Faith through the ordeal

The Good Shepherd Window at All Souls, Willet Studios, 1936. (Upper panel) (c) Ron Ross, 2010.

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 21, 2013.  The lectionary readings are Acts 9:36-43, Psalm 23, Revelation 7:9-17, and John 10:22-30.

The Good Shepherd is an image that, like the Psalm suggests, “follows us all the days of our life.”  The picture on our worship leaflet is from a fresco in the Roman catacombs from the early third century, one of the earliest depictions of Jesus.  People found it comforting then and people find it comforting now.  

At All Souls, we have a few different Good Shepherd images.  There’s a panel in the “Life of Christ” window on the north side of the church.  (That window is special in that it was designed by Catherine Lamb Tait who, after having children and getting them off to school, became head designer at the Lamb studios for some forty years.) The fabric on our Easter altar frontal also has very subtle images of the Good Shepherd.  And the same fabric is used for the burial pall that is placed over a casket at a funeral.  But I think the most prominent image in our church is the Good Shepherd window itself, right over there, on the north side.   

At first glance, it’s fairly conventional.  The window is dominated by a somewhat Gothic Jesus, tall, angular, and with a slightly peaceful downward gaze.  He holds a shepherd’s staff in his left hand and a small lamb on his right arm.  The lamb is resting comfortably and looks up at hm.  It’s sweet without being sappy.  The colors are warm and inviting, and this is a predominant image of the Shepherd.  This is one who “makes us lie down in green pastures and leads us beside still waters. He revives our soul and guides us along right pathways for his Name’s sake.”  The lamb looking up at Jesus knows that she’s known.  Like our Gospel describes, the sheep hear his voice, Jesus knows them, and they follow him. “They will never perish and no one will snatch them out of my hand.”

And that’s the Sunday School Good Shepherd many of us are brought up with.  For some, that Shepherd never changes—gentle, meek, mild, but also a little stuck in two dimensions, like the one in our window.

For over five years, I’ve walked by that window and seen the familiar, traditional Good Shepherd.  “Hello Shepherd; goodbye Shepherd.”  But recently, I’ve begun to notice more around the edges. 

At the top of the Good Shepherd window, there’s a whole other story going on.  A lamb has gotten away and is stuck in a bramble or something.  Jesus reaches for it.  But just below, to the right, a greenish, winged creature also reaches, as if to snatch the lamb away.  It’s the thief or robber Jesus warns about in John, chapter 10:  “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.”  And yet, a little behind Jesus, over to the left, is a good angel, providing backup, showing that God is there even when as evil lurks. 

Just below the middle of the Good Shepherd window, on either side of the larger figure of the Shepherd are two tiny shepherds.  The one on the left almost looks like he’s running away or dancing.  But then you’ll see that he’s holding the shepherd’s crook up in the air, like it could strike and cause major damage.  That’s because underneath, a wolf chases a lamb.  Jesus the Good Shepherd protects the sheep.  On the right side, there’s that tiny shepherd again, but this time, he’s between the sheep and a wolf, and he’s got a rock or something in his hand.  The Good Shepherd is ready and he’s aimed. 

At the very bottom of the window, the sheep are safely inside their sheepfold.  You can see the brown fence.  The sheep are happy behind it, and Jesus almost appears to be taking a break and sitting on the fence.  But then, look again.  Jesus is climbing over the fence, moving to the right, where there’s another sheep that has somehow gotten out. 

There’s a lot more going on in our window than the meek and mild shepherd.  I like those complicating images because they point to the Good Shepherd in the fullness of his power and love.

Yes, Psalm 23 sings of lying down in green pastures and sipping from still waters, but in this life we still walk in the “valley of the shadow of death.”  Evil is around us.  “Those who trouble” are ever-present.  The reality, the presence, the love of the Shepherd does not eradicate the evil.  Rather, the Shepherd stands with us in the midst. 

The reading from Revelation mixes the metaphor of the day as Christ the Good Shepherd is portrayed as Christ the sacrificial lamb.  Like the lamb of the first Passover, who in that primeval, bloody way was made a sacrifice, Jesus on the cross gives himself as the sacrificial lamb, undoing death, destroying it from the inside out, in what could be understand as a kind of “controlled explosion” that diffuses and makes for peace.  In Revelation, Jesus is not a bit the mild-mannered gentleman of faith who looks helplessly on, wishing he might do something.  For those early Christians—themselves under persecution—Jesus is like one who throws himself on a grenade in order to save others.

Through the ages, Christians have understood the Good Shepherd in all of his strength and power.  Those Christians in the late first century who circulated letters of hope that became what we know as the Revelation to John, understood Jesus as a Lamb enthroned and royal, but only after paving the way through his own death and sacrifice for others.  Those Christians who gathered under the city of Rome, in the catacombs, to bury their beloved dead and celebrate a meal of remembrance in that place, felt the spirit and power of the Good Shepherd. And so they made the mosaic in the Catacomb of Priscilla.  Christians living under persecution in any time or place, as well as people of faith simply trying to live their faith out in a violent and savage world have understood that sometimes the stained glass windows are only part of the story.

Sometimes the wolf gets the lamb and the sheep dies.  Sometimes a lamb wanders off too far and wanders into danger.  There are those sheep who get sick, and the Divine Veterinarian is somewhere else.  There is death, disease, not enough to eat, and there are vicious attacks that are unpredictable and inexplicable.

In the Revelation vision of heaven a question arises.  “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?”  John says, “You are the one who knows.  You know where they come from.”  And then the answer unfolds, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” 

You know.  We know.  Because we, too are a part of what John the Divine calls the “great ordeal.”  Yes, that “great ordeal” refers to the specific persecution of Christians, but then, as now, the worst part of any tribulation or ordeal is the fear—the fear of being found, of being detected, of being taken, of being hurt or killed. 

As John learns in his conversation with the elders of heaven, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”  And the elder goes on, “For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

In this life, though the Good Shepherd seeks us out, watches over us, and holds us, evil continues.  Disaster happens.  Death through sickness or disease takes those we love and eventually find us.  Insane acts of violence and terrorism continue and will continue, but in the midst of it all, in the presence of all our enemies—event he last enemy, death—the Good Shepherd is there. 

Our images of the Good Shepherd can mislead us if we just see a shepherd with a sheep.  That’s because the truth of our faith is that Christ is BOTH shepherd and sheep. He is both priest and sacrifice.  He is Alpha and Omega, beginning and end.  Christ is God come to be with us, to undo death from within, bursting out of the tomb to new life, and sharing the new life of the Resurrection with us.

Through his sacrifice we find healing. Through his sacrifice we are called by name, and recognized for our truth worth and beauty. And through his sacrifice we are raised again to life through any ordeal, and to live everlasting. 

The great Easter hymn reminds us that every time we gather at this altar, every time we receive the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood, we gain strength for the ordeal.

At the Lamb’s high feast we sing
praise to our victorious King,
who hath washed us in the tide
flowing from his pierc-ed side;
praise we him, whose love divine
gives his sacred Blood for wine,
gives his Body for the feast,
Christ the victim, Christ the priest.

Healed, known, forgiven, and freed, may we continue to follow the Good Shepherd in faith and love.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

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