Hey, folks! So I haven’t written a lectionary post since 2008 began. And I find that I MISS them. I miss reading the scriptures and having time to let them soak in before Sunday. I miss the rhythm and routine, the discipline of writing a reflection each week. I miss being formed by the word, shaped by the stories I love and yes, by the ones that challenge me. And since we’re not in the dog days of Ordinary Time just yet, I figured now was the time to jump back into the lectionary again.
This coming Sunday is known as Good Shepherd Sunday, because it features one of the gospel passages where Jesus identifies himself as our shepherd. Of course, we get Psalm 23, too. Rather than linking the readings separately, you can find them all here, including the collect for this week (which is a pretty one).
What sang for me right away was the first line from the reading from Acts:
Those who had been baptized devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
This sentence here forms part of the vows we make – or that are made on our behalf – when we are baptized. Will you devote yourself to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers? And we answer, I will, with God’s help. I love how our vows in the church are answered I will, with God’s help. We know that we can try, and that we can succeed, but with these journeys that last a lifetime, with these choices that we have to make every day along the path – we know that we need God’s help to keep making the right choice, to stay on the path and not stray.
What is interesting about this vow is that it encompasses several different things, some individual, and some corporate. It is possible to devote yourself to the apostles’ teaching and to prayer, and then never to leave your house again. But then you are not devoting yourself to the apostles’ fellowship, are you? And I’ll admit: I’m a great-big-fat-capital-I introvert. Why on earth would I want to devote myself to fellowship? Ugh! No thank you! But this vow was made for me at my baptism, and whenever I am present for the baptism of a new Christian, I make this vow for myself again. I pledge to God and to the community around me that I will remain in the community, that I will devote myself to learning, to being present with them and loving them, to feasting at the table with them, and to praying. With God’s help.
And what kind of help is God? The epistle reading says that God is the shepherd and guardian of our souls. God wants to lead us, to guide us. God promises to call my name, and show me the path when the way is dark. When I can’t find the gate, and I feel lost and confused, Jesus will guide me with his voice, and I will hear his voice and recognize it. Of course, the gospel doesn’t promise us that it’s always easy to recognize the shepherd’s voice, especially when there is so much other noise around. But the voice of Jesus is the one that brings me to life, and not only to life but to abundant life.
The problem I have so often is that I forget what abundant life looks like, and I lose sight of the fact that my life is indeed flowing with milk and honey. I have struggles, but mine pale in comparison to those of people who have to choose between buying groceries to feed the children or filling prescriptions to keep the children well. Mine are insignificant when held next to the child in Africa, belly swollen from starvation, left an orphan because of AIDS. And to be quite honest, I don’t know how I could look one of these people in the eye and quote them the final sentence from this Sunday’s gospel lesson, I came that (you) may have life, and have it abundantly. The truth of the matter is, I live in so much overpowering abundance that I don’t even know what it looks like.
Our sermon this past Sunday talked about spiritual blindness, and our rector’s point was that we do not know we are blind, until we are helped by someone else to see. I know that most of us in America are blind to the abundance in which we live. We can’t see it, because it surrounds us, everywhere; we’re used to it; we’re accustomed to it; it’s just part of the backdrop of our lives. It takes an experience that pulls us out of our abundance, even in our imagination, to enable us to see it again.
Of course, tangible abundance – wonderful though it can be! – is assuredly not what Jesus meant here, when he said he came to bring us abundant life. Our shepherd here wants to lead us into an abundant life of the spirit, where our hearts are flowing with milk and honey, regardless of our surroundings. And even though people are sometimes difficult to love, we enter into that abundant life when we do exactly as we vowed at baptism. We are enriched when we come together in community, in fellowship. We are enriched when we study alone or pray alone, and we are enriched when we study or pray together. We are fed when we come together to break bread at the Table. All of these things bring the abundant life into our souls, into our hearts, into our minds, into our bodies – and those are all connected, intertwined and inseparable. Living in physical abundance is of no use if our mental and spiritual and emotional lives are not just as abundant – just as it is unhelpful to live a life completely devoted to study and meditation… without bothering to eat.
God wants us to have abundant life. Devote yourself to the apostles’ teaching, and find abundance in your mind and heart. Devote yourself to the fellowship, and find abundance in your heart and spirit. Devote yourself to the Feast, and find abundance in your body and soul. Devote yourself to the prayers, and find abundance around and within you.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd. He knows your name, and you know his voice. Jesus is the gate into the abundant pasture, which is safe and secure and full of all of the things you need to live in abundance. Will you follow the shepherd’s voice? Will you enter through the gate and live in the pasture?
Will you devote yourself to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers?
With God’s help.