April 21, 2024 - Fourth Sunday of Easter - Good Shepherd Sunday

"Shepherding God"

Rev. Gary Percesepe

John 10: 11-18 & Acts 4: 5-12

Sometimes I watch for hours as visitors pass through the graveyard that adjoins our church here by the peaceful bay, at Keawala’i. It’s become my favorite thing to do. I watch as they pass slowly by, pausing at each grave, reading ancestral names. Sometimes they cluster with family members, then move on to the church, single file, shoeless, to look inside. What brings them here? They come every day. They come alone or they come as husband and wife, they come with young children, they come in shorts and sandals, they come in dresses, they come in swimsuits, they come in a steady stream, at all hours through the day. Most days I go out to welcome them, sometimes giving a brief history of the church. More often I listen as they tell me about their connection to the church. I watch their eyes. Some tear up, some avert my gaze, some smile broadly and express their gratitude, some linger to talk story about their kupuna-- their father, their mother, their children, were married here. As they speak, they sometimes pause to glance over their shoulder I kai—towards the sea. We part. They resume their sacred walk. Eventually, they return to their cars, take one last look, and drive away.

The Celtic saints talk about thin places, those rare locations in the world where the distance between heaven and earth collapses; where we reach the end of land and feel the trade winds carry tidings from the endless ocean and the big sky and the towering clouds and we feel ourselves shrink and that which lies beyond grows in us until we sense no separation between kai and ‘āina and ourselves, we are one with all that is, and know that God is within us and that we are carried within God, and that we are safe, and a tranquil feeling settles over us and we know, finally, despite anxious hours wasted in worry about the future that we are not meant to live in the future or solely in the past, that we are alive now, and the ones in the grave, the ones whose bones lie buried in the ground are with us too, and it is they who breathe through us, we breathe for them now, it is they who walk because of us, we walk for them now, and they dance and laugh and pray through us, and in the thin places comes finally the realization that the idea of our separateness from one another is just an illusion, itself the original sin, the original fear. /p>

Some of you have been worried and afraid about the future. The scriptures today remind us that there is no need to worry, because the future is perfect. We shall have wanted and worried for nothing. We may be as lost as sheep, but we have a good shepherd who knows us, who knows our kūpuna, and the kuleana is not ours alone to bear, nor is the future. We are known by name and have only to listen for the shepherd’s voice. We are never alone. /p>

The 23rd Psalm is profoundly personal and intimate. The Lord is my shepherd. There’s nothing I could want. The poet tells us that the provision of God is made available to the soul that trusts in God. /p>

About ten of us were gathered in the Zoom Room this Wednesday at 11. And some of us were worried about music and worship and about our church, and what would become of us, can God’s church be resurrected, are we resisting resurrection or claiming it? And the next day I walked among the dead in the graveyard and heard their voices as the very voice of God softly say, “What is death?”/p>

We make a terrible mistake when we read this psalm and think that we are its subject. The poem is not about the sheep it is about the shepherd. The story of the bible is not about our search for God, it’s about God’s search for us. /p>

Did you notice in the poem that there is a sudden dramatic shift in reference to God? Before the psalm is over, the writer shifts from talking about God to talking with God. “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.” /p>

We make a terrible mistake when we think that the Older Testament is all about the judgment of God on terrible sinners, wrath and fury and judgment but no grace. Because the entire Jewish scriptures drip with the goodness of God. We err in thinking that we are the subject of the story, when in fact the goodness of God begins in the first days of creation. God is good all the time, before the first human is created. The goodness of God is in every place before we arrive at that place. The good things that happen to us along the journey do not happen simply because we have arrived. God’s goodness has already been where we were planning to go. This is why it’s senseless to worry about our future, for God is already there and has prepared the place. The goodness of God goes on ahead, clearing out new ground, pulling us up onto new terrain, lifting every valley and making the rough places plain, shining a light into the dark places of new possibility for us and for our church, opening doors that no one can shut. /p>

But as Pastor Gary Simpson points out, mercy is another story. Gary Simpson is pastor of Concord Baptist Church in Brooklyn, the successor in that famed pulpit to the great Gardner C. Taylor, perhaps the finest preacher America has produced. Pastor Simpson points out that mercy is necessary as soon as humans come onto the scene, and it does not go before us, it comes after us. He tells of an amusement park in the Midwest where the grounds crew sweep the streets wearing formal attire—the men in tuxedos with tails, the women with long flowing formal gowns. Their task is to clean up behind the guests who throw garbage on park grounds. They walk the streets with extravagance just to clean up behind thoughtless and inconsiderate guests. Always smiling, dressed to the nines. After a while, the guests are embarrassed to have such nobility picking up behind them. This is what God does. Not with grudge or spite. This God follows us all the days of our lives, picking up after our mess, because we are loved with extravagance. /p>

We need mercy behind us, Pastor Simpson says, to sweep up the refuse we leave in our careless wake; we need mercy to erase doubts and fears and even the memory of our sins as God tosses them as far as the east is from the west. Shutting doors that no one can open. Opening doors that no one can shut. Unlike the hired hand in John’s gospel, who runs at the first sign of danger, no sacrifice is too great for the good shepherd, whose job is to protect the sheep, feed the sheep, and lead the sheep. Sometime, not today, we will explore what God thinks of those false shepherds, wolves in shepherd clothing who devour the sheep, false shepherds preaching a false gospel of white Christian nationalism while fleecing the flock of their money before abandoning them, leaving them and the nation for dead./p>

If you came to church anxious or afraid this morning, take heart. It is true that we are going through a transitional time at Keawala’i but this is, has always been and shall remain a thin place where pilgrims come beneath the sheltering sky and the boundless sea and the oversight of our kūpuna who are obligated to come to our aid when we call. We are sandwiched between the goodness of God in front and the mercy of God behind, no matter which way we turn. Amen.

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