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May 7, 2006 (Easter IV)
Pastor Diane Martinson-Koyama
Acts 4:5–12, Psalm 23, 1 John 3:16–24, John 10:11–18
(Webmaster’s note: Pastor Martinson-Koyama is one of the chaplains at ‘Iolani School in Honolulu.)
Good morning! I’m happy to be with you today although I wish it were for a different reason. You and I share a common sentiment this morning—sadness at the departure of Pastor David and Karen. As a colleague in the Hukilau, I have valued and respected David’s voice and presence over these years just as you have valued and respected his leadership and loving care as your pastor.
Although I doubt David planned it this way, it seems highly appropriate that today—the first Sunday of your pastor’s departure—is Good Shepherd Sunday. The Fourth Sunday in Easter is always “Good Shepherd Sunday” regardless of what year we’re in—A, B, or C— for the lectionary on this Sunday always includes the 23rd Psalm and a reading from the 10th chapter of the Gospel of John which speaks of Jesus as the Good Shepherd.
Because of this imagery, we pastors are sometimes dubbed “shepherds” of our congregations. This Friday at ‘Iolani School when we read from this passage at our kindergarten through 6th grade chapel, my colleague, the Episcopal chaplain who normally wears a cassock and surplice at services without communion, wore his alb and stole such as I’m wearing and told the kids it was his “shepherd” outfit. Pastors are supposed to follow Jesus’ example and be caring, loving “shepherds” of their flock. By all accounts, you had a caring, loving shepherd in the person of Pastor David.
But, today reminds us that our one true shepherd is not a human being, no matter how loving or caring, but rather Jesus and Jesus alone. That is tremendously good news. It means that no matter how sorrowful our hearts may be, no matter how lost and alone we may feel, no matter how anxious we may be for the future, the Good Shepherd is here to find, to guide, to love, care, and lead you personally and this congregation collectively into the future.
I grew up in the church, and in the church in which I grew up we had a nursery for the little ones. On the walls of that nursery were strings of ribbon hanging down one of the walls to which were attached small pictures of Jesus as the Good Shepherd holding a baby lamb, and on those lambs would be written the name of every child of the congregation from infant through toddler age. When a new baby was born, up would go another lamb with that baby’s name on it. I remember those lambs because on the Sunday we began Sunday School at the age of three when we officially “graduated” from the nursery, the lamb with our name on it was presented to us. I no longer have that lamb, but I REMEMBER it—my name on that baby lamb being held lovingly in the arms of Jesus. It’s a comforting image, and even though most of us probably haven’t had much experience with sheep or the special relationship shepherds have with their sheep, if you have a pet, you can perhaps relate a bit to this in the love you feel for that pet and your desire to unconditionally provide for its needs and to keep it safe.
In Psalm 23 (which we read together), you can feel the deep trust conveyed in this image of the Good Shepherd. It is, no doubt, one of the reasons this Psalm is so widely read at funerals. Yet, the appeal of this Psalm is about more than this. Thank goodness, because otherwise we’d just be talking about a lot of fluffy niceties, a tender, sentimental image that looks good on Hallmark card. No, integral to this short, concise Psalm is a realism that doesn’t shy away from the tough stuff of life. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death”—or as it says in the NRSV, a more recent translation, “through the darkest valley”—“I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” There is no illusion about “if” darkness should come, “if” evil should strike, “if” death and endings should occur. Rather it says, “even though I walk through the darkest valley,” “through the shadow of death,” you are with me and I shall trust. The Psalm continues, I know that “you prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.” And, then the ultimate certainty of faith, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.”
The Psalms are traditionally attributed to David—not as in “Pastor David” but as in “King David.” Whether David actually wrote Psalm 23 or not, he is certainly someone who knew the “even thoughs” of life. Read First and Second Samuel. You’ll find that David’s life was quite a soap opera—a blend of his own personal weaknesses, circumstances that befell him, and the burden he carried as king. Even so, God worked through him and remained faithful to him. It is this proclamation of the faithfulness and presence of God even through the challenges and disappointments of our lives that cause us to turn to the Psalms with hope.
Ann (name changed) was someone from my first congregation as a pastor who knew about the “even thoughs” of life. Ann was 93 years old and essentially a shut-in. She was greatly handicapped by severe osteoporosis and walked stooped over at the waist, like the women we used to see when we lived in Japan who had worked their entire lives in the rice paddies. It was only when she sat down that she could look you directly in the eye. Once she had been a pillar of the congregation. She was one of those you always found in the church kitchen cooking up a storm for every church function. She had done the rounds of church leadership positions, had taught Sunday School, and been an active member of the couple’s club with her late husband. It was an era when your social life and the functions of the church were one and the same. But I, as a young pastor just starting out, knew none of that. Time and people had come and gone, and very few still remembered her. All I knew was that as a shut-in on the church rolls who was 93 years old, I’d better get to know her as we’d probably be doing a funeral for her in the not too distant future. Of course, from that all too callous reasoning, I discovered in visiting with her the true gift that she was and gained a depth of appreciation for the generations of those who have contributed to the life of a congregation, any congregation, whom we all too quickly forget.
More than once, Ann asked me, searching for an answer from her pastor, why was she still on this earth? Why hadn’t God taken her yet? Her husband was gone, her friends were gone; in fact the only friends she had now, she said, were those the age of her retired son and daughter. She’d outlived all the rest. Still, she managed to live by herself in a small apartment with the help of a woman she hired through an agency who, five days a week, made the trip from the south side of Chicago all the way out to the western suburbs, a journey by train of certainly not less than an hour each way. These two became very close companions—this large African American woman and this small, crippled white haired lady. Once a week they managed their big excursion—a trip to the grocery story—for Ann still found enjoyment in puttering around her kitchen.
The day came, however, when Ann’s son and daughter, both living out-of-state, decided that it wasn’t safe for Ann to be living by herself anymore. They both arrived in town and took it upon themselves to make arrangements for Ann to be moved to a nursing home. Ann was vehemently opposed to this, but the son and daughter had made up their mind. Living so far away and not being able to check in on her convinced them that it was just too unsafe to leave her in her own apartment. And the law would certainly not argue with that. All it would take would be one fall while her companion wasn’t there, and they would be roundly accused of having neglected her. But, Ann had other ideas. Without her apartment, her companion, her last bit of independence—the weekly trip to the grocery store and the kitchen in which she could still putter around to a limited extent—without these, she knew her time had come. She made it clear that she wasn’t afraid of dying; in fact, she had lived longer than she would have felt advisable. She told me she was going home, and she didn’t mean the nursing home.
The day Ann was moved into her room at the nursing home she had a large poster of the 23rd Psalm put up on the wall opposite the easy chair her son and daughter had bought her for her new room. From that day on, every time I stopped in to see her there, she would be in that easy chair meditating on that Psalm posted on her wall. By the end of two weeks, she died.
Is that a sad story? We may think so, but Ann really wasn’t afraid of death. She had lived a long life—a life filled with joys and sorrows. Even though she had lived through two World Wars, numerous other conflicts and scares, the death of her husband and all her friends her age, her life had been full of rich experiences and memories—even though. The 23rd Psalm spoke to her heart and soul giving her assurance and trust in the promises of the faith in which she had lived all her life. Ann was not afraid of death for in it she saw new life.
That is what is at the heart of this Easter season—the promise and fulfillment of new life. Jesus says in John’s gospel immediately preceding where our lectionary picked up this morning, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” What a great proclamation to hear from Jesus! This is the fullness of life that Jesus accomplished for us. This is the joy that transcends the “even thoughs” of life. Joy that sustains us through the difficulties, through the trials and tribulations, through the transitions of pastoral leadership, because we know that God’s love is never ending, that we can trust in God’s promises and that God has promised to be with us always—even into eternity.
A number of years ago my mother gave me a print for Christmas. It’s not an original; just a copy, but nevertheless I used to have it hanging on the wall of my office. It’s this. Perhaps you’ve seen it. It’s called “Jesus Laughing.” I love it because it depicts Jesus in full belly shaking laughter. Although I had other artwork on my wall that was must nicer than this, it’s this one that caused people to comment. It was almost as if seeing Jesus laughing caught people by surprise—and delighted them. But why not? The gospel is about God’s extravagant, abundant, relentless, forgiving, all-encompassing love for humanity and all of creation. As your banner out in the courtyard says, God created and it was very good. The gospel, the good news, is about abundant life and living in joy—belly shaking joy. Joy that comes in the knowledge that the Good Shepherd is with us, intimately aware of us, calling us by name, guiding us through the challenges, disappointments and crises of life, leading us to a place of peace.
There is no denying that we live in troubled times. The mess in the Middle East only seems to get worse, Osama bin Laden is still putting out ominous messages, and every weekday night, if you watch “The News Hour,” we see the faces of the most recent in our military who have lost their lives. And that’s just the conflict that presently has the world’s attention. Strife and deep, destabilizing inequities exist around the world and even in our own country. Added to that is increasing awareness of critical global environmental concerns—no more starkly brought home than in the massive sewage spill into this tropical paradise just a few weeks ago.
As a community, even though you have had to say good-by to your pastor, you still have a calling and a mission to proclaim and embody the love of God for all people and for all of creation, to provide worship where the Word is proclaimed and the eucharist shared, where in the words of our Affirmation of Baptism liturgy you “serve all people, following the example of our Lord Jesus, striving for justice and peace in all the earth.” Recently I received a newsletter from one of the ELCA offices. In it was an interview with a recently ordained pastor who traveled to Mississippi to provide assistance following Hurricane Katrina. When asked how the experience affected her call, she said the experience helped her to see her call as a pastor as being about “empowering the people of God to respond to the needs of the world.” I like that description. As people of God, we do need to be about responding to the needs of the world. That grounding for a faith community remains unchanged regardless of the transitions in leadership. Ministry continues as you’re doing today through worship and through the environmental awareness displays between services in recognition of Earth Day. Ministry will continue in the love and care you extend to one another as you listen to one another and discern together where God is leading you in this next phase of your life as a congregation. Ministry will continue for Pastor David and Karen, too, as God leads them in new adventure. And God will lead. Prayerfully expect that. For this is God’s ministry and you are God’s people.
Good Shepherd Sunday is a good follow up to Pastor David’s departure. The readings remind us to place our fears and anxieties in the context of trust in Jesus who is our Good Shepherd, even and most especially in the face of the “even thoughs.” We are reminded that we are loved and known by name just as surely as my name and those of my nursery mates were printed on the sheep in the arms of Jesus on the wall of our church nursery. We are reminded that God desires that we have abundant life, filled with joy and laughter, in thanksgiving for all that has been and in anticipation of all that is yet to come. For that, we can all say, “Thanks be to God.”
Copyright © 2006 Diane Martinson-Koyama
Comments welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org