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My final sermon at Christ Church, Old Town Alexandria, VA for the semester
Scripture: John 10:22-30
I speak to you in the name of the + Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Good morning, Christ Church!
This is my last Sunday at Christ Church until next fall when I will return to be with you all. I’ll be headed back to my home city of Pittsburgh where I’ll be completing Clinical Pastoral Education at a hospital up there. I want to thank you for your ministry to me. Our time together has been something I will treasure forever, and I am sincerely thankful.
I love images of agriculture in the Gospels because my granddaddy was a forester and a tree farmer. He owned and managed property in rural Alabama with deer plots we would hunt in the fall. But in the summer, he would plant peas and other vegetables on these plots, and I spent many summers during my childhood alone with him in these fields picking the crops. We would go out early in the day in his red pickup truck with wicker baskets that we would fill over the brim. These summers were filled with lessons on the Bible, stories of my ancestors, and other things learned from a man who had lived a very full life intimately tied to nature.
When I read these stories of Jesus comparing himself to things like a shepherd, a field hand, or a gardener – I cannot help but remember my granddaddy. And on this “Good Shepherd Sunday” as it is called – this text makes me think of just how humbly Jesus described himself – not a Monarch who claimed the throne of an Earthly Empire, not a merchant with hordes of money, not a person with connections, but a person who tends to a flock of sheep. Out of all of the metaphors available to Jesus to use in describing his position, he uses one of a servant.
The timing of this claim - to be a Shepherd one with God - could not be more ironic. The festival of the Dedication celebrated the defeat by the Maccabees over their oppressors and the rededication of the Temple. Everyone knew the political and religious significance of the day. As Allen Dwight Callahan, a prominent Biblical scholar asserts, “Dedication harks back to a time of crisis in Israelite history when the priesthood and aristocracy were complicit with the enemies of the Torah, when the Jerusalemite priestly elite and their non-priestly sympathizers apostatized and supported the evil Syrian monarch...”
The people wanted another rebellion! They wanted to topple the empire that occupied their land. And Christ is rejected despite his works because, to the religious leaders, he was simply not the right person for the job. He did not meet their expectations. The work that he did was not the work they wanted the Messiah to do. This claim by Jesus was simply too much for the religious leaders to handle.
In this claim, Jesus shows us that God’s kingdom is something different. It is a flock of sheep led by a shepherd. It is a group of people who know the call of their Lord. It is an assurance of salvation.
I’ve always thought this was an odd passage for Eastertime. This story takes place before Christ’s death and resurrection. It is in fact one of those, “Gotcha!” moments for the religious leaders that is used to incriminate Jesus before his crucifixion. A man, the son of a carpenter at that, claiming to be one with God; claiming that his followers know him to be the Messiah. This is literally an unspeakable act for the religious leaders of the day.
This Gospel passage reminds us, during this season of Easter, that salvation comes to us in the unexpected. He moves among us and empowers the ordinary to glorify Himself. He seeks out those who have been forgotten and dismissed by society and names them as His own. He shows himself despite the Earthly forces trying to stop him. This passage reminds us that salvation did not and does not come from an Earthly leader that could only offer temporal treasures, but from a Shepherd who offered a heavenly reward.
Before and after his resurrection the religious leaders of the day dismissed the glory of Christ because the glory of Jesus was not in the Earthly systems of power. It was not the Earthly status of Jesus that testified to his divinity. No Earthly throne could serve as the throne of God. Instead, he rejected the things that people thought were powerful and adopted the humblest of professions to describe himself. God called Himself a Shepherd.
Along with this rejection of Earthly status, Christ gives us assurance – while we know Earthly powers will fall, where the rich will abuse their wealth, where social statuses are fleeting – no one can snatch us from the hands of God. And rather than adopting the impersonal nature of rule that often accompanies an immense amount of power, Jesus claims that he knows us. He speaks to us. God holds us in his hand.
The glory of this message that Jesus is preaching is that the Kingdom of God does not have a requirement of social status to be a part of. He invites us to be part of his flock. He calls us by name to join him in the restoration of the world.
Instead of making claims to Earthly structures to proclaim his divinity, Christ spoke, “The works that I do in my Father's name testify to me.” The works of Christ. Herding sheep is hardly a profession that would be considered distinguished. The work is not always glorious by our standards or by theirs. If I remember anything from my summers under the hot Alabama sun with my granddaddy, it is that sometimes this work is difficult.
I had the honor of seeing God working in the community here. I have seen children coming back indoors, not only getting to learn with one another for the first time inside since the pandemic began, but glorifying God during their chapel service. I’ve seen Ariel and the Sunday School teachers make a spectacular effort in loving them and instructing them. There is proclamation of resurrection in their voices and hearts.
But I have seen and heard the return of the choir. I’ve seen Jason and all our musicians’ incredible effort to bring glorious, heavenly music to Christ Church. I’ve seen artists from across the globe celebrate this parish’s accomplishment of funding a new organ. There is new life in our services.
I’ve witnessed the Lazarus ministry and the support for Our Little Roses flourish and meet the needs of dozens of people. I’ve seen this congregation surround and love refugee families making a new start here. There is restoration in these ministries’ actions.
I’ve seen classes and courses and book studies and the people who give their time and their talents to teach them and foster growth in people. I’ve seen people making calls, literally putting their reputation on the line to ask for money, and saying, “this is something I believe in! Let me tell you about what God is doing right now.” There is hope that the church can do things beyond our imagination.
Christ Church do you see what God is doing right now? Do you see this glorious testimony to the power of the resurrection? God is doing work among you. You are testifying to the world that God, a humble servant, is alive and doing work in Alexandria and beyond.
Doing God’s work right now may mean waking up to spend your Sunday mornings with a bunch of 4th graders learning about Noah’s Ark. It may mean spending your Wednesday evenings picking up groceries for someone who cannot afford them. It may mean joining a course and answering some questions that are keeping you from more fully serving God. It may mean discerning a call into full-time ministry. Whatever it is, you do not want to miss the chance to experience the resurrection that is happening right now.
Grab your wicker basket and come walk into the field with me and start picking peas; come follow Christ the Good Shepherd walking in the flock; be a part of what God is doing in Alexandria, Virginia.
We – the ordinary people of the church - respond to the work that God is doing, this promise of salvation, the work of restoration – by joining in. Find a community in the church. Whatever it is, join the flock of the Good Shepherd in the work that he is doing here in the name of the + Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.