A Sermon for the 4th Sunday of Easter, May 12, 2019 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Acts 9:36-43++Psalm 23++Revelation 7:9-17++John 10:22-30

Many years ago, there was a documentary on PBS, maybe it was Nova or Nature or one of those programs, about the Maasai people of southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. And in one scene – the only one I actually remember – it is nighttime in the Ngorongoro Crater. A canopy of stars covers the earth and casts everything as far as the eye can see in shadow. As the camera pans the landscape, it pauses on a flock of sheep, quietly grazing. As the camera moves a little further on, you see two female lions, out on the hunt, crouched, watching and waiting. They had apparently been watching and waiting for a very long time. The camera then shifted a little closer to the flock of sheep, and, standing guard there was a young man, a boy really, maybe 12 or 13 years old. He saw the lions and kept his eye on them, as they did theirs on him. The commentator, in his David Attenborough best hushed-whisper English (and, come to think of it, it may have been David Attenborough), said that the lions would not attack the flock as long as this young shepherd stood there, spear in one hand and slingshot in the other. There is nothing so fierce a protector as a young Maasai shepherd.

Jesus said:

My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.
I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. (John 10:27-28)

There is nothing so fierce a protector as Christ our shepherd, either!

Every year on this 4th Sunday of Easter, we get some reading from the 10th chapter of John. It is commonly known as Good Shepherd Sunday. In the first year of the lectionary cycle, Year A, Jesus says, “I am the gate for the sheep” (John 10:1-10), and the focus is on a Jesus as the tender of the flock when they come in from pasture and letting them go out again. Year B has Jesus saying, “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11-18), the one who would lay down his life to protect the sheep. It is here, also, that we get the corrective to an interpretation of the gate as something that keeps people out rather than inviting them in, because Jesus also says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also…” (John 10:16).

Finally, today, the religious authorities want Jesus to stake his claim as the messiah so that they can arrest him before he causes any more trouble. He knows that they do not hear his voice the way the disciples and other followers of Jesus do. If they knew his voice, they would not need to ask such a question. They would have that eternal life available to them, here and now.

You see, the eternal life that Jesus promises is not in some far-off place. It’s not after we die. It is now and moves into eternity. The great multitude under the shelter of the one seated on the throne in the reading from Revelation is not just in some remote heaven that we go to when we die. A passage similar to this at the end of Revelation makes it clear that heaven is here. The New Jerusalem comes down to us. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer each and every week, we say “on earth as it is in heaven.” God’s greatest desire is that this eternal life of love, peace, and joy be ours now. Most of us have not done a very good job of helping to make God’s vision the reality.

Jean Vanier died this week at the age of 90. You may never have heard of him, but for those who do know who he is, there are cries going up of “Santo subito” – make him a saint now.

Jean Vanier was a Swiss-Canadian-French philosopher and theologian who is known most significantly for his care and love for those with developmental disabilities. He founded an organization called L’Arche, or “the Ark,” small group homes where able-bodied and sound-minded people live with those who have physical and mental challenges. Vanier believed that relationship was everything, the true way to follow Jesus. In his 2006 book, Community and Growth, Vanier wrote:

A community is only being created when its members accept that they are not going to achieve great things, that they are not going to be heroes, but simply live each day with new hope, like children, in wonderment as the sun rises and in thanksgiving as it sets. Community is only being created when they have recognized that the greatness of (hu)man(kind) is to accept hisits insignificance, hisits human condition and hisits earth, and to thank God for having put in a finite body the seeds of eternity which are visible in small and daily gestures of love and forgiveness. The beauty of (hu)man(kind) is in this fidelity to the wonder of each day.[1]

In a public address, Vanier once told a story about a serial killer, a man who had murdered five women, saying, “He needs someone who will see that behind all those walls that have been created, there’s a little child who has never been awakened…Will one day he find somebody who will reveal to him his beauty? That he is a child of God? That he is precious?”[2]

How does Vanier see in this convicted killer a child that has never been awakened? Maybe because Vanier, who, once seeing the plight of institutionalized persons with disabilities, could never be asleep to it again, could never ignore it again, and so invited the first two to live with him, sparking a global network of L’Arche communities. In the language of the Black Lives Matter movement, Vanier was “woke.” And the key to “wokeness” is to not fall back asleep. Once you have seen inequality, suffering, and oppression, you can’t just go back to not seeing it. Vanier never did, and was a tireless advocate to the very end of his life.

When Peter was summoned to Joppa after the death of Dorcas, also known as Tabitha, it isn’t clear that they expected him to raise her from the dead. Maybe they just needed some company in their grief. So they rejoiced all the greater to have this woman, this member of their community restored to them, not because of her greatness, but because she was family, a part of their bit of heaven on this earth.

Get up, Tabitha! You have been given over to good works, get up! Your community needs you.

Wake up! The imprisoned man in Vanier’s story, the child who had never been awakened who was so wounded that he lashed out in violence against others. The community needs you to be healed, to be awakened to God’s love even for you.

Wake up, All Saints! Wake up, you who know the voice of the shepherd! It isn’t demanding greatness of you. It isn’t demanding that you doanything other than to be a part of a community that loves the least and the lost, that cares for the vulnerable and the needy, and that recognizes that weare the ones standing on the ground that God calls heaven, just waiting for us to help midwife that into being, on earth as it is in heaven. 


[1]https://www.jean-vanier.org/en/books/community-and-growth

[2]https://religionnews.com/2019/05/09/how-jean-vanier-broke-my-head-and-saved-my-life/




ASEPA Sermon for the 4th Sunday of Easter, May 12, 2019 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas