Monday, April 27, 2015

Give Me Shelter

It’s no secret that I’m a comic book nerd.  For both of my ordinations, as a deacon and as a priest, it wasn’t just the clerical shirt and the priestly vestments that I considered ‘garments of the office.’  Underneath my clericals, I proudly wore a shirt emblazoned with the famous ‘S’ shield of the greatest superhero ever created: Superman.  For the curious, there is a picture on my Facebook page, taken in front of Lebanon Chapel just moments after becoming a deacon, where I am ripping open my clerical shirt to reveal the Superman logo underneath. I assure you, I am not just a mild-mannered priest.  I love the legends of heroism, the grand adventure that a comic book invites the reader into.  I love the mythology.  I love reading about the stories of good vs. evil, and of evil’s demise at the hands of heroes who give their all for the people and cities they love.  So perhaps it’s my love of superheroes that explains why one image implied by today’s Gospel stuck with me this week: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away-- and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.”

I’m no shepherd, so I don’t know how difficult that life actually is.  But I can certainly grasp the kind of conflict and sacrifice Jesus is alluding to.  Imagine with me, for a moment.  In the darkness of night, a hired hand stands near the flock.  One lonely torch gives off just enough light to see the sleeping sheep.  Suddenly, a twig breaks, leaves rustle, and a deep, guttural growl emanates from the darkness.  Stricken with fear, the hired hand catches just a fleeting glimpse of the glowing eyes of the wolf.  Caring more for himself, he drops everything and runs, as fast as he can, to escape his fate.  But Jesus offers something else.  The Good Shepherd, the faithful caretaker, stands between the wolf and his prey, shepherd’s crook in hand, and fights tooth and nail with the wolf…fights even to the death to keep the sheep safe, to give them safe travel.  And the image that remained with me was the shepherd, who looks a lot like what I imagine Jesus looked like, struggling, wrestling, fighting with a wolf…fighting with the conviction that the ones he loves are worth dying for.  “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.”

So many of the stories that I love, even stories that shape our culture’s collective understanding of what’s heroic, often portray the hero’s struggle as a struggle for justice…for what is right…for what is good, and virtuous.  We can’t easily forget that famous tagline of Superman: “The never ending battle for truth, justice, and the American Way.”  Heroes are often portrayed as struggling and fighting on behalf of a grand cosmic principle.  But here, in Jesus’ metaphor, the struggle is not about truth or justice.  It’s not a battle of ‘might makes right.’  It’s not about an idea, as beautiful as the ideas of freedom and justice can be.  The struggle, the sacrifice of the Good Shepherd doesn’t have an idea or a truth at its center.  Right in the center of this conflict is the conviction that, no matter how broken, or stubborn, or sinful we may be, the Good Shepherd is overcome by a most passionate love for the human race, a love that knows no boundaries, a love that doesn’t run dry, a love that leads even to the Shepherd’s death.

This, for me, is the heart of the Gospel.  It’s at the heart of what the Church calls ‘atonement.’  When I read the Scriptures, when I focus on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, when I let him speak to the wounded places of my own heart, I hear him saying, “I didn’t die just to take away your sins, and I certainly didn’t die to take the wrath of God upon myself in your place.  I didn’t die just to ensure your place in heaven.  I willingly suffered and died because I love you, I adore you, and I wanted to show the world the unreachable depths of God’s love for everyone.” And as I dwell with Jesus’ willingness to die, his willingness to face head on the danger of death that was our destiny, I’m struck by the fact that this is true heroism.  In the stories that I love so much, the stories of heroes with capes and utility belts, alien powers and iron suits, there is always the sense that the struggle is never over.  That there will be an endless cycle of conflict that must be endured.  Remember, it’s a “never ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way.” But in this story, the story of a Good Shepherd who faces down whatever wolves come against us, even if those wolves are death, hell, and the grave…in this story, the battle is won.   As the sheep of his flock, there is nothing left for us to do to earn his favor, to take hold of his grace, to receive his love.  “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.” The life, death, and particularly the resurrection of Jesus is the end of the struggle to become right with God, to know God’s love, to bask in his grace.  And what we realize is that, all along, there really was nothing we could do to earn that love anyway.  And so we see the Good Shepherd facing down the wolves around us, laying down his own life, suffering, dying, and rising in glory to show us once and for all the depth of God’s love for us.  The Apostle Paul says it quite clearly: “But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.”

Life after the Resurrection, then, is ultimately not about our inner struggle, or our efforts to make good on God’s promise of new life.  It’s not about showing to God, or to the world, or to our neighbors in the pews, how holy we have become through pious works of mercy and spirituality. It’s about knowing at the depths of who we are that we are loved beyond anything that we can imagine.  That we are called beautiful, holy, perfect, wonderful, beloved.  It’s about recognizing that the mighty work of God on the Cross and through the bursting forth of life from the Tomb…recognizing that all of this was not just to show the power of God, but to offer a final declaration of God’s love to the whole human race.  The battle has been won.  The victor, Christ the Crucified yet Risen One.  And we are those who enjoy the spoils of this struggle: “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.” So forget Superman.  I'll take Jesus any day.



*A sermon preached at St. Andrew's On-the-Sound Episcopal Church in Wilmington, NC on April 26th, 2015.  The primary text was John 10:11-18.



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