The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
The Fourth Sunday of Easter
April 26, 2015
Everybody buckle your seatbelt…the bishop is coming. This is almost as big as Easter. Almost. For clergy, it’s sort of intimidating to have the bishop visit, because you know, he’s our boss. And when you only see your boss once a year, it’s important to have everything done just right. We have forms to fill out, agendas to prepare. And you know me – I have created a twenty point checklist that is my guide for when the bishop comes.
But the real work is preparing all the adults who want to be confirmed. Plus we’re having a baptism that day. Plus we’re having youth confirmations. So – all told – that’s fourteen people in our newcomers class – plus four youth. That means that over ten percent of our Sunday congregation is new or getting confirmed. That’s awesome.
But, you know, it’s not about the numbers. When Bishop Fisher is here meeting with the Vestry, and when he’s signing all the books, he’ll see what the numbers are. But, that’s not what he wants to hear about. He wants to hear our story. He wants to hear the stories of how people have met Jesus at Holy Comforter.
And we have some incredible stories. I hear powerful testimonies from some of our newcomers, and I want to share with you the theme of those stories.
And many of those stories begin with pain and hurt. I’ve heard about people who were asked to leave churches because the color of the skin was a little too dark. Yes, that still does happen. I’ve heard about people who were spiritually bullied and manipulated. I’ve heard stories about people who couldn’t ever share who they really were, because they were afraid of what the Church might do to them. I’ve heard stories about people who never wanted to join a Church, because where they came from, you had to be voted into the Church – like it was some sort of secret fraternity. Some have been cast out from their Church because they’ve had a divorce, they were kicked out because they didn’t believe the exact right thing on some obscure theological point.
That is just like the story from today’s gospel lesson. Today is what we call Good Shepherd Sunday, because we hear Jesus say that he is the good shepherd. But we have to put this into context. Just before he says this, Jesus has healed the man who was blind from birth. Jesus made mud with his own saliva, put it on the blind man’s eyes, and told the blind man to wash his eyes. And it worked. The blind man could see.
But the blind man’s community didn’t like that. They didn’t like the fact that Jesus had healed him. His community and its leaders interrogate the blind man, “who are you? What happened to you? Who do you think you are?” And, so, the community and the leaders, drove the blind man out. They kicked him out. Because the blind man didn’t say the right thing. The blind man didn’t believe the right thing. The blind man wasn’t the right person.
Those voices – the voices of exclusion and exploitation – those are the voices of the hired hands. They aren’t the real shepherds of the flock, they are only hired hands.
So Jesus stands before all of them and says, “I am the good shepherd…I know my own, and my own know me. I have other sheep that do no belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.”
The blind man who can now see is not left alone. Jesus brings that man into this new community of disciples. He who was once an outcast, is now a beloved member. You, who were once outcasts, are now beloved brothers and sisters.
And that is what I hear from you. I hear stories of joy about this place. I hear of people who have found a home here in this church. I hear of people who weren’t accepted anywhere else, but they could find a place at Holy Comforter. I hear stories of people who didn’t think that Christianity had anything left to say, but they found this place, and discovered that the voice of the beautiful shepherd can still be heard in the Church. The voice that says you can disagree with your brothers and sisters. The voice that says you don’t have to be voted in. The voice that says God is love, and in love, there is no place for fear or manipulation. That is the voice of our beautiful shepherd, speaking through the Church.
Therein lies our part of our vision for Holy Comforter. To be a place of healing and restoration for those who have no home. This is to be the sheep fold that Jesus talks about – a place where we can hear the voice of the Good Shepherd without fear of manipulation. And that word, “good,” actually means “beautiful” or “noble.” The vision for Holy Comforter is to be that beautiful community, that beautiful church, in which we hear the voice of our beautiful shepherd.
And I think that vision is attractive. That’s why we have so many people flocking to this parish home. Because they can hear the good news of the good shepherd without fear of being abused.
Those are the stories that I hear. And the stories take us back to the numbers. If we keep adding ten percent to our congregation every year like we have been doing, we’ll have to do something about it. That is the other part of the vision. Our vision is to create a safe place for the flock to gather for prayer and worship and study and fellowship. Our mission is to change the world and to change Spring into a better place. Our dream is to be the church that does something for the community.
Our building project is a piece of this vision, because it will help get us there. We are building a church, and renovating our campus, because we believe that Holy Comforter is good for the world. We believe that this church can be a bigger place and a bigger community. We believe that we need more space, and beautiful space, for this congregation to gather to hear from our beautiful shepherd. And this project, this dream, this vision – it is not only about us. It is for those who come after us. It is for those Episcopalians in Spring that will gather for years to come to hear the voice of the beautiful shepherd. The building project, our church plans, our renovations – it is for those wounded and outcast souls that will continue flocking here, because they are looking for a place of love and grace and mercy and acceptance. They will be looking for this church, so that they can also hear the voice of the Good Shepherd.
This project, this vision isn’t going to be easy. You and I will have to make financial and personal sacrifices. The good shepherd lays down his life for the flock, so we make our own sacrifices for the flock. And it won’t be fast either. We have to pray, we have to listen for the voice of the beautiful shepherd who is guiding and directing this project.
And finally, yes – this project is a risk. But everything we do is a risk. It’s risky for new people to become part of our congregation. Because we do not know how they will change us. It was risky for the first thirteen Episcopalians to start this congregation. Because they didn’t know what would happen. It was risky for the blind man to say that it was Jesus who healed him. Because he didn’t know if he would ever find a community again. But it was all worth it.
Our flock is growing. And that is a beautiful thing. And there are still more sheep that Jesus is calling to join this flock. They have not yet come to the fold, but they too hear the voice of the shepherd. They hear the vision of this place – you don’t have to be perfect, you don’t have to agree, you don’t have to look like us. With the Good Shepherd in charge, that stuff doesn’t matters. What matters is that there will be one flock, with one beautiful shepherd.