Shepherd and Gate

John 1:1-10  

I have been through a full year at Epiphany, and it’s been a year of discovery. It’s a large and varied parish with so many ministries and people! It has been good to simply experience some of the ministries here and learn about you all.
One of my favorite experiences was the Harvest Party last fall at the Austin campus. It featured trunk-or-treat for the kids, and we had at least 20 vehicles parked on the lawn with their tailgates open. People of all ages from kids to granddads were handing out candy. The youth got involved, hosting a donut eating contest – you had to figure out how to eat donuts hanging from a string, without your hands. This year there were three food trucks – we adults loved the empanadas and kids the ice cream. And the hayrides!  Did you know that Pastor Hoffsis is a hot rod in a tractor??? He may be retired, but he doesn’t drive like he is slowing down. The event attracted Epiphany families, but also preschool families, and both of these groups invited friends and family member.
The Harvest Party was exemplary of things that have made Epiphany special over its 65 years of history: it was intergenerational; it welcomed the broader community; it leveraged scores of volunteers; and it was a great opportunity to connect with one another, meet new people, and just have fun.
I can imagine it was what Austin campus was like in the before times – before the pandemic. Before Pastor Jay left. From what I understand, this campus was a happening place! Sunday morning worship was full of children and their families as well as retired folks. Kids were treated as full members of the body of Christ, welcome at the altar to receive communion, and serving as acolytes and communion assistants. The campus was used by scouts and community band, volleyball enthusiasts and a variety of baseball and soccer teams. The community was welcomed for nurture and care in the Service of Silent Loss and a seminar on the grieving process. It seemed there were always cars in the parking lot. There was a sense of direction, purpose, that God was up to something important here.
And then the pandemic came. Both campuses were shut down. Reopening for all churches, businesses, and nonprofits has happened in fits and starts. Worship has come back to Austin campus, as have some of the outside groups but not in the numbers of the before times.
On top of this common experience is the loss of Pastor Jay. When Pastor Charlie took another call, many people saw Pastor Jay as the logical successor. And when that wasn’t how it turned out, there was protest, a sense of betrayal and a great sense of loss. And for some, that sense of loss continues, because the experience here at Austin hasn’t been the same.
I have made a concerted effort to split my time as evenly as possible between Far Hills and Austin, a sign of the value of the community that calls this campus its worship home as well as a sign of solidarity. But I recognize that this is not enough to minister to the losses that some of you carry. Our spiritual lives are an important resource for the grieving process, and so we need to find ways to have caring conversations where losses are heard and held gently. Your pastors and council leadership are here for you. We are not too busy to make time to sit down with you.  And as a community we can show up for each other and pray together. We can connect our experience to the scriptures.
And so I think it is a gift that we have as an appointed scripture the 23rd Psalm. It is commonly used at funerals, perhaps because of the reference to “the valley of the shadow of death,” but also because it so beautifully portrays the provision and tender care of God in all circumstances. Its opening phrase, The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want really means, I shall not be in need. In God, our deepest longings and needs are satisfied. We are restored, guided, protected, and fed, even when enemies threaten or danger is near. It is a psalm of trust, that the Lord who shepherds us this way, leads us into a life of goodness and mercy, and that we are near to God in all our days.
It connects with the Gospel lesson’s focus on the shepherd as the one who leads the sheep. Jesus had just healed the man born blind, and it caused quite a controversy. The man who had been blind was the one who heard Jesus’ voice. He trusted in Jesus and became a follower of Jesus – a believer in Jesus, one of his “flock.” The shepherd is again an image of care and protection – this shepherd is the one who can be trusted. In him, there is healing.
I think this is an important point, because as much as clergy strive to be faithful, as much as the church is Christ’s body here on earth, it is a human institution with humans in it. There will be times when people feel betrayed, forgotten, bereft. In these times, it is especially important to remember that Jesus is the Shepherd and that he is faithful, he is trustworthy. We will know his voice when we hear it. And when we intentionally gather to listen to one another, to care for one another, we hear his voice of healing, calling us by name, and giving us what we most deeply need.
Jesus has one more image that I think is important for us as we consider where we have been and where we are now at Austin campus, and that is his words, “I am the gate.” Jesus is the door of welcome that lets all people in so they can find a place to belong. He is the door that sends people out to love and serve in his name. He is the threshold as we step beyond what was into a new beginning. He is the portal that leads us into the future.
Today we install the call committee, to begin the search process for a second full-time pastor. We have high hopes that God will bless us in this next phase of our journey as God has blessed in the past. But let us not confuse blessing us now with being the same as reconstructing what was in the past. This is a new time, and God has new plans for us. Our values of supporting families and young people, of being open to and serving the community, can be lived out in many ways. Our openness to the breadth of what God’s future plans may be for Epiphany is the measure of our trust in the Shepherd who loves us and leads us.
Let us listen for his voice – in scripture, in prayer, in one another – and trust that mercy and goodness will follow us all the days of our lives; that with Jesus, we have life, and have it abundantly.  

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