Follow me

This is a sermon for the fourth Sunday of Easter, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is John 10:22-30.  

My sheep hear my voice…

It’s a bit of an ambiguous image, the idea of being sheep, isn’t it?  On the one hand, we rather suspect that sheep aren’t too bright, and are easily led where someone wants them to go, whether that’s a good idea or not.

On the other hand, the Biblical image of sheep and shepherds often conjures up – for me at least – the idea of lush green pastures, gently flowing little streams, and generally comfortable living in beautiful countryside.  (That owes much more to an English cultural background than the middle east, but it’s where my mind goes).  And there’s something quite comforting about the idea of being a well-fed, well-cared-for sheep living in peace.

The problem, I think, with both of these ideas about being sheep is that they’re rather passive.  On the one hand, you’re being led by others who make all the decisions; and on the other hand, you’re being fed and watered and cared for without having to actively seek any of these things out for yourself.  Comfortable, certainly; loved, maybe; but not exactly inspiring.

And not very much like real life; because in real life all of us have to think for ourselves, make decisions and take action.  So if we seek to follow Jesus, in some ways we might want other images beside the one of “sheep” to help us think about what that’s about.

The icon that I have handed out with the pew sheet this morning (blog readers can see it attached) captures something of how I tend to think about what it is to be a follower of Jesus.  It was painted by a French nun, and now belongs to a seminary in Jerusalem.  The writing at the top says “suis moi,” the French for “Follow me.”  Surrounding Jesus, with his hand raised in blessing, offering us the invitation to follow him, are a series of images representing different aspects of his life and work.  The message is clear – we are all invited to follow Jesus in our lives in the world, and to continue the work which he began during his earthly life – the work of the kingdom of God.

God has created each of us, gifted each of us differently, and made space for the opportunity to come and worship and work together for the sake of his kingdom.  For each of us, knowing who we are, what gifts we have been given and what desires God has stirred in the depths of our hearts, will help us to find the right way to express that in service; our own place, if you like, in the icon.

It also helps us to think about how to shape our common life together.  Next Saturday the parish council have a planning day; and I asked for that planning day because I think it’s imperative that we build a shared vision of who we believe Jesus is calling us to be, and what we believe Jesus is calling us to do, in being his faithful followers in this parish.

When we have that shared vision, it can be a guide for us in thinking strategically about what how we live out that vision; what we need to continue, what needs to end with grateful thanks for the past, and what new things might need to begin.  But without a vision of where we’re going, we have no shared basis for making those decisions, and that’s a recipe for conflict and trouble!

It might worry you that I mention the possibility that some things might come to an end.  But the fact of the matter is that we only have a finite amount of time, energy, and money between us to put into our corporate life together; so we need to be wise and strategic in how we use those resources.  Not because we want to end things which are valuable, but because we want to make sure that everything we do truly is valuable, and not something we do “just because;” and least of all “just because we’ve always done it.”

This should not surprise or alarm us.  We follow a living, dynamic God.  The green pastures and bubbling streams of my imagination are not an unchanging landscape; rather, being sheep who follow the good shepherd suggests that we’re on the move; that the scenery is always changing as we travel with him to new frontiers in the life of faith.  If our community is static, it is dead, and the gospel is not being effective in us.

Let me be very clear about this.  I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with this parish.  But I’m saying that the voice of the good shepherd always calls us to follow him to somewhere that is a little different to where we are now.  To explore new horizons.  To seek out new relationships.  To be bold pioneers in our own context, building bridges between what we find around us and the eternal truth, love and beauty which are so much a part of the life of heaven.  In that sense, what we do is, like the sheep, dependent on Jesus; not in a passive way, where everything is done for us, but in a way which means all the resources we need are available to us only as we trust him.

Ultimately, all of us are here together because, both as individuals and as a community, we love and trust Jesus enough to try doing things his way.  That’s being his sheep at its best.  We are committed to him in our inmost selves, allowing who he is to reshape us in the image of God.  And we are committed to him in our lives in the world, following him into all the places where we find our deepest joys in meeting the world’s deepest needs.  What we do here on a Sunday morning resources and supports what we do in all the rest of lives; the preferences we have, the choices we make, the things we seek.  Because love and friendship with God don’t obscure the reality that we’re also called to obedience.  Later on Jesus says that his friends are those who “do what I command you.”

As we follow Jesus in obedience, we become the image of the invisible God to the world.  As we hold together in Christ, we take up the work of reconciling ourselves, one another, and the world to God.   Provided that we continue to follow Jesus as he leads us into greater depth of relationship with God, greater depth of community, and greater involvement with his kingdom as it breaks into the world.  Provided that we truly listen to what he is telling us, and let that set the agenda for all that we do, and ultimately all that we are.

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Pondering autism

As I think I’ve posted before, my daughter has autism.

There are many things about this which are difficult, but one question which haunts me is, will there be autism in the resurrection?

This might seem, on the surface, like a stupid question.  There will be no illness or disability in the resurrection, will there?  We will be immortal, imperishable, perfect as we were originally intended to be.

But really, this question is about me wrestling with the nature of autism as a disability.  Some people claim that autism isn’t a disability, it’s just a difference; it means your brain works differently, and might just give you strengths as well as weaknesses, when compared with a “normal” person.

More than that, when something has been such a fundamental part of who you are since before you were born, when it is so deeply embedded in your identity that you can’t imagine it not being part of you, what does that suggest for you being somehow yourself, in the resurrection?  Would that be true in any meaningful way if the autism were somehow not there?

I don’t pretend to know more than in part.  But this is what I can see now, as a neurotypical mother of an autistic daughter, who tries to look at these things through the lens of faith.

Autism is a disability.  That the brain has developed with less interconnectivity than that of a non-autistic person, and that this results in impairments – typically sensory, language and social – is scientific fact.  That these impairments make things which other people take for granted, much more difficult to do or achieve, is fact.  I hope my daughter will finish school, go on to further study, find work that she loves and a happy family life in a structure that she chooses.  But if she does, it won’t be because she’s not disabled.  It will be because her many strengths have helped her to do her best despite that disability.

So that suggests to me that in the resurrection, autism might be – if not totally erased – like the rest of our bodies, transformed.  For an autistic person to be him- or herself in the resurrection, some of who they have been, developmentally, and in terms of personality, must remain in continuity with their mortal self.  But the limitations, the lack of ability, the impairment; I hope that will be erased like the lifting of a veil.  So that those who have been confused and overwhelmed and who have struggled, might find that in the new creation, they are able to relate to the world around them with confidence and understanding, while still holding on to whatever strengths that their life has formed in them.

April is autism awareness month.  Conversations about autism are everywhere; but I haven’t seen anyone else ask this particular question.  What do you think?

Mourning into dancing

This is a sermon for the third Sunday of Easter, given in the “church up the road.”  The Scripture it references is Psalm 30.  

You have turned my mourning into dancing…

I’ve been thinking a bit about dancing and its relationship with worship lately.  This week I was having an online discussion with a Hindu woman (as you do), about dance and yoga and meditation and how – in her religion – dance is something which allows you not just to know about God with your mind, but to know God in your body.  And that led me to reflect on how Christianity has for so long really been very uncomfortable about our bodies and their potential to know God; we’re much more likely to see our bodies as an obstacle or a nuisance which the mind needs to “manage” through discipline.  Perhaps we can thank St. Paul for some of that…

But anyway.  That meant that when I saw this verse in the Psalm it stood out to me as something worth exploring.  What was going on for the community who first used this Psalm in their worship, and what does it have to say to us today?

It turns out that this Psalm is one which is very intimately connected with the temple-based worship of the ancient Jews.  The introductory information tells us that it is a Psalm which was written for or used at the dedication of the temple, and later on it was included in (and continues to be used in) Hanukkah liturgies, which celebrate the rededication of the temple after its desecration.

This gives us some context for the expressions of joy and praise and thanks.  For the ancient Jews, the temple was a focus of their distinctive identity as the people of God, and for their unity as a people.  The temple was the place where God dwelt among God’s people, and so it was the place of most profound sacred encounter, and the place for the most solemn and most joyous acts of worship.

So this is the context in which the people’s mourning is turned into dancing; pilgrims would dance in procession on their way to the temple, and their dance celebrated everything that it meant to be one of God’s people, a grateful recipient of God’s shepherding care, and awed worshipper in the place which was the closest thing to heaven on earth.

And the reason I’m making a point of that is that I think that sometimes verses like this one about our mourning being turned to dancing become quite well known, perhaps because they’re used in worship songs or otherwise popularised, in a way which is removed from that original context; and sometimes that means their meaning gets distorted for us.

Here’s what I mean; if we take this line about God turning our mourning into dancing on its own – and I’ve seen Christians do this kind of thing – then you can think that maybe mourning isn’t a normal part of the Christian life.  You can think that maybe Christians are meant to be happy all of the time, full of the joy of the Lord, and that the full range of human emotion isn’t something that’s meant to be part of the healthy Christian experience.  It’s even sometimes pushed to the extreme where Christians who live with depression or anxiety or other similar mental health issues are told that they do so because of their sin, or – in one particularly memorable conversation I had when I was depressed – that it’s because of demonic activity in their life.  (Way to freak someone out!)

This is, I think, something like an emotional version of prosperity theology (the idea that God wants to bless us, and that therefore a lack of success somehow indicates a problem in your faith).  And it’s a mistake to get caught up in that kind of thinking, which is more about blame than about hope.

So it’s important for us to read verses like this and realise that while celebration is an important part of life, it’s not something which we need to expect from everyone all the time.  Grief is normal, the full range of our emotions is normal, and we need to be able to bring all of that with us to worship without being ashamed of what we feel, or thinking that it is in some way a barrier between us and God.

So if that’s what we don’t do with a Psalm like this, what can we take from it?

Think back to what I said about how this Psalm was (and is) used in Jewish worship.  That it was a celebration of their identity as the people of God, their unity as a people, and of their ability to encounter and worship the living God in their midst.

Well, we also have those things to celebrate, do we not?  We also know our own identity as a people of God – an Easter people – and songs of praise are an intrinsic part of that.  We know that – as the community of all the baptised – even though the church is administratively fragmented, we have a deeper unity; one based on the presence of the Holy Spirit which is at work in each of us, and through all of us.  We know that as we gather for worship, Christ is present with and to us, and we are able to encounter and worship the living God in our midst.

This is as much a part of the fabric of our religious lives as it was for the ancient Jews who wrote this Psalm and preserved it as part of their regular worship.  And these are things worth celebrating, worth expressing our joy over!

So yes, God turns our mourning into dancing; he overcomes our alienation from him and from one another and builds us back up into relationships in which we can truly experience joy.

Have a look at the pictures up on the screen (for readers of the blog, they are attached below); what you have been looking at so far is a detailed view of part the interior of the Episcopal church of St. Gregory of Nyssa, in San Francisco.  Here’s a bit more of a big-picture view.  All around the walls of that church, the saints of all ages and cultures are shown dancing together, led by Christ at the head, in a bright and bold visual statement of what it means to be the Church.  I wonder what it would be like, to gather for worship surrounded by all those dancing saints?  And did you notice that there are some animals in the picture, which suggest that all of creation and nature joins with us in our praise?

This is where statements of God turning our mourning into dancing take their proper place, for us; not in trying to narrow the range of acceptable Christian emotion, but in providing a deeper understanding of what it is that we have to celebrate as we come together.  We may not always feel like dancing, but we can know that we always have something worth holding on to and treasuring as being worth celebrating; something to turn back to even in our darkest times, which can give us comfort and hope that our struggles will pass.  So that, with the psalmist, we can say with confidence that we too will give thanks to God for ever.


Dancing saints