Fourth Sunday of Easter
May 3, 2020
Earlier this week I was on a conference call with forty Episcopal clergy leaders from across the country. We were asked to share a story about how our congregations had faced challenges before and how they responded. I’ll tell you, I had trouble coming up with a story. Not because we don’t have any, but because we have so many to choose from. Not just in my eight years at Holy Comforter, but in all forty eight years of Holy Comforter.
So where do we start? Where do we start telling the story of adversity in our parish? Do we start with a skeptical bishop who wondered why on earth someone would want to start a church in that little farming community called Spring? Or how about the parish riding the oil booms and busts of the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s? I mean, in my eight years here we’ve gone boom, bust, boom, bust. Or do we tell our stories of adversity by listing the hurricanes and floods? Ike. Tax Day. Harvey. Imelda. Take your pick. Or, we could tell the stories about the woes of our old main building. Pipes that leaked. Mold everywhere. Septic lines corroding. Ceiling tiles falling in from rain. Doing church in the Parish Hall after Harvey. Doing church in the Parish Hall when air conditioners died. A running battle with raccoons. Then we had the new building project – the headaches, haggling with the MUD, haggling with the county, waiting for the project to start, haggling with the MUD again. Our people, our parish, has been shaped by adversity.
And now we come to the next adversity. This coronavirus pandemic. And I’m going to say what I have said at every time of adversity in the past. When pressed to give out certain dates, when pressed to have all the answers, when pressed to be the expert on everything from mold remediation to finance to the weather, I now say what I have always said. I don’t know.
I don’t know when we’ll be back in church. I don’t know what exactly that will look like. I don’t know how this will change our church. I don’t know how the people of Holy Comforter will tell the story of coronavirus five, ten, fifteen years from now. I don’t know how we will reorient our ministry to be both digital and in person. I don’t know how we can keep everybody connected during a time of isolation. I don’t know.
And that is okay. Because what I do know is that this parish has faced seemingly insurmountable problems before. And while we did not always do our best – while I did not always do my best – we have learned from our experiences.
I don’t know many things about what the future holds, but I do know one thing. I do know that you all have tuned your ear to hear that voice calling out to you. “Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him 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.”
This is why I have hope for our church even in light of such an unsettling time. You have heard the voice of the Good Shepherd, and you have followed. You have not listened to those other voices, and goodness knows there were plenty of voices trying to break us down and distract us. I heard them – I heard them say that we were not big enough. I heard them say we didn’t have enough money. I heard those voices criticize us for our innovative ministries. I heard them say that the Episcopal Church was dying. Those voices said that we should surrender to floods and storms. Those voices said that the problems of the world are too much, and that we should only focus on ourselves. But you did not listen to them.
You listened to Jesus, the Good Shepherd. The one who calls us out of our safe, little sheep pen and out into the wilderness. Yes, there is danger out there in the pastures. There are thieves, bandits, devouring lions, you can get lost, you can get left behind. But it is still worth it to venture out there, with Jesus, because no matter how far off we roam, we can hear his voice.
In this time when so many voices are clamoring for our attention, remember to always listen for love. When you hear voices rooted in anger, in hatred, in fear – those are not the voice of the Good Shepherd. Those voices will only make you angry, hateful, and afraid. Now, more than ever, I ask you to dream with me of what it would be like if we all listened faithfully to the voice of Jesus Christ. Imagine that world, imagine that community – a body of people who are willing to take on seemingly insurmountable problems because we are following the voice of a Good Shepherd who is not wiling to lose us, leave us, or abandon us. Imagine with me that beautiful community, unafraid of the challenges before them because they know the voice that is leading them onward. Listen, with me, as we try to figure out just what it means to face the new problems before us. Listen, with me, as I tune my ear to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd calling us into greater love. Listen, with me, as we follow Jesus in this new, uncertain world.
I don’t know what the future holds. But I do know that the voice of the Good Shepherd will continue to call us forward, even into the unknown. I am not afraid of the future, because I know, I trust in the Good Shepherd who is calling us forward. Tune your ears, tune your heart, to hear that voice of love.