May 5, 2019
Feed my sheep – J. Barry Vaughn – May 5, 2019
Today’s gospel reading is from chapter 21 of John’s gospel. It is likely that this chapter is an appendix and was added some time after the author had finished writing chapters 1 through 20. Chapter 20 ends, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20.30-31).
I don’t know about you, but to me that sounds like an ending. It sounds like the period at the end of a sentence or the cadence at the end of a hymn or maybe even like Porky the Pig saying, “That’s all, folks!”
Then for some reason, the author added another chapter, a chapter in which he tells this wonderful story of an Easter picnic on the shores of Lake Galilee. It really makes sense, though. The author is taking us back to the beginning of the story; he is putting the bow on the package; he is bring us full circle. Peter and Jesus had met in this very place – beside the Sea of Galilee – where Peter had been plying his trade as a fisherman.
But of course, it was not the same. So much had happened between then and now. So much had happened because Peter had heard and heeded Jesus’ invitation to follow him and become a fisher of men and women. So much had changed. In fact, everything had changed.
- Peter had proclaimed that Jesus was the Messiah and Son of God… and then Jesus had angrily denounced him as a devil when Peter had said that Jesus must not be crucified.
- Peter had proclaimed his faithfulness to Jesus, and then beside a fire on a cold spring night in the courtyard of the high priest Peter denied Jesus three times in order to save his own neck.
- And when Mary Magdalene had run as fast as she could and burst breathlessly into the room where Peter and the others were hiding and told them that someone had stolen Jesus’ body from the tomb, Peter ran even faster to see for himself.
Now, the Risen Christ appeared to Peter in the place where they first met, and it was time for Peter to confront and be confronted, to remember those three bitter denials.
But instead of condemnation, Jesus quietly and simply asked Peter three times, “Do you love me? Then feed my sheep.”
I have always found this a difficult story. I find it difficult because I wonder what I would say if the Risen Christ asked me if I loved him and if I was feeding his sheep. However, I take comfort in the knowledge that feeding Christ’s sheep is not my job alone. It is not even the job of clergy alone. It is the job of all of us.
I do not believe that you can divide the followers of Jesus into sheep and shepherds. Jesus alone is the good shepherd; the rest of us are his wayward sheep. And I believe it is our job to feed each other.
Now, make no mistake: Ordained clergy have special responsibilities. It is our job to proclaim the good news and to administer the sacraments. But I am only one person; I can only touch so many lives.
But (as the new slogan of the Episcopal Church says), “Together we can change the world.” Together we can feed all the sheep of Christ’s flock.
Before I go any further with that, I want to tell you one of my professional secrets:
I really only have one wedding sermon. Those of you who have seen me conduct more than one wedding may already know this.
In my wedding homily I talk about the Zulu word ubuntu. Ubuntu means “I am because you are.” What that means to me is that we are social creatures. We cannot exist alone. I need you, and you need me. We are made to live in community. Or as the Greek philosopher Aristotle said, “Humans are political creatures.” Aristotle didn’t mean that we are the kind of creatures who like elections. God forbid! He was saying that we are meant to live together in what the Greeks called poleis, that is, towns and cities. Polis is the suffix in words such as “metropolis” and “cosmopolitan” and so on.
The older I get, the more certain I am that Aristotle and the Zulu people were right. We are meant to live together in communities. I am because you are.
But that also means that we can affect each other in both good ways and bad ways.
A church is a special kind of polis or community. We are a community summoned into being by the Risen Christ. We grow when people are reborn by baptism into the body of Christ.
Today we welcome a newly born Christian, Miya Manansala, who is born again by baptism into the fellowship of the church.
Miya’s baptism gives us an opportunity to ask ourselves what kind of community we want to be. If the idea behind ubuntu is true, then we will all be affected by Miya’s presence among us and Miya will surely be affected by all of us. We are because she is, and she is because we are.
I believe that Christ Church is at the most important turning point it has faced while I have been your rector. I’m sure that most of you know that the vestry and finance committee have been struggling to deal with a financial shortfall. Worries about money have a way of making some of us behave from a place of fear and anger.
A week from tomorrow Canon Catherine Gregg and Jim Wagoner, our interim bishop, have asked to meet with members of the vestry and finance committee because they are worried that Christ Church is at risk of going back into the conflicts from which it emerged only a few years ago. And I have to say that I think they are right to be concerned.
I have seen an increase in the problems of gossip, talking behind people’s backs and triangulation.
You know what triangulation is: It means that when Joe has a problem with Jill he goes and talks with John instead of talking with Jill directly. We’ve all done it, but it seems to be an especially bad problem in some churches.
My dear, dear sisters and brothers, we cannot feed Christ’s sheep if we gossip, triangulate, and talk behind people’s backs. We cannot be a community in which people grow in grace if we operate from a place of fear and anger. We cannot be the kind of community in which Miya and other little ones grow up into the full stature of Christ if we engage in conflict after conflict and conflict just for the sake of conflict.
I want us all to commit to be a church that values and supports religious education for all of us, but especially for children, a church with a robust, healthy, and fun Sunday School program.
I want us to commit to be a church that values reaching out to the hungry and homeless, a church that opens its arms to those who have been rejected and thrown to the side.
I want us to be a church that welcomes people of all races, colors, ethnicities, and sexual orientation. Somos una iglesia con dos lenguas y dos culturas. We are a church with two languages and two cultures. In other words, we are the church of John’s vision in the Book of Revelation: “I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7.9-10)
And I hope that is the kind of church all of you want, too.
Being that church requires all of us to work on ourselves, to examine our hearts and lives, to live in peace and reconciliation with each other.
Being that church requires us to commit to show up, to work together.
And being that church requires us to give sacrificially. We can only achieve the vision I’ve outlined if we give generously.
If you cannot give because you have been downsized, then please… I want you to take care of your family first. But I believe that most of us can give a little more than we think we can, and I encourage all of us to try.
I want all of us to give just a little more so that we can be a church worthy of little girls like Miya and the other children we have baptized and who are coming to us. Remember ubuntu: They are who they are because we are who we are. We always have to remember that our children reflect us: If we are generous, they will be generous; if we are faithful, they will be faithful; if we live in peace and reconciliation with others, then they will, too.
I have begun calling Christ Church the “Open Church: Open minds, open arms, open hearts.” I have just added it to my business cards.
But most of all I want to write that message on my own heart and life and live it out. And I encourage you to do the same.
Thank you for your generosity. Thank you for your faith. Thank you for being people of peace, honesty, and reconciliation.
But most of all thank you for feeding the Lord’s sheep. Amen.