If you could hang just one religious picture in your home, a picture capturing the essence of your faith, what would it be?
We had just one picture of Jesus in our home as I was growing up. Know as the “Head of Christ” or as “Sallman’s Head”, it was a wildly popular depiction of Jesus painted by Warner Sallman in 1950. It portrays Jesus as being strong, serene, and compassionate. He is facing the right hand side of the painting and gazing slightly upward as light comes down to illuminate his face and blondish-brunet hair. Over 500 million images of the painting have been sold worldwide, making it the single most reproduced piece of art of the 20th Century. It was especially popular during the Cold War because it served as a reminder Jesus is watching over us. Our picture hung in the hallway leading to all of our bedrooms.
Years ago I came across an obscure novel by Elizabeth Goudge called The Dean’s Watch. One of its main characters, Isaac Peabody, was the son of a clergyman of the Church on England in the eighteen hundreds. His family had one religious picture in their home. It hung above the mantel of the fireplace and depicted the Final Judgment. Can you imagine? It was under this stern rendering that Isaac’s father administered equally stern discipline. It is no surprise Goudge portrays Isaac Peabody’s adult character as having lost his faith.
I suspect many of us, if we could have just one religious picture in our home – a picture somehow capturing the essence of what we hold most dear, most essential about God and the Christian faith – might choose one depicting Jesus as the Good Shepherd. If we had to focus in on just one aspect of God – the God we know and love – this might be the best choice for us to make.
Today is informally known as “Good Shepherd” Sunday because each of the readings gives us a glimpse of God’s shepherdly care. And even though most of us don’t have firsthand experience of shepherding, it is an accessible image because it captures how God relates to us and how we trust ourselves to God when we are most in need.
From the beginning of the Bible, our ancestors in the faith, who themselves tended herds, have used this image as a way of describing their relationship to the Holy One. The first reference to God as a shepherd is found in the Book of Genesis. Jacob, having discovered his son Joseph is alive after many years of thinking him to be dead, blesses his newfound grandsons with these words:
The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked,
The God who has been my shepherd all the my life to this day,
The angel who has redeemed me from all evil,
Bless these boys, and may my name live on in them…
Today’s readings remind us that God’s shepherding is manifested to us in two distinct ways. The first is personal, the second communal. In the Book of Genesis, God’s care comes directly to Jacob. It is not mediated through other people. It is the sense of the 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd.” It is also conveyed through Jesus’ teaching: “My sheep know my voice.” The readings affirm that it is possible to have a mystical, personal experience of God’s care coming from beyond to bring comfort, healing, and protection in the here and now.
When have you experience God’s shepherdly care? Was it a spiritual comfort when you were grieving? Perhaps a calm certainty when you were anxious? Maybe it was a sense of direction when you were lost or a conviction when you were uncertain? Such experiences of the Good Shepherd come to us quite apart from anything or anyone in this temporal realm. It is a sensing of God’s presence we feel in our heart, in our mind, in our soul, in a place where we know that a Mystery from beyond has joined us in our time of trial or moment of need.
The reading from Book of Acts highlights a second way through which God’s care is manifested. In addition to coming directly to us in a spiritual way, it is also mediated in real, physical, practical ways through a community of faith.
Last Sunday we read that over 3,000 people were baptized after hearing Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost. Today we learn about their common life. They devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers – a pattern so basic to Christian living it is the first thing we pledge to do in the covenant we make with God at baptism.
· The Apostles’ teaching – molding our beliefs to the mind of Christ as it has been revealed through his earliest disciples.
· The Apostles’ fellowship – being a member of a community in relationship with Christ’s earliest disciples. Are you familiar with the phrase “Apostolic Succession”? Jesus’ earliest followers are also referred to as “the Apostles”. They choose their successors by laying hands of them to invoke God’s blessing and the power of the Holy Spirit. These successors soon became known as “bishops.” In our Anglican tradition, a person becomes a bishop through the laying on of hands by one or more bishops who have received the laying on of hands by other bishops whose lineage of this sacramental act is traced all the way back to the first Apostles. When you are confirmed or received by a bishop of the Episcopal Church, the person placing his or her hands on your head and praying for you is a direct sacramental descendent of Jesus’ earliest followers. This is just one of many ways we cherish what it means to continue in the Apostles’ fellowship.
· The Breaking of Bread: Every congregation I have served has been what I describe as a “parish with two tables.” One table is in the worship space. The bread we break here is sacramental. The other table is in the Parish Hall. The bread we break there is in fellowship. Both speak to the mystery of Christ’s love and presence in our midst, each in its own essential way. A parish with only one table is missing something. A life lived without either table lacks something central to the Christian faith.
· The Prayers: I worry I am always picking on those who say “I can worship God just as easily in _________, as in church.” While I understand what they are saying – and believe me, it resonates with a part of my own experience – here is my testimony: I pray and worship more fully, more completely, and more deeply when I am in the presence of others than when I am by myself. Communal worship blesses, enlarges, deepens, and challenges me in ways not possible when I worship on my own.
Just as each of us has known the personal presence of the Good Shepherd, so too many of us can name at least one time when, we might say, “the church was there for me.” It is a phrase and feeling acknowledging God works through the community to meet our needs.
Perhaps more difficult to name, but surely just as real, are the times when you have been there for a member of the church… when God’s shepherding has been manifested through you. It comes through a card or a hug or a listening ear or the gift of food or a flower delivery, or simply by showing up at the hospital or calling hours or memorial service. Only rarely does it require heroic sacrifice on our part. More often than not, God is working through us in ways we neither notice nor understand.
This is why commitment to our faith community is so important. God cannot use you if you are not present. God cannot use you if you do not make an effort. But when you do, God does. Your inch becomes God’s mile. Your ounce of effort becomes God’s ton of love.
Very few, if any of us, have direct experience with shepherding. Still, it remains perhaps the most endearing image of the Christian faith because we have personal experiences of God’s care for us. And because, when you make yourself available to a person in need, he or she will sense the Good Shepherd in you. Show up, make yourself vulnerable to a person in need, and the Mystery of God’s care will be manifest in the moment.