. We are the sheep of his pasture, and he has called us together as a flock, a community.

If you’ve ever driven through the country you can tell just by looking which flocks of sheep are well-cared for and which are neglected. You may not be able to judge a book by its cover, but you can judge a shepherd by his sheep! If you see a group of scraggly, muddy, dirty sheep huddled near a broken-down fence in squalor, miserable and moping, you know what kind of a shepherd they’ve got. And when you see fat and fluffy sheep munching on lush green grass, reclining in the sunshine and taking it easy, you also know something about their shepherd.

So it is that when you look at a church you can discern what kind of relationship that church has with its lord and master — and who the master really is. For not all churches follow the Good Shepherd. Some have had the misfortune to follow wolves dressed as sheep!

A few weeks ago on Channel 13 there was a documentary about Jim Jones and the People’s Temple; or what he called the People’s Temple. The haunting thing about this film is that it wasn’t a Hollywood made-for-TV movie. It was made up of home movies and news footage, expanded with interviews from the small handful of people who survived the mass suicide — or to name it more accurately, the mass murder, that took place in that tropical paradise gone bad.

And as I watched and listened I thought — who could possibly see this man as anything like a Good Shepherd? Even without the final chilling evidence of the mass murder/suicide itself — the video and audio show a man out of control long before that tragic day, an autocrat who could brook no disagreement, a manipulator and power broker. Who can look at the images of the aftermath of the Flavor-Aid cyanide slaughter, over 700 bodies of men and women, and 300 children; who can listen to the audio tape that was recorded during the 45-minute massacre, and say, This is the work of a Good Shepherd? Is it not the work of a thief who came in to rob and steal, a wolf who murders and slays.

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It is easy to see such marks of a bad shepherd. But what does the flock of the Good Shepherd look like? Well, the first thing to note about the community of the Good Shepherd is that, as the reading from the Acts of the Apostles tells us, “there was not a needy person among them.” In the flock of the good shepherd you don’t have one or two fat and happy sheep and dozens of skinny, benighted, forlorn sheep. The community of the good shepherd is marked with the brand of Generosity. Everyone helps out together, pitching in and working together for the benefit of the whole community, not just the profit of one or two at the expense of all.

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I once heard the story of an old man who lived in a small country town. He didn’t have much money; to make a living he did odd jobs in the houses up and down the dusty roads of that country town. He was quite a sight: his shoes rarely matched and his socks never did — when he wore them. He’d decided years before that suspenders were frivolous and a belt a luxury, so he used a strip of leather from an old harness to keep his pants up. He shaved about once a week, but no one knew precisely when it was, as he always seemed to have a three days growth. He would stop at the kitchen doors up and down those dusty country roads and ask if there were any odd jobs to do, anything that needed mending. The surprising thing people learned was that in spite of his personal appearance, his work was always top notch. It seemed odd that a man who was such a raggedy jumble could paint woodwork with such exquisite precision and care. It was always a surprise that someone who appeared so hastily put together could plane a door to make it swing just right, and even patch a leaking pipe so as you’d never know it leaked.

One family in particular took a liking to him and would always have him in to dinner when he stopped by. The children soon learned it wasn’t polite to make fun of his mismatched shoes and his harness belt. In fact, one day the father of the family thought he’d teach his young son a lesson in generosity, and gave the boy a pair of his own shoes, some new socks, and a belt and a jacket, wrapped in a sack, and told the boy to sneak down the road leave them outside the old man’s house at the edge of town.

Later that week the old man appeared, still dressed as always, to ask if any work needed doing. The family said no, but asked him in for dinner, as always. He thanked them and as they sat at table, the father suggested the old man say the thanksgiving, as he had once or twice before. They all closed their eyes and bowed their heads as the old man began. “God is so good. I’ve got so much to be thankful for. I am thankful for these nice folks who have me in to eat, and set a spell. But I want to offer special thanks that just this week someone left some shoes and a bundle of clothes on my porch.” The father opened one eye to glance in his son’s direction and smiled, and saw his son was smiling too. But the prayer wasn’t quite over. The old man continued. “And I thank you, Lord, that just yesterday I met some folks that could really use those clothes. Praise God!”

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That’s the community of the good shepherd! For what is generosity? When you give of your abundance, are you really being generous? When the glass overflows and the water spills our, is that generosity? Isn’t it generosity when you take the half glass that you have and share it with someone else? The community of the good shepherd is generous, generous with the kind of generosity that puts other’s first. The members of the community of the good shepherd so care for the wants of others that it doesn’t occur to them to say, “I need this more than you do.”

And out of this generosity there grows another sign of their community. John the beloved disciple writes, “All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure. Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness… No one who abides in him sins.”

A good member of that flock will not sin against another member of that flock. Now, the root of sin is the opposite of generosity, right? It is self-interest, the attitude that says, my needs come first — the opposite of generosity. That root taps deep, in all of us, right back to the tree that grew in the middle of that other tropical paradise, the garden of Eden, where Eve and Adam put themselves first rather than God. And you know what they got for it, something we’ve all shared in since, the day’s wage of sin, parceled out to all their descendants.

Ralph Woods tells a story, another country story, that illustrates the dead-end of such selfishness very clearly. A farmer heard about some new experimental seed-corn that was reputed to give a much higher yield. Sure enough, the first year he planted it, it brought in a bumper crop. Other farmers in the area saw this, and wanted to know his secret. But he was unwilling to reveal his source. When the neighbors appealed to him to at least sell them some of his corn for seed, he refused that too. He ensured that all his crop — aside from what he stored up for seed the next season, went to feed processing plants. None of his seed corn would fall into his neighbors’ hands. What he didn’t sell, he saved to plant.

Plant he did, and was a bit taken aback to find that the second year crop — while still good, and better than that of his neighbors— wasn’t up to the yield of the previous year. Still, he was doing better than the other farmers; and still he refused to share his secret or his seed-corn.

The third year was devastating. His crop did no better than any of his neighbors — all of them came in a little better than in past years, but nothing like the first year when he had planted his special variety corn.

And finally it hit him: his plans had been undone by the winds that blew over his and his neighbors’ fields. The corn stalks shed their pollen, all of them on all those fields, from the tall tassels swinging in the breezes. It spread enough in the mid-western winds to cross-pollinate all of the corn in the whole area — both his and his neighbors. This natural process increased the yield for his neighbors by as much as it decreased his. How much better off all would have been if he had shared his secret from the get-go, in a community of generosity.

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I said before, like shepherd like sheep. And our Good Shepherd is not selfish; rather he sacrifices his own life for the sake of the flock. And the community of the Good Shepherd similarly shows forth that graceful generosity that comes from placing another first, stepping aside in the dance of charity and love, sharing even when it doesn’t seem like there’s enough.

And isn’t that the message of the gospel, again and again. Think of that woman who found the lost coin after sweeping her house. What did she do after she found that coin? Did she put it back in the sugar jar? No; she threw a party for all of the neighbors round about. That’s generosity.

This is what marks that community, that is what the community of the Good Shepherd looks like: generous, self-giving, pure and orderly. Now, it might not look perfect at first sight. I mean, if there isn’t really enough to go round, and even so they share it all out, well, you might wonder at first about those mismatched shoes, the old harness instead of a belt. But you will sense at once the willingness to share in the work, to be generous and not to place oneself first. That’s what the community of the Good Shepherd looks like.

Is that what Saint James look like? Look around you. Do you see people you are glad to see? Do you see people you help when you can, people you can count on to help you? I know what I have seen, and I hope to continue to see. I’ve seen generosity, and the courage to pitch in. I’ve seen sickness and death, yes, those old bruises we bear because our first parents back in Eden looked out for themselves instead of trusting God. But I have also seen, even in the midst of sickness, even in the face of death, that generosity and sacrifice that is the mark of the Good Shepherd’s flock. I’ve heard him calling each of us by name, and I’ve heard a whole flock of responding voices of a whole flock of people willing to follow where he leads.+