Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Following the Shepherd: A Meditation on John 10 for Ash Wednesday

Scripture can be found here....

There’s a little controversy going on. I say “little,” because you only would have heard of it if you were a., a churchy-type of person, and b., if you participated in social media such as Facebook and Twitter, and c., if you happened to be friends with the folks who have a stake in this controversy, and who are out there trying to persuade people to their point of view. Otherwise known as, fighting.

And the argument is not over something as mainstream as, say, who gets to be ordained, or, whether we use wine at communion. The argument is about ashes. Specifically, “ashes-to-go.”

Mieke, a great friend, of mine isn’t involved in the argument, but she is involved in the ashes-to-go. All day long today she has been at Union Square in New York City, part of a group of eight people from a church that calls itself “Not-So-Churchy.” They are carrying pots of ashes (mixed as they had coffee in a local Panera this morning), and a sign that says,

Free Ashes
Free Prayers
Free Hugs
(Don’t worry, we’re nice)

I don’t have to tell you why this is controversial. You already have a hunch. Ashes have traditionally been offered and received as a sign of a community’s decision to commit to following Christ by observing the Lenten disciplines. The problem is, how do we know who these people are, the strangers who take these ashes on the street? They’re not members of our church. What if the people who take these ashes are the kind of people who really need to turn their lives around?

In our reading from John’s gospel tonight, we have a Jesus who seems to be dashing back and forth across this very argument, arguing both sides against himself. On one side of the argument, Jesus proclaims: I am the gate. I am the good Shepherd. Not those other guys, who are really no more thieves and bandits. I am the gate.

This is the nearest Jesus gets to a parable in the gospel of John. Unlike the other three gospels, John’s Jesus does not wax eloquent on seeds or yeast, buried talents or bridesmaids with oil lamps.

But here Jesus is, telling us, “I am the gate. I am the good Shepherd.” And part of what he seems to be saying is, “There is a way to be with me, and there is a way to be against me. Be sure you’re with me.”

Jesus on the other side of the argument, though, lets something slip. “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16). And suddenly, everything he has just told us about who’s in and who’s out is challenged, because… we have no idea who and where and what this other fold is. And that is the point.

The Not-So-Churchy folks are happily sharing ashes (and prayers and hugs) with all and sundry today, in the confidence that, even though their way of following Jesus involves getting together to worship and pray and sing and share communion, still, there might be other ways of being Jesus-followers that they haven’t found yet.

Each year on Ash Wednesday we take the sign of ashes upon ourselves, because, as the Buddha reminds us, “The trouble is, you think you have time.” We think we can put off the changes we want to make in our lives, big or small. We will be able to start the diet tomorrow, or start exercising when it gets warmer. We will be able to devote time to prayer and scripture reading after we retire, and we will be able to volunteer at the soup kitchen after the kids leave for college. And—all that may be true, or it may not. Life has an unpredictability to it that has left us legions of poets and playwrights urging us, “Carpe diem.” Seize this day, because it is the only day you know for sure that you have.

The traditional disciplines of Lent are designed to take us from where we are to somewhere new. Prayer and meditation to open our hearts to God’s word. Fasting and abstinence to open our bodies to experiencing our need for God in new and tangible ways. And service and giving to open our eyes to beholding Christ in the stranger.

The time to enter through the gate is now. The day to commit to following the Shepherd is today. Not because tomorrow God will be stingy and lock the gate on us. But because God is as prodigal with his love as the Not-So-Churchy people are with their free ashes, free prayers, and free hugs. Why wouldn’t we want to spend each moment, beginning with this next moment, basking in God’s care, resting in God’s grace, and rejoicing in God’s love?

So, I invite you: Here is the gate. Here is the Shepherd. Here is the love of God: absolutely free. All we need do is receive it, and be glad. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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