Friday, April 24, 2015

The Other Sheep. (Easter 4, April 26 2015)

Yr B Easter 4.  April 26 2015.  St. Albans         
Readings:  Acts 4.5-12; Ps 23; 1 Jn 3.16-24; Jn 10.11-18

Jesus said to them, “I am the Good Shepherd.”  That part is clear.  Jesus is the good shepherd, the one cares for the sheep, the one who knows the sheep, who lays down his life for them, the one who has other sheep who do not belong to this fold, who seeks out and searches for those other sheep in order to bring them into the fold.

We know who the good shepherd is.  Who are the other sheep?  The ones who in Luke’s gospel are called the lost sheep, who in the gospel we just heard are referred to as the ones who don’t belong?

To figure that out, we need to go to the back story.  You see the reason that Jesus is talking to his disciples about the shepherd and sheep is that he is providing them with an interpretation of what just happened.  That’s the way it works in John’s gospel.  Sign and then interpretation.  Something happens, Jesus does something, and then he tells us what it means.  So what just happened?

What happened is that in the previous chapter, chapter nine, Jesus sees a man who is blind from birth.  And the disciples ask Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind from birth.”  You see, that was their assumption – this must be somebody’s fault.  This man had been born blind either because he himself was to blame or he’d come from a bad family.  We do that don’t we?  We insulate ourselves from tragedy by blaming the victim.  By shaming.  By marginalizing.  And when we do that, we compound the tragedy, because not only does this poor man have to struggle with blindness, he also becomes an outcast, one who does not belong.

But Jesus will have none of that.  “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.”  Jesus doesn’t play the blame game.  Instead he seeks out the man born blind and restores his sight.  And that’s when the stuff hits the fan.  Because even though this should be an occasion for celebration, it turns out that the authorities are angry.  Their nice categories of who’s in and who’s out, who’s respectable and who’s not, who’s righteous and who’s a sinner have been challenged.  They are upset that Sabbath laws have been broken.  They’re upset because Jesus has undermined their authority to decide who’s a sinner and who’s not.  And they take it out on the man who has just regained his sight, telling him that he was born entirely in sins, and driving him out of the synagogue and the community.

And when Jesus hears that they had driven him out, he goes after him, and finds him, and comforts him and cares for him, just as a good shepherd would do for a sheep who is lost.

That’s what happened.  And it’s immediately after this that Jesus takes his disciples aside to teach them and says “I am the Good Shepherd,” the one who will not leave the sheep, the one who seeks after and brings in the other sheep who do not belong.

Who are the other sheep?  They are the ones who do not belong, the ones who have been blamed, shamed and marginalized.  In Jesus’ day, that meant people like this  man who had been born blind, who was labelled a sinner and cast out of the community.

Who are the ones that Jesus calls the “other sheep” today?  Who are the ones who don’t belong, the ones who have been blamed, shamed, marginalized and cast out of community?

This week St. Albans was privileged to be able to serve as the volunteer headquarters for the Ottawa 20,000 Homes campaign organized by the Alliance to End Homelessness.  20,000 Homes is a national campaign with the goal of providing 20,000 people who are currently homeless in Canada with homes by 2018.  The first step in Ottawa’s campaign was the survey that was conducted this past week.  Over 100 volunteers fanned out across the downtown in the cold and the rain to meet people who are homeless, to get to know them, to hear their stories and to have them answer survey questions with the goal of assessing their needs so that the right housing interventions can be made.

A total of 461 people were surveyed.  To put that in context, it is estimated that approximately 6500 people used emergency shelters in Ottawa in 2014, and on any given night, about 1300 people spend the night in shelter beds in this city. 

Here are some of the results of the survey that stood out:

Of the 461 people surveyed, 75% had been homeless for longer than 6 months, and the average amount of time they had spent in emergency shelters or on the street was 3.7 years.

Of those surveyed only 2% were over the age of 65.  Though perhaps shocking, this shouldn’t be surprising since the average life expectancy of those who experience homelessness is much less than 65 years.

Of the 461 people surveyed, 88% reported that they were living with a mental health condition.

Now, these are just some of the aggregate statistics that can be reported publically.  But behind these statistics lie 461 names, faces and stories, 461 of God’s children who had the courage to share their stories with our volunteers.

In our time and place, these are the ones Jesus calls “the other sheep”.  Just as the man born blind in Jesus’ day was blamed, shamed and told that he didn’t belong, many of those who experience homelessness in our neighbourhood have suffered the same.   Blamed, shamed and told they didn’t belong.  Because of a mental illness.  Because of a lost job.  Because of a broken family.  Because we needed someone to blame.

Clearly there is a physical and mental toll to marginalization.  But there is also a spiritual cost.  For the man born blind in Jesus’ time, for those who are on the margins in our own day, it can be really hard to believe that you’re a child of God, loved by God, deserving of love, just as you are.

Which is why Jesus makes a point of telling others that the blind man is not to blame.  Which is why he reaches out to him and restores his sight.  Which is why when the man has been driven out of the community Jesus finds him and makes sure he knows that he belongs and that he too is one of God’s children.

Which is why Jesus says “I am the Good Shepherd.  I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.  And I lay down my life for the sheep.  I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.  I must bring them also.”

Which is why Jesus has commissioned us to carry on his work of seeking out the other sheep and restoring them to community and enabling them to know that they too are God’s beloved children, fully deserving of love, respect and dignity.

Let me finish with words from our second reading, from the first letter of John, which can serve as our call to action this morning:

“We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.  How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?  Little children, let us love, not in word or speech but in truth and action.”


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