Eternal Life, the Good Shepherd and a Good Yarn

Easter 4C
April 21, 2013

Acts 9:36-43

Psalm 23

John 10:22-30

[Preached at All Saints Church Episcopal, Sunderland, MD, Sunday, April 21, 2013]

Listen more often, to things than to beings
Listen more often, to things than to beings
Tis the ancestors’ words, when the fire’s voice is heard
Tis the ancestors’ words, in the voice of the water ahhhhhhh

 – “Breaths,” Sweet Honey in the Rock

Knitting

Hi, my name is Amy, and I am a yarn-a-holic.  I love yarn, and I love making things with yarn.  All crocheting and knitting is basically an elegant, intricate series of slip knots that are built on this [SHOW THREAD OF YARN].  By slipping loop into loop, chain onto chain, something comes into being from almost nothing, which I find comforting.  [SHOW PRAYER SHAWL]  This is one of the prayer shawls that our knitting ministry makes and Father Ken has blessed [PASS AROUND].  In addition to providing comfort for the people who receive them, I would say (from experience) they also provide comfort to the people who make them.  Knowing that I have created something out of almost nothing, and that my something is going to go out and touch someone else … it just makes me feel that there’s something right with the world, in spite of all evidence to the contrary.  So when I am distressed, I knit my way out of my anxiety, feeling the hands of my knitting mentors – especially Silvia Laurie – guiding me.  The chains and rows and panels I create end up being the lifeline between me, those who have gone on before me, and those who will touch my work after me.

I suspect that Tabitha, the protagonist in our first reading, was a fellow yarnie.  After her death, the reading says that the widows of her community stood beside Peter, weeping and showing him tunics that she had made for them.  Chances are those tunics were spun from wool into yarn and hand-woven in a very labor-intensive process.  Tabitha’s good works – the clothing that her deft hands spun and wove – in turn wove her into the fabric of her community, which remembered her every time they touched something that she lovingly made.  She spun and wove her life into something everlasting that touched everyone around her, even after she had gone.

Those who have died, have never, never left
The dead are not under the earth
They are in the rustling trees, they are in the groaning woods
They are in the crying grass, they are in the moaning rocks
The dead are not under the earth ahhhhhhhh
A shepherd (not Catherine) at the 2011 Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival

A shepherd (not Catherine) at the 2011 Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival

In addition to linking me to the past, the future and the community, yarn links me to the lovely, fluffy animals that produce it – mainly sheep (although I have a real weakness for alpaca).  There is quite a bit about sheep in today’s readings.  I know nothing about sheep, other than the fact that they are where yarn (my favorite thing) comes from.  So I decided to search out a subject matter expert on the topic, and was lucky enough to run into Catherine Donley.  You may have met Catherine’s mother, Nancy, at our annual Christmas Market, where Nancy sells her stunning, hand-spun and woven shawls – much as I suspect Tabitha did.  It turns out that Catherine has a knack for shepherding, having been raised around llamas and alpacas, whose wool her mother artfully wove and spun.  As a freshman Agricultural Economics major in college, Catherine did a summer internship on a sustainable farm that had a flock of sheep.

A beautiful sheep at the 2011 Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival

A beautiful sheep at the 2011 Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival

Sheep, unfortunately, have the reputation for being stupid.  But according to Catherine, our good shepherd, a lot of what people mistake for stupidity in sheep is actually fear.  Sheep are prey animals, and they know it.  Consequently, they are slow to trust and do what you want them to do.  Sheep that are unfamiliar with someone will not follow that person.  They must gradually become accustomed to the shepherd’s voice, the cadence of her step, and have the experience of being successfully led to pasture over and over under her direction.  The good shepherd knows her flocks and their rhythms so well that the flocks become accustomed to her and will respond to her voice – and her voice alone.   As Jesus says in the Gospel reading, “My sheep hear my voice.  I know them, and they follow me.”

Listen more often, to things than to beings
Listen more often, to things than to beings
Tis the ancestors’ words, when the fire’s voice is heard
Tis the ancestors’ words, in the voice of the water ahhhhhhh
Carving of an early Christian communion meal

Carving of an early Christian communion meal

The original listeners of John’s Gospel were – like our sheep – probably very fearful and anxious about their lives.  Since the Gospel was written at a time when Jesus-followers had broken with the synagogue after the destruction of Jerusalem, John’s “flock” was facing both social ostracism and economic disaster.  Most of their community’s networks of influence were tied to the synagogue, and the Jewish authorities were often the only thing that stood between the early Jesus-followers and persecution at the hands of the local Roman authorities.  Without the synagogue, they undoubtedly felt lost.  And lost sheep do not last long.  Catherine said that a sure-fire way of finding a lost sheep is to look for the vultures circling.

The image of the shepherd was certainly a comforting one for the early Christians, who were no doubt familiar with this activity.  In fact, the image of Jesus the Good Shepherd was the dominant image in Christian artwork from the 2nd to the 4th Centuries.  Jesus is depicted as a vibrant, strong young man, often carrying a lamb on his shoulders.  These images were often found in the artwork on the early Christian catacombs of Rome.  The early Christians linked the image of the Good Shepherd with the one who would lead them to everlasting life.

Those who have died, have never, never left
The dead have a pact with the living
They are in the woman’s breast, they are in the wailing child
They are with us in the home, they are with us in the crowd
The dead have a pact with the living ahhhhhhhh
Mosaic, "Jesus the Good Shepherd," Ravenna, Italy, 5th Century

Mosaic, “Jesus the Good Shepherd,” Ravenna, Italy, 5th Century

While some critics protest that the image of the sheep is intended to reinforce the image of believers as docile, herd-bound creatures who do not question authority, I think that the image is a comment on the vulnerability of the people that Jesus – and the early church – was reaching out to.  In the passage before this week’s Gospel reading, Jesus says:

Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep.  All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them.  I am the gate.  Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.  The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.  I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

When the Second Temple of Jerusalem was reconstructed after the Babylonian Exile, the first structure that was completed was the Sheep Gate.  This was the gate adjacent to the sheep market, where the sacrificial lambs would be led into the Temple.  Particularly around this time of year – Passover – thousands of sheep went in, never to come out.  Rev. John Davies points out that the Sheep Gate was also the place where people with disabilities who were excluded from the Temple community by purity laws would gather by the pool of Bethesda, beg, and hope for a miracle to heal them.  By saying “I am the gate”, Jesus is proposing a different Temple system, where people are not systematically sacrificed and excluded, but are cherished, fed, and led to abundant life.

A survivor of the Boston Marathon bombing is comforted

A survivor of the Boston Marathon bombing is comforted

When we are confronted with events such as the bombings at the Boston Marathon this week, it is often difficult to remember Jesus’ promise that He is the new gate for the sheep.  It is hard to remember that we have been promised abundant life when we are bombarded by images of suffering and victimization.  Some of us may even have been personally affected by the events in Boston.

Those who have died, have never, never left
The dead are not under the earth
They are in the rustling trees, they are in the groaning woods
They are in the crying grass, they are in the moaning rocks
The dead are not under the earth ahhhhhhhh

Infinity

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus says of His sheep, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.  No one will snatch them out of my hand.”  The Greek for “eternal life” is aiOnios zoe, which means both “life without end” and “life without beginning”.  Jesus is not simply offering immortality after death in exchange for following Him.  He is pointing to a vision of life that never ended in the first place.  Because the past has ended, and the future is not here yet, the present moment is really the only moment in life without beginning or end.

No matter what happens to us, no matter how traumatized we may be by events of the world, that golden thread of life is always there in the present moment, waiting for us to take it back up again.  And the voices of those who have died can only be heard in that moment.  We have a Savior who endured the worst that the death-dealing institutions of His time could inflict.  But in the end, it didn’t matter.  Life abundant, without beginning or end – which is as close to us as listening to our own breath and as real as that prayer shawl going around the room – won out.  In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, it may be tempting to give in to rage and unforgiveness, and look for scapegoats to blame.  But we don’t forgive because other people are particularly deserving of it.  We don’t forgive because we don’t care about bringing people to justice.  We forgive because we are a Resurrection people.  We are promised aiOnios zoe, right here, right now, and we cannot hold the present moment and rage in our hand at the same time.

Hand Holding Yarn

When we let go of that rage, we can pick that thread back up and reach out to others, who grab the other end, and we can begin to knit the fabric of our lives back together again.  It’s interesting to note that, immediately after the bombing, thousands of people in Boston posted electronic messages offering their homes to marathoners who were stranded from their hotels.  People who were shivering in the cold, traumatized by the blast, were brought into peoples’ homes, offered food, warmth and comfort.  Maybe a home-made shawl or blanket was offered to them that was created by someone’s loving grandmother.  Ties were formed.  Souls were healed. And a community is gradually knitting back together.

Listen more often, to things than to beings
Listen more often, to things than to beings
Tis the ancestors’ words, when the fire’s voice is heard
Tis the ancestors’ words, in the voice of the water ahhhhhhh

5 thoughts on “Eternal Life, the Good Shepherd and a Good Yarn

  1. as we read this together, Marijo and i are convinced that all of life is as knitting. we drop a stitch, we pick it up later or maybe never as we pass this way but once..we are knitted together as the body of Christ through the thread of blood that he shed…blessings on a well done message and may God be glorified

  2. Greetings Sister Rose,
    And thanks for that information about sheep, very enlightening.

    Your saying ^aiOnios zoe, which means both “life without end” and “life without beginning”^ is also very enlightening and corresponds with how I teach we are the life-force and not the body until we have gone through the metamorphosis of the new birth when “the husband and wife becomes one flesh”. So long as man are living souls, after the order of Adam, our bodies are temporary temples for certain experiences to be embedded in our life-forces but once we are reborn adults in the ascending process, our material bodies will be shed, like a snake its skin, and what will be left will be a body indestructible. But what is always eternal is our life-forces without a beginning and end.

    Again, thank you for a very enlightening realization.

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