Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Sunday, April 25, 2021

YEAR B 2021 easter 4

 Easter 4, 2021
Acts 4:5-12
1 John 3:16-24
John 10:11-18
Psalm 23

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

In case it wasn’t obvious from all the readings we just heard, today is Good Shepherd Sunday.  It comes around every year, on the fourth Sunday of Easter.  Plus, we get this same kind of gospel reading every January for St. Timothy Sunday, where Jesus refers to himself as the Good Shepherd.  Since you’ve already heard me talk about this gospel text 9 times, I’m going to talk about the other readings today.

In the first reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, we have to back up a chapter to set the scene.  Prior to today’s reading, Peter and John run into a man who has been lame from birth.  They say they have no money to give him, but what they can give him is healing and restoration.  In the name of Jesus Christ, they tell him to get up and walk.  And he does!  The people are amazed and many come to believe.  In response, the religious authorities have Peter and John arrested.  And that’s how we get to today’s reading.

In the name of Jesus, Peter and John have healed a man who has been unable to walk since birth, and the religious leaders ask them, "By what power or by what name did you do this?"  And Peter responds that it was in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.  But I love that he starts his response with, “If we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick . . .”  I’m glad he doesn’t let that point go.  That they have been arrested and are being questioned because of a good deed done for someone who was sick.

It’s like the anger and fear of losing power have so taken over the minds of the religious leaders that they completely ignore the fact that a sick man has been healed.  Restored to wholeness and community.  They don’t care about the healing; they’re mad because their enemies are getting attention for having done a good deed.  Since when does doing good deeds warrant getting arrested?  Punishing people for their compassion?  How could the world have been so polarized back then?

But, of course, a few years ago, the United States Department of Justice began creatively using something called the Harboring Statute, whereby people were arrested for leaving food and water in the desert for migrants.  Hundreds of immigrants have died of thirst and starvation in that desert, but leaving food and water for them is illegal.  People in Los Angeles and Florida have been arrested for feeding homeless people.  In future elections, the state of Georgia has made it illegal to give food and water to folks waiting to vote.  Since when does doing good deeds warrant getting arrested?  Punishing people for their compassion?  How could the world still be this polarized?

What the religious leaders were doing to Peter and John wasn’t new, and it hasn’t gone away.  When we are desperate to hold onto power, or determined to get our way, it’s just a few short steps to punishing people for doing good deeds that might thwart our plans.  What gets ignored in all these cases is the humanity of the person suffering.  They simply become pawns in the battle for power.  Let them remain lame; let them starve; let them give up on voting because they haven’t eaten all day.  Our lack of compassion can be chilling sometimes.

But wait, there’s more.  In the second reading, from 1st John, we heard the question: “How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?”  I have to admit, this question scares me.  Because I grew up Lutheran, and it is just part of my catechetical DNA that whether or not we do good deeds does not change whether or not God loves us.  We cannot earn our way to heaven, and we can’t ever make God stop loving us.

But that’s not what the question asks.  We’re not asked whether God loves a person who refuses to help those in need.  No, the question John asks us is, How does God's love abide in anyone who refuses to help?  And I think the answer is, dimly.  God’s love abides there, but a profound lack of compassion and empathy might suggest that it is stilted, small, anemic.  But let me be clear:  God’s love for one who refuses to help is no different than God’s love for Mother Teresa.  The question is, can we make room for God’s love to abide in our hearts?  And we do this by putting others first.  By laying down our lives.

All of which leads me to what I really want to talk about this morning:  the table in Psalm 23.  We are all familiar with Psalm 23, particularly the King James Version of it.  It’s got all that pastoral language about green pastures and stuff, which is why we hear it every year on Good Shepherd Sunday.  In the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, because God’s rod and staff comfort me.  All is at peace, because the Lord is my shepherd.

But the table.  Remember that line?  In our prayer book it is phrased, “You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me.”  In the King James Version it is, “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.”  What do you picture when you hear those words?  I have to confess to you that all my life I’ve imagined it means, I sit down to a feast in a green valley, while my enemies look on in hunger.  God just keeps ladling out the food for me, while those who trouble me, mine enemies, stare on with jealousy.

The two phrases to hold onto here are “before me” and “in the presence of.”  It’s not a table for me.  It’s a table in front of me.  And it’s not next to my enemies; it is in their presence.  God is inviting us to sit at a table with our enemies.  God is saying, come share a meal with the very people who trouble you.  To put it bluntly:  If you want to eat, you’ve got to eat with people who hate you.

What the heck kind of offer is that?!?  We share meals with our friends.  We invite people we like to dinner.  We don’t imagine sitting down to eat with our enemies.  I thought the peaceful verdant valley was going to be a place where it was just me and God, my shepherd, leading me beside still waters.  I didn’t sign up for this “have a bite to eat with people who trouble me by not voting the same way I do!”

And that’s because our vision of a table is too small.  We imagine a card table for one, set up in an open field, while what God is offering is a huge banquet table, where everyone is invited.  We see this over and over in the parables of Jesus.  A king holds a wedding banquet and invites in all the poor and outcast.  The fishing net gathers up every kind of fish.  The lump of yeast leavens the entire loaf.  The weeds are left to grow among the wheat.  On and on, we hear that God is inviting everybody to the banquet.  No one is left out or excluded.  Even those who trouble me.  Maybe even, especially those who trouble me.

And every time we celebrate the Holy Eucharist, we hear hints of this in the Sanctus, where we sing, with the angels and the archangels and all the company of heaven.  Peter and John, the religious leaders who arrested them, and the man who could finally walk; the officers enforcing the Harboring Statute, the people leaving food and water, and the migrants who have died in the desert; you and me, and all the people who trouble us, gathered around the table and saying, holy, holy, holy Lord . . . heaven and earth are full of your glory.

The table is bigger than we think, and everyone has a seat at it.  Including you and me.  May God’s love continue to grow and abide in our hearts, that when we see a brother or sister in need, we lay down our lives in the name of Jesus, and continue to show God’s love for the world.


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