Psalm 23 and John 10: 1-15
Last weekend, my nephew and his family stayed with us for the weekend. My nephew and his partner have three children, the youngest of whom is a little girl named Aida who is a year and a few months old. Aida is an impossibly cute little human with a big personality, bright eyes and boundless energy. Aida has also recently acquired language. She only has a few words but she speaks them great enthusiasm. Among the words she has are two of her favorites “Thank you!” Aida loves those two words “Thank you”, but the only trouble is that she does not really understand how they are to be used. Yes — she does say “Thank you” when you set some French Toast in front of her, but she also says “thank you” when she points to the dog who has come up alongside to investigate. She says “thank you” when you help to put on her little coat, but she also says “thank you” when you startle her by walking up behind her.
Her indiscriminate “thank you’s” are quite an annoyance to her older brother and sister. They try to correct her, but she is not easily persuaded. Undaunted she persisted in her proclamations of “thank you” to just about everything that presented itself to her all weekend long.
But before we go any further, let us pray “Creating, Redeeming, Sustaining God, enter into the words that I say and the meditations of all of our hearts, that we may come to know you ever more fully and to give you praise. Amen”
Can you say “Thank you?” How many times have we said that to our kids? How many times did we hear those words of instruction when we were little? Chances are a lot because being polite, having good manners, being respectful, is important to the smooth running of not only family life, but also the life of the wider society as well.
Saying thank you is part of the social contract that we have with each other. And once a year, the practice of saying “thank you” rises to national significance as we celebrate the holiday of Thanksgiving.
Diane Butler Bass in her book “Grateful: the Subversive Practice of Giving Thanks” digs into the history of giving thanks and speaks of this role that giving thanks has played in organizing societies. She looks back over the ages and sees how gifting and gratitude “was also used as a means of patronage, power and control: “I do something for you, so that you must do something for me.” A gift incurred a debt and the recipient owned a response – an act of gratitude in return.”
The emperor or king gave his subjects the “gifts” of protection and provision. In return, subjects offered loyalty, homage, service, tithes, and taxes. If you failed to return the ruler’s favor – such as not paying a tribute or refusing to send your son to serve in the army – you were disloyal and could be charged with treason, crimes punishable by denial of favor, reduction in rank, seizure of property, enslavement, prison, exile or [even] death.”
Most pre-capitalist societies practiced this quid pro quo sort of gratitude.” This was certainly operative in the time of Jesus as the Hebrew people expressed in the steep taxes they paid, their “gratitude” for the peace that the Roman Empire provided.
This idea of quid pro quo sort of gratitude permeated our religious imagination as well, beginning particularly in the middle ages as people of faith came to see God as a powerful ruler to whom we too are indebted.
In fact, while we have the tradition here of calling this Sunday, Thanksgiving Sunday, in the liturgical year, that great poem that that tells the story of God with us, this Sunday is known as Christ the King Sunday. It is the last Sunday of the liturgical year, (next Sunday we start anew with Advent). On this day, many churches celebrate Christ the King, looking to the day when the reign of God’s love and peace will be on earth as it is in heaven.
This image of Christ the King is a powerful one and greatly beloved. So much so, in fact, that it is depicted there on our back window. These days those leading worship are the only ones who really have the chance to gaze at it, but when this church was first built (before this wing of was added) Christ the King would be the last image the people would see as they went back out into the world.
The Reign of Christ, Christ the King – can be a very comforting and powerful message of the ultimate triumph of love and goodness.
But if we are not careful, we can begin to transpose onto God the same tensions that exist within the patronage system. We can turn God into One who must be placated, and paid back. Our relationship with the Divine can slip into a “what can God do for me and what do I need to do for God” transactional arrangement that assumes an underlying scarcity. It assumes that there is a limited amount of goodness that ought not to be squandered. Goodness needs to be carefully measured out to those that are deserving of it and who will assiduously pay it back in full. There is something constricting about this way of thinking about our relationship with God as if God is One with whom we have to be on our guard.
On this Christ the King Sunday, I started wondering if Jesus ever referred to himself as King. As far as I can tell, he never did. Others may have referred to him in this way, but as far as I can tell, Jesus did not. Jesus seems to prefer the use of metaphor to get at what his relationship with his followers as an expression of his own relationship with God is to look like. In the Gospel of John this morning we heard a beloved metaphor that Jesus uses.
Reaching back into the book of Psalms, a Book that Jesus would have known well, he pulls forward the central imagine in Psalm 23 – that of a shepherd. Interesting choice, for a Shepherd in Jesus’ day was the very antithesis, the polar opposite of a King. And yet Jesus says “I am the good shepherd that lays down his life for the sheep.” This is the very antithesis of what a king would do. A king would demand that his subjects would lay down their lives for him. And yet, Jesus is proclaiming just the opposite.
This week at our worship with the residents of Norwood Health, many of whom used to be our neighbors here at Waban Health before that facility closed, we reflected on this passage together. I asked those gathered “How do you think the sheep are feeling as they follow the shepherd into those sweet and tasty green pastures and beside those still waters?” And the room erupted “Grateful!” I asked them “Do you think the sheep were worried about how they were going to pay the shepherd back or whether they were worthy enough sheep to be included in the flock in the first place?” “No!” was the communal reply with quite a bit of laughter thrown in at the absurdity of my question. “Do you think the sheep were worried that there would not be enough sweet grass and cool water for them?” Once again “No!” One resident then starting to quote aphorisms about trust and abundance. “Don’t cry over spilled milk” he said “because…because” he stumbled as he tried to continue, until another resident cried out “because a cat will come along and be grateful to lick it all up!” Laughter and clapping erupted!
As we laughed and explored the passage together, I swear, one by one we all started to become those sheep of which our passages today speak. As we laughed and explored the passages, the walls of that activity room fell away and we found ourselves in sweet green pastures. The sounds of the traffic outside gave way to the gentle gurgling of a cool stream. And for a moment, we could really feel the abundance, the trust, the deep gratitude and freedom of following one who came not to rule over us but to lead us into fullness and flourishing of life.
Following the Good Shepherd is not just about personal flourishing, it is also Communal. Diane Butler Bass writes: “True gratitude, real gratefulness, the kind of transformative thanksgiving that makes all things new, cannot be quiet in the face of injustice. If we embrace the sort of gratitude that changes our individual lives, it will revolutionize our political lives as well. We will move from a personal ethic of gratitude towards a public one. The “me” of gratitude must extend to the “we” of gratitude as an ethic, a vision of community based on habits and practices of grace and gifts, of cultivating a wide field of vision and deepening our awareness of humility and blessing, of setting tables and sharing food for all. Gratitude is not merely resilience. Gratitude is resistance too.” (loc 2012)
Yesterday, I was putting the finishing touches on this sermon in my office. It was late morning when some delicious smells started to wind their way up from the kitchen and into my study. The smells lured me out of my chair and down the stairs into the vestry. When I entered the vestry, I stopped in my tracks. Our romp room had been transformed. The empty space had been transformed into a green pasture of such beauty that it took me a while to take it all in. Rows of tables decorated in the most vibrant of colors, streamers, and flowers, the most whimsical of turkey faces all staring back from the walls. Signs of welcome! The message of bounty and grace, of joy and welcome, of abundance was loud and clear. And then when it was time, I saw so many shepherding our guests to their places at overflowing tables, pouring cups of cider that surely runnethed over.
There was more than enough for everyone, abundance of food on the tables, food to be sent home, love and laughter and no one, not once did I hear anyone wondering if those who gathered deserved to be here and not once did I hear any one wondering how they were going to pay back all that had been received.
In that activity room in Norwood, in our vestry down stairs what I witnessed was God’s kingdom coming and God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven. And for that I am so deeply, deeply grateful.
I started by saying that little Aida did not yet know or understand the when it was appropriate to say “Thank you.” I began by sharing in the sense that she was misguided in her random proclamation of “thank you’s” to whatever she encountered. But after this week, I have come to see her not as a misguided little human but perhaps as the blessed little sheep that she truly is. A sheep (and a prophet) proclaiming a vision of abundance and gratitude as the Good Shepherd surely leads, and delights in her.
May it be so for all of us, as well. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Bass, Diane Butler. “Gratitude” kindle version, location 398.