It is fitting as preparation for the lessons of Good Shepherd Sunday to meditate on the Chapel of the Good Shepherd at General Theological Seminary. The chapel is a holy place.
I was confirmed as an Episcopalian on October 29, 1961, 41 days before turning 25. Several gay friends explained to me that I could not be a genuinely gay Episcopalian until I had made three pilgrimages: one to All Saints on Margaret Street in London, a second to Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, and a third, to the Chapel of the Good Shepherd at General Seminary:
All Saints became my local parish four years later when I worked in a secondary modern school in London, 1965-1966, and again when I tutored American undergraduate for the Experiment in International Living, 1970-1971.
I first visited Grace Cathedral in the summer of 1974, while I was an NEH Fellow at UC Berkeley. I called to ask whether my husband and I would be welcome. The laughter from several secretaries prompted me to found Integrity four months later.
I did not make it to General Seminary's chapel until I moved to New Jersey in 1989, to work at Rutgers.
In 2003 General Seminary awarded me an honorary doctorate. Grace Cathedral's dean now is an out lesbian.
O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
I wonder how accessible language of sheep and shepherds is to urban folks in the 21st century. Or how accessible was it to urban folks in earlier times?
I well remember riding to Birmingham, Alabama, with my parents when I was ten or eleven. We had only a 2-lane highway, and traffic slowed to a trickle through the hills. It was very hot, and we had all the windows open.
Cars did not have air-conditioning then. At one point we gagged when a truck load of pigs pulled in front of us. The stench and the squeels pervaded all.
Behind us was a car with Yankee license plates, in which rode 3-4 kids about my age and their parents.
"Look, look!" they chimed excitedly, "a whole truck filled with sheep!"
Saint John's gospel indicates that Jesus himself had trouble being understood when he spoke of a gatekeeper and sheep: "Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them."
Wanting to be understood, Jesus explained:
Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
The sheep follow the shepherd because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.
TSA eat your heart out! Bill Gates, where is voice-recognition software this dependable?
Every year two or three dozen TQBLG persons ask me, "Where is a church where it is safe for my partner and me to go to church?" -- almost the same question I had asked of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco in 1974.
Many of us -- and not just TQBLG folks -- have experienced harsh rejection and disapproval from church people. Like the Samaritan woman at the well, we thirst, but we don't want to be battered. We seek a pastor (etymologically a 'shepherd') who knows us and values us by name, someone who is more concerned with our thirst than with our sins.
Note well that the purpose of God's elaborate security is not so that the sheep, the believers, might live isolated from the pleasures of life. Christianity has too often earned a reputation of being a life-negative religion. You have to look no farther than English novels for the last 300 years. The moment a clergy person enters a group conversation about matters of the world, the clergy person typically blunders or seems divorced from the 'real' life of the others.
John's witness contrasts radically. In his account, Jesus does not say, "I am come that they may have life hereafter if they just deny themselves most pleasures in this life." No. Jesus the Good Shepherd proclaims: "I have come that you might have life, and have it abundantly."
Jesus' 'abundant life' is not a call to proclaim glibly "Eat! Drink! Be merry! for tomorrow we shall die." But neither does Jesus reject of the good things God has prepared for us.
The 23rd Psalm stresses that even in the presence of our enemies, God prepares for us a feast!
When he faced severe depression, Martin Luther comforted himself by saying over and over, "But I have been baptized."
I am blessed very rarely to be depressed, but when I have faced depression, I have turned to this psalm. Millions of us have learned it "by heart." I urge you to pause now to say the psalm "by heart," and if you cannot, commit it to memory so that you can access it whereever you are.
Karl Marx, if this be opium, let me have access to it when pain comes. I hope no one ever again has to experience a Dachau or a crucifixion on a wire fence outside Laramie, Wyoming, but I am glad that most at Dachau and that Mathew outside Laramie had access to this opium.
"Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were done by the apostles"
One of the reasons that I am an Anglocatholic is the tradition's respect for awe. We use the body, the eyes, the ears, not just the mouth. We bob up and down. We fill the space with incense. We process. We use holy oils. We take long communal silences. We vest.
The actions of most Christian worship contrast radically with the actions of the work place, as shown in this sample:
God has given me strong faith. It's God's gift to me, not mine to God, and not something of which I can boast. If God ever takes away my gift of faith (I certainly hope that won't happen), I intend still to worship in community. Otherwise, how else could I ever sing? The bathtub just can't cut it, however hard I try.
Inadvertantly I have avoided one of the more engaging parts of this text, nor I have prepared a good segue:
All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.
As some have noted: "Obama is not a brown-skinned anti-war socialist who gives away free health care. You're thinking of Jesus." You can even buy t-shirts to make this point.
1 Peter 2:19-25
Why does a good God allow people to suffer? That's one way of putting what theologians call "the problem of evil."
In this part of his letter, Peter focuses the problem more specifically on just one group of sufferers: "Why do good people suffer?"
Peter himself and many other Christians were suffering for their faith. He does not blame their suffering on God. Indeed, he sees the crucified Christ as the consummate sufferer, as one who knows all about pain and unmerited suffering. Therefore, Peter reasons: "It is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly."
Dr. King stressed that unmerited suffering is meant to be redemptive.
These texts have sustained me when I have been made to suffer for my claim that God loves absolutely everybody.
I invite you to listen to "The King of Love My Shepherd Is" as played on the magnificent 4115 Skinner organ at Old South Church in Boston