at at a café where they change the art on the walls from time to time, so I notice different things each time I’m there, and this time the thing that caught my eye was a big wooden plaque with a slogan that said:
“There will always be a reason why you meet people. Either you need them to change your life or you’re the one that will change theirs.”
And it occurred to me that this is a perfect summary of the book of Acts. A couple of us have been reading Acts for our Good Book Club discussions, and I have to admit that it’s the first time I’ve read Acts straight through since seminary. And when you do that, you don’t just see the individual stories, you’re more aware of the big themes that connect them.
And the story in Acts about the early church and how it grew is all about people meeting other people and changing them, with the power and inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
When that big wind blows, you never know what’s going to happen next, but you can see that it’s probably not going to be what anyone expected.
Sometimes the followers of Jesus Christ are the ones who are changed, and sometimes it’s the people they meet, and we see both of those things happening in this morning’s story about the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
When I think back over all the conversations I had with John Strong in the four years since I came to Good Shepherd, there’s one that stands out for me for the way it demonstrates the essence of who John was as I came to know him.
This happened on a Sunday morning, as he was coming out of church—when he nearly always had something pleasant to say about the sermon, or the service, or both.
Now just for background I’ll mention a guideline that anyone who wants to be an effective writer or preacher should know, which is that it’s best to choose one good, strong point and stay focused on it, so you don’t dilute your message.
But during this particular week, as I was preparing for Sunday, I found myself thinking about two different ideas, and I was finding it very difficult to choose just one to preach on.
I found myself in the narthex counting sheep one day last week, but don’t worry, I wasn’t sleeping on the job. I just got curious about how many of them there actually are out there. The answer, if you’re interested is about 20, counting all of the sheep in every different format. That’s enough for a good-sized little flock.
We do love our sheep here, and we love the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd who will know us and love us and keep all of us little lambs safe.
We celebrate that image today, the fourth Sunday of the Easter season, the day that’s nicknamed Good Shepherd Sunday because the Gospel readying always includes a section of the passage we call the Good Shepherd discourse in John’s Gospel, where Jesus talks about himself as the Good Shepherd.
It’s a special day for us in church when we get to lift up the Good Shepherd at Good Shepherd Church—and it’s also the day when we gather for a celebration lunch afterwards. At our annual meeting after lunch, we take time to listen reports from the various ministries and committees about how things have gone over the past year, and to elect members of the Vestry.
We do love that image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd.
Chris and I went out to breakfast one day last week at a local place in New Hope. It’s the kind of place where they serve a good, hearty old-fashioned breakfast, the kind of meal we used to enjoy back in the days before anybody ever warned us about things like cholesterol and fat and salt. And they’re really proud of that menu. You sit at a counter that sort of wraps around the kitchen, and you can see a sign over the kitchen that says, “If it isn’t bad for you, it isn’t worth eating.”
So I ordered a waffle, and Chris ordered corned-beef hash, which both happen to be the things that our fathers would make for breakfast when it was their turn to cook for us when we were growing up. When the food was served, a woman who was like sitting around the corner of the counter from us said, “That looks great. I’m really glad you didn’t order anything healthy”—because they do have a few healthy choices at this place
She said, “I’m glad that you didn’t go for the healthy stuff, because every once in a while, we really ought to stop and enjoy the good things of life, and that includes eating food like the breakfast that you’re sharing together.” That opened up a whole conversation that went on for most of the meal about food and the place it plays in our lives: how it brings us together in community and fellowship, how it’s one of the good things that God has given us in this life.
The two angels said to Mary, “‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.” John 20:11-14
When they ask her why she’s weeping, she says it’s because they’ve taking his body away. Not just because he died, but because now his body is gone too.
We want to hold on to whatever tangible memories we have left when people we love are gone, no matter how trivial they may be. So we cherish the things that they used and touched. Like the worn round wooden cutting board that I remember from my grandmother’s kitchen when I was just a little girl. I still use it at home in my kitchen. Or my father’s cuff links and my mother’s bracelet. I don’t wear either one of them, but I keep them in a special place.
And of course we want to know where our loved ones are buried. To keep that one last physical connection with their presence, as tenuous as it is.
So Mary is there at the tomb on that first day of the week, while it’s still dark, but the tomb is empty. She doesn’t know this is good news. It’s not a sign of Easter joy to her. Instead, it’s grief upon grief, loss after loss. Now she really has nothing left of him.
A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you … and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. Ezekiel 36:26-28
Many years ago, I stood in a darkened church on the night before Easter and watched as the paschal candle was lighted from the new fire.
I watched as people lit their own little candles from that flame, and then passed it along until the whole church was filled with the glow of that warm light.
I didn’t know anyone there. I’d never been in that church before. I couldn’t even have told you why I was there, exactly. I only knew that for some reason I wanted to be in that place, with those people, on that night, more than anything. Sometimes God’s love just pulls us in that way.